After dominating the track cycling at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and in London in 2012, expectations were high for Great Britain’s cyclists well before the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With a haul of four gold medals and three silvers from seven track events at the time of writing, those expectations have so far proved justified. Despite the undisputable talent of the GB athletes, however, the rest of the world might be forgiven for wondering how much of this continued dominance is due to the technology and intellectual property developed especially for Team GB.
In the build-up to Rio 2016, the media has generated plenty of hype by speculating over what new equipment British Cycling’s ‘Secret Squirrel Club’ R&D department, now known as ‘Room X’, might have developed for GB’s athletes to gain an edge in the velodrome. The effect of the new kit was expected to be significant, with reports that it had cut three seconds from GB’s Team Pursuit time in training.
Are british cycling’s secrets hidden in plain sight?
In the build up to the Games in Rio, Team GB’s new cycling equipment was kept top secret, with British Cycling reportedly refusing to discuss the new technology even in general terms. Several media outlets therefore looked to UK Sport’s patent applications to provide pre-Olympics predictions on the equipment that Team GB’s cyclists would use in Rio.
A number of reports suggested that Team GB would use helmets containing ducts to channel airflow through the helmet from front to rear, based on UK patent application no. GB1205334.4.
Others predicted the use of skinsuits incorporating raised fins, or kicks, on the rear of riders’ limbs to disrupt airflow and reduce drag, as described in UK patent application no. GB1208082.6. These fins would be around 3mm in height, and could be formed either by attaching moulded plastic material to the suit, or heat moulding of the suit material itself.
UK Sport is also the proprietor of pending UK patent application, no. GB1208081.8, which relates to drag-reducing material, as well as recently granted UK patents GB2506332 and GB2502599. GB2506332 relates to an aerobar (the type of handlebar used in pursuit riding) in which a pair of air ducts are provided to channel airflow through the aerobar, while GB2502599 relates to a drop handlebar with an aerofoil cross section.
All very hush-hush
Even now that Team GB’s kit has been revealed in the velodrome it is not immediately clear (not when watching from my sofa, at least) whether or not their equipment actually uses any of the features set out in these patent applications, and unsurprisingly Team GB do not seem to be giving away much information just yet.
Whether or not UK Sport’s patent applications do contain the secrets of Team GB’s success, however, British Cycling’s keep-them-guessing approach has clearly worked, as no rival teams seem to have succeeded in replicating the gains provided by GB’s equipment.
Given British Cycling’s strategically secretive approach to R&D, it seems highly likely that some of their key advances may have been kept secret by keeping them out of published patent applications in advance of the Games. For example, of the six UK patent applications that UK Sport filed since 2011 for drag reducing sports clothing, four have been terminated before publication. By preventing publication of their inventions before the Olympics, British Cycling would have kept their technology secret, and ensured that rival teams would not have the chance to replicate its effects in time for the competition.
Even if UK Sport did apply for and obtain patent protection for all of the inventions present in their equipment, it seems unlikely that they would attempt to use patent law to prevent their competitors from using similar equipment in competition. After all, suing rivals for patent infringement is not quite in line with the Games’ ethos of international cooperation.
Hopefully some of the secrets will be revealed in due course, but in the meantime we’ll just have to hope that Team GB’s track cyclists have some more tricks hidden up their skin-tight sleeves.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.