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BC's Secret Squirrel Club now called "Room X" under F1 boffin

Cambridge Professor uses his F1 expertise for British Cycling in marginal gains quest, but says Chris Boardman's success as a pioneer left "poisoned chalice"...

British Cycling’s Secret Squirrel Club is now called “Room X” – and a Cambridge boffin runs it.

Professor Tony Purnell, the former F1 team principal for Redbull and Jaguar, now heads up the Research and Innovation division at British Cycling, a role he took over from Chris Boardman in 2013.

Although he’s made some performance in-roads, and has brought in some of his students – he still teaches one day per week – he told the Telegraph the role was somewhat of a poisoned chalice after Boardman achieved so much as a pioneer in the field.

"Secret skinsuit" to bring GB track riders Rio world records?

“It’s like our own version of Bletchley Park,” Purnell told the Telegraph, describing the scenario where a handful of his Masters and PhD students contribute to the project as part of their studies.

“I’m really lucky. They are all very bright. They have to do a fourth year project – a Masters thesis – and I think I’ve had 15 students work on that. A couple of PhDs. All the professors have got behind it.”

Purnell says many of his students, who have signed non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, will be watching the cycling “feeling like part of Team GB.”

However, the man who was also a technical director in F1's governing body, the FIA, says finding those performance gains is harder than it once was.

“I’m a little envious of Chris because he approached this as a sort of pioneer and when you’re a pioneer there is a lot of low-hanging fruit,” he says. “I did feel he was giving me a bit of poisoned chalice because it’s more difficult to make significant gains now.” 

While many countries are now playing catch up to British Cycling, it’s not just a one-way street. Chris Boardman told earlier this year British Cycling were the first to set up tripods next to the track at racing events to analyse what the other teams were doing. Now everyone does it.

Among developments since Purnell’s tenure have been the “burger van” that sits trackside at the Manchester cycling centre to measure and feed back real-time analyses of riders’ performance, an idea adapted from F1.

There are also skinsuits with raised chevrons under the arms, which direct air flow to improve aerodynamics. The skinsuit alone is said to help shave up to three seconds off men’s team pursuit times. A British Cycling source told The Telegraph the whole package improves performance by 5 per cent.

Purnell also revealed many of the Formula 1 guys, whom he still works with to the benefit of his new role, are “cycling nuts”. Sir Chris Hoy is in good company, then. 

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