Six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is keeping an eye on Ivan Basso. The Italian cyclist, whose racing team is sponsored by Computer Sciences Corporation, has moved steadily closer to the coveted yellow jersey over the last three years. In 2002, he finished 11th overall. He improved to seventh in 2003, and last July, Basso beat Armstrong in stage 12 of the tour and took third overall. Armstrong has called 27-year-old Basso “the brightest future for the tour.”
Cycling teams are always looking for subtle ways to increase speed. Months before Basso hit the French hillsides for the 2004 tour, he and CSC teammate Carlos Sastre came to MIT for help. The cyclists took turns riding a bicycle mounted in the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, changing equipment and making minor adjustments to hand placement as the wind blew past them at 48 kilometers per hour. A computer hooked to the bike monitored drag, revealing which adjustments were most successful.
Working with world-class cyclists is just one of dozens of projects undertaken by Kim Blair and his students at MIT’s Center for Sports Innovation. Blair, the center’s director, believes there’s always room for better technology in the world of sports, so the center takes on projects with individual athletes and corporations aimed at improving athletic performance and the equipment athletes use. The projects are an eclectic mix—everything from designing special shoes for triathletes to checking for cracks in rock climbing equipment. And through those projects, the center is launching careers and even changing students’ lives.
A Tunnel Vision
The center grew out of an offhand comment to Blair while he was training for a triathlon in 1995. Ian Waitz, deputy head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was training on the same team and mentioned that several students wanted to put their bikes in the wind tunnel to test for drag. Blair thought it was a good idea. The center opened in 1999 with Blair as its director.
The center’s unofficial home is next door to the wind tunnel in a large room that houses a jumble of model airplanes, hard hats, bike and ski parts, running shoes, and miscellaneous equipment. A limited budget makes the center slightly nomadic. Depending on their projects, students working through the center will use other campus facilities.
“The good thing about sport is that it touches so many people that it’s a good common ground for discussion,” says Blair. “Because of that, it’s a good teaching mechanism, too.”
The center offers no classes, but it still attracts more students than Blair is able to supervise. Students sometimes wait a year or more to work with him. While the center has friendly relationships with several companies that occasionally request help, Blair encourages students to come up with their own ideas.