2016 Rio Olympics - Cycling Track - Women's Team Pursuit Semifinals - Rio Olympic Velodrome - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Kate Archibald (GBR) of Britain, Laura Trott (GBR) of Britain, Elinor Barker (GBR) of Britain and Joanna Rowsell (GBR) of Britain compete. REUTERS/Paul Hanna TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
Team GB's victorious women's team pursuit riders © Reuters

When Joanna Rowsell-Shand arrived in Rio de Janeiro to compete in the Olympics the British cyclist was shocked by how cold it was in the subtropical city. 

Winter in Rio was not nearly as warm as she and her teammates had been planning for during their highly scientific preparations for the games in the Newport velodrome in Wales. 

“In Newport, we had the temperature cranked up to the 30s which is quite nice — I like the heat,” said Rowsell-Shand, trackside at the velodrome in Rio. “It’s actually been cooler here than expected.” 

Temperature was the only element that did not conform to the careful plans of Britain’s women’s team pursuit squad, which won the gold medal in a world record time. 

With Rio track cycling wrapping up on Tuesday, the squads, led by Team GB with a medal haul as of Monday of four gold and three silver in the category, will pack up their bicycles for the trip home and begin preparations for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The success or failure of any type of Olympic team depends on a careful, four-year regime of training that begins immediately on the conclusion of the previous games. 

But few Olympic sports are more technical than track cycling, with teams engaged in an arms race to hone technology, aerodynamics and biomechanics to shave milliseconds off times. 

“There is no low hanging fruit left any more,” Iain Dyer, head coach of Team GB, said of potential gains from these refinements. “We picked the low hanging fruit through 2000, 2004 and 2008 and all of a sudden the world caught up.” 

Mr Dyer said the few months immediately after an Olympics was used to ease some of the pressure on riders that built up during the previous cycle. 

Britain's team, from left, Joanna Rowsell Shand, Elinor Barker, Laura Trott and Katie Archibald pose with their gold medals after the medal ceremony of the women's team pursuit finals cycling event at the Rio Olympic Velodrome during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Joanna Rowsell-Shand, Elinor Barker, Laura Trott and Katie Archibald with their gold medals © AP

“Generally we start with a really deep big breath and give the riders the opportunity to just have a little bit of time off and enjoy themselves,” said Mr Dyer. “The definition of the peak is that it is the absolute pinnacle. You have got to come away from that in order to be able to go again.” 

After that big breath is taken, the next selection process gets under way. Most teams usually spend the first two years of the four-year cycle testing new talent before starting to nail down the squads for the next Olympics.

While established teams such as Britain can rely on a growing pool of cyclists from which to draw talent, countries with relatively smaller track teams, such as Canada, whose women’s team pursuit squad won bronze in Rio, use the start of the next campaign to look for potential athletes from other sources. 

In Canada’s case, these can be elite athletes from sports such as bobsleighing or speed skating, which also involve explosive power, says Jacques Landry, the country’s cycling high-performance director and head coach. Mr Landry pointed to the example of Olympic rider Katie O’Brien, a bobsleigh brakeman who switched to cycling and competed in the women’s sprint events in Rio. 

“We detected her through one of our talent ID searches,” Mr Landry explained. “She had a massively high vertical jump; she was beating all the guys that showed up for our testing.” 

Apart from the selection process, the teams use the period between the Olympics to refine their technology and work on the biomechanics of riders. Mr Landry said teams put riders and bikes through wind tunnels, making subtle adjustments repeatedly to a rider’s position, the handlebars or any other aspect in the quest for greater speed. 

Any big changes must be identified early. Team GB’s Mr Dyer said it took about a year to make an important tweak to a rider’s posture without risking injury or discomfort. 

Track cycling has grown famous for its use of secret technologies, such as aerodynamic “skinsuits” and helmets. 

Team GB has enlisted Tony Purnell, former head of the Jaguar Formula 1 team, as its research and innovation chief. The team is secretive about what technologies it uses. But in an interview with the BBC in 2012, Chris Boardman, the team’s former head of research and technology, described some of the innovations it applied during the London Olympics. 

Jason Kenny of Britain gets ready to compete in the men's sprint quarterfinals cycling event at the Rio Olympic Velodrome during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Jason Kenny of Britain won two gold medals in Rio © AP

These included computer programs to model air flow around riders, helmets made of aluminium honeycomb instead of polystyrene, and shorts that warm muscles before an event. 

As the teams approach the next Olympics, riders will pass through several training peak-and-trough cycles while experimenting with different regimes to see which will suit them best in the final build-up to Tokyo.

“At the end of the day it is scientific but there is still some stuff we don’t understand,” said Mr Landry about the pursuit for peaking at the right moment

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