Major League Cycling

Recently, I came across an online post about starting something called “Major League Triathlon,” (I’m going to abbreviate it as MLT) which you can find here. The overall idea is to create a version of the triathlon which draws in people from outside the sport to spectate and take part in an event.  The idea centers around spectator-friendly courses with 4-person teams (2 men and 2 women) competing in a mixed super sprint relay (swim, bike, run, run) combined with a weekend of amateur racing and a large festival-like atmosphere.  Each team is to be affiliated with a city so that each one has a “home city” and each city of those will host a race each year, to make people feel like they have a hometown team.

I have actually been thinking about the way that the top level of cycling is run for the past couple of weeks and have an idea for how to improve the format of the sport.  I promise that I’ll get back to carbon fiber eventually, this is just what’s on my mind right now

State of the Sport

The National Racing Calendar is and has been shrinking for the past few years; in 2007, there were 95 race days on the calendar (including the crit series) compared to 22 NRC days and 24 NCC days this past year.  The closest thing we probably have to “Major League Cycling” is USA Crits.  USA Crits is a series of criteriums around the country, some of which overlap with USA Cycling’s NCC series and it includes the Athens Orthopedic Clinic Twilight Criterium, which is estimated to get between 20,000 and 30,000 spectators each year.

As Jonathan Vaughters, Oleg Tinkoff and other high-profile players in the sport have said, cycling has a lot of important history but we need to start thinking about how to improve the sport and develop a stable platform for growth.  At the UCI and WorldTour level, there are a lot of dynamics in play that I am unfamiliar with, so I am going to discuss something that I’m a little more familiar with: the american criterium and how we can start to grow cycling’s appeal in the United States.

Major League Cycling (MLC)

I like the concept that MLT tries to introduce with assigning athletes to franchises in different cities and I think that in the future, cycling could be like that.  However, currently most pro cyclists will have obligations to pro or development teams so it would have to be an event-based things that make pro teams want to attend the events.  And what do pro teams like: Money.  The Abu Dhabi Tour proved this when they struck a deal with Velon to pay teams to bring their star riders in order to attract more eyeballs to the tour.  I doubt that Philipe Gilbert, Fabio Aru or newly crowned world champion Peter Sagan were jumping out of their socks to race in 50 C weather in October.

In order to make money, these races need to be more than just races, they need to be events that cities will want to host and that people will want to attend.  This is where MLT hits the nail on the head: beer garden, concert series and things that other people might want to participate in (like the Athens Red Bull Chariot Races).  Charging for things like beer, up-close concert and race seats and eventually, maybe even TV rights, will allow these events to have some level of longevity.  Duke University hosted a race called the Bull City Grand Prix last year and their report at our conference meeting was that businesses around the course were begging for them to bring the race back.  Many of them had record sales on the day.  That is the kind of atmosphere we want to foster, where communities want to host this kind of event.

How it should work

So, this is what I am imagining: a 12-race series with enough prize money (maybe appearance fees) that the top racers and top teams, men and women, are able to be there each time.  Each one should be a circuit that has high exposure in a population center (not necessarily a big city) with local businesses that would benefit from a large event.  In order to form something of a “brand” like Ironman, it would be ideal to have equal prize lists between genders and start solidifying teams.  Like everyone on the WorldTour says, there needs to be a narrative through the season: is one guy having a hot streak?  Is there an amateur who’s been up there consistently with the Pros?  How many races can Hilton Clarke win?

The NCC and USA Crits are both bike bike race series but I feel like we need our sport to have more “events,” like Athens, in order to continue to grow the sport and make it more appealing.  There needs to be a big social media presence constantly touting the narrative, talking about the racers and the results.  Did you know who won the Rochester Twilight Criterium right after it happened?  Probably not.  I did, but only because I was there.  Even competitive cyclists hardly care about who is winning the NCC.  This is a huge opportunity to really capture the imagination of the amateur cycling audience and create a brand that makes people realize that cycling is not just a hobby for some, it’s a way of life.

I may just be some college student with a category 3 license and a big mouth, but I think that Crit racing has the potential to go big time if someone is willing to invest the energy.

Why do Bike Frames Fail? Part 1

I’m going to move from something that I really have no credential to be talking about (physiology) to something that is likely to be part of my career: material properties.  Alberto Contador crashed at high speed in the 2014 Tour de France, abandoned due to a broken tibia and somehow, one of the Tinkoff-Saxo bikes ended up broken on the side of the road.  Several stories came out of the crash but the final rendition featured the TS team car speeding past the Belkin team car, clipping Contandor’s bike and destroying it.  People often make light of the fact that “steel is real” and go bananas over the way carbon fiber sometimes, in rare cases, fails catastrophically.  Today, I’m going to explain how metals work and the failure mechanism that you would see in a bike crash.

In terms of analysis, strength and structure, metals are very easy to look at and explain.  Steel was used in competition bikes from their invention up to the early 90s, when aluminum and titanium began to come into use.  Carbon fiber was experimented with in many ways and was introduced into bike production in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Nowadays, all bikes and wheels in the peloton are made from carbon fiber.  However, there are still some in the cycling community who insist that carbon fiber is a disease come to slay us all via random failure.

Titanium, aluminum and steel each have different crystal structures, which is to say that the atoms are stacked differently, but the concept is the same: there is a large, regular lattice of atoms like in the picture below.

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 11.47.46 AM

The pattern above is repeated in perpetuity in three dimensions to form a large steel, aluminum or titanium structure.  Things start to get interesting when you pull on the lattice and begin to create strain, the measure of how much a component has been stretched.  Let’s imagine there is a force attempting to bend a steel frame tube due to a crash, like in the picture below.  You can see that the wall of the tube on the outside of the force will be pulled apart, so that is what I am going to model.

The atomic bonds in the above image of the lattice are straight lines but in reality, they are more like springs as in A below.  As force is applied, the bonds begin to stretch until they are straightened out (B) at which point, there is a slight yield as some of the bonds break (C).  After that, the straightened bonds are stretched until all of the bonds break at the Ultimate Tensile Strength (D).  Finally, the broken bonds are pulled until the structure is entirely broken (E).

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 4.55.22 PM

If the applied force is below the point reached at B, then the displacement is known as elastic strain, and the material can return to its initial shape and length, like elastic.  Beyond that point, the material enters the inelastic region and any strain beyond there will not be recovered.  The elastic strain will still be recovered though; it is only once you reach the Ultimate Tensile strength that none of the elastic strain is recovered.  The graph below is a data-based representation of the image above.  Stress (the y-axis) is the applied force and strain (the x-axis) is the amount of displacement from the original length or shape.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 4.52.56 PM


The failure mechanisms for steel and carbon fiber are different and the speed at which it occurs is usually much different.  I used to ride an aluminum bike and although I didn’t break it, I now understand atomically what is going on when I rode it.  Next week, I will explain the structure of carbon fiber and why it fails so catastrophically on the rare occasions when it does.

Why I love periodization

It’s because I love to rest.  Rest is the central foundation on which the benefits of periodization are built.  You do hard workouts, you rest, your body adapts and gets stronger, repeat.  It’s such a simple concept but something that I didn’t fully appreciate until last year when I read the cyclist’s training bible.  My background is in swimming and I realized that I had actually been introduced to the concept before through that.

John, my high school swim coach, was one of the biggest influences on my life as I struggled through the mental anguish-filled identity crisis that was high school.  Swimming gives your life structure and the activity kept me sharp and prevented me from becoming overweight, like I was on track to be after middle school.  Practice was attended 4 or 5 times a week depending on my mood and how fat I was feeling.  John’s favorite past time was to pull us out of the water and talk to us about technique or tell a story using drawings on the white board.  As a former swimmer himself, John knew that pulling swimmers out of the water was akin to sentencing them to death by hypothermia.  Unfortunately for us, John had done a cost analysis and determined that the cost of us not hearing his stories was higher than the cost of possible death.

One time, he decided to pull us out to tell us how elite teams were trained (he used to be a coach at Johns Hopkins University).  At the time, our team was not considered elite (it still isn’t) or even very serious (it’s gotten a little more serious).  The premier team in our area is NBAC, the program that Michael Phelps came out of.  John explained that although they were at practice 9 times a week and their workouts looked insane to us, there was actually a method to the madness.  Their coaches would designate a couple of workouts every week as “easy” and then he backhandedly said that he doesn’t do that because we don’t show up to practice enough.  There was also some stuff about tapering but I was never really good enough to deal with that kind of crap.

I got into competitive cycling the summer after I graduated high school (2013).  My training consisted of going out and riding for the amount of free time in between shifts getting yelled at as a lifeguard.  I would ride as hard as I could, trying to hit the elusive 20 MPH average no matter what the distance was.  The problem with that was that, as a 220 lb. person riding in an area where the terrain averages ~80-100 ft. per mile, that was quite difficult.  I was able to race until mid-August with no issues that year.  That training strategy continued until the next season, when collegiate racing started in mid-February (start of 2014).  That plan cause me to burn out by mid-July and I stopped seeing improvements in performance.  I wasn’t really getting any faster and it was bumming me out.

That brings me to Fall 2014, when I read the cyclists’ training bible.  It allowed me to fully understand the concepts of rest and why intervals are important and why they work the way they do.  I went from a straggling Cat 4 to a straggling Cat 3 in one season, incredible improvement.  Looking forward to an even better 2016 season.

The Carbon Fiber 3D Printer

I entered into the field of materials engineering with the intent of studying materials for energy and specifically, photovoltaics (solar cells).  However, being exposed to a multitude of resources, activities and other students at the University of Maryland has added to my repertoire of engineering interests.  First, taking part in cycling and being consistently surrounded by carbon fiber has piqued my interest in composite structures.  Composites are materials that are formed from more than one phase (material structure) and include carbon fiber-reinforced polymer, the full term for carbon fiber.  Second, 3D printing has been coming to the forefront as a technology of the future over the past couple of years and I really like the way it represents the DIY community.  Additive manufacturing is the technology behind 3D printing and it is when material is put down onto a base layer-by-layer rather than removing it like most manufacturing techniques.

There is one major problem with most 3D printers accessible to consumers: they can only print with a classification of material known as polymers, which are low strength and low melting point.  Neither of those properties lend themselves to use in strenuous applications like carbon fiber-reinforced polymer can withstand (see: competitive cycling).   Polymers are a set of materials made from long chains of (usually) organic compounds.  The chains tangle together so that when the material is solidified, you have to first pull the chains apart then break one of the bonds in the chain to make the solid fail.  The fact that you can untangle the polymer chains easily means that it the material stretches a lot before breaking.  This is beneficial in some applications but detrimental in others.  If you add carbon fiber strands into the polymer, it means that instead of untangling the chains, any force that is put into the material will be transferred by the polymer into the carbon fiber which is incredibly strong under tension.

In this figure, polymer is the bottom line since it stretches so much. Metal would be the middle line and carbon fiber is the top. There is an explanation for why carbon bikes shatter in here as well, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Why am I telling you all this?  A company called MarkForged has been developing a 3D printer that lays down the polymer (specifically, a subset called thermosets) in addition to carbon fibers.  The printer is slated to be $5000, which is very consumer and institution friendly considering the potential for what this machine can do.  Using the Mark One (name for the printer), people will be able to rapidly create high strength parts quickly and inexpensively.  I am beyond excited for this kind of technology and what implications it will have on the bike industry in the future (can anyone say printing your own bike in the garage?).