By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's track cyclists will fire the first salvo in the technology arms race leading to next year's Tokyo Olympics this weekend when the radical new bike designed to deliver another sack of gold gets its first competitive spin.
In a sport obsessed by 'marginal gains', getting the best human engines on the best kit equals an irresistible force and the developers of the new creation believe rival riders will be casting envious glances at the British bike.
Not that it will have a glossy paint job mind. The carbon fibre frame, weighing about as much as a human brain (1.4kg), is delivered just as it comes out of the mould, jet-black.
"We've gone a bit off piste," Tony Purnell, former principal of Formula One motor racing teams Jaguar and Red Bull, now head of British Cycling's Research/Innovation department, told Reuters on Thursday at the Rouleur Classic in London.
"We did some real fundamental stuff. We took a load of ideas and thought, 'wow this looks promising, this is a good idea', then it began to look a bit different and then it was a case of, 'this is all getting a bit hair-brained, can we bring it into being?'"
It has come together from a collaboration of Lancashire mountain bike builder Hope, Lotus Engineering, engineers Renishaw, not to mention some of the top brains at Cambridge University.
Lotus's Richard Hill, in charge of aerodynamics, said the incredible-looking bike is a nod to the model Chris Boardman used for individual pursuit gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a project he was also involved in.
With distinctive flared forks and seat stays, Hill said the bike has pushed new UCI design rules to the max.
"This is a leap," he told Reuters. "Within the rules we have come at it from a completely different angle. We had some tense moments waiting for answers back from the UCI. It's about pushing the limits."
Under new UCI rules track bikes to be used in Tokyo must be commercially available and ridden by the teams nine months before the Games.
The bike will have its first competitive test at this week's World Cup in Minsk, before being given a runout on home boards in the Glasgow leg a week later.
Hope co-founder Ian Weatherill, who met Purnell three years ago to discuss the project over "20 cups of coffee" said it had been a challenge to literally break the mould of track bikes.
"I'm from an engineering background and thought we could have a go at that. How hard can it be? Actually it turned out quite hard," Weatherill told Reuters.
Since the official launch this week, Hope have had seven orders for the 15,000 pounds ($19,429) machine. They even had an enquiry from Dutch five-times track world champion Theo Bos.
The priority, however, is making sure the British team's senior statesman, six-times Olympic champion Jason Kenny is happy. Sprint king Kenny and Ed Clancy have been carrying out extensive track and wind-tunnel tests.
"I've done this before," Purnell said. "You know straight away if the rider is happy. The first test with Jason was nerve-racking. He calls a spade a spade. Typical northerner! But the feedback is good."
Purnell said F1 engineers are blown away by the refined technology of track bikes. "They think, we're F1, we can do this, but when they see the stresses and strains, especially of a sprint cyclist, and then see how light the bike is you see the first bit of nervousness!" he said.
"When you see a standing start on a slow-motion camera, everything bends! Even road bike companies get fazed by the loads in track cycling. We've ripped their rule book up, changed the forks, the seat stays, suddenly all their know-how goes flying out the window."
Purnell, part of the fabled "secret squirrels" club that produced 007-like gizmos for British Cycling, says the new project has been more of a dream team of "British know-how".
"Some of what we have done is really difficult. I'm proud of it. There is a lot of politics at the moment but this is a great story for British manufacturing."
Britain won six golds on the Rio boards in 2016 on bikes made by Canadian firm Cervelo. Greg Stevens, a consultant on engineering and aerodynamics at the English Institute of Sport said any dip will not be because of the bikes.
"When our riders are at the start they will look across to the Dutch or the Aussies or the Germans, they might have a different bike, but it won't be a better bike," he said.
"The quality that has come out of Hope and Lotus is fantastic. I wouldn't be surprised if riders from other nations see this bike and want to order one!"
($1 = 0.7720 pounds)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)