In 1996 production began in Australia on a bicycle which has taken the bike racing fraternity by storm. Nicknamed the 'Superbike', it features a special lightweight carbon fibre frame designed by a collaborative project team from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). It is an excellent example of the application of scientific research and aerodynamic design to sport.
The team was headed by Lachlan Thompson, who was an aerospace engineer specialising in aerodynamics and a lecturer at RMIT. The project began almost by accident in 1992 when Thompson needed a cyclist for a photo-shoot. Olympic cyclist Kathy Watt was chosen at random off the street and in return she asked to have the aerodynamics of her bicycle and riding position tested in RMIT's wind tunnel. The Australian Olympic cycling coach, Charlie Walsh, heard about the incident, and the project grew from there.
The project team worked closely to achieve a bicycle that was not only aerodynamically superior, light and strong but was simple, versatile and reliable. From the start it was intended to design a bicycle suitable for mass manufacture but at the same time have the quality and precision of a jet fighter.
At each stage the bike was tested in the wind tunnel and test-ridden by Australia's elite cyclists. The results of this research saw the conventional tubular frame superseded by an aerodynamically-designed composite monocoque shell made of carbon fibre. This material is used widely in space programs and Formula One motor racing and reduces aerodynamic drag. The use of carbon fibre enables any shape to be formed with maximum strength and minimum amount of material. The conventional handle-bars were eliminated and carbon fibre handle-grips were attached directly to the wheel-forks. This feature provides extra strength between the seat and pedals, where the rider's power is exerted.
Manufacture of the Superbike began in Melbourne 1996 by a company set up for the purpose, Bike Technologies. The person chosen to head the company was Salvatore (Sal) Sansonetti, an Olympic cyclist who had ridden in the Australian team at Montreal in 1976. Sansonetti understood not only bikes but also metal-forming technology. His company, Nezkot, made injection-moulding dies for clients such as Holden and Ford; this technology was not very different from the manufacture of carbon fibre, one-piece bicycle frames. Track and road bikes were developed for the Commonwealth Games and the Atlanta Olympics, where numerous gold medals were won by riders using them. At Atlanta the Superbike was dubbed the most superior racing frame in the world.
The development of the Superbike, through the collaboration of athletes and scientists using high-tech research facilities, illustrates the emergence of sophisticated sports science in Australia. The Superbike received an Australian Award for Excellence from the Institution of Engineers Australia in 1995 as well as the Award for Best Technical Development, Road or Track, at the 8th Annual Velo News Awards in 1995.
Assistant Curator, Transport
Lane, Terry, "Push to the limit" in The Australian Way, Nov 1996, pp.84-87.
McLean, Brian, "Super Roo: The Story Behind The Bike" in Bicycling Australia, Nov 1994, pp.50, 55.
Thompson, Lachlan, "Jumpstart for bicycle manufacture in Australia" in Engineering World, Aug 1996, pp. 4-7.