When scientists work with a champion paracyclist, the results are surprising

A civil engineer/cyclist helps his research team understand challenges faced by cyclists with disabilities

Paracycling project image
Dutch handcycling world champion Jetze Plat in the wind tunnel at Eindhoven University of Technology. (Photo by Bart van Overbeeke)

Dr. Eoghan Clifford knows what it means to have a unique perspective on the world. In addition to being a lecturer in engineering at NUI Galway, he’s a competitive cyclist. He competes in able-bodied events, but as he lives with a progressive muscle-wasting disease, he’s also eligible to race in paracyling, for which he holds multiple UCI Para-cycling world championships as well as being a Paralympic champion.

Dr. Eoghan Clifford, Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering at NUI Galway, has won multiple paracycling world championships.

As an engineer, he specializes in civil engineering – primarily transport and wastewater. As a cyclist, he was fascinated by the engineering challenges of the sport, especially around aerodynamics. So when he began to consider the implications of aerodynamics in para-cycling, he sought out the perspective of Prof. Bert Blocken of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and KU Leuven, a world-renowned expert in the field. Together, they tackled fundamental elements of aerodynamics that had previously been under-researched, and they came out with some surprising results.

‘If you have the chance to work with champions, you take it’

“I have a long background in cycling,” said Eoghan. “As an engineer I have a fascination with the way cycling merges the physiological attributes of a person with engineering. Most sports don’t do that. And when I started to investigate it, I saw that the aerodynamics of paracycling hadn’t really been looked at. My skills aren’t in that area, so I looked to see who I could collaborate with. I didn’t know Bert before we started, but he was internationally renowned.”

Prof. Bert Blocken is an avid cyclist who previously published research on the aerodynamics of a pelaton.

For Bert – an avid cyclist who has published research on competitive cycling – the invitation to work with Eoghan also represented a chance to find a new perspective:

This was a whole new adventure. My main objective with any research project is to learn a lot myself. And this was a field where I had no activity at all. I didn’t know much about paracycling, and the chance to work with one of the greatest paracyclists of all time was a great start.

If you have the chance to work with champions, you take it.

Magdalena Hadjukiewicz, PhDThe research team Eoghan and Bert assembled included PhD student Paul Mannion and Dr. Magdalena Hadjukiewicz from NUI Galway, Dr. Yasin Toparlar from TU/e and Dr. Thomas Andrianne from the University of Liège in Belgium. They were intrigued by recent changes in equipment from some of the larger nations fielding Paralympic cycling teams. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States had all made major changes in equipment design ahead of the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio. However, with so little available scientific literature on the topic, the team went back to basics to understand whether such changes were warranted.

“We decided to focus on tandems and H1-H4 hand cyclists,” Eoghan explained. “We had to start from point zero – developing scale models and testing them in wind tunnels, and then working on the computational element. It was only after that that we could establish what would be interesting to study on the project itself.”

The process drew on the different areas of expertise on the team and expanded everyone’s knowledge, Eoghan said: “I was able to be more hands-on. I was able to add value by explaining whether some of the scenarios we were looking at would be legal, or how intuitive they would be as a cyclist. But in terms of being able to positively comment on the scientific aspect of the paper, it took a lot of background reading and listening to the others. I learned a lot more from our PhD student than I normally would in an area of my expertise.”

From Bert’s point of view, that learning experience was a two-way street: “Eoghan’s ideas were absolutely essential – he could pinpoint where the gains would be very large, and he was proven to be correct. The other element was in the communication we have with the public. It was essential to have someone who knows the science, who knows the engineering, who knows the practice inside out, and someone who can understand the issues involved and communicate them to the public. Having one of the top experts in cycling provided that.”

Unexpected results

Their study turned up some counter-intuitive findings that suggested that some common practices in the design of paracycling vehicles may not be efficient.

For example, tandem events will consist of a pilot at the front and the stoker – who is either visually impaired or completely blind – pedalling behind. As Eoghan explained: “Typically a team will try and get both into the most aerodynamic position possible – but sometimes the more aerodynamic they are, the more they risk losing power. What we found was that for the pilot, you have a little bit of leeway – you can have them be less aerodynamic because they end up shielding the rider behind them to such an extent that the whole bike ends up being more aerodynamic while maximizing power output. The trade-off between power and aerodynamics is really interesting and more complex than it first appears.”

Another example comes with the choice of wheels in for hand cyclists. With handcycling events at the highest levels, you see a variety of wheel choices in terms of width or spoked or disc wheels. Often teams will choose disc wheels, which are more aerodynamic in able-bodied events where the wheels are in line. Bert explained: “What we found in H1-H4 handcycling is that because the wheels are in parallel the airflow is channelled between them and it creates extra suction. That can be more important than the crosswind you get with spoked wheels.”

Choosing a journal for their research

In bringing their work to the scientific community, Eoghan and Bert published several of the resulting research papers with Elsevier in journals including the Journal of Wind Engineering & Industrial Aerodynamics and the European Journal of Mechanics B: Fluids. Bert commented: “We made a careful choice between a number of journals, and there’s a few that really stand out – that cover a wide range of topics but which are known to be excellent in aerodynamics. Additionally, ScienceDirect is robust, and has a lot of additional information you can add, and gives feedback in terms of metrics, downloads and Twitter mentions – it’s something I use every day. It’s the first port of call for a lot of researchers.”

Eoghan added that the rigor applied to the review research was a key factor in their decision: “It’s important for us to have that external rigor on the results that we’re going to publish. Obviously going through high-quality journals helps with that and in the review process you get new ideas. It helps validate that the work you’ve done is scientifically correct.”

Although the study focuses on athletes, Eoghan and Bert see it as another way to emphasize the importance of thinking more broadly about people from different backgrounds when conducting and applying research.

“As a civil engineer,” Eoghan said, “I talk to my students about the need not to design for themselves but to design for people who find life more difficult – people in wheelchairs, people who can’t walk far, for example. The drawback for those students is that they often don’t get the chance to work with the people who are impacted by these issues. For the team on this project, they got to work with athletes with various types of disabilities – people who are visually impaired, people with muscle diseases. You have to consider much more than with an able-bodied athlete, and I think that improves your outlook and changes the way you think about things.”

About the research team

Dr. Bert Blocken is Full Professor in the Department of the Built Environment at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands and part-time Full Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at KU Leuven in Belgium. His main areas of expertise are urban physics, wind engineering and sports aerodynamics. He has published 175 papers in international peer-reviewed journals. According to the 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking) & Elsevier, he is among the 150 most cited researchers world-wide both in the field of Civil Engineering and in the field of Energy Science & Engineering. He is listed as 2018 Highly Cited Researcher by Clarivate Analytics (Web of Science) for production of multiple highly cited papers that rank in the top 1 percent by citations for field and year in the Web of Science Core Collection. He supervises a team of five senior researchers and 26 PhD students. Check their website at urbanphysics.net.

Dr. Eoghan Clifford is a Senior Lecturer in the College of Engineering and Informatics at NUI Galway and a visiting research fellow at Athlone Institute of Technology. He is a four-time para-cycling world champion and current Paralympic Champion and has competed and won at the national and international level in able-bodied cycling races. His main areas of research are in water and wastewater engineering, sustainability and transport engineering. He has worked on large scale projects, including design of wastewater treatment plants. He has five patents in the wastewater field and has secured €20 million in research funding as Coordinator/Technical Director or Principal Investigator since 2010. He has supervised 13 PhD students and four research master’s students to completion and published over 70 international journal papers and a further 150 conference papers, industry articles or similar communications. He currently holds five international patents in the water/wastewater field. His current research projects are funded by national, industry and EU sources and include INNOQUA, ENERGE, EcoAqua, NEPTUNUS and VorTech. Follow him on Twitter and Linkedin.

‌Dr. Magdalena Hadjukiewicz is a graduate of Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland, where she obtained a Master of Civil Engineering degree. The topic of her dissertation was “Technological and economic analysis of a deep retrofit of a large residential precast concrete building.” In 2013, she completed her PhD, as part of the NEMBES project, under the supervision of Dr. Marcus Keane at NUI Galway. The topic of her PhD thesis was “Formal calibration methodology relating to CFD models of naturally ventilated internal environments.” Since 2013, Magdalena has been working as a postdoctoral researcher and an adjunct lecturer in the College of Engineering and Informatics at NUI Galway. She has been successful in establishing links for collaborative research between academia and industry. She has been involved in the writing of international and national funding proposals, including an Irish Research Council Enterprise Partnership Scheme with Oran Pre-Cast, Built2Spec (funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 program), and nZEB-RETROFIT (funded by the Science Foundation Ireland) and the Aerodynamic optimization of cycling in para-sports project (in collaboration with TU/e). Currently, Magdalena is a principal investigator on a Science Foundation Ireland Industry Fellowship with Tobin Consulting Engineers. Follow her on Twitter.

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