The story behind the starting gate - an epic four year journey
It took four years of graft, intensive research and dozens of tests, but in January 2018 Max Uivel finally completed building his project of passion: a fully functional starting gate.
For anyone who has ridden a timed event in a National Championships, waiting in the gate as the pips count down before you start your effort, is a nerve-wracking experience. Max’s machine will help all Wellington’s riders prepare for the experience, pips and all.
Why did you decide to build a starting gate?
I first decided to build a velodrome starting gate when Lee Evans and I got serious about putting together a Team Sprint for the 2014 Nationals. I dedicated myself to training as a start-man (first lap) and that meant learning how to get out of a gate fast. We didn’t have a gate and I didn’t have a project at the time (that’s not true at all – I had just bought a house and started extensive renovations, was training hard for Nationals and my wife was pregnant with our first child).
What was your approach, where did you start?
Initially I tack welded together a prototype frame out of some old shelves my Father was throwing away and built a basic manual pneumatic release mechanism using a couple of pneumatic actuators (the rams that hold the bike in place by clamping onto the back wheel) and some pneumatic pipe and fittings ‘donated’ from my parents business (Humandynamo workshops).
Once I proved the initial concept, I started to discuss a mark II version with Ross O’Brien. Roger Higgison (father to Louis Higgison) also took an interest at this point and, while in Cambridge, took all the necessary measurements from a genuine Tissot Start Gate in the Avantidrome, as well as lots of useful photos.
Ross, being a bit of a hot-shot welder, made a start on the frame you see today, and kindly donated all of the steel used as well. With the frame 90% built, Roger took it to his engineering workshop (Sindico) and did the finishing touches, including the authentic-looking red paint. Ross and Roger also solved most of the design challenges for the frame such as how to have adjustable seat-post support, wheels, levelling and the adjustable platform for the pneumatic actuators.
Meanwhile, I set out on a somewhat epic journey to create the control system from scratch. This involved learning about and soldering together the electrical systems, specifying the components for the release mechanism, and most significantly, writing all of the software code to manage it, Incidentally, I am not a software developer.
We actually had what we thought was a finished version in January 2015. But in testing, the physical release was about 0.5sec out from the audible release. Further investigation revealed that it was a fundamental flaw in the way the programme had been written. This prompted a complete rewrite of the code from the ground up with much learning along the way. The end result was code that is more concise, more robust, and easier to work on. If anyone wants a copy of the code and technical details they can contact me though PNP Track (firstname.lastname@example.org).
How long has it taken you to complete it?
Four years. So many hours, so many iterations, so many lessons, so many people helping. Special mention needs to go to Carlie my wife for her patience and support throughout this testing process.
Can you explain in layman’s terms how it all works?
A small computer runs a programme for the count-down and release. The audio goes through an amplifier circuit and out through a small speaker on the gate. The physical release uses a special solenoid-driven valve to direct high pressure air from the compressor into the pneumatic rams to drive them in or out. Then the gate goes into stopwatch mode to time the rider’s effort.
If someone wants to use it, what do they need to do?
For now, it is recommended that either Gary, Nigel or a member of the Wellington Sprint Squad are there to assist with operation and set up of the gate. Basics are that it needs to be wheeled or driven up to the track from the shed along with the compressor. There are wheels that can be attached for rolling it up. They don’t fit through the door though, so carry it outside before fitting them. Also it’s a good idea to plug the compressor in to fill it with air before taking it up. Although if it runs out of air up at the track, it can be filled in the women’s change rooms where there is an electrical outlet under one of the benches.
The release sequence is the UCI specified standard. A 50 second countdown with tones at 30, 10, then every second from five to release. The release tone being a higher pitch than the countdown times.
Each button has one specific purpose:
Left button opens the gate
Top button closes the gate
Right button starts/resets the release sequence
Far right button stops the timer
It does require at least one adult to stand on the gate during operation. For stronger riders it is recommended two adults stand on the gate – one at the back and one on the side. This provides a stable platform for the departing rider to push back against.
Note also that when the gate is on the track it is a serious hazard for riders. All riders need to be aware the gate is on the track before it goes out and it should be wheeled onto the Cote d’Azur when not in use.
Tips for prospective start gate users
Better to start a fraction late than early. Practice leaving once the start tone is audible rather than trying to anticipate the release.
Push back against the gate when you launch, this is where the starter’s advantage comes from.
Practice, practice and more practice!