Technical FAQ: Marginal wins in the Olympics


Olympics – Yolo BedTime

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Dear Lennard,
Do you think the official race car that drove just behind Mara Abbott on the final stretch blocked the alleged tailwind from her that supposedly helped the three get in the chase?
– Chris

Dear Chris,
It’s possible it could. She only needed a tiny bit of extra wind help to make it over the last 150 meters ahead of the other three. I was too busy shouting encouragement at the screen to notice how close the car was. I remember that the three pursuers had no car behind them because the view from behind the Lizzie Armitstead group was clear. So there would have been a difference in wind exposure between Abbott and her pursuers if she’d had a car behind her.

On the other hand, if the car was close and directly behind it, it could also have had a positive effect by pushing air forward. With a tailwind this effect would have been less and the wind blocking effect might have been more important.

Good question. I doubt we’ll ever know if it could have made the difference between a medal and fourth place.

Dear Lennard,
It looked like Mara Abbott’s numbers were loosely pinned, with only four pins on each. I find it amazing that the drivers and the team management would not ensure that the team’s numbers at the Olympic road race don’t flutter in the wind! Could that have cost her the win?
– Emily

Dear Emily,
Well, if you can believe the claims here, a glued-on number can save up to 22 watts of power at 50 km / h compared to a badly pinned number and save at least eight watts compared to a “well-pinned” number. This is of course tested at 50 km / h relative wind in a wind tunnel, and I have no idea how fast Abbott was relative to the wind at any given point during that long entry into the destination, like her speed and the wind direction and speed relative to her changed.

I also don’t know how Abbott’s start numbers would fall on Nopinz’s poorly fixed to well fixed scale. But at first glance, 8-10 watts of extra power over 10 km could basically save the few seconds it took to get the gold medal.

The seamless adhesion of the numbers on the jersey could certainly fall within the “marginal gains” area that Team Sky famously focuses on. It could have made all the difference.

On the flip side, it’s easy to get caught up in the little details that cost Abbott the gold and not look at all of the things she got right (many of which could also fall into the marginal gains category) to position yourself to be able to get as close to her.

It goes without saying that her training and preparation were good, as was her positioning at the beginning of the final ascent and her tactics and effort during the ascent. Her decision to let Annemiek van Vleuten roll away on the descent turned out to be wise. I can only assume that she had her solo crash on the descent from Mortirolo at the Giro Rosa in her head after dropping everyone on the ascent. She got the pink jersey that day, but we can only wonder if she would still have had it at the end of the week if she hadn’t lost time and skin in that fall. Van Vleuten, Vincenzo Nibali and Sergio Henao would almost certainly have Olympic medals now if they had gotten into the corners they had taken at only slightly less speed. Even a slight reduction in speed can be considered a marginal gain and have enormous consequences.

Another important marginal gain for Abbott was likely to be swallowing a gel at the beginning of the shallow enema in the line. It shows a lot of experience and serenity, not just in an “Oh my God, I’ll win the Olympic Games” mentality to hectically pedal and in the end to have no more energy and no more desire.

The very close-fitting USA team jersey also saved its considerable watts; we might not torment ourselves so much now about how close it was if she had been wearing a fluttering jersey and thus been caught a kilometer from the line, not 150 meters from it.

You also can’t really fault any of your equipment options. Her medium-depth Campy Bora Ultra carbon wheels, for example, should have served her very well both on the climb and on the shallow driveway.

And you can go back even further to see how unlikely it seemed at some point that she would even be in Rio. Abbott’s decision to quit bicycling when she was no longer enjoying it was a good one, as was returning to the sport a few years later when she was moved back to it. I think we all know how easy it is to get caught up in the net if we keep knocking over something we succeeded in but is no longer fun.

And I can’t help but think how easily Mara and another Rio Olympic champion and good friend of mine, Chloe Woodruff (in MTB XC) simply didn’t discover cycling. Both of them, along with Peter Stetina who supported Trek – Segafredo team-mates and Rio Olympians Fabian Cancellara and Bauke Mollema in the Tour de France last month – were my wife’s middle school students at the Horizons K-8 public school in Boulder, where there was a lot of burgeoning bicycle heat was fanned out in flames.

The Horizons K-8 School had four hour “scouting” classes on Friday morning taught by community members, so I was teaching cycling there on Friday. The school also took students on week-long Outdoor Ed excursions every fall, and Sonny (my wife) and I organized the trip to Moab that all Horizons middle school students took for one week once in September during their three-year middle school. On the mountain bike trails of Moab, Abbott and Woodruff (nee Forsman) became infected with the cycling virus, and their athletic talent and determination to reach the top of the climbs before the boys were evident from the start. (Stetina showed talent in Moab too, but it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have drawn into the sport anyway, as his father Dale and uncle Wayne were some of the most highly decorated American cyclists of the 1970s and 1980s, his highlight project for high school graduation however, the project he chose was to design a bike.)

And even after catching the cycling virus and having talent, there is no guarantee that young riders will go ahead and make it a part of their lives. A child generally relies on substantial material support from their parents in order to pursue them, and without that support at the critical moment of formation, many potential world champions are likely to have migrated to other pursuits.

With a house full of bikes and an uncle running product development at Shimano, Stetina would never run out of bike gear. However, for families who are not into cycling racing, the cost of the sport can be a heavy blow. I went through the annual VeloSwap bike swap meeting in Denver with Chloe and her parents to find the used aluminum-studded Trek hardtail that she rode in her first (as a junior) World Cross Country Championship. And Mara’s father, Dave, also a teacher at Horizons K-8, was appalled at the price of the Cannondale mountain bike Mara wanted and asked me if it would be wise to buy it for her. Of course I said that! And Dave called me again with sticker shock when Mara later also wanted a racing bike. The Abbotts and Forsmans may now be happy that they nurtured and invested in their daughters’ cycling passions, but as parents it is often difficult to distinguish between an expensive fleeting interest or a lifelong pursuit and making the right choice in which one is to be financed.

I’m as proud of the courage Abbott has shown in road racing as I am of her demeanor in speaking to the media after seeing her medal hopes shattered within a few pedal strokes of the finish line. Lingering on what could have been and not on all the things she did well in the race and in her life gets us into the medal table rather than the spirit of the Olympics. Another friend, Taylor Phinney, and (two-time) Olympic fourth from Boulder, has inspired us all to embrace life in the face of adversity and disappointment. This is what parents value more than a medal, and we can do the same.

In the print edition of our local newspaper, for which Abbott writes a column and is on the editorial board, the headline read: “Local Driver Wastes Leadership, Finishes Fourth In Road Race.” I hardly think she wasted it; She went all-in and played every card in hand as best she could throughout the race. Fortunately, this heading was not used in the online version. Personally, I will remember Mara’s ride for the rest of my life, and I will certainly not remember who actually won the medals for long.

Feedback on photo-finish cameras

Dear Lennard,
Just read your article on finish line cameras. Coming from rowing, I knew them pretty well as they have been indispensable in major races for some time. I appreciated your explanation of the concept, but I think you may have overlooked an easier way to explain it:

A normal camera takes a picture of the entire area that it can see at a set time.

A finish line camera records all the time it can see in a fixed location in space (the small slit that is the finish line). If you put an FL picture on a reel and scroll through a slot, you will get a “video” of the racers crossing the finish line.

Thought it might be helpful for those who couldn’t fully grapple with the concept.
– Noah

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