Torque talk: the science driving marginal gains at track world champs and beyond | SBS Sport

Tune into the 2022 UCI Track Cycling World Championships on SBS On Demand this week from Thursday to Sunday, with live coverage of the evening sessions, highlights and catch-up replays from each day of competition.

While the focus from research and innovation motivated by events like this week’s UCI Track World Championships is aimed at a small number of riders on very specific bikes, one of the many pleasures of following the racing is discovering what trends in training, coaching, sport psychology , equipment and more might soon be seen in other types of cycling, or other sports more broadly.

In fact, as increasing numbers of riders, and staff, focus on more than one discipline of cycling over their careers, the transition of knowledge between domains is happening faster than ever. Technological innovations like smart trainers and subscription-based analytics programs mean some data-driven insights are also increasingly accessible to riders at amateur and recreational levels.

Torque training

An article published by the UCI this week describes a data-driven approach to training optimal torque which was discussed by performance scientist Kurt Bergin-Taylor at the 2021 Science and Cycling Conference. Bergin-Taylor worked with Cycling Canada’s Olympic track team before moving to the DSM road cycling team.
“When our team raced the 2020 UCI Track World Championships in Berlin, Germany, we noticed that we were struggling over the first couple laps in terms of all-out speed. This was especially the case with the female riders,” Bergin-Taylor said.
“Our flying starts were comparable with the best and we could sustain a pretty high level of speed. But our standing efforts weren’t strong enough. We didn’t have the ability to generate force in that early stage. It was costing us.”
In identifying torque as the problem, or the amount of force per pedal stroke, the Cycling Canada team reconsidered the relationship between torque, cadence, power, gear selection, and on and off-bike training that would improve this. Their insights, while motivated by standing starts on a fixed-gear bike in 2020, have since helped cyclists in other disciplines rethink gearing and cadence selection in additional situations where generating maximum power is paramount – and not always in line with what a rider’s instincts may suggest
To achieve riding-specific data and training, Bergin-Taylor and team took advantage of a protocol on the Tacx Utility app first launched in 2017 to work with the company’s popular NEO smart trainers.
“On there, you have an isokinetic mode,” Bergin-Taylor said, “where no matter how much force is exerted, the speed is fixed, so it’s useful to train at low rpm (revolutions per minute). You also have the isotonic mode, which helps you to apply constant force through the pedal stroke.”
Riders’ strength and conditioning programs were adapted to include three repeats of four-second maximum power efforts. Each set includes 12 repetitions followed by two minutes of rest before the next set.

“It was hard work but it paid off as 66 percent of the participants racked up three-kilometer individual pursuit personal bests,” said Bergin-Taylor. Rival teams can only wonder what additional gains participants have made through this, and further research, since.

Adapting insights from the track to racing on the road

In interesting news for other types of riders, the research that led to increased success on the track was then applied to the more variable demands of road cycling.

“If we take a road sprint of varying cadence and varying torque demands by manipulating the gear, we can begin to identify tactical areas that are strong points for the rider,” said Bergin-Taylor. “If you have a sprint, for instance, and you know they’re torque dominant, it gives you massive insight into maybe uphill finishes where you know torque demands are higher.
“Because power’s impacted by torque and cadence, even though a rider’s power numbers might be similar, the one with higher torque might win over the rival with less torque but higher cadence because of those high torque demands when riding uphill.
“Further, when you know the optimum cadence of where power’s produced, you can play around with gear selection,” he added. “We know certain sprinters reach maximal power at a cadence of 120rpm, but if we dial down into the data, we see that they’re actually sprinting at 100rpm because they’ve shoved the gear down into 54/11. They do it every time. We then start to educate them and say actually, you’ll sprint faster if you shift down to 54/13 gearing as you’ll hit 120rpm.”

While a harder gear might feel more powerful, this data-driven approach encourages riders to experiment more confidently with easier gearing in training and racing scenarios so they can maintain a higher cadence and rethink what is the most optimal approach for them.

With increased accessibility, integration and increasingly sophisticated analytics, riding and training with data have radically transformed the experiences of many professional athletes as well as those of amateur and recreational cyclists. Consider the enormous popularity of Zwift for example, and the interval-based training sessions it offers for cyclists of all levels.

Or applying Bergin-Taylor’s insights to a more recreational context, what extra speed can you potentially generate if you experiment more often with pedaling faster using an easier gear instead of routinely gearing down in the hope of powering up?

But wait, there’s more!

When you tune in to watch the UCI Track World Championships this week, in addition to enjoying the racing, enjoy additional windows these events provide into the science, tech and data-driven sides of the sport, even if the curtains are only open wide enough to allow the smallest of views.
Know that with every victory in the velodrome, there is a whole lot of experimental science behind it that trickles into other forms of cycling in the short, medium and long term. And with every near miss, there are questions asked by teams of talented and motivated staff that will lead to new insights and opportunities that might find their way into your garage, your bike and other cycling equipment, or your more general approach to riding sooner than you think.

Watch the 2022 UCI Track Cycling World Championships on SBS On Demand this week from Thursday to Sunday, with live coverage of the evening sessions, highlights and catch-up replays from each day of competition.

UCI Track World Championships 2022 – Day 1

Thursday, October 13


Women + Men Team Sprint Qualifying, 1st Round, Finals

Women Scratch Race 10km – Final

Men Team Pursuit – 1st Round

UCI Track World Championships 2022 – Day 2

Friday, October 14


Women Team Pursuit – 1st Round

Women Sprint – 1/4 Finals

Men Keirin – 3rd Round, Finals

Men Team Pursuit – Finals

Women Elimination – Finals

Women Team Pursuit – Finals

UCI Track World Championships 2022 – Day 3

Saturday, October 15


Men Points Race – Finals

Women Sprint – 1/2 Final, Finals

Women Omnium – Elimination, Points Race – Finals

Men Kilometer TT – Finals

Men Individual Pursuit – Finals

UCI Track World Championships 2022 – Day 4

Women 500m TT – Finals

Men Sprint – 1/4 Final

Women Madison – Finals

Men Omnium – Elimination, Points Race – Finals

Men Sprint – 1/4 Final

UCI Track World Championships 2022 – Day 5

Women Points Race – Finals

Men Sprint – 1/2 Final, Finals

Women Keirin – 2nd Round, Finals

Men Madison – Finals

Men Elimination – Finals