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Development of the Superbike Superbike - home

An accidental beginning
The Superbike project started by accident in 1992, before the Barcelona Olympics. Lachlan Thompson, who specialises in aerodynamics, was setting up a photo session to contrast the cutting edge technology of a jet fighter with the antique technology of a bicycle. However, the cycling model failed to arrive. So Thompson went into Swanston Street, Melbourne and spotted a young woman cyclist. The cyclist was Kathy Watt, an Australian champion. In return for doing the photoshoot, Thompson offered to put Watt in the RMIT wind tunnel to check the aerodynamics of her bike and riding position.

When biomechanist Dr Brian McLean of the AIS heard about this, he wanted all the other AIS cyclists checked in preparation for Barcelona. During the wind tunnel testing Thompson revealed he had already done some preliminary work on bicycle design which had been shelved. One thing led to another; a project team was formed and the Superbike was developed in consultation with Olympic cycling team coach Charlie Walsh.

UCI rules
At the time the rules of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) stipulated that a bicycle must have three tubes in the frame. For this reason an aerodynamic monocoque (one-piece construction) was not considered by the project team. However, after the project began, the UCI changed its technical ruling to less restrictive specifications, so that bikes could differ from the standard three-tubed triangular configuration.

Design criteria
In the demanding, practical world of international cycling, if the new bike was to be successful it had to achieve the performance goals of:

  • optimising weight
  • frame stiffness
  • aerodynamics

without compromising the simplicity, versatility and reliability of a standard bike.

    Australian Olympic track cycling coach Charlie Walsh defined the initial design criteria with the project team in late 1992. The new bicycle must use a conventional group set of standard cranks, bearings, brakes, wheels, forks, handlebars, seat etc. The resulting design must equal or exceed the structural stiffness of a steel bicycle while offering lower aerodynamic drag and weight without compromising reliability. The resulting design should also be suitable for low-cost high volume production. (Thompson, 1996: 4)

Project team
The project team included scientists, engineers, technicians and students from RMIT and the AIS. Much of the hard work was done by engineering students, who worked tirelessly during the critical stages of the bike's development. A computer-aided drawing software program called Cadkey, which uses a 3D database, was used to model the bike while another program, STRAND6, was used for finite element modelling (FEM), a technique used by engineers to predict the behaviour of structures under different loads (forces).


1. Identify a feature of the Superbike that will meet the performance goals (criteria) above. For example, placement of the rider would enhance aerodynamics.
2. Based on your current knowledge of bike technology, identify criteria from the quote above which required application of new and emerging technologies and innovative design.


Milestones in design development

milestones graph


The continued successful development of the 'Superbike' is not due to any one factor being superior. Instead the credit goes to the application of a validated mathematical performance model that can rapidly evaluate structural, aerodynamic requirements and riding position. (Thompson, 1996: 5)


1. Take a careful look at the Milestones in design development; in particular, note the changes in power required by a cyclist to move the bicycle. Note that it took two years of development to further enhance the power reduction to 15%. Estimate from the milestones how many prototypes were needed to achieve this marked improvement.
2. Explain the difference between static and dynamic testing.
3. What is the role of a prototype?
4. From the Milestones in design development, identify those instances where evaluations were conducted.

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