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How Lotus won the 1992 Olympics
British Cycling has Lotus to thank for its current run of world-beating success. Bradley Wiggins has won Olympic gold, Sir Chris Hoy has just claimed his fifth Olympic gold, Lizzie Armistead scooped a thrilling silver - Britain is on top and setting world records in the process.
And it's all down to an employee at Lotus who responded to an idea from a friend of his. In doing so, it would create an icon and make a legend of a young cyclist from the Wirral, Chris Boardman, in the process.
Millions of people remember it: the Lotus Sport bicycle was a bike like no other. It was positively space-age compared to contemporary machines, almost like teleporting a modern supercar back to the 1950s.
How did it come about? Through designer Mike Burrows realising, in the early 1980s, that around 95% of a cyclist's energy is used simply to overcome air resistance. Make the bike (and its rider) more aerodynamically efficient and it would go faster.
This would take a complete rethink of bicycle design. Spindly frames would need to be replaced by aerofoil-shaped monocoque designs. Spoked wheels should become flat discs or use aero-shaped spokes. Even the seating position would have to be optimised.
He slowly came up with a design. But then, the project almost died. Cycling authority the UCI banned such 'aero' designs in 1987. Burrows actually shelved his invention, reckoning that was it for his creative design.
However, in 1991, the ban on the design was lifted. Burrows started work again in earnest and, through his friend, made an approach to, fittingly, an innovative British engineering firm with a long history in lightweight and aerodynamics expertise. Yes, Lotus Engineering.
Carbon fibre expertise
It was well received. Soon after, Lotus was deploying its carbon fibre monocoque skills, helping perfect the aerofoil design of the bike - and, yes, even putting it into a freezing cold MIRA wind tunnel, with Chris Boardman on top.
Wind tunnels are the reserve of cars, not bicycles. But this approach actually worked in the car's favour. The people there didn't know anything about cycling but knew everything about perfecting aerodynamics, no matter what the shape of the object.
The Lotus Sport bike design was honed. Boardman's seating position was perfected. And, while you can't reshape humans, you can reshape what goes on their head: that's how the distinctive teardrop-shaped helmet came to be.
That's also why the front wheel is offset from the rear by 1cm: Lotus aero expert Richard Hill discovered an 'aerofoil' effect could be created around the curves of a velodrome - literally, generating forward force like a sail. This was worth 8 seconds over 4000 metres.
The team even secretly road-tested the new bike, by now given an official Lotus prototype number, Type 108. Off to Hyeres in France they went, for hot weather acclimatisation and to practice the new 'superman' riding position.
Boardman loved all this. He was nicknamed 'The Professor' because of his meticulous preparation (the cycling equivalent of racing driver Alain Prost?), and travelled to the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona apparently hopeful of a result.
The Brit quickly discovered he was in with a shot during the qualifying trials. He broke a world record even then. He and the Lotus Sport bike were fast. But nothing could prepare the world for the 4000m pursuit final.
It's now legendary: Boardman rushes away from the line, immediately looking visibly faster than his challenger, world champion Jens Lehman. That he would reach the line first was not in doubt...
... but nobody expected Boardman to actually overtake his world record-holding rival too! It was unprecedented, and such a huge margin of superiority ensured Boardman would scoop gold and create a genuine top-5 Olympic moment in the process.
Return to form
Prior to his success, the Barcelona 92 Olympics had been a miserable affair for Britain. Cycling certainly wasn't expected to bring home a medal. Yet, 72 years after British cycling's last Olympic success, Boardman stood on the top step of the winner's rostrum.
Boardman and Lotus Sport would go on to further success. The Olympic-winning Type 108 was redesigned into the Type 110 Time Trial bike - which Boardman would break the one-hour distance record on THREE times. He even led the Tour de France Prologue and wore the yellow jersey on it for two days running.
Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Lizzie Armistead: Team GB cycling keeps on hitting the headlines in the London 2012 Olympics with some remarkable performances that proves British Cycling is in world-beating good health.
This current run of success can be traced directly back to Chris Boardman and Lotus Sport in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Lotus wins the Olympics? Let's celebrate it.
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