When the U.S. and Canadian ski teams take the world stage at the 2010 Olympics, they’ll be wearing new low-friction, “slippery” suits that were designed right here in Boulder by a team at Spyder Active Sports.
But the high-tech suit is top secret — you won’t see it until that first athlete is shredding the course in Vancouver.
“The suit is super smooth, super slick, and that’s the whole idea,” said Spyder’s product director, Phil Shettig. “We went through many different knit surfaces on this fabric in wind-tunnel testing to get the proprietary knit that is the slipperiest we could get.”
To create the suit, Shettig and his team looked at how friction affects aerodynamics. The surface texture of the slippery suit reduces wind friction.
“It’s a lot smoother than the old fabric,” said Steve Nyman, a U.S. Ski Team downhill and Super G competitor who has skied in the suit. “When you put it on, it just slides right on.”
Spyder also made a padded version of the slippery suit for the GS and slalom events. “With that padding, they can go straighter at the gates, they can take a more aggressive line, and they can actually be faster.”
However, the padding — which is made from a molecule that hardens upon impact and softens immediately after — created bumps and layers that were not as efficient aerodynamically. The seams and thread used to sew them in increased drag, too. So Spyder pulled the padding from the suit and built it into the skier’s undergarments instead. The company also worked with the maker of the padding to reduce the pad size from 8 mm to 5 mm with the same amount of protection for the skier. Finally, it redesigned the pads so that when the skiers tuck into an aerodynamic position, the pads create a groove for the wind to pass over.
“When we compared our current GS padded suit to our new GS padding system, we’re in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 percent less aerodynamic drag, which is off-the-charts fantastic,” Shettig said.
By comparison, the non-padded slippery suits yield a 1 to 3 percent advantage — an amount Shettig is still pleased with since hundredths of a second matter in the Olympics.
Because of that tiny margin, “We printed ‘Hundies Matter’ on the suit, just to remind and encourage the athletes that a hundredth matters,” said Laura Wisner, senior marketing manager for Spyder. “The quote is from Daron Rahlves, the most winning downhiller in U.S. history.”
Slippery fabric aside, this year’s suits will look different for another reason. The mainstay spider-web graphics spun across the U.S. Ski Team’s suits since 1989 won’t appear on the slippery suit due to a new rule about brand “identification.”
In the past, Spyder’s web wasn’t subject to size rules for logos on uniforms because it’s not trademarked by Spyder. But the International Olympic Committee has expanded Olympic Charter Rule 51 on advertising to include a breadth of brand identifiers. According to the rule, manufacturer identification, which is limited to one per uniform at less than 20 cm (for clothing), now includes “name, designation, trademark, logo or any other distinctive sign of the manufacturer of the item.” Sypder’s distinctive, sprawling web would break the rules; the U.S. suits will feature prominent starts and stripes instead.
Spyder will continue to test and tweak the suits until two weeks before the Olympics.
“We’ll do custom suit fittings for all the teams and all the athletes,” Shettig said. “Everything is optimized. Literally. We don’t leave a thing to chance; it’s too important.”