The Crabmeat appetizer at the San Diego restaurant comes highly recommended, but Craig Griffin, the U. S. Cycling Federation's track endurance coach, is too busy to eat. He's raving about his team's secret weapon, Superbike II. For 10 minutes he talks about the bike's ultraslim carbon-fiber frame; its custom-fit handlebars, seat and pedals; and its capacity to approach speeds of 50 mph. But when Griffin is asked to name his favorite component of the bike, he is suddenly quiet. He begins to raise his fork to his mouth, then freezes. "I love the whole thing, really," he says finally. "It's so thin and light, and it's as strong as anything built. It's so aerodynamic that when you look at it from the front, it disappears. And the handlebars...." The fork is back down on Griffin's plate, and he's off and rolling again.
Such enthusiasm has become commonplace in the U.S. cycling community since the development of the first Superbike model in 1993. Superbike II is a result of Project '96, the federation's multimillion-dollar program to reverse the long history of poor performance by U.S. cyclists in international competition. The goal: to ride the high-tech highway to gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
The Superbikes were developed by Project '96 engineers with help from the staff at the General Motors Aerodynamics lab in Warren, Mich., and each bicycle is custom designed to fit a specific rider. Going from a typical steel-tube bike to a Superbike is "like going from a Volkswagen van to a Porsche," says Janie Quigley, who rode one of the original Superbikes when she won a gold medal in the individual pursuit event at the 1995 Pan American Games. "It's so narrow that it seems like you're slicing through the air."
When the first Superbikes were unveiled at the 1994 world championships in Palermo, Italy, other national teams wanted the U.S. disqualified for using equipment that didn't conform to UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) code, citing the angle and position of the seat post. The objections were overruled by the UCI technical committee, and the U.S. rode to a stunning second-place finish in team pursuit.
"We're excited because we were always showing up at races with the worst bikes, while the Germans had the nicest," says Dirk Copeland, a member of the '92 U.S. Olympic team who hopes to compete again in Atlanta. "Now we've got the coolest."
They're also pricey—about $15,000 for each of the 10 existing models—and dangerous. Superbike II has only one gear and no brakes, like all track racing bikes. "These guys are going 45 miles an hour. If they go down, they go down really hard," says Chris Carmichael, U.S. Cycling's national coaching director.
When the Superbike was introduced in 1994, the U.S. was ranked No. 11 in the world. After the 1995 world championships the team moved up to No. 3. Naturally, U.S. hopes for medals in the five track events in Atlanta have risen accordingly. The top U.S. prospects include Rebecca Twigg and Mariano Friedick in the individual pursuit and '92 bronze medalist Erin Hartwell in the kilometer. "We're gaining a lot of respect," says Griffin.
In addition to supporting the Superbike project—which was funded primarily by big-time cycling sponsors including GT, EDS and Mavic—the U.S. Olympic Committee also made grants to the cyclists that allowed the athletes to train with the U.S. team year-round. This has transformed a group once nicknamed Team Dispute—for its clashing egos—into one of the most-feared pursuit teams in the world. The riders are now so close that they have voted to split their Olympic winnings evenly (a gold medal will earn $15,000, a silver $10,000 and a bronze $7,500 from the USOC), including shares for those who fail to make the Olympic team.
"We'll be the best-equipped team in Atlanta," says Griffin. "There are no excuses for not doing well."
Now, that's a mouthful.