By Bruce Lin
Photos: Chris Motta/The Pro’s Closet
There are three essential elements that form the foundation of speed on a bike: power, weight and aerodynamics. If you want to be fast, then these are the elements that you must cultivate and master. The first two are easy (somewhat). You can measure your power output and train it. You can put yourself and your bike on a diet and see the difference on a scale. But for the average cyclist, getting more aero is almost like a dark art. You can buy aero frames, wheels, helmets, anything, but without a wind tunnel or a team of engineers, most cyclists have no means of truly measuring their effects.
Because of this, I’ve always used a very simple method to try and maximize my aerodynamics. I simply try to look the part. I get low and wear an aero helmet. Usually, if I succeed in looking aero enough, then I feel good and believe that I actually am faster. Whether or not I actually am, I’ll likely never know.
MORE THAN A FEELING
But when you absolutely have to be the fastest, just looking and feeling the part isn’t enough. The USA Cycling Federation made this clear when they helped bring the GT Superbike 2 into existence. A talented team of engineers spent countless hours testing in a wind tunnel to produce, aerodynamically, the fastest bike in the world. Resplendent in monocoque carbon and the stars and stripes, it was America’s greatest foray into an international arms race, one that produced the likes of Chris Boardman’s Lotus 108, Graeme Obree’s Old Faithful and Miguel Indurain’s Pinarello Espada.
“Any kid with a chrome GT BMX bike was instantly the target of neighborhood envy, but in the larger and more lucrative world of road cycling, they had no such reputation.”
It was the ’90s, and the age of aero had dawned. Designers were building futuristic-looking bikes that, underneath the right rider, showed new levels of speed. The Lotus 108, Old Faithful and the Espada had all carried their riders to wins and world records. European riders were getting increasingly faster and their bikes more advanced. The U.S., on the other hand, hadn’t won an Olympic medal in cycling since 1984 and lagged woefully behind their European counterparts. With the 1996 Olympics set to be held in Atlanta, the U.S. Cycling Federation decided that America needed their own weapon to defend the homeland.
WITH BMX ROOTS
This new endeavor was dubbed “Project 96,” and an American bike brand, GT, was brought on to help spearhead the design and production. As a young BMX kid in the ’90s, I was familiar with GT as the BMX company. Any kid with a chrome GT BMX bike was instantly the target of neighborhood envy, but in the larger and more lucrative world of road cycling, they had no such reputation.
Enter GT’s co-founder, Richard Long. Richard was a man big on vision and enthusiasm for both racing and his bike brand. In the ’96 Olympics he saw the perfect opportunity to not only gain favorable brand visibility and credibility with the Superbike project, but it was also an opportunity to show the world that America could design a bike to best the recognized Euro brands. Richard signed a deal with USA Cycling to make the ultimate bike for the U.S. national team.
Ironically, GT had never built a track bike before and began tentatively by building basic steel framesets, which were used to establish a baseline geometry for the U.S. riders who would be racing in Atlanta. From these early steel prototypes they transitioned to producing the Superbike 1, which was built with extruded aluminum sections shaped into aerodynamic foils. The Superbike 1 had what we would recognize now as a more traditional design for an aero bike with its double-diamond shape and thick aero downtube and seat tube. It was fast, but it was only a stopgap until its faster and more radical monocoque carbon successor would be ready.
GT assembled a team of composites and aerodynamic experts to produce the Superbike 2. Without the help of modern computer-aided design, the process was arduous and time-consuming. All the tooling and every part for the bike had to be custom built. Drawings had to be turned into models using clay, steel and Styrofoam for wind-tunnel testing.
Incredibly, each frame and cockpit was custom built for the intended rider. Aside from some fore and aft movement of the saddle, the frame’s seatmast was non-adjustable. Making any changes or tweaks to the frame or cockpit was a slow and expensive process. Ultimately, each completed Superbike 2 cost in the range of $30,000–$45,000 to produce.
“Resplendent in monocoque carbon and the stars and stripes, it was America’s greatest foray into an international arms race.”
Halfway through 1995 riders for the U.S. national team began secretly testing the Superbike at the Colorado Springs velodrome and in the high-tech General Motors wind tunnel. Project 96 is probably one of the earliest instances of riders using the wind tunnel to help fine tune their positions on the bike. Mariano Friedick, who rode for the U.S. national team and was one of the team pursuit riders to compete in the Atlanta Games, remembers how new and exciting the whole experience was. “To have been part of that project was super cool,” he says. “I don’t think even Lance Armstrong was doing [wind tunnel testing] at the time!”
Through testing, GT’s head of engineering at the time, Forrest Yelverton, collected wind-tunnel data that indicated the Superbike would be faster than any of its competitors. It was ready to take on the world.
A RIDER REMEMBERS
“The thing I remember most was how narrow the bike was and how close our knees would be to each other,” recalls Mariano. Indeed, when looking at the Superbike head-on, it almost disappears, exposing the smallest cross section possible to the wind. The head tube is only 25.5mm wide, half as wide or more than any modern head tube.
To achieve this, GT used a very thin steerer tube that turned on small bushings rather than bearings to allow as much material to be removed from the leading edge of the frame. The narrowness continues through the bike, with the hubs spaced at 60mm wide (compared to most track bikes that are 100mm front and 120mm rear, or road bikes that are 130mm in the rear), and a Q-factor of only 100mm.
To help maximize stiffness, GT chose a U-shaped, step-through frame style versus the Z-shape of its most famous competitor, the formidable Lotus 108. Lacking both a top tube and seatstays means there are fewer parts of the bike to disturb the air. The downtube acts as the spine of the bike, connecting the two ends with one wide, continuous piece of carbon through the bottom bracket. Mariano reported that, not only did the bike feel extremely narrow but extremely stiff as well, providing an excellent platform for transferring power from the rider to the ground. The downtube and chainstays are built to compensate for the missing tubes and, despite their width, still manage to remain extremely thin to maintain the bike’s small frontal profile.
Mavic worked as a partner on the project and provided a custom carbon crankset to fit the bike’s narrow profile and carbon wheels for the bike’s narrow hub spacing. The rear wheel is tucked tightly into a cutout in the seat tube, which acts like a giant fairing for the rear wheel. One of the Superbike’s most notable features is its smaller 24-inch front wheel, which was intended to allow riders to draft the rider in front of them as closely as possible and give the riders a slight advantage in events like the team pursuit.
AND THEN THE DOWNSIDE
The bike drew much publicity before the games, mostly due to the enormous amount of money and work put into the project. Unfortunately, the story of the GT Superbike had something less of the happy ending that one might expect in a classic American fairytale. GT co-founder Richard Long, who was instrumental in bringing the project to life, never got to see the bike race, as he was killed in a motorcycle accident (on his way to a mountain bike race) just days before the Olympics began.
When the games finally got underway, the Superbike suffered a high-profile blow via Rebecca Twigg, who was world champion in the individual pursuit at the time. She reportedly felt uncomfortable with the fit, and after riding the Superbike in her first round of the pursuit, she refused to use it for the second heat.
And when the games were finally over, the U.S. national team took home only three medals (two silver and one bronze) when they had been expected to win nine, including three golds. This caused some publications to refer to the bike unflatteringly as the “SuperBust.”
THE SWISS SMACKDOWN
The bike’s extreme looks also drew the scrupulous eye of UCI president Hein Verbruggen, who unfavorably described it as looking more like an airplane than a bike. In a cruel twist, the Superbike’s debut year was also the same year the Lugano Charter was drafted. Approved in 2000, the charter greatly limited the potential design parameters of the aero track bikes, thus leaving the Superbike, along with its competitors, outlawed.
For the Superbike in particular, the new rules meant the downtube and seat tube were too wide and flat, not satisfying the newly required 3:1 ratio. Wheels could no longer be different sizes, and frame shapes outside of the traditional double diamond were banned. The rapid advance of cycling technology was halted, and despite all its development and potential, the Superbike was never able to achieve what it was meant to do.
“Unfortunately, the story of the GT Superbike had something less of the happy ending that one might expect in a classic American fairytale.”
Still, its impact was significant. Along with its competitors, the GT challenged the accepted norms of bike design and showed what was possible. Many of the key engineers in Project 96 ultimately brought their experiences to Felt, where they continued to innovate and also chase medals with Felt’s own Olympic track racing projects.
Naysayers aside, many of the U.S. national team riders still remember the Superbike with fondness. Former American star Christian Vande Velde raced it regularly in the years after the Olympics and described his own bespoke bike as feeling like a part of him. It was one of his favorite bikes to have ever ridden.
Mariano Friedick echoed that sentiment. “It was an unbelievable feeling,” he says, “It was custom made for each one of us, and every time I got on it, it was like home for me. It was like being in a Zen state, whether I was riding individually or as a team. That’s how attached I was and how good
I felt on it.”
It’s a feeling I understand, and one I chase obsessively with all my own bikes. And, the GT not only felt good, but it looked fast too. Its radical shape, mismatched wheels and star-spangled paint elicit all the right feelings. Looking at it now, I can only imagine what could have been had the Superbike had more time or luck on its side. But even without gold medals, I would never deny that it had to be one of the fastest bikes ever produced. I don’t need a wind tunnel to tell me that.
Note: The Pro’s Closet would like to thank RockyMounts for loaning the GT Superbike to our museum.
- GT Superbike 2
- Estimated value: $25,000
- Frame: Carbon fiber
- Fork: Steel with composite wrap
- Headset: Custom bushings
- Stem: Custom composite integrated
- Handlebars: Custom composite integrated base bar with aluminum aero bars
- Cog: Alloy, 15t
- Chain: KMC
- Crankset: Mavic custom, 55t, 172.5mm
- Bottom bracket: Custom extra narrow square taper
- Wheels: Mavic custom carbon tubular
- Tires: Continental Tempo, 19mm
- Saddle: San Marco Strada Hi-Pro
- Seatpost: Integrated
- Weight: 18 lb., 10 oz. (w/o pedals)
Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series from The Pro’s Closet featuring bikes from the past and present that deserve a spotlight, either for their place in history, their technical merits or simply because we think they’re special. Besides creating a museum of vintage race bikes, The Pro’s Closet is the top shop for the resale of quality pre-owned bikes, parts and valuations.