Friday, June 29, 2012

S-Works McLaren TT Helmet

Specialized, in conjunction with McLaren has introduced a new ultra-aero time trial helmet. So new, so special is this helmet that only two of them exist—so far. As you read this, those helmets are in the possession of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer. Their particular combinations of badass time trialist, ├╝ber-fast bike, none-faster-than helmet and all the ensuing confidence one derives from carrying the biggest gun in the shootout could make the coming Tour de France prologue a little extra satisfying for the folks in Morgan Hill.

Last week I attended the introduction of this new helmet at the McLaren Technology Center in Surrey, outside London. Both Specialized and McLaren are reluctant to share too many details of their working relationship. They could teach a graduate workshop on discretion. And I freaking hate that. I’ve often described myself as the eternal Discovery Channel watcher. I love to learn and I’m full of questions, even at this point in my life. My visit to McLaren was both one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited and one of my least satisfying experiences in writing about the bike industry. At a certain point I just stopped asking questions because they couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t answer.

So what are we left with? Well, let’s have a look at this helmet. They’ve been working on it for … a while. We really don’t know how long. What we know is that according to their wind tunnel data they’ve devised the absolute fastest helmet on the planet. They spent twice the amount of time in the wind tunnel as they did when designing the Venge, which suggests they would have spent a similar increase in time using Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) software to evaluate design changes even before getting to the wind tunnel. These days, most companies doing advanced aerodynamic work do all the heavy lifting with CFD and use the wind tunnel for proof-of-concept.

So what is CFD?

Do you remember the scene in Yellow Submarine where you see the music flowing out of the musical instruments as if it was a fog of beauty settling over the landscape? As a kid, I loved that visual—truth be told, that hasn’t changed; I still love the image of music settling over people as if beauty itself was washing over them. Visualizing the invisible isn’t strictly the domain of hippies on halucinogens, though they rightfully believe they hold a special ownership of that space.

CFD or Computational Fluid Dynamics does much the same thing (not as LSD, but making the invisible visible). Workstations running CFD software take an imaginary wind and blow it over a theoretical shape and then show you in a kind of lines-and-arrows diagram just how the air moves over that surface. Better yet, it can generate short movies to show you just what happens in areas of turbulence.

It’s amazingly cool to see; bong within easy reach, my college roommate could have watched this for whole Saturdays.

I have the sense that Specialized and McLaren looked at the TT helmet market and thought that they might be able to knock that problem off just to show how effective their partnership is. After all, a new TT bike can be years in the making. They just introduced the Venge last year. The wheel market is glutted with new ideas (some of which are working very well). I’m betting that the TT helmet is an interim project while they work on something bigger—a bike—on a longer development timeline.

So what really makes this helmet different? If you’re going to reduce this helmet to its two most important achievements, the first would be its drag numbers for when the rider looks down. Many TT helmets have great head-on drag. The problem is that they turn into sails if you pull a little red kite prayer. While this helmet doesn’t manage to maintain the same drag numbers head-on as head-down, its head-down numbers are so good that it is still faster than some companies’ helmets head-on. The chart below is a small sampling of the many helmets the big red S tested; I saw a chart that was hard to read because it listed so many helmets. This one is a good deal easier to follow.

This chart is also notable for an unintended reason: I had no idea the Spiuk Kronos was so damn fast. Go figure.

The second significant development introduced with this helmet are its gill vents. At the rear of the helmet there are slits along the top and sides that help channel air by and through the helmet to speed its flow. Not only do they make the helmet faster, they move more air over the rider’s head, we’re told, helping to keep him cooler as he rides.

There have been a great many TT helmets that were little more than fairings with a pad or two. They were as protective as a perforated condom, though entirely more popular. The S-Works helmet offers real protection and even uses dual-density foam to keep head trauma to an absolute minimum should you go down.

It’s hard to know just what McLaren provides Specialized in their partnership. Both companies are—quite understandably—pretty tight-lipped about the work they do together, that is, beyond revealing a new product. During the presentation I attended they talked about some of their work being strictly about technology. It was veiled and cryptic enough to be worthy of a Jedi master. Just what they meant I really don’t understand.

But let’s back up a second. McLaren’s Advanced Technology Division exists to bring McLaren’s considerable technological prowess to less fortunate companies. What I learned during our visit is that they spend a lot of time evaluating companies before they make an approach. And yes, so far as I understand, they reach out to you after deciding you’re cool enough. You’ve got to have the horsepower to be able to spend copiously on development. You’ve also got to have a reputation for predation, identity-wise and an ability to convey brainy gnar in your marketing.

Our tour of McLaren was exceedingly entertaining, what with the wheel-change competition on one of the Vodafone Formula One cars (and wherein our protagonist nearly peeled the skin from his thumb in an ill-timed activation of the air wrench), but probably encompassed less than 10 percent of the building. We saw cars driven by Ayrton Senna, Lewis Hamilton and Emerson Fittipaldi and had the ability to take pictures of nary an item we saw outside of the area where the intro was conducted.

Next spring this helmet will begin appearing at select Specialized retailers at a retail price that I suspect will fit somewhere between emergency room visit and college tuition. It’s fair to surmise that those retailers will all be Specialized Concept Stores.

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