With the 2012 London Olympics currently enthralling the world, it’s timely to have a look at the Powerhouse Museum’s Olympic bike. It was designed and made in Australia and similar ones were used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The opportunity to stretch the limits of bicycle design came in 1996 when the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) changed the rules governing bicycle design to be less restrictive.
A project team was drawn from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the resulting bike allowed many top athletes to break world records. The development team was headed by Lachlan Thompson, an aerospace engineer specialising in aerodynamics and was a lecturer at RMIT. The project actually began almost by accident in 1992 when Thompson needed a cyclist for a photo-shoot. Olympic cyclist, Kathy Watt, was chosen and in return she asked to have the aerodynamics of her bicycle and riding position tested in the RMIT’s wind tunnel. The Australian Olympic cycling coach, Charlie Walsh, heard about the incident and the project grew from there.
The project team worked closely to achieve a bicycle that was not only aerodynamically superior, light and strong but was simple, versatile and reliable. From the start it was intended to design a bicycle suitable for mass manufacture but at the same time have the quality and precision of a jet fighter.
At each stage the bike was tested in the wind tunnel and test-ridden by Australia’s elite cyclists. This saw the conventional tubular frame superseded by an aerodynamically-designed composite monocoque shell made of carbon fibre. This had been used widely in space programmes and Formula One motor racing and reduced aerodynamic drag. The amazing thing about carbon fibre is the fact that any shape can be formed with maximum strength and minimum amount of material. The conventional handle-bars were eliminated and carbon fibre handle-grips were attached directly to the wheel-forks. This provided extra strength between the seat and pedals, where the rider’s power was exerted.
Manufacture of the Superbike, as it was nicknamed, began in Melbourne in 1996 by Bike Technologies (BT), a company set up for the purpose. Salvatore (Sal) Sansonetti, an Olympic cyclist who had ridden in the Australian team at Montreal in 1976, headed the company. Sansonetti understood not only bikes but also metal-forming technology. His company, Nezkot, made injection-moulding dies for clients like Holden and Ford; and this technology wasn’t much different from the manufacture of carbon fibre, one-piece bike frames. Track and road bikes were developed for the Commonwealth Games and the Atlanta Olympics, where numerous gold medals were won by riders using them. At Atlanta the Superbike was dubbed the most superior racing frame in the world.
The development of the Superbike, through the collaboration of athletes and scientists using high-tech research facilities, saw the emergence of sophisticated sports science in Australia. The Superbike received an Australian Award for Excellence from the Institution of Engineers Australia in 1995 as well as the Award for Best Technical Development, Road or Track, at the 8th Annual Velo News Awards in 1995.
Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport