We take a closer look at the different sides to track cycling’s data revolution.
Those milliseconds are what are sometimes famously referred to as “marginal gains”. And although the improvements may indeed be minuscule, they often make all the difference. “To an even greater extent than on the road, data has turned track cycling on its head,” explains Arnaud Tournant. A team sprint gold medallist at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Tournant knows better than anyone that nowadays his “sport all comes down to the details”.

The SRM revolution

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In the late 1990s, the Frenchman had a front-row seat from which to witness the emergence of data in the cycling world. Looked upon with scepticism at first, when it was considered to be nothing more than a gimmick, data soon became the alpha and omega of the UCI Track world. And there, right at the forefront of the change, stood the inescapable SRM powermeter – or to give it its full title, named after its inventor, the Schoberer Rad Messtechnik.
It was the latter, a German engineer with an interest in medical applications, who dreamed up the idea of a crankset capable of measuring the immediate power generated by a cyclist. Over time, his SRMs became increasingly commonplace on the bikes of pro racers, to the point now that they are the very centrepiece of their design. “They are also extremely reliable indicators of fatigue, progression and even air quality,” points out François Pervis.
“Australia and New Zealand, not to mention Great Britain, have often had a head start in track cycling,” says Arnaud Tournant, "but France and the other nations have quickly followed suit and installed SRMs.” Nowadays, it is these machines that make or break races. However, there are those that argue that this (r)evolution may be to the detriment of the racing itself.

Riders or robots?

At least, that is the way François Pervis sees it. “The SRM completely desensitises the rider,” laments the seven-time world champion. “Today's riders have become robots and have lost their feel for racing.” Is it true: have cyclists become robots, guided only by data transmitted to them by their computers?
Things have not reached that point yet, even though Arnaud Tournant agrees with his compatriot that “races aren’t like they used to be. Before all this data, we used to see competitions with much more suspense and unpredictability”. “Nowadays, it’s very rare to see the sort of overtaking that used to create so much excitement in our sport,” sighs the former rider, who retired with 14 world titles to his name. “Now all the riders launch their sprint from really far out. It sometimes feels like they’re stuck in the saddle and are only interested in their position on the bike.”

Progress versus nostalgia

But Arnaud Tournant is by no means a Luddite. “Evolution is an integral part of every sport,” he says. “Look at football today: compared with Platini’s era, it’s unrecognisable. Technical and technological progress helps us improve. All the more so in mechanical sports like track cycling.”
And according to the man from northern France, the emergence of data has certainly not killed off all the suspense. “These days, armed with all their data, the riders are racing so close to the limit that fatigue comes into play. And it is the fatigue factor that creates that bit of uncertainty and spectacle you need.”

Video analysis: modern cycling’s other secret weapon

As ubiquitous and omnipotent as the SRM seems to have become, it is not the only major change that the discipline has undergone in recent years. Video analysis has also had a major role to play. “It has enabled every rider and every nation to dissect their competitors,” says Arnaud Tournant.
“The ultimate goal of these video sessions has always been to identify the gear ratio used by the rivals. It used to be very difficult but now, thanks to this type of analysis, we can guess it by calculating the distance covered with one full rotation of the crankset,” he says.
And that is not all. The more you study video, the more secrets it reveals to you. “It analyses the route taken by each rider and allows him or her to optimise it.” In summary, computer data is everywhere in the UCI Track world. And for those who are not averse to progress, it is proving to be a precious tool in the perpetual quest for excellence that has always defined the sport.

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