Maybe It Looks Funny, but Chester Kyle's New Olympic Bike Could Turn Out a Winner

updated 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"It's the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel," exults U.S. Olympic bike racer Roy Knickman, 19. "No other country will have anything to compete with it." The U.S. team calls it the "funny bike," but the new machine's performance is no joke. Pared to streamlined perfection the U.S. team's super-cycle may well help it ride off with a clutch of medals in the team and individual pursuit and 100-km team time trials at the L.A. Games. If it does, it will be partly with thanks to the aerodynamic wizardry of Chester Kyle, 55, the engineer and inventor who oversaw the bike's bizarre design. Deadpans Kyle, "So far it hasn't slowed them down any."

A professor of biomechanical engineering at Cal State Long Beach, Kyle has been pushing the speed limit for bicycles since 1973, when he first demonstrated that some 80 percent of a rider's energy goes into fighting wind resistance. His present generation of bikes, costing up to $20,000 apiece, were created by his six-man design team to weigh as little as 11 pounds. The frame tubing is made from a super-light alloy, cast teardrop-shaped with blunt end forward to slip through the air. All holes, which create drag by stirring up turbulence, were plugged or smoothed over. Spoked wheels can be replaced with plastic Kevlar disks.

Racers will wear Kyle's skintight suit, and the whole rig will be topped off with a swept-back helmet that makes the rider look—and fly—"like a missile," says Kyle. "Theoretically in a four-and-a-half-minute race," he adds, "the bicycle with the helmet, shoes and suit could save 11 or 12 seconds." In races where fractions of a second usually determine victory, that's a big margin.

The bike's unusually small, 24-inch diameter wheels also help. For example, in the team pursuit (a high-speed chase around the cycling track in which opposing four-man teams race over 4,000 meters) the tighter wheels allow riders to stay closer to one another and better use the leader's slipstream. "I don't think the bikes are intrinsically faster," says racer Brent Emery, 26, "but they allow you to sit closer and recuperate faster. The faster you recuperate, the faster you ride when you lead the pace line again." Steve Hegg, 21, a dark horse in the 4,000-meter individual pursuit, is more enthusiastic. "The bike's a big improvement," he says, "and Kyle's skintight suit is great."

A cyclist himself, Kyle founded the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, which sponsors an HPV race each year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "At first it was a joke," he says. "Now, with the energy shortage and the Olympics, people aren't laughing anymore." Indeed the speediest HPVs—low-riding, three-wheeled, streamlined pods called Vectors—have exceeded 60 mph on sheer pedal power. But the technological edge alone won't win races. Says Steve Hegg, "It's still the team riders that count in winning medals."

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