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Tech lets Trek race ahead on bike development

Lance Armstrong's bike manufacturer is putting higher priority on high technology.

In the near future, consumers will likely shop for bikes tailored for climbing, rain or an individual's body shape, due in part to more aggressive and creative use of technology.

Bike manufacturer Trek is using Opteron-based workstations to hone the design of its road bikes, a learning experience that in turn could lead to a greater diversity of frames on dealer shelves. Like virtually all other manufacturing companies, computer-aided design software and workstations have been part of the Waterloo, Wisc., company's operations for years. Now, however, there is an increasingly conscious effort to exploit discoveries from the lab, and perform wider varieties of tests in the lab.

"We're even talking about bikes for specific conditions, like cross winds," said Michael Sagan, senior designer at Trek. "There's always something you can do. It took man thousands of years to evolve the wheel."

Consumers may be able to select the type of carbon they would like their frame to be built from, much as they can now order customized paint jobs, he said.

Some designs in consumers' future will hit the road Saturday when the Tour de France begins. The evolution of the company's commercial product line grows out of its work designing bikes for cycling star Lance Armstrong and the rest of the United States Postal Service Team. This year, Armstrong and the other riders will each have seven bikes to choose from in the race, which starts Saturday, Sagan said.

In the '90s, the company supplied the team with off-the-shelf frames. But in the past few years, and particularly over the last year, Trek has more actively tinkered with prototype designs in virtual wind tunnels before and during the racing season. This led to the development of frames specifically geared for climbing stages or time trials. Virtualized wind tunnel tests--simulations run on CAD software--let designers predict how shifting the center of gravity or changing the frame geometry will affect speed or aerodynamics.

Time trial and climbing bikes have been around for years, but mostly come from smaller manufacturers and are not marketed by larger makers.

At Trek, ideas generated in the virtual wind tunnel are then tested on the road. If they work well, a market release soon follows. Last year, Armstrong rode a light climbing prototype in stage 15 of the Tour de France, Sagan said. Armstrong crashed after accidentally hooking the bag of a spectator. The frame broke, but, minus the freak accident, had functioned well, and the company is now selling it.

Trek is a corporate customer of Dell, but the design group uses workstations from Boxx Technologies, which also sells Opteron workstations to the entertainment industry. Although the chip is often touted for its ability to run 32-bit and 64-bit software, Sagan says that his designers currently only use them in 32-bit mode. He got the idea to adopt the Advanced Micro Devices chip after building a PC around an Opteron at home.