How 14st cyclists are powering Ineos's America's Cup challenge

·6-min read
Matt Gotrel and Neil Hunter on the top of the car with their Ineos Grenadier team-mates - Oli Tennent
Matt Gotrel and Neil Hunter on the top of the car with their Ineos Grenadier team-mates - Oli Tennent

Anyone who has ever visited Majorca over the winter will be well acquainted with the sight of professional cyclists training on the island’s super-smooth roads; lean, Lycra-clad figures quietly clocking up the miles on Cap de Formentor, or the winding climbs of Sa Calobra or Puig Major.

They might have been surprised this last winter to see a few hulking great brutes hanging off the back of the Ineos Grenadier peloton.

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Matt Gotrel and Neil Hunter, two of the heavyweight sailors in Ben Ainslie’s Ineos Britannia America’s Cup team, who have a temporary base in Palma, did a few training camps with their sister cycling team. They would surely have stood out like sore thumbs, weighing in at least 30kg (4st 10lb) heavier than some of the riders. But next year’s America’s Cup will be powered by legs not arms, with half the sailors on board the AC75s likely to be clipped into static bikes.

Yes, “cyclors”, last seen at the 2017 Cup when Emirates Team New Zealand arrived in Bermuda with bikes on their boat and proceeded to blow the doors off their rivals, are back for Barcelona 2024. Leading to the sort of cross-pollination seen in Majorca over the winter.

“I think they thought we were a bit bonkers,” Gotrel says when asked how the sailors had acquitted themselves alongside the likes of Geraint Thomas and Tom Pidcock. “There was one day in December when it was bitterly cold and wet, and one of us [sailors] got a puncture so we missed the first stop, when all the pros layered up. A lot of them headed back to the hotel. But we carried on as we didn’t want to look soft. We were out there for five hours in the end, completing that day’s programme. I think it earned us a bit of kudos.”

Sitting in the canteen of the Ineos Britannia base in Palma, Gotrel and Hunter laugh at the memory. But this is no laughing matter. America’s Cup teams are engaged in a race to recruit specialist “engines”. And rowers are particularly in demand.

Gotrel, who joined Ineos Britannia as a grinder before the last Cup in New Zealand, was in the GB men’s eight who won gold at Rio 2016. Ineos have also just signed Gotrel’s former British Rowing buddy Matt Rossiter, while New Zealand picked up three-time Olympic rowing champion Hamish Bond.

Emirates Team New Zealand work their pedal-powered race yacht during the second day of the America's Cup on May 28, 2017 - AFP
Emirates Team New Zealand work their pedal-powered race yacht during the second day of the America's Cup on May 28, 2017 - AFP

They will provide the hydraulic power to operate the boat’s control systems; from trimming the sails, to controlling the rudder, the daggerboard rake and cant, and board up and down controls.

Cyclors proved a game-changer in 2017. High power output for a lower heart rate meant New Zealand could continue to pump enough oil when demand surged. They were banned for 2021, but have been allowed back in for 2024.

Why rowers and not just pro cyclists? “It’s quite a specific body type we need,” Hunter explains. “Pro cyclists are generally far too light. Or not suited to the sort of ‘half-an-hour-at-450-watts’ efforts we need to produce. Your track sprinters are made for two-minute efforts max. Your team pursuit guys are doing four-minute efforts.”

What about road riders? Hour record guys such as Ineos’s Filippo Ganna? “Somebody like Ganna would be your only real comparable athlete,” Hunter agrees. “A real powerful body shape and wattage. But he is probably only mid-80kg in weight. We need maximum crew weight as righting moment.”

Despite weighing north of 14st, Hunter admits he would be tempted to do an hour record himself. He reckons he could churn out a similar wattage to Ganna but, at 14st 11lb, his frame would be “20 per cent less aero”, which would make a huge difference overall.

Is it a good thing for sailing that the America’s Cup is recruiting novice athletes from sports such as rowing simply to generate power? Is that not taking opportunities away from “proper” sailors?

It is perhaps an unfair question to put to these two. Sailing, rather than rowing, was Gotrel’s first love. He was in the British sailing team, competing in 49ers, before switching at Loughborough University. Hunter, who grew up on the Isle of Arran, has been a sailor all his life. Both also compete for Ainslie’s SailGP team. They are serious yachtsmen. But others are not. Bond had no sailing experience prior to signing for New Zealand in January. Hunter makes the point that cycling is not all the cyclors will be doing. As with grinders operating traditional arm-powered pedestals, they will be given other roles. “Any headspace we can free up for the ‘afterguard’ – the guys at the back of the boat – just makes their lives easier,” he says. “So there will still be a sailing element.

“Ultimately, as much as we will look to churn out the watts faster than other teams, and take pride in it, it won’t be a case of who-has-most-watts wins. It will still come down to who has designed the quickest boat, and which team sail best.”

For now, Gotrel and Hunter have nothing to sail. Ineos are still training on T6, their 40-foot test boat, designed and built in collaboration with Mercedes Applied Science, a division of Mercedes F1 team. Data they are harvesting will determine the final design of their 75-foot Cup boat, which will launch next year.

Emirates Team New Zealand, in the foreground, and Oracle Team USA competing in the 2017 America's Cup - AP/Gilles Martin-Raget
Emirates Team New Zealand, in the foreground, and Oracle Team USA competing in the 2017 America's Cup - AP/Gilles Martin-Raget

On the day Telegraph Sport visits, Ainslie and the team are putting T6 through its paces in the Bay of Palma. We follow on a speedboat, passing Ineos co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s superyacht Hampshire II. A reminder of where the money for this campaign is coming from.

The wind is light and T6 needs to be towed up on to its foils to get flying. Two days later, the breeze fills in and the team capsize, a situation made more dangerous when the lithium batteries that power the yacht’s systems react to seawater ingress, causing a fire on board.

The episode is captured by a “spy boat”, one of which follows every America’s Cup team, relaying images and information to the other teams (to save them all spying without permission).

Ainslie is generally happy with the team’s progress 18 months out from AC37. Not that he really has a clue where Ineos stand relative to their rivals. “It’s so hard to know,” he says. “But I’m much happier in terms of our design process. In the last Cup we struggled because we didn’t know what we didn’t know in terms of our design tools. This time we’re working much more closely with Mercedes. It’s a real F1 approach; better resourced, everything much more structured.”

Ainslie says the final hull design should be signed off in the next two to three months, at which point Gotrel and Hunter will at least know whether they will be pedalling in an upright or recumbent position. “For the moment, we’re just in a kind of ‘power production phase’,” Gotrel says. “We’re training like pros, even if we are just big lumps on bikes.”

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