Graphene: A game changer for cycle sport?

A lot has been said about the ‘wonder material’ of graphene, but our full understanding of its potential for innovation remains in its infancy. Two years into its own experiments, Dassi Bikes’ founder Stuart Abbott explains how his firm, alongside Dimension Data, could be on the cusp of a big breakthrough for cycle sport…

Thus far the cycling industry’s relationship with graphene is, like many other sectors, still in its early days. Headlines have come from the likes of Exposure Lights, Vittoria, Rolo – each of which has had a slightly differing application for the atomic level material. For Rolo it was the revelation of a claimed 618 gram road cycling frame. Meanwhile, Vittoria’s collaboration with specialist Directa Plus yielded some very positive reviews from consumer press, each hailing the graphene impregnated rubber as some of the fastest on test.

These are, like many of the bike industry’s annual product announcements, marginal improvements in a sea where it is often difficult to pick apart the marketing jargon from the genuinely ride improving. It’s for that reason that the term ‘game changer’ isn’t thrown around too lightly, but if you’ll bear with us, we think the ‘age of the i-Bike’ make have begun to hit its stride.

Dassi too was an early pioneer in the use of graphene as part of a carbon composite blend. Initially the gains were claimed to be weight and vibration dampening properties; two existing holy grails for which competition is fierce in pro cycling circles. But it’s what we’ve learned about graphene since then that’s truly interesting. You’ll undoubtedly have seen the word ‘data’ crop up with increasing regularity on CI.N and that’s for good reason; it’s the industry’s next battleground.

“The conductivity properties of graphene hold immense potential,” starts Dassi Founder Stuart Abbott. “Now patented by Dassi is an antenna technology of sorts that, in its prototype form, is already capable of delivering the kind of ‘big data’ that cycle sport has long sought, but in many instances might not quite have known what to do with.”

Partnering with Dimension Data, among others, Dassi’s future strategy now hinges less on the product itself, but more on the data a product can provide the rider in real time, the Yellow Jersey challenger just ten seconds off the pace and even the live broadcaster of the race.

“With electrical conductivity, bicycles and smart clothing become highly capable data transmitters,” explains Abbott. “Despite representing just 3% of our prototype by weight, we have been able, at an atomic level, to coat every fibre with Graphene. This ultimately means we are able to generate metrics on rider performance beyond that of any powermeter. That data comes in real time too, so you flip on its head the ‘what could have beens’ instantly into real time competitive advantages, much like you’d see in Formula One. This gives an immense new strategic tool kit to riders and race directors, but also to broadcasters trying to illustrate to the viewing fan why strategic decisions are being taken in races.”

That, believes Abbott, puts this technological advance in a whole different ballpark and one that the industry has yet to fully understand the benefits of. One hypothesised future offshoot of this technology is helping the UCI detect abnormalities in rider performance. With a new, intricate and personal understanding of rider data, anything outside of normal parameters would be instantly red flagged. Data doesn’t lie, we’re told.

Another advantage of this impregnation of the frame as a whole is the removal of the need for wiring spanning the mold or any other abnormalities leading to weak points or aerodynamic drawbacks. Utilising the conductive properties, metrics such as stresses and strains, vibration’s effects on the muscles, humidity, rider output and averages are all collected. Even metrics on the
wind directions effect per rider could be calculated, as could whether a 3mm shift in saddle position could increase output in the climbs. The intricacy of the data gets ludicrous. Crucially, this is all done in real time, meaning it can have influence in the present.

“What this means in a Tour de France stage is that, if Cavendish is ten seconds off the pace we have the data to hand to make an accurate call on how to make up that time, potentially by one or a combination of gains that can be picked up by the team’s director,” explains Abbott.

Needless to say, the advantages here are clear. Race winnings, live data broadcasting rights, brand association with successful athletes – the implications are much more than just selling lighter bikes. Trickledown, too, is an inevitable conclusion for such tech. Today’s consumers are no stranger to data, in fact they want it all, whether they understand it or not. Though enormous gains can, in theory, be had over the duration of a tour, the weekend warrior or aspiring athlete can fine tune their goals. Big data might well be beyond the efficient use of most of us, but in the digital
age, with the availability of smart devices and apps it could be possible to attack a long-sought Strava KOM equipped with the ammo to tell you just how to succeed.

It goes further than road cycling and even our bubble altogether, says Abbott: “Our passion is obviously cycling, but this is exactly the kind of technology that could make a difference in much wider applications. For example, it could work within a Zimmerframe, crucially detecting everything from vital signs, GPS movements and rapid acceleration that may indicate a fall. That could be
the difference between life and death in that particular scenario. ”

Having this as a UK designed, developed and patented tech is, needless to say, a big advantaged in the current political and business climate. Dassi has the ball in its court, but what is the
next play?

“At this stage, this isn’t a licensable or export product. Our investment is a six-digit one and one that we’re protecting until we have everything in place to go commercial. We have partners in this project too, so we want to have an iPhone 10 level product before we licence a Five; this is Dassi’s USP now. We have a lot of brands claiming a little weight here, a little aero gain there; this is a different realm of advantage.”

Needless to say, embedding electronics at an atomic level, or next to our skin in our clothing is something many would consider futuristic. In reality, it’s actually quite modern day, such has been the rate of material advance in recent years.

“I think in the next two to three years we are going to see a huge surge in this kind of innovation,” says Abbott. “The technology exists, it’s just taking it from concept to prototype. In our case we have two years’ development under our belt with graphene and so we are ahead of the curve. Our next stage is to get riders on prototypes and start generating data to prove the concept and iron out inevitable anomalies. Our goal is to have something ready for next year’s Tour de France.”

There’s a strong chance that you won’t be able to spot it, mind.