"The athletes are god-like beings": Rio, British Olympics and the science of cycling

By Becky Wieczorek | 19 February 2014

Tony Purnell is a former principal of the Jaguar Formula 1 team and the new Head of Technical Development for the Great Britain Cycling Team. A key member of the Olympic effort, he appears at Cambridge Science Festival

A photo of a man smiling while sitting at a table having a beer within a ski centre
© Courtesy University of Cambridge
“My first year at British Cycling has been utterly fascinating – so much to learn, and all the time I feel a tap dripping on my head reminding me that the Rio Games are getting closer and closer.

Getting a new team together and accepting that the budgets to do this sort of work are a fraction of the sort of money Formula 1 would spend is the biggest challenge. This actually makes it more fun as one has to be clever to achieve anything: one can’t just buy results.

My goal is to make the British Olympic team more competitive in any way I can dream up.

It’s odd just how many engineers one finds who are fanatical cyclists. There’s something very easy to understand: to go fastest, one simply needs more power from the legs, less weight and less aerodynamic drag from the body.

Dig a little deeper and there’s an infinite array of interventions that one can think of to achieve this, but each one can be complex and challenging to implement.

The cycling world certainly has woken up to aerodynamics. I don’t see any breakthroughs here, just steady evolution towards lower and lower drag.

I think the breakthroughs are and have been in training regimes and understanding that recovery is as important as smashing yourself on the bike.

The athletes are god-like beings. It’s hard to understand that I’m the same species.

I’m an average performer on the bike and believe me, if I could turn myself into a medallist I would. We can only hope to give them a little bit of an edge. Every little saving in energy helps.

There’s no getting away from it, talent helps. Get a Chris Hoy or Chris Froome and life can be relatively easy.

This said, without the backup the chances of them being able to perform drop considerably. Leadership in sport comes with having a good organisation, well financed, and with real expertise within it. But then you need to add the talent.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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