With a hair’s breadth the difference between gold and silver, aerodynamic testing at RMIT could be the winning edge for Paralympic track cyclist and RMIT alumnus Jess Gallagher.
On a cold winter’s morning, Gallagher and tandem track cycling partner Madison Janssen are shivering, wrapped in multiple layers in front of a blow heater between sets of aerodynamic tests at RMIT’s Bundoora East Industrial Wind Tunnel.
It’s no wonder they’re freezing. Inside the tunnel they face 60km/h winds, designed to mimic the speed of their bike in the Paralympic Velodrome.
As the girls warm up, their coach Glenn Doney waits for the results of the latest trial from RMIT’s expert sports engineers.
With two very differently shaped riders – Janssen is 170cm and Gallagher 180cm – the engineers are trying to determine where the wind is coming past them on the bike and then use that information to figure out which position will get them across the line first.
“The differences that can be made through aerodynamics are huge and really could be the difference between us winning a gold and silver medal, so we’re very grateful to have the testing,” says Gallagher.
“The tandem bike is quite long compared to a single rider so we are testing a variety of positions to see which is the fastest for us and can hopefully give us that edge once we hit Rio.”
Professor Simon Watkins, from RMIT’s School of Engineering, says that at the highest level of sporting competition, knowledge of wind drag and how it can be reduced is crucial.
“The aerodynamic drag force is the single largest resistance for any cyclist,” he says.
“While simulation of fluid flow to measure drag is improving, sporting teams still use experimental testing to investigate drag reduction by position changes, and in some cases verify simulations.”
The RMIT Industrial Wind Tunnel, which can reproduce wind effects up to 150km/h, is also used to assess wind drag on a wide range of model and small full-size aircraft, cars, trucks, trains, sporting apparel, sports balls and the effects of athlete position on aerodynamic drag.
As well as being Australia’s first female winter Paralympic medalist - winning bronze at the 2010 and 2014 games in the Slalom and Giant Slalom respectively - Gallagher is also a fully qualified osteopath and board director at Vision 2010 Australia.
These alone are impressive achievements, but Gallagher hopes to add a summer Paralympic medal to her tally at Rio 2016 (7-18 September).
That goal is not too far out of reach. She and Janssen are already world champions in the Tandem Match Sprint 200m. They also won bronze in the 1km Time Trial and will compete in the same event at Rio.
It will be Gallagher’s fifth Paralympic team. Her first, in Beijing in 2008 where she was to compete as a field athlete, saw her disqualified for being “too sighted”.
She did qualify for London 2012 four years later, and went on to compete in track and field. Track cycling is her third Paralympic sport.
About 12 months before moving from Geelong to Melbourne to study, Gallagher was diagnosed with cone dystrophy, a rare eye disease. She is now classified as legally blind.
Cycling in the tandem event, with Janssen as her pilot, allows her to compete.
Gallagher’s connection with RMIT has spanned more than a decade. After completing both a Bachelor and Master of Osteopathy at RMIT, graduating from the latter in 2009, she has now returned to collaborate with RMIT’s aerodynamic and sports specialists.
“RMIT University have been incredibly supportive for me as an alumnus. Being able to utilise the facilities here at the wind tunnel are just incredible,” she says.
“It is wonderful to think we have contributed - especially because the athlete is a prior RMIT student,” Professor Watkins says.
Story: Sarah Adams
Video: Peter Clarke and Sean O'Malley