It’s the night before Sir Bradley Wiggins’ Hour Record attempt, and as the world and Olympic time-trial champion completes his final practice laps, Alex Trimnell drinks in the silence that fills the Lee Valley Velodrome.
Trimnell, a self-confessed bicycle obsessive, has hand-delivered two chainrings and six chains prepared by his company Muc-Off on a dynometer – an £80,000 diagnostic test rig – 150 miles away in Poole, on the Dorset coast.
They are not bulky track chains, but standard issue Dura-Ace, though Trimnell’s offerings have been selected from a batch of 30, tested on the rig and “speed graded” by the varying degree of friction that exists even within the minute manufacturing tolerances of Shimano’s top tier. Additionally, each ring has been ‘run-in’ on the rig for five hours.
As important, if not more so, is that the chains have been treated with a formula conceived by Trimnell and his engineers during the winter, but whose development has accelerated following a phone call three weeks earlier from Team Sky’s technical director Carsten Jeppesen.
Jeppesen asked if something might be available for the Hour Record. Trimnell’s formula contains a military grade additive, purchased at eye-watering expense. He estimates the total value of Wiggins’ race chain, including development costs, at £6,000.
Trimnell is perhaps the only man in the velodrome listening to Wiggins’ chain at 10 o’clock on the night before the attempt. He likes what he hears. Silence.
Wax on, wax off
Two days after Wiggins has broken the record, Trimnell stands in Muc-Off’s R&D centre on an industrial estate in Poole and admits that the previous three weeks have been “intense”.
“We caught up with Carsten about three weeks ago and he said, ‘Have you got anything for Brad’s attempt?’ And we said, ‘Well, we’re literally a week away: we think we’re on to something.’ We did some data, and came up with this formulation. It’s ultra, ultra fast. We think it’s the fastest chain ever created.”
Muc-Off officially began its relationship with Team Sky last year, but Trimnell met Jeppesen for the first time at the 2013 Amstel Gold Race. He was told that quantitative data meant everything to Sky; that it would not be enough merely to produce the best lubricant, but to prove it. Trimnell returned to the UK excited by the possibilities.
The dynometer was born, and with it graphs showing the mechanical efficiency of a drivetrain. With the formula for Wiggins’ Hour Record, Trimnell achieved his utopia of a ‘flat’ graph – one that showed no drop off in performance. The technology is a step forward from the method previously used by Muc-Off to create very ‘fast’ chains for Sky’s time-triallists: to treat them with hot wax.
“What we saw in the formula that we created for the Hour Record is that it got quicker. It [the graph] went ‘flat’. That’s what we’ve been desperately trying to do for the last 12 months: to create a formula that doesn’t have a curve that goes [from] super fast to super slow, which is what the hot wax process does. We’ve now successfully engineered that out.
“We’ve got a very, very special new additive. That’s given us a massive step forwards. It’s come from a military background and is highly expensive. It was lovely to see that have such an effect: to get that on the chain for the Hour Record, knowing that it was such cutting edge technology.”
First among equals
Wiggins was the first to use a chain treated with the new lubricant, which is now likely to be used by Sky for the time-trials at the Tour de France. It’s an extension of what might accurately be described as a ‘trickle down’ to the consumer: Sky tested Muc-Off’s Hydrodynamic lube last season and Muc-Off launched it to the public in March.
Unsurprisingly, Trimnell is most excited by the ability of the Sky partnership to improve the product he sells to his customers. He describes the relationship as closer to a technical partnership than a conventional sponsorship. That it is driven by innovation rather than marketing suits both parties.
The dynometer is its most obvious manifestation: a piece of scientific equipment stored in an anonymous industrial unit alongside a Pinarello Bolide belonging to Sky’s Vasil Kiriyenka.
Muc-Off have created a 3D scan of the bike with a sophisticated ‘gun’ to accurately measure the distance between bottom bracket and rear axle (chainstay length effects friction in the chain).
For Wiggins, no expense was too great. “We spent quite a few thousand pounds developing the jig. Some of the additives we’ve used are phenomenally expensive. It’s ended costing about £6,000 for that one chain. It’s definitely got to be the world’s most expensive chain, in terms of development.”
Six of the best
The treatment was applied to each of the six chains selected from a batch of 30 “box fresh” Dura-Ace offerings after testing on the dynometer.
“We cherry-picked: 30 chains, a lot of running on the dyno, and a lot of data to crunch, and we got down to ‘the one’. We gave him five chains for the training days, and then the race chain for the attempt.”
In Colombo style, Jeppessen made one final request after Trimnell was already leaving a practice session at Lea Valley, having walked as far as the Westfield shopping centre. Jeppesen phoned to ask him if he would also ‘run in’ the aluminium billet chainrings especially machined for use with Wiggins’ custom-made Pinarello Bolide HR.
Muc-Off prepared two chainrings, running each for five hours on the diagnostic rig, leaving Trimnell with custody of equipment that must be considered irreplaceable in the event of disaster, given the timescale.
“I literally babied those rings around with me,” Trimnell laughs. “Even when I stopped at the motorway services, I carried them inside. I just wouldn’t let them out of my sight.”
History records that all went well. Wiggins received his chainrings, his silent, £6,000 chain, and recorded a distance of 54.526km, comfortably exceeding Alex Dowsett’s mark of 52.937km.
Trimnell capped “an intense few weeks” by watching the attempt on television. The greater thrill had come from watching Wiggins make his final preparations behind closed doors, less than 24 hours earlier.
“It felt so special to be there. There were just a few of us in the velodrome. It was lovely to see Brad relaxed, away from the cameras, and to see the preparation and the work that had gone into it. He seemed to be really enjoying the process.
“I was there until 10pm on Saturday night and he [Wiggins] was literally still running round. What was lovely was to be at the cutting edge. To be involved in a world record attempt is a dream.”
Trimnell and Muc-Off have already scaled heights with Team Sky, and Wiggins’ Hour Record is unlikely to be the last significant success the partnership will yield. In an age of Far Eastern mass production, it is reassuring to know that some of the most significant engineering triumphs still come from small scale operations in England.