Celebrating 30 years of a golden ‘after-hours’ project
Today the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham takes place, where more than 5,000 athletes representing 72 nations will compete in 19 sports and 280 medal events.
Tomorrow (29 July) the track cycling starts, not in Birmingham but at the Olympic Velodrome in London. And, by complete coincidence, tomorrow is also the anniversary of one of the most memorable days ever for British Cycling, for Lotus Engineering – the consultancy division of the car manufacturer – and for ‘after-hours’ dedication and ingenuity.
It is 30 years to the day, on 29 July 1992, since Team GB cyclist Chris Boardman won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. It was the first British medal in cycling for more than 70 years.
Boardman was riding a bike developed by Lotus Engineering, a project so significant for the consultancy that it was given its own programme code – Lotus Type 108. Three decades later, it remains an icon, arguably one of the most recognisable two-wheelers ever made. It represents the near-perfect combination of pure science, beautiful design and human willpower, and the culmination of expertise in advanced materials, state-of-the-art facilities and out-of-the-box thinking.
Richard Hill (pictured above with Boardman) is now in his fourth decade working for Lotus. Today he’s the chief aerodynamicist, and every project – two wheels or four – passes his desk. He was an ever-present in the development of the Type 108 and the celebrations around Boardman’s landmark achievement. “Type 108 was made in our spare time, after-hours and on the weekend. It was the ultimate side project, a complete skunkworks operation. We were in the tool room making moulds, trying out new ideas… and also doing our day jobs as well!”
Hill saw the project through from start to finish, but it wasn’t one blessed with time. “The Olympic regulations on bike design had changed and so there was potential for us to create something special, but we had six months to do it.”
The original idea for a monocoque design, allowed under the revised track cycling rules, came from pioneering independent Norfolk bike builder called Mike Burrows. Rudy Thomann, a development engineer at Lotus who knew Burrows, approached Hill to see if the concept was viable. They could see its advantages, and took their plan to the company’s directors.
Hill remembers: “We sold it to the board as a method of demonstrating our technologies and capabilities as a design and engineering consultancy, to put something on a global stage like the Olympics to help sell our services. And they gave us the green light to go ahead, but it was very low level, no significant budget and everything we needed, every bit of material we wanted to buy, we had to get it signed off.”
The team seized the chance to explore learnings from the automotive world and apply them to the new bike, with aerodynamics and airflow around the cyclist the fundamental issue at hand. “There is nothing more un-aerodynamic than spheres and cylinders – which is essentially what the human body is – riding a tubular triangulated bike frame design. And then suddenly the regulations were allowing us to create nice aero-formed profile frames,” said Hill.
The final product was totally revolutionary, its design and shape unique, incorporating a single rear stay, a fork with just one blade and an aerofoiled profile frame. But it wasn’t designed to be just an out-and-out ‘aero-king’ like the bikes seen in today’s indoor velodromes. In 1992, the track cycling events at Barcelona were held outdoors, and Lotus had cleverly developed a shape to accommodate the impact of drag and crosswinds.
“We had done a lot of wind tunnel testing, track work and computer simulations, all looking at modelling drag and mapping out the speeds around the velodrome. It was a bike designed around one man, for one race, on one track. We found Type 108 acted like a sail, so it goes faster when there’s a crosswind. We knew it was an outdoor velodrome and we knew if there was any form of crosswind on the day that we could go faster because of our design than a conventional frame.”
Many people were sceptical, creating nerves that didn’t subside until the bike was on the track, said Hill. “We were making confident predictions about how much faster we could go, but then to see this transposed into the actual performance on the track, with Chris Boardman just obliterating record after record, was incredible.”
His performance in the 4,000 metres Men’s Individual Pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics was truly astonishing, man and machine totally at one. “I remember thinking at the time, what’s the end-game here? Every time he went out he was better than the time before, it was almost like he was ‘learning’ the bike,” said Hill.
Over the course of the heats and final, Boardman rewrote the rule book on track cycling, effectively setting a new standard for the sport. His unconventional posture on the bike, arms near-horizontal and out front, sparked the media to call him ‘Superman’. In the final he caught and overtook German rider Jens Lehmann before the end of the race, and took home Britain’s first cycling gold medal in 72 years. After his win Boardman hugged his wife and then Hill… not that Hill recalls much of the detail 30 years on. “The week was just one big blur because it was so dynamic, it was just happening so fast!”
Lotus had proven that the recipe it applied to its cars, and the one that still underpins all Lotus models to this day – advanced materials, engineering expertise, a pioneering spirit, prowess in aerodynamics and light-weighting, coupled with the dedication of its staff – could successfully deliver the world’s first ‘superbike’.
“We developed the Lotus Type 108 with the intention of creating a demonstrator of our technical capabilities as an engineering consultancy. In the end we made history.”
As if proof were needed, the Type 108 is still lauded as a true game-changer and an example takes pride of place in the permanent collection of world-renowned Science Museum in London.
Almost three decades later – last summer, in fact – a new track bike developed in part by Lotus Engineering took to the wooden boards, ridden by athletes from the Great Britain Cycling Team at the Tokyo Olympics.
Taking inspiration from the Type 108, and 30 years’ more learning from Richard Hill and the Lotus aerodynamics team, the Hope/Lotus track bike was again rewriting the rules. With three golds, three silvers and a bronze, Great Britain topped the track cycling medal table ahead of The Netherlands and Denmark. No other team’s bike looked anything like it.
Let’s hope there’s similar success at the Commonwealth Games starting tomorrow. Check TV schedules for event times.