Combining tech and physiology to unlock cycling’s next-gen of marginal gains

In a cycling world obsessed with tiny details, few people focus on both engineering and human physiology to ride faster. Notio is changing that, making gains both measurable and sustainable. 

Every time you stuff a homemade rice cake in your kit before a ride or a pillow in your suitcase on your way to an overseas ride, you’re applying a now well-known concept in cycling that is obsessed with tiny details.

Steve Faulkner, PhD, and senior lecturer in Sports Engineering at Nottingham Trent University in England, spends his days gripped by these details, applying academic rigour to nearly any idea that leads to enhanced athletic performance.

Though many habitual or physical changes applied to cycling performance are already well known - skinsuits, better sleep, properly prepared food, for example - there are gains to be made through greater understanding of human physiology - specifically temperature - says Faulkner. And his track record - guiding and working alongside teams like Huub Wattbike, formerly Team KGF, to great success at the World Cup level - suggest he’s right.

“Some teams take it on face value - that it’s going to have such a small effect that it won’t actually impact performance. But we now know from years of testing, and I’ve seen it in my personal and professional work, both with Huub Design, British Cycling, independent research and input from others, that fabric patterning on clothing - if you look at one example - can vastly improve rider aerodynamics and also temperatures during racing, too. These things have become quantifiable,” Faulkner explains over Skype from his office.

Through a combination of expertise in thermoregulation and athletic performance (his doctoral focus) and aerodynamics, Faulkner’s version of marginal gains looks different from the one practiced inside the Ineos Death Star. His work seeks to balance human physiology more fluidly with aerodynamics. They are equally important and critical variables, he says, particularly in track cycling where riders create narrow advantages through the application of technological and physiological theory. Even a limited efficiency can be decisive.

As marginal gains are redefined for a new generation of professionals, how aerodynamics are being measured and applied to cycling is also evolving. And the Notio - thanks to its measurement sensitivity and adaptability to any cycling environment - is increasingly playing a part.

Maximizing physiological systems

The Sports Engineering and Ergonomic Design Lab (SPEED) at Nottingham Trent University, run by Dr Faulkner, has a research focus on a wide range of variables related to human performance in sport, health and industry. Click through its website and you can get the idea. Research coming out of the lab ranges from scholarly analysis on threshold ambient temperature for the use of pre-cooling to improve time-trial performance to how elevated core temperature can combat chronic low-grade inflammation in athletes and the wider population as a whole.

Faulkner and team started using the Notio to make informed equipment choices on trousers, skin suits, helmets and rider positioning, too. By playing within the margins, and having a tool to consistently validate ideas, they found a combined gain few had previously entertained

Since completing his PhD, Faulkner has taken a lot of the academic learnings from the SPEED Lab and applied them professionally in a coaching context. Two years ago, he connected with Dan Bigham, then racing under the name Team KGF, to discuss how Faulkner’s thermoregulation research could be combined with their own unconventional approach to training.

The meeting was the beginning of what is now a formalized coaching relationship. Faulkner and the team went deep to find blind spots, focusing on body positioning on the bike and rider physiology, energy expenditure, metabolic heat production and other related performance variables - analysis that was carried out using the Notio, and then further validated at the SPEED Lab.

"What I brought from my background was a physiological  analysis of both the team pursuit and individual pursuit and what they’re doing during training to better apply it to the demands of competition,” Faulkner explains. “Passive heating was one area of control we started to focus on. How could we maximize physiological systems, for example, by experimenting with heated or cooled muscles, to help the team get off the start line faster?"

Applied from Faulkner’s PhD work, testing with the Notio led to the team’s use of heated trousers specifically designed for the four-man squad prior to racing by a company called Vulcan Performance Sportswear. The marginal gain was in heating the muscles; a hot muscle would ultimately be faster and more immediately powerful - a thesis validated through further track testing. Racing “warm” from the gun contributed to gold at events in London, silver in Montreal and becoming British National Champions in the 4km team pursuit during the 2018 World Cup season.

Most teams on the track are either physiologically oriented and preoccupied with that output, or focused on engineering, measuring material properties like stiffness and aerodynamics. Team KGF was now straddling both, a space few teams occupy.

Faulkner and team started using the Notio to make informed equipment choices on trousers, skin suits, helmets and rider positioning, too. By playing within the margins, and having a tool to consistently validate ideas, they found a combined gain few had previously entertained - one that continues to yield real, sustained and measurable results.

Finding the physiological sweet spot

In a cycling world obsessed with tiny details - everyone from professionals to avid club riders - there aren’t many people focused on the combined discipline of engineering and human physiology. Faulkner enjoys a unique position in this regard, physically located in an academic engineering department while being 100 percent focused on physiological performance.

While teams want riders focused on aerodynamics, there will always be physiological trade-offs, he believes. A rider popping their seat post up an inch, for example, may cheat the wind for a short period, but can that position be sustained? Where is that sweet-spot where gains can be measured and also sustainable?

Once Faulkner is able to take data from the Notio and combine it with physiological sensors, Faulkner intends to further exploit this field of study, widening a gap by combining complex engineering and physiological data. While he thinks more teams would like to take a closer look at how similar gains could improve performance, few, aside from Huub-Wattbike, are set-up to actually do it.

“As long as things can be tested,” he adds, “anything goes. And if we can use something like the Notio, a highly sensitive measurement tool to back up our decision making, then yeah, absolutely, that’s something we’ll continue to do.”