The funny thing about aerodynamics is that for all of the hours in the wind tunnel, the science of fluid dynamics, and the assumptions of what qualifies as 'aero', nobody claims to have figured it all out by now. That said, Specialized has come a whole lot closer with the unveiling of its newest weapon against the wind, the S-Works+McLaren TT helmet.
Building on its budding collaboration with McLaren, Specialized has lept forward from the debut effort of the Venge road frame launched in 2011 to truly tackle aerodynamics head on (pardon the pun). With the Venge, McLaren offered Specialized access to its knowledge and technical innovation in both carbon layups and aerodynamics.
This year, with the S-Works+McLaren TT, it's all about the air flow. The result is what Specialized asserts is not only its fastest TT helmet to date, but the fastest helmet, period.
We've all seen the downside of long, swooping aero helmets in action. How common it is to watch some of the fastest cyclists in the world plow through a time trial course, legs pumping and head down, focused only on speed. When a rider's head drops, however, up comes the tail of the helmet, negating any aero benefits and in many cases worsening the rider's overall profile.
Specialized understood that to create the fastest helmet ever, air flow would have to be optimized in a variety of head positions, in crosswinds, and virtually any real world situation that might arise over the course of a time trial, whether a six kilometer prologue or the longest individual tests against the clock. The lesson of the S-Works+McLaren TT is that straight-on wind tunnel tests tell only part of the story. To create a truly fast helmet, it must work in any position.
To show just how much work went into the creation of this new helmet, Specialized invited peloton and a select few media outlets to the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, United Kingdom, to hear from the experts themselves. Home of the fabled Formula 1 design team, McLaren knows a thing or two about aerodynamics. And rest assured that McLaren does not enter into branding partnerships lightly. If a new product does not advance the state of the art, McLaren will not put its name on it.
For this effort, Specialized knew it had to throw out preconceived notions about helmet shapes and start from the ground up. The McLaren partnership is as much about advancing development processes and tools as it is about any particular product. Over the past twelve months, with the stated goal of a new TT helmet in time for Saturday's Tour de France prologue, Specialized "hit the reset button on helmet design".
The Specialized team was led by Mark Cote, chief aerodynamicist, and Dave Stroud, product development manager for helmets. Their counterparts at McLaren Applied Technologies were Duncan Bradley, lead engineer, and aerodynamicist Matthew Williams. These four, with no lack of support on both sides of the pond, engaged in a full-on race against time to develop not only the fastest new helmet, but a new way of thinking about aero helmet design for the future.
As Cote and his team developed some 60+ prototypes, Bradley and Williams brought McLaren's expertise in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to the fore. The helmet project resulted in more than three times the wind tunnel testing than the Venge road frame, yet tunnel time was only part of the equation. McLaren's CFD modeling allowed the team to understand airflow around (and through) the helmet in a range of conditions simply too expansive for testing in the wind tunnel.
Most importantly, Bradley explains, the combined wind tunnel and CFD analyses offered crucial validation of test results and cross-referenced the figures being seen by both Specialized and McLaren in their own labs. This was a five-month process alone, after which the fine-tuning of the helmet design really took off.
One of the key features to emerge from the CFD analysis was the new "gill vent" on the side of the helmet. While TT helmets are not known for their airy ventilation, the gill vent offers both cooling properties and the functionality of an exhaust port, pulling air through the side of the helmet and out through the tail. The gill vent is so effective that when it is covered, drag actually increases.
The S-Works+McLaren TT has a near identical drag profile regardless of head position or wind direction, offering riders the confidence that whatever nature and race organizers throw at them, they need only focus on powering their bikes through a time trial.
As the 2012 Tour de France gets underway in Liège, Belgium, the likes of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer will be putting the S-Works+McLaren TT helmet to the test. The goal for Specialized was to give its riders the best helmet available in time for this year's Tour. The S-Works+McLaren TT will be made available commercially in 2013, but in limited quantities and without doubt at a premium price.
But, as Cote insists, the release of this helmet does not represent the culmination of helmet development. "It's only the beginning".