Project speed: BMC and Red Bull Advanced Technologies revolutionise bike design

BMC and Red Bull Advanced Technologies’ collaboration has revolutionised bike design through innovation, ruthless ambition and fresh-thinking. What’s the result of an F1 team sharing its knowledge with cycling? Bikes that are faster than ever

This feature was produced in association with BMC

The front and rear wings of a racing car glide through the air seamlessly as the driver is compact on the floor of the vehicle in a lateral seated position, pressing the pedals with each foot, carefully, expertly. The forks and handlebar extensions of the time trial bike cut through the wind, the rider poised on top of the carefully constructed carbon frame, driving the machine forward with their legs, powerfully, expertly. The two images are markedly different, yet share an uncanny resemblance. At the end of it all, the goal for both the driver and the rider is the same: to reach the chequered flag faster than anyone else.

Cycling and Formula 1 have far more in common than just a fly-on-the-wall Netflix documentary and drivers who like to dabble in cycling in between rounds of the motor racing. From the focus on equipment, innovation and constant ambition to seek out marginal gains, to the training discipline both drivers and cyclists alike must show to their sports, to the aerodynamics, weight and aesthetic requirements of both F1 cars and high-performance bicycles, the two sports share racing DNA. It’s for this reason that the partnership between one of the most respected bicycle manufacturers in the world, Swiss brand BMC, and championship-winning Formula 1 car designers Red Bull Advanced Technologies (RBAT), just makes sense. The two companies share a vision, ethos and drive to make the fastest equipment on the planet.

Importantly, cycling has a lot to learn from technological advancements that Formula 1 makes when a new race car is created each season. “When the two brands met, it was decided that we could explore how some of the technology in Formula 1 could help with the technology in BMC bikes,” says Rob Gray, Technical Director at RBAT. “It's pretty obvious there are a lot of parallels between the two worlds.”

Gray is talking to Rouleur from the centre of MK-7, a sector of the Red Bull Technology Campus in Milton Keynes and is surrounded by 13 iterations of Red Bull Formula 1 cars. Having been a part of the company since 2002, Gray runs the Red Bull Advanced Technologies division and oversees all of its current projects.

“We met with BMC and decided to kick off a study into a super-fast bike, the ultimate aero bike. That led into Project Speed, which became the Speedmachine,” he continues.

Sitting next to Gray in the red-lit room at MK-7 is Stefan Christ, the head of Research and Development at BMC, a position he has held for the last 10 years. The two men have led their respective teams in the joint venture between BMC and RBAT as masters in their fields.

“From our side, the interest in this collaboration was really a technology exchange,” says Christ. “That’s why we gave ourselves time before talking about the product, doing research into areas we could benefit from and which areas we should work on to come up with a better product for BMC. That was the first phase and then we came up with the challenge: let’s work on the fastest bike. By then we already knew which elements we wanted to look at. It was called Project Speed internally at the beginning, which then turned into Speedmachine. Ultimately, the triathlon or the time trial bike is the fastest bike.”

BMC has a history of success when it comes to time trial bikes. The Timemachine, which was introduced in 2012, has long been the brand’s leading triathlon and time trial bike and has been ridden by Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and prolific time triallist Rohan Dennis in its previous iterations. While the Timemachine formed a base of knowledge for BMC when they began the partnership with RBAT, the newly-launched Speedmachine was created from a blank slate, rather than treated as an evolution of the Timemachine.

“A basic bike from BMC was taken by RBAT and run through the CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] process, which shows how the air flows over the bike, then lots of improvements were suggested,” says Gray. “We worked with BMC to integrate those improvements into the design and then re-analysed it.”

While the use of RBAT’s CFD testing and aerodynamicists was a key part of the Speedmachine project, it’s clear from speaking to both Gray and Christ that the partnership between BMC and RBAT is as much about attitude and ethos as it is about technology. Both men talk of the aggressive KPIs (key performance indicators) that were set out at the start of Project Speed.

“We always have lofty aims within motor sport, because you always want to win,” explains Gray. “The biggest things I think we bring are, first of all, the tools for getting to those aims, but then the mindset of iterating those designs quickly, getting through lots of different ideas and running them all on the computer to see which one works, really aggressively getting through them. It’s an awful lot of concepts, run and then refined, and continually refined, until the guys looking at it are very happy with what the airflow is doing.”

“With the Timemachine, we had an incredible baseline in terms of aerodynamics, and that is known, still, as one of the best bikes,” adds Christ. “So KPIs for the Speedmachine were very aggressive and challenging, but they were also very clear, because we knew what we had to go after.”

A key objective during the design process for the Speedmachine was ensuring the bike’s stability in a range of wind and weather conditions. BMC argues that vehicle stability and rideability is an area which has historically been a weak point on time trial bikes – something they have rectified with testing and research at the brand’s Impec research and development lab in Grenchen, Switzerland. Christ sees building a prototype of the Speedmachine for real-world rider testing as a key step into achieving the world-beating stability that the final iteration of the bike offers.

“The steering concept, or the whole vehicle geometry concept, was something that has never been done in the bike industry,” says Christ. “We knew we wanted to build a physical prototype – that’s the Red Bull bike. We wanted, in an early stage, to validate this novel steering concept with athletes. That's why we decided to build a race bike that can be raced, which was this prototype, and that was the base with RBAT to better its aerodynamic structure.”

Gray adds that driver feedback is crucial to the development of Formula 1 cars, something that he wanted to ensure was a key part of the Speedmachine project between BMC and RBAT.

“The biggest thing is how much we listen to the drivers, and how much we take on board feedback, also how much we try to structure the conversations with the drivers to make sure we understand exactly what they’re feeling in the car,” he says. “I think applying that to cycling meant that we made sure we knew what the rider was feeling. Then you’re able to translate that into what you do from an engineering perspective.”

BMC ambassador and four-time individual time trial world champion Fabian Cancellara proved to be essential during the Speedmachine’s development process, offering the brand clear feedback on the bike through real-world testing.

“The athletes are not automatic, they are not trained to talk in an engineering manner. They describe to you simply what they feel and what their limitations are. For the Speedmachine, Fabian Cancellara was really a big help because if there’s one guy who knows about fast bikes, it’s him,” says Christ. “I knew that his feedback was super important and was fundamental for the development of this new steering and stability concept.”

The Speedmachine is a bike that can be set up for both UCI-legal time trial use and triathlons. The requirements of equipment for road time trials are much different to triathlons, which are usually much longer in distance. This means that the Speedmachine needed to be able to tick the box for both parties and be tested extensively in both event types – the wind and weather conditions in a long triathlon can often be more changeable than in a UCI road time trial event.

“The triathletes gave us the feedback that there are events where they have to downsize the front wheel just to keep the bike stable,” says Christ. “When you know how much aerodynamics come from the front wheel itself, it’s always seen as a compromise aerodynamically. We wanted them to be able to ride the deep section wheels in windy conditions. I think for the triathletes, that’s probably the biggest benefit we could give them, reassuring them that no matter what road conditions or weather is thrown at you, you have a bike that is stable and predictable.”

The Speedmachine’s unique geometry is a product of the testing conducted by both BMC and RBAT surrounding rider feel. Deep, truncated aerofoil tube shapes and wide fork legs, as well as a fork crown spoiler shaped like a ‘shark fin’ – a feature directly inspired by the shape of Formula 1 cars – not only diverts dirty air from the down tube to cut drag but also help the rider feel stable while handling the bike.

“Then stability comes from frame shapes; you want steady behaviour of the flow. This is where the tube shapes and also some small elements on the frame really help to do that,” says Christ.

When the Speedmachine is in the triathlon configuration, the bike features an integrated 1.2 litre hydration unit placed in the frame just above the bottom bracket shell and also a storage and light unit placed behind the seat tube, where it is designed to improve aerodynamics. The UCI-legal version of the Speedmachine features a aero-optimised 400ml bottle, designed to be reachable when on the aerobars. In fact, much of the focus around the Speedmachine has been about ensuring that while the bike is breathtakingly fast, it also is functional in the real world. From the very beginning of the design process, both BMC and RBAT had this in mind, aiming to be one step ahead of the rider and their needs, instead of adding on features like storage and hydration tanks after the frame design had been finalised.

Reducing the amount of parts to make the bike easier to travel with was also a key consideration. Rather than seeing hydration and storage as a hindering factor to the Speedmachine’s aero qualities, they looked at them as an opportunity to make the bike faster.

“If you're travelling and you have to take things off your bike, with every piece that you have to take off, the risk that you lose it is higher. Fewer parts make everyone's life easier,” says Gray. “The storage and the water were basically in the spec from day one. If you have that in from the start of the design process then from day one the aerodynamic work gets done with it and there's no disturbance.

“The worst thing you can do is design the bike without the integrated water bottle on it and then put a normal bottle on it, as that has a big impact on the airflow, whereas designing the integrated one with it from the word go, it actually turns out to be beneficial to the aerodynamics.”

The result of the extensive testing and research done by both parties in the development of the Speedmachine means that if a rider is doing the power required to travel at 40kph on a Timemachine, the same power output on the Speedmachine would lead to a rider travelling at 40.5kph. While half of a kilometre faster may not sound significant as a one-off number, the gain is notable when applied to an event like an Ironman that spans more than five hours.

The learnings that BMC and RBAT have garnered from the development of the Speedmachine can also, naturally, be translated into a road bike model. Alongside the time trial bike, BMC has also recently released a new Teammachine R road bike developed in collaboration with RBAT, which will be ridden by the brand’s sponsored team, Tudor Pro Cycling, in the professional peloton next season.

Similarly to the Speedmachine, the Teammachine R features a new, wide front fork design, a recrafted integrated bottle cage, a bigger bottom bracket for optimum power transfer and the same ‘Rider Feel’ ethos that has been so well received by users of the Speedmachine. The development process also followed the trend of ambitious KPIs and extensive testing.

“For the Teammachine R, we set really aggressive targets in terms of aerodynamic performance, frame stiffness and weight,” says Gray. “We then started with some concept work and that was when learnings from the Speedmachine came into the Teammachine R. We were then thinking: what have we learned and what have we seen work in the past? Let’s try some of those concepts and try some of the things that maybe were rejected in the past for being too difficult to do for the Speedmachine. We did a lot of aerodynamic work in the first instance to get to that basic shape and worked with BMC because it still had to look like a BMC.”

Gray points out that in Formula 1, it’s common for designers to be working in a space where requirements of the vehicle are contradictory, just like when building a bike. For example, a bike has to be aerodynamic yet light, and light yet structurally sound. “We’re quite used to having fairly unreasonable requests or demands from an aerodynamic side being passed to the structural side. Probably the structural engineering of this bike was more challenging than the aerodynamic engineering,” says Gray. “Once you’ve got the aerodynamic shape, developing the composite laminate to give you the stiffness targets and the stiffness results to make the bike strong enough to pass all the testing, that’s when the real challenge comes in, while still keeping the weight down to that very aggressive KPI that was set.”

Neither Christ nor Gray shy away from the reality that there were moments in both the development of the Speedmachine and the Teammachine R where they felt like they might have had to consider whether reaching the KPIs for the bike was realistic at all. It was through maintaining focus and their shared ambition of creating the fastest bikes on the planet that they were able to overcome these hurdles.

“A couple of times I think we reached a point where we said, maybe now we have to make it heavier to get to the stiffness, but I think we really challenged each other each time to say no, let’s do one more loop,” says Christ. “In the end, it cost us a couple of loops more, but I think when we fulfilled those KPIs that initially were aggressive from my side – it was not for free – the result is really outstanding. If you would have asked me two years ago, would you believe that this is possible, I would have said no.”

Above all, BMC sees its collaboration with Red Bull Advanced Technologies and the bikes that have resulted from it as revolutionary. Both the Speedmachine and the Teammachine R have set a new standard and have shown what is possible when two leaders of their respective fields collaborate – a fusion of shared knowledge, resources and intent on creating the fastest moving vehicles in the world.

“I cannot speak for the competition, I can only speak for the feedback we get from the racers who are now riding this bike, that it is really amazing,” says Christ. “It's exactly what they were looking for. This whole concept of stability and predictability is really incomparable.”

BMC also are quick to point out that the leaps forward that the Speedmachine and Teammachine R have taken in terms of rider feel and stable bike handling are perhaps even more beneficial for the amateur rider than the professional who rides their bike day in, day out. These are bikes that are at home in the WorldTour at the highest level, but also have the potential to transform the riding experience for a normal cyclist.

“We are developing those bikes with pro athletes, but those benefits like stability and predictability, I think they have an even bigger impact on someone who is not on the bike every day,” says Christ. “These real-world benefits are even more important for BMC customers. That’s the big thing.”

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