UC PhD student designs Olympic racing suits

23 August 2012

A University of Canterbury PhD student is responsible for the cutting-edge skinsuits worn by Kiwi track cyclists at the London Olympic Games.

UC PhD student designs Olympic racing suits

Testing one of the skinsuit prototypes at the UC engineering department wind tunnel.

A University of Canterbury PhD student is responsible for the cutting-edge skinsuits worn by Kiwi track cyclists at the London Olympic Games.

Lindsey Underwood spent the last two years of her mechanical engineering PhD dedicated to designing athletes skinsuits for BikeNZ, as well as  researching the best body position for athletes to adopt on the bike to enhance their speed.

The Kiwi track cyclists performed exceptionally well at the London Olympics with Simon van Velthooven and the Men's Team Pursuit winning bronze medals in London.

Lindsey worked with Stuart McIntyre, who designed and sewed the skinsuit patterns, and says it was an honour to be involved with the Olympic team and BikeNZ.

“I have worked closely with BikeNZ throughout my PhD. It started off with me looking at the aerodynamics of body positions of track cyclists on their bikes and ways to improve their speed. For example, I analysed whether athletes should have a lower head position or change their hand position on the handle bars by adjusting the handle bars to the most efficient height,” she says.

“We were trying to get the lowest drag force possible by changing body position and using the right equipment. From there I began looking at skinsuits as a side project and how different designs could reduce drag and help improve speed. I found a good skinsuit can gain anything from milliseconds to whole seconds, and as races can be won by milliseconds it can be a huge advantage. It was a real honour when BikeNZ asked me to design the Olympic team’s suits.”

Lindsey, who has recently been employed as a lecturer in engineering and sports biomechanics at CPIT, worked at the UC engineering department’s wind tunnel that simulates speeds of up to 46kmph for both aspects of her research.

“I looked at different technical fabrics that could be used and how, just by changing the seam placement, you can reduce drag on skinsuits. As the air moves over the athlete initially there is smooth flow known as laminar flow, which then separates at a particular point and forms a wake. By tripping the flow from laminar to turbulent flow before this separation occurs, the flow remains attached to the body for longer and reduces the drag. This was achieved by creating a design with different technical fabrics with specially placed seams,” Lindsey says. 

Lindsey says the challenge was designing the right combination of technical fabrics sourced from overseas along with the way it was pieced together to fit individual athletes.

“It’s the technical fabric that’s really important, even combinations of fabrics. The fabric doesn’t have to be all smooth - you can mix the textures to cover specific parts of the body with specific materials to get that flow staying attached to the body.”

Lindsey says it was an experience she will proudly remember.

“It’s a competitive industry and no one tells each other what they are doing. It was quite nerve wracking watching our cyclists compete but it was great to see them succeed. It was amazing and really special to work so closely with the athletes as well as the coaches. I’m very proud of what we achieved,” she says.

BikeNZ‘s Andy Reid says Lindsey’s work played an important role.

"Lindsey has added invaluable expertise to our skinsuit development program. The final results are not only very aerodynamic but also, with the knowledge and expertise of Stuart McIntyre, the best fitting skinsuits our athletes have ever had." 

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