Simon Smart: the cycling world’s fast thinking brain
Velocity is the world in which we live. We’re obsessed with it – fast cars, fast food, fast delivery, fast internet connection. We consume the feeling of speed to enjoy the adrenaline hit it provides to our bloodstream.
One man who has lived most his life agonising over numbers with the ultimate goal to make people in his world go faster is Simon Smart, founder of Drag2Zero and lead aerodynamicist for cycling apparel brand, Endura.
We meet in the centre of Derby velodrome with skinsuited riders whizzing around above our heads, to discuss his background, the science of cutting through air and the new aero range of clothing Endura and Drag2Zero have just launched. To our surprise, Smart tells us that their new Encapsulator skinsuit with groundbreaking silicon technology won’t necessarily make you any faster.
Rouleur: You started out in Formula One can you explain how the transition to cycling came about?
Simon Smart: I was in Formula One until the age of 37 and it grew massively and went from being ten engineers in a team to 250, so my role was changing quite a lot. I’d always had quite an entrepreneurial spirit I suppose and at the same time I was really into time-trial and road racing.
I was working in Red Bull’s windtunnel everyday doing aerodynamics, and probably what was more on my mind was how I was going to make myself faster in time-trials than the Formula One cars. Back in 2007 there wasn’t many aero products on the market to buy and there was no real rider testing in the UK, so that’s where I saw the first opportunity to start the business.
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What did that involve?
So I started the business back in 2007 which was Drag2Zero which was the rider testing part of it along with some product development. My first job was working with Giant, who at the time were working with Team HTC-Highroad. We developed the Giant Trinity, the first [version of their] time trial bike which was a lot of fun. And since then everything has run in parallel.
We see this this synchronisation between cycling and the motorsport and car industry quite a lot. How do you find your skills transferred from that realm into the world of cycling?
In Formula One, aerodynamics is very different. But it’s the understanding, the scientific processes and how I learnt to design stuff and develop things – those skills really, really helped me. I’m so glad I did my career the way I did, because I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had that experience in Formula One. But it wasn’t like there were certain tricks I learnt on a Formula One wing that could ever be used in cycling. It was more the methodology and the processes that helped me.
But I heard you mention earlier that even sand was glued onto wings on Formula One cars for aerodynamics. Is not attaching silicon to sleeves a similar principle?
Yeah, we had some badly designed front wings that didn’t behave very well and the driver was always complaining there was no downforce at the end of the straight. So I vividly remember that was my first learning about trying to control the flow and stop separation. What we’re addressing [with the skinsuit] is a slightly different problem, but that’s where I was first became aware of trips and surface textures.
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Can you just explain in layman’s terms what the silicon actually does then?
Basically it’s about texturing the surface around bluff bodies. The flow tends to separate very easily and not adhere to the profile of the contour of the body. Typically on someone’s back the flow can stay quite well attached, so a smooth fabric there is fine and there’s no advantage gaining by texturing the surface.
But by texturing the surface in certain places you can re-energise the flow and almost fool the air into following the contour for longer – for example, around the arms. And the importance there is the basic aim of aerodynamics: if you can have a streamline around an object, you don’t get a low pressure behind it. That’s what the main cause of drag is.
The suit you have now is a step on from the UCI hour record attempt suit that Alex Dowsett wore back in 2015. Do you think if you put Alex Dowsett in this new suit, he would go faster?
Yeah he would. The main thing is, that project was very much focussed at one discreet speed. So it was a different kind of challenge. But what I’ve identified as being an issue for a long time, and I’ve been uncomfortable with, is the fact that as engineers we all go to engineering school and assume that the drag coefficient of an object doesn’t change at different speeds. That’s generally true other than this unusual circumstance, which happens to be [with] cyclists.
The speeds they ride at, you’re getting quite a big change in drag by playing with the surface texture. So that was really the next step. There was a lot of head scratching going on because we were finding that we were identifying gains in skinsuits from five years ago and then going and riding them on different courses. One day they would be brilliant and the next day on a different course they would be really slow and you’d lose the race. That’s when we delved into it even deeper and started to test at different speeds rather than at one speed.
At the end of the day, wind tunnels are expensive to use we’re all in the same situation. You try to minimise the amount of time you need and so we were all testing at one condition in the early days. But then we noticed that suits are very sensitive to speed. So if products are tested at 30mph but you’re not riding at 30mph, the gains that are shown there could be inverted at a slower or higher speeds.
Listen to Simon Smart on the Rouleur podcast
So just because you put on a skinsuit doesn’t mean you’re going to be faster?
The skinsuits are optimised for a range from 40 to 50kph and then the aero clothing is designed for 30 to 50kph overlap. We’ve represented that by choosing different fabrics and texturing for those conditions.
The other key thing is your position changes which also gives different direction. Just simply going from a TT position to an upright position, the shape of your arm the airflow sees is quite different, so you come up with a different solution. So the skinsuit wouldn’t be the optimum if you’re riding along at 30kph. You would be better off with the Road Suit because it’s been made for that condition.
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Silicon Surface Topography (SST) is a patented design, what does that mean? You’re going to have a load of skinsuits that the rest of the peloton isn’t able to copy, meaning you’re going to have much more of an advantage over them?
I hope so, if we’ve done our job properly, but patents are very difficult- people can always find a way around it. Using a trip or sand or something on the surface texture has be known for years. You can use it to halve the drag on the cylinder and that’s really the phenomena that I’ve always been aware of since university – but [how speed specific that could be] was certainly a very groundbreaking thing for me. So at one speed the material is slow but then suddenly at 45kph the drag drops and then by 46 or 47kph it’s gone.
So you could develop a material that at 48kph is really fast, but if you’re never riding at 48kph it could be dreadfully slow. So it was really exciting to develop a technology which was a stand alone engineering feat which we were really proud of. And that’s really the basis of the patent: it’s more of an engineering feat that you were able to control the flow separation for a much wider range of speed.
This is probably a stupid question…but does the colour of the material make any difference to aerodynamics?
Who have you been talking to?
There’s a glint in Simon Smart’s eye that suggests this fast thinking brain still has a lot more to give to the world of speed.