Photographer: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Sports

How Do You Win the America’s Cup? Pedal Faster

New Zealand crushes Larry Ellison’s Oracle team in the sailing championship by using cycling technology.

As the last America’s Cup race ended in the waters off Bermuda Monday, Oracle Team USA’s crew and billionaire owner Larry Ellison were left humbled in a crushing defeat, thanks to confident sailing on a limited budget and a bit of new technology that has upended the storied event—one Ellison’s team has come to dominate in recent years.

Emirates Team New Zealand won in a rout, four years after blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead to Ellison’s squad. This time, New Zealand’s crew gambled on a new adaption of very old technology to help power their carbon fiber catamaran. Turns out the system, which has more in common with a Soul Cycle spinning class than old-school yacht sailing, happened to work.

Emirates Team New Zealand in action during race 9 against Oracle Team USA on June 26.
Photographer: Clive Mason/Getty Images

New Zealand ditched the traditional method of powering its hydraulics with the crew’s arms, a task called grinding that’s critical to a racing yacht’s performance. These systems allow the crew to raise and trim the sails, controlling the boat’s speed and direction. But the endless churn can take a physical toll.

This year, New Zealand used cycle stations instead of hand cranks, relying on their leg muscles for power instead. The stationary bikes also allow the crew members to be more aerodynamic, bodies angled forward in a sleek row as their legs pulse away like a tiny seafaring peloton. Two crewmen sit behind them and exploit the slipstream they create. The skipper uses a black box instead of ropes to move around the wing sail while the helmsman commands the hydrofoils from his spot behind the steering wheel. The team pedaled its way to a dominating victory. 

The floating peloton.
Photographer: Clive Mason/Getty Images

As with most new tech, there were plenty of doubters. Rivals discounted the change, opting to remain with their usual grinding pedestals. Sure, legs are stronger than arms, but it was unclear whether the strategy would perform as desired. Unveiled in February, the New Zealand cycling boat raised eyebrows and became a wildcard in the run-up to Bermuda, the result of three years of design and testing.

In May, New Zealand mechanical designer Tim Meldrum said others may have felt “threatened” by the design. These sailors had spent their entire careers conditioning their upper bodies for the exhausting task, and now you’re telling them to hop on a bike? Yet so committed was New Zealand to its audacious tactic that it recruited Simon van Velthooven, an Olympic track cyclist who won a bronze medal in 2012, to join the team.

Haters were forced to backtrack. Even mighty Oracle, the defending champion, admitted its competitor was on to something weeks before the event, developing and integrating a single copycat pedal station at the last minute. It wasn’t enough.

The kiwis cycled to victory. And the Tour de France is still days away.

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