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Gear Heads

MIT’s Center for Sports Innovation uses technology to help make athletes faster and their gear better.

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.

The Sole of the Game
Massachusetts-based athletic-shoe company New Balance, whose competitors include Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, is one of the center’s regular collaborators. New Balance wanted to develop a shoe for triathletes that would compete with the stretching slip-on shoe Nike produced in 2000. Blair, himself looking for a better shoe, spoke with New Balance representatives. He suggested that a Web-based survey to find out which shoe characteristics were most important to athletes would help New Balance develop a better product. The company agreed.

Blair tapped Chi-An Wang ‘01 to design the survey. First, Wang needed to understand triathlons. Olympic triathlons comprise a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride, and a 10-kilometer run. “When I did the survey, I had never seen a triathlon,” Wang says. So she watched footage of competitions. A cross-country runner herself, Wang began to understand the sport. “You can’t even tie your shoelaces because you’re so tired,” she says.

Hundreds responded to the survey. They wanted shoes they could slip on easily but that stayed on while they ran. They also didn’t want to fuss with laces.

When she graduated, Wang left New Balance a notebook full of ideas gleaned from the survey. The next year, New Balance’s blue and orange triathlon shoe, called the 920, hit the shelves. It featured a heel strap and plenty of ventilation.

The triathlon shoe project turned out to be more than just a research experience for Wang. After having paid so much attention to triathletes, she decided to try the sport herself. She got hooked. Now she’s competing in long off-road triathlons that have trail-running and mountain-biking components.

Breaking Point
As he leads the way through his makeshift lab, the lean, tall, sandy-haired Blair is quick to pull out samples of climbing equipment, running shoes, and hockey padding that the center has developed. Prototypes like these demonstrate that students are sometimes one step ahead of equipment manufacturers. An example is Marianne Okal ‘02. An avid rock climber, Okal wanted to give climbers a better way to test the effectiveness of their own equipment.

Blair pours a plastic bag full of broken metal links called carabiners onto a table. In rock and ice climbing, caving, and mountaineering, a carabiner is the link that secures a rope to an anchor. If a carabiner fails, it can put a climber’s life in danger. Carabiner failure is rare, but at least one renowned climber’s death has been attributed to it. A carabiner’s breaking point is harder to predict. When a climber loses her footing, her rope should break her fall; but the jolt puts stress on the carabiner, which can develop internal cracks. Because the cracks are not visible, climbers try to keep track of their long falls, but it can be hard to keep tabs on dozens of carabiners. Okal and Jon Graham ‘02, her partner on the equipment-testing project, tried to gauge the differences between worn and new carabiners by superimposing x-ray photographs taken of them and by measuring them with calipers. When that failed, they decided to try comparing carabiners along all three dimensions at once. Okal made a mold of a new carabiner out of store-bought epoxy and found that a retirement-ready carabiner wouldn’t fit it.

Blair hoped the center could market the mold kit idea to carabiner manufacturers, but one company told him that its liability would be too high. Nevertheless, Blair thinks this simple test could catch on in the climbing community. If climbers knew about it, they could just buy epoxy at a local hardware store and make their own molds. Maybe then, Blair figures, manufacturers wouldn’t be so skittish.

Tour de Force
In fall 2002, the two cofounders of innovative bike company Cervélo Cycles brought various bike models to Cambridge to test in MIT’s wind tunnel. During the tests, Blair envisioned a more sophisticated system that would allow riders in the tunnel as well as their bikes. Cervélo, which provides bicycles for Team CSC, liked the idea, so it began looking for participants for a new study that might lead to faster times.

Basso was willing to try unconventional training methods in order to ride even a few seconds faster. He had heard about the MIT experiments in the wind tunnel and was ready to volunteer.

Basso, Sastre, Riis, and the team mechanic came to MIT last May. One rider at a time sat on a mounted bike in the wood-paneled tunnel as the old control panel fired up the wind. A student ran different helmets over to the riders. Blair recommended small changes in arm position, saddle height, and handlebar height, all to determine which created the least drag. Riis was worried about pushing the riders to try unfamiliar positions, but the riders were eager to try anything.

Blair points to a computer screen displaying several shots of Basso hunched over the mounted bike. The most aerodynamic positions, he says, were impossible for the riders to sustain comfortably. Still, they managed to strike a balance between their usual postures and harder-to-hold positions.

“You can actually see how he’s getting a lot flatter, a lot lower, stretched out,” Blair says. He clicks to the next screen. “You can see the numbers keep dropping.” Riis had watched the numbers, too, and grown excited. “By the second day, we were making suggestions, and if the mechanic would squawk about it, [Riis] would be telling the mechanic to get in there and get it done,” Blair says. “Whatever we said, he wanted to try.”

Basso believes his work at MIT helped improve his performance on the Tour. “I did the time trial of my life on the second to last stage,” he says. “I think my new position on the bike [helped] make that possible.”

The work with Basso was so productive that Blair is trying to figure out a way to get more cyclists into the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel.

Blair’s new project list includes improving speed-skate blades, streamlining dimple patterns to maximize golf ball performance, and testing bobsled designs with the U.S. bobsled team. For the last few years, the Americans have often placed second to the Germans by mere hundredths of a second at international meets. Maybe with the help of the center, the USA will bring home the gold from the 2006 Winter Olympics.

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