Left-side drivetrain could give Team USA an edge on the track

Cycling fans may notice something a little different about Team USA’s bikes when they take the track in Rio.

The drivetrains will be on the left side rather than the traditional right.

USA Cycling has had an ongoing partnership with Felt Bicycles and the process of designing a newer, more track-friendly bike began a few years ago. In addition to the left-side drive, the bike frames are asymmetrical and ultra-narrow with wheels specifically designed for tight spaces on the track.

 “We started the initial discussions in 2012 after [the] London [Olympics],” says Jim Miller, Vice President of Athletics at USA Cycling. “I was sitting with the marketing director of Felt Bicycles, and we were talking about what’s next, and I said, ‘we need to figure out how to go one step higher.’”

So why put the drivetrain on the left?

Basically, as Anton Petrov, an engineer for Felt Bicycles, puts it, “traditional cranks are on the right side, which we basically figured out was the wrong side for the track.”

The researchers discovered that due to the curves of the velodrome walls and the motion of the cyclists, wind is an important factor even when the race is indoors. The designers got to work on how to minimize drag and came up with a solution never done before on Olympic bicycles.

“We spent a lot of time in wind tunnels,” Miller says, “It’s been pretty consistent that the non-drive side is less aerodynamic. If we know the wind’s coming from the left side, why not take advantage of the aerodynamics of the chain ring to reduce the drag?”

They moved the drivetrain to the left side to address airflow coming at riders from that side of the bike. The chain ring on the drive side makes the crank more aerodynamic than the non-drive crank arm. Felt also made the bike asymmetrical to better avoid drag. Felt’s designers also claim that moving the drive train to the left also helps with handling, since it moves the weight toward the inside of the turn.

The design is not the only revolutionary thing about this bike – it was designed exclusively for female racers.

“It was always about women’s team pursuit,” Miller says. If the male cyclists want to adopt some of these technical breakthroughs, they will be following in the women’s footsteps.

USA’s women will certainly have the technical advantage going into the Team Pursuit this week in Rio. But can Sarah Hammer and the rest of her team turn that into a gold medal? We’ll find out on Saturday.