Hundreds of Hundredths

Result values tend to average out over time. Can slick underwear break the trend?

There are those that believe cycling – and many other sports – seem to come down to a numbers game more than anything else these days. A couple extra grams of weight on those pedal clips? Add two-tenths of a second over 50km. Shave your legs? Shave three-hundredths of a second (unless you’re very hairy, in which case make it four). Piece by piece, these numbers seem like they add up. Body weight, wheels, spokes, aerodynamic drag, acceleration rates, friction coefficients… the amount of micro-optimization that can go into cycling is staggering.

And it’s not just cycling.  Just the other day I read about a World Cup Alpine skier who was being investigated because people thought her underwear (Seriously people? Her underwear?) was too efficient at blocking wind from penetrating the fabric.

When you optimize the performance of one piece of a bike – say, the pedals – you’ve reduced weight, aerodynamic drag, friction as it rotates, and over long distances you gain a very little bit of time. Now you start doing that to the hubs, the wheel rims, the spokes, the tires, frame components (head tube, down tube, seat tube, top tube, seat stays, etc.). You go through all the components, saving little bits of time here and there, and you go from saving a few hundredths of a second to several minutes. I get it, and it’s right in principle. But usually all these hundreds of components are not optimized all at once, but instead a few pieces at a time. We’re not going from a Walmart $50 bike (that’s about $1/lb by the way) to a Pinarello Prince here.

Such is the case of this skier and her fancy underwear. One new piece of tech. But why would fast underwear (and that sounds like an entirely different product than what I’m referring to) be illegal in skiing compared to any other micro-optimization advantage like say, vibration-dampening ski compounds? In cycling, the UCI even limits the +/- angle of the seat – why? No clue, since it’s usually very uncomfortable to have a seat that is tilted much in either direction. When the first compact road frame was released, the UCI wanted to ban them from competition even though they were legal by the UCI rules. Now, virtually every manufacturer uses some kind of compact frame design.

One school of thought is “Everyone doesn’t have it, so it’s unfair.” But seriously, that argument doesn’t fly. If something’s new, it doesn’t mean others won’t have it soon. And these days if you want it? Go buy it. The next time you race people can have you drop your pants and check out your special, aerodynamic, nano-particle-coated boxer-briefs that cost more than most car payments.

The more likely culprit though is that people just don’t like to lose, and the loser can point to this item as their reason for losing (and not the idea that *gasp* maybe they’re just not as good). Instead of saying “Yeah, they’re faster,” the losers say “They were faster because of their new-fangled underwear.” That’s become the more diplomatic way of saying “They cheated!”

Was the winner really faster because of some new gear? Eh, it’s possible. As I said before, add up all those hundredths, and you start seeing differences. But it’s not very often that you get multiple advantageous improvements at a single shot. And it’s even more rare for a single component to make race-altering strides (that happens only once in a great while). The Law of Large numbers will most likely win out in the end unless the tech really is a game changer.

So if they want to believe that “It’s the wheels,” or “It’s gotta be the shoes!” or in this ridiculous case “Test that underwear!” Well, I for one ain’t gonna mess them or their inability to accept defeat. Just stay away from my heart-speckled shorts, okay?