Heading to the wind tunnel, and taking the compulsory snapshots of your products undergoing test, is now de-rigueur for cycling brands. Wheels started it, TT bikes and helmets followed and now even road bikes are sculpted in the tunnel. Hours spent in the tunnel are like a badge of honor in the cycling world. Specialized, like any major brand that likes to chase high performance and win bike races has certainly done their tunnel time. And thanks to last nights unveiling they will be logging more tunnel time than ever.
Raising the bar, changing the game, call it what you will Specialized bicycles has just unveiled their own wind tunnel, a five minute walk from their Morgan Hill HQ. This tunnel has been created as a bike specific tunnel from the moment pen hit paper. After developing bikes in tunnels designed for aerospace and motor sports Specialized engineers knew the changes they needed to make for bikes.
To create flow at human powered levels aerospace tunnels needed to essentially idle their fans as slowly as possible. This creates uneven flow during bike tests. Accuracy of measurement is also an issue, since the objects they typically test are much bigger and involve sometimes more than a thousand times the force a bike and rider will encounter. Every aspect of the Specialized tunnel is optimized for human speeds. The flow is designed to be incredibly clean and can run from zero to 100kilometers per hour. Six fans at the back of the tunnel pull air through the tunnel. At the front of the tunnel air is channeled through honeycomb tubes to clean it up, then passed though a tight mesh for further cleaning. The tunnel funnels down to a smaller diameter at the test section so air traveling 10mph at the inlet becomes 30mph at the test section and is cleaned up yet again. Smaller diameter is actually not a fair term since the test section is massive 30 long, 16 wide and 10 high. Specialized created it this size so they can actually test how aero changes in a pack of cyclists or riding next to a hedge or some tress. An added bonus is airflow is not affected, or blocked in aero terms, by close-set walls or ceiling. As the air runs out the back of the tunnel it widens again to slow the air at the fans and also runs across carefully sculpted dividers between the fans to ensure no airflow bounces back into the test section.
Having created the cleanest airflow possible at human powered speeds Specialized needed to be able to measure its effects with incredible accuracy. The force balance, essentially a scale turned on its side, the bike is attached to occupies the six feet of space between the wind tunnel floor and the buildings floor. It is completely isolated form the rest of the tunnel and incredibly accurate. New Specialized aerodynamicist, Chirs Yu, likens its accuracy to a bathroom scale with the ability to determine if you are holding a 1gram paperclip as you jump up and down on it. Like other wind tunnels it can be turned to simulate crosswinds. In fact the tunnel, while the flow is designed to be perfect, can simulate the chaotic, real world wind shifts of a blustery day.
As important to Specialized as these two major points were – design for human speeds and the ability to accurately measure force at those speeds – they had another major requirement. Proximity. With the travel a big part of tunnel testing Specialized engineers would burn weeks prepping products and designing protocols knowing their time in the tunnel would be very limited. With their tunnel now only a short walk away they can dream up a concept on Monday, computer model it, rapid prototype it, manufacture it, validate it in the tunnel and be riding it by Friday. This type of rapid product development has previously been seen only in F1 according to Specializeds Mark Cote, an MIT educated aerodynamicist.
Specialized has long been using CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamicts) and real world telemetry as a part of their aero research and development. Specialized believes the wind tunnel is what brings these two tools together to complete the aero R&D picture. Its an R&D picture Specialized sees including much more than performance road or triathlon. They have had their cross country mountain bike athletes in the tunnel as well as down hill mountain bikers. They believe there are aero changes that can even improve commuting. Fit has been a big part of Specializeds plans for many years now and the tunnel has a role to play here as well. The entire control room is set up like a classroom to help their dealers better understand how fit and aerodynamics work together.
Specialized has made a habit of forcing other companies to play catch up, from courting big name riders like Contador directly, irrespective of team, to sponsoring three WorldTour teams simultaneously, and this wind tunnel is no different. Its a bold move, and like the other examples, must have been incredibly expensive. We are likely to see their development cycle ramp up significantly and more and more products released with thoroughly aerodynamic pedigree. How the rest of the industry reacts to this move remains to be seen, but if the engineers have anything to say about it, this wont be the only bike specific wind tunnel launched by a major brand.