New handlebars raise paralympic hopes

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Flurina Rigling in action at the Tissot Velodrome in Grenchen. (Photograph: ETH
Flurina Rigling in action at the Tissot Velodrome in Grenchen. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Daniel Winkler)
ETH student Luca Hasler developed a new set of handlebars for para-athlete Flurina Rigling. The cyclist hopes these will boost her chances of qualifying for future events - including the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

The Rigling family’s farm in Hedingen is surrounded by woods and meadows. The day is still young, but Hasler and Rigling are already hard at work trying to come up with the best design for the new handlebar hand-rests. Hasler starts by moulding the soft thermoplastic to Rigling’s hands to define the length and width of the hand-rests. Next, he smears on silicone putty and attaches them to a set of test handlebars mounted on Rigling’s racing bike. As she rides, the para-athlete presses her hands into the putty, leaving an impression of their shape and position. The duo now have their first prototype - the first of many they will create that day.

Hasler and Rigling continue experimenting with different variations until late that evening, gradually working their way towards a hand-rest design that Rigling feels comfortable with. It’s a classic example of rapid prototyping, and Rigling is impressed by Hasler’s systematic approach. "I feel really fortunate. From the first day I met Luca, I knew we would be a great team," she recalls.

The next job is to work out how to produce such a complex design. Back at ETH, Hasler creates a digital model of the two hand-rests using a 3D scanner. Now he can prepare them for production and run onscreen simulations under different loads. He also comes up with a way to attach the new hand-rests to Rigling’s old handlebars. "That allows Flurina to try out the new hand-rests without us having to go through the expensive process of producing a whole new set of handlebars," he says.

Between July and December, Rigling and Hasler are in touch on a regular basis as they strive to optimise the hand-rests and mount them on the handlebars in a way that will allow Rigling to adopt the most aerodynamic position on the bike. The only way Hasler can get the necessary feedback he needs to tailor the handlebars to Rigling’s hands is by testing the new design in as many situations as possible - a time-consuming process that requires immense patience. "Luckily we get along really well! That made it much easier for me to get constant feedback and make the corresponding changes," says Hasler.

Paralympic dreams

But the real test of whether their efforts have paid off comes on the track. After a solid hour racing around the Tissot Velodrome with the new handlebars mounted on her bike, Rigling rolls over the finish line one last time. She has put in the same effort as when she was using the old handlebars - but the clock shows she covered the distance six percent faster. "That’s a huge improvement for a cyclist. It’s probably because I was able to adopt a more compact riding position," says Rigling. And there’s more good news: the new hand-rests distribute the pressure over a wider area, which makes the whole riding experience safer and more comfortable.

Hasler is delighted when he sees the results come up on the screen: "I’m absolutely thrilled that all our work has paid off!" He and Rigling have become firm friends over the past few months. They plan to work together in future to adapt the new handlebars to Rigling’s time-trial bike and to develop a new hydration system. Rigling’s big goal is to qualify for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. "If I make it that far, Luca will join me as my technical assistant," she says.
Christoph Elhardt