USA Cycling relying on high-tech training tools ahead of Rio
The standard training tool for cycling coaches for decades has been the stopwatch, a quaintly inconsistent barometer that could tell how fast a rider was completing a segment of work.
These days they're little more than a prop.
USA Cycling is pushing the limits of training technology in the run-up to the Rio Olympics, first with a revolutionary track bike that took years of design, then with proprietary hardware and software they can use to better gauge how well their athletes are training in the months leading up to the Summer Games.
''We are always looking for technologies to improve and push the limits of our athletes' performance,'' said Andy Sparks, director of the U.S. track cycling program, ''especially aiming at our goal for gold in Rio.''
The bike from manufacturer Felt, with its odd-looking left-side drivetrain, is what viewers at home will notice in August. But smart glasses from Solos combined with custom, cloud-based software from IBM have become an integral part of training - and could ultimately be the secret to their success.
The software integrates everything from heart-rate monitors to power meters while tracking standard data such as speed. It then puts the information in a format that allows coaches to examine it immediately. The data is likewise streamed to the smart glasses, worn by the riders in the midst of a work session.
USA Cycling vice president Jim Miller called the hardware-software combination ''a cutting-edge tool'' that is especially helpful for the women's pursuit team, which heads to Rio as the heavy favorite to win gold.
Work on the project began nearly two years ago, when USA Cycling met with officials from IBM. The problem they presented was this: Coaches could capture biometric and power data, but it was on a computer mounted to the bike, and often it would take hours before the data could be uploaded and analyzed.
''Sometimes it would take the multiple days to give feedback on that training session,'' said Randy Wilcox, who spearheaded the program for IBM. ''So the first problem was to get the analytics to the athletes when they needed it, which is immediately after a training session.''
IBM solved that problem by creating a cloud-based app, run off an iPhone, that syncs to the different hardware on the bike - power meters, heart-rate monitors and the like. The setup allows the data to be sent to coaches in real time, then shared with the riders the moment they dismount from the bike.
So, if Chloe Dygert was going too hard during a session, they could instruct her to dial it back. If Sarah Hammer was wasting energy during a particular segment, they could determine right away why it was happening. And with the pursuit team, where riders shuffle from front to back in an attempt to keep the freshest riders doing the pull, those position changes within the race can be analyzed in greater detail.
''Say they have a target speed or target time they need to maintain - we have that objective,'' Wilcox said. ''Now, we can give them an indication of if they're meeting that objective.''
While it's nice for coaches to be able to analyze that data in real time, they would still have to wait until the end of a training block to discuss it with the riders. USA Cycling solved that dilemma by turning to Solos, whose parent company Kopin has roots in ''smart'' glasses developed for the military.
Working hand-in-hand the past 18 months, USA Cycling and Solos developed eyewear that projects in front of a rider whatever metric they might be interested in: speed, heart rate, oxygen levels and more. Or, the glasses can give an indication, such as a flashing signal, if a rider is exerting too much energy.
''The glasses have a very similar architecture to what a smartwatch would be,'' explained Ernesto Martinez, the creator of Solos Wearables. ''We've found a way to project it in a display that makes sense.''
The company had to work closely with riders for several reasons: The eyewear itself had to be the kind of high-performance eyewear they were accustomed to using, but the optics also had to provide the information they wanted without becoming a distraction in a sport where speeds are high and crashes hurt.
''It's like having your Garmin (bike computer), but it doesn't get in your way,'' Dygert said. ''If you're supposed to keep a certain lap time or your watts at a certain level, you kind of glance at it. It's great for training when you want to make everything perfect.''
Just about the only thing the technology can't do is the work: The riders still have to put in the effort. But it at least ensures they are getting the most out of their work, and those tiny details are often what make the difference between winning an Olympic medal and finishing off the podium.
''We're doing everything we can to ensure success in Rio,'' Miller said. ''Nothing left unturned.''