BONTRAGER PART 4: The Heart and Soul of Trek’s R&D

A visit to Waterloo, Wisconsin, would not be complete without stopping by Trek’s Performance Research Lab. It is an R&D lab par excellence to support product development by this U.S. bicycle industry giant. But as much as the company is focused on product, it remains concentrated on the human aspect of cycling too. As a result, the Performance Research Lab not only studies the physics of the bike and the equipment that Trek designs, but also its interaction with the cyclist who rides the bike.

Words/Images: James Startt

And within Trek’s lab two biomechanical engineers represent the heart and soul of the company’s R & D. Paul Harder is the brains behind the bikes and equipment while his cohort, Kyle Russ, focuses on the human element. We sat down with them before the start of the Tour de France to discuss how they pursue technical perfection and pass it on to cyclists at all levels.

PELOTON Magazine: So you two work closely together, with one focusing more on product and the other more on the cyclist. Is that correct?

Paul Harder: Well, I manage analysis and the ride test group. We are an R&D group focused on all of aerodynamics, structural biomechanics and testing of bikes and products. We measure all of the physics around cycling.

Kyle Russ: I focus on all touch points, or any testing that has a human element, be it saddles and grips, chamois, padded gloves, insoles, shoes, handlebars…you name it. When I started, I was one of the only biomechanical engineers in this area in the industry. But it is really growing. And when you look at this lab, you see just how fast Bontrager/Trek is developing in this area. We want to be industry leaders when it comes to how the rider and bike interact.

Harder: We do things like put sensors on bikes to collect all of the subjective test measurements. We work with accelerometers or pressure mats, things that focus on the hardcore objective science and data analysis. We bring all of the things together in an effort to make the riders feel more confident, comfortable and more powerful. And then there is the subjective side of getting a group of riders of a certain weight range or ability level to test the prototypes over different terrain all over the world. We due surveys and see what is going to be perceived as a better ride or benefit to the customer, because it is important that our decisions are not just based on fundamental scientific test results.

PELOTON: So your test riders can vary from leisure riders to professionals?

Harder: Yes. We will often work with the local Trek dealer in an area and recruit local riders. In mountain biking, for example, we have test riders all over the country to test products for us in all kinds of terrain. We have Travis Brown in Colorado working with many test riders out there. We have a group of test riders in Southern California that works on a lot of suspension testing. On the road, we have a group of internal test riders, racers and super-users that form a core group of expert panelists. And then we use our Trek Factory Racing professional team as well.

PELOTON: What are the developments that you have really had a hand in developing that are the most satisfying?

Russ: Well, for me, it would be the increasing range of saddles from the Ajna to Hilo or Montrose saddles. They have really built out their foundation for a particular rider’s pelvic angle and having it for the full spectrum from triathlon bikes to road racing bikes to Dutch bikes. That has been very satisfying.

PELOTON: What is the biggest challenge for you guys?

Harder: The biggest challenge is that there is still so much ground to be broken in the cycling side of mechanical engineering. If you go into an aerospace or automotive company, you enter an industry that has a long history, with thousands of people as smart or smarter than you that have been studying these things for a very, very long time. As a result, there is only a limited amount of incremental change that is on the table. But in cycling it is still very open. You can discover something like IsoSpeed. There are huge gains to be made. And it is exciting to know that your studies can lead to major breakthroughs.

That said, we are dealing with lots of restrictions. We are dealing with a vehicle where a few grams can be significant. Our technology has to be very weight-sensitive, very aerodynamic-sensitive. And then of course there are all of the UCI rules. As a result, the box for us to be creative in is very limited. But at the same time that forces a lot of creativity. I mean, how many cars that go 30 mph are interested in 5 grams of drag? It is a hugely different problem and we can throw a lot of cool tools and resources at it to make some cool, next-level stuff. And that is what keeps me interested and motivated.

PELOTON: You have this amazing space here in the heart of the Waterloo factory. It must be an amazing workspace for researchers like you?

Russ: Well, we have a completely repeatable, completely controllable test condition, where we can measure pressure or do side-view videos or high-speed video to better understand, for example, how much compliancy there is in the IsoSpeed. We have a high-speed camera that can produce thousands of frames per second. So, for example, we can ride a bicycle frame to the breaking point and then study exactly at what point and where the tubes start to fracture.

A rider and bike are two parts that always come into play in our studies. And there are a lot of ways in which they come into play. We generate a lot of data to support our structural analysis. Essentially, the rider and bike systems are two different interacting parts. A lot of Kyle’s measurements, for example, deal with those parts, be it pressure mapping or the design and shapes of chamois, insoles and saddles. He focuses on the physiological and biomechanical side while I focus on understanding the physics of what the bike itself is doing, which is another big part of what we do. That is where things like a wind tunnel may come into play, or other forms of structural analysis.

We generate a lot of data to support our structural analysis and to try and answer questions like: “Does IsoSpeed really reduce vibration?” We work a lot with accelerometers to measure vibration. We will put one on the rear axle to measure vibration coming in on the road. Then we will put one under the saddle to measure vibration coming out of the bike. And by placing the accelerometer at strategic points we can measure how a bike is absorbing vibration and how it is making for comfort. Again, it is all about measuring the physics of a bike and tailoring it in the context of human performance and human comfort. And often we have to go to pretty extreme lengths to attain our goals.

In cycling, it is crucial to get small and light data collectors that do not interfere with the performance of the bike or the rider. That has been a huge investment for us, but one that is worth it, because we really need to be able to collect data on something without affecting its physical behavior. And we’ve made huge gains. We’ve gone from using a 10- to 20-kilogram backpack of testing equipment to essentially doing no more than putting a water bottle on a bike. And for road bikes especially, getting rid of that kind of weight in the testing procedure is a huge deal.

In addition, we have developed a treadmill where we can change the surface and we have laser scans of different surfaces from a gravel road to the cobbles of Paris–Roubaix. We actually went to the Arenberg Forest and took a silicon mold of a section of those cobbles and then made a laser scan of it that then became a CNC exact replica. That wasn’t easy to do and actually required a little explaining when the French police showed up in the Arenberg while we were getting our molds. But when they saw that it was cycling related, they were cool.

PELOTON: While much of your work is centered around high performance, Trek has earned much of its reputation on being one of the industry’s most democratic manufacturers, building bikes and equipment for virtually every cyclist. It must be satisfying to see so much of your work essentially reaching so many people!

Russ: Oh yeah. And this lab is all about spreading our efforts around. It’s an outward-facing space and that is totally intentional. We want this lab to be public facing. We want to use it as a means for communicating the work that we do. It is completely photo-ready. It’s our way of showing all of what’s under the hood.