This is a custom built SPIN Spitfire MkIII Supermarine.  It is the new bike of a cycling friend of mine, Jim.

 

As you can see, it's a wicked concoction of brushed titanium, aluminium rims, Sram Force and a sprinkling of carbon fibre,  all artfully blended together with  blue decals and cables with red detailing throughout. Like its owner (whose name, incidentally, adorns the top tube) this bike is certainly unique and individual, but stops just short of bling. Just.

Like its aerial namesake, this bike is built very much with speed and stealth in mind, though only time will tell if Jim can demonstrate the same ruthlessness as a Battle of Britain pilot. Early indications suggest, however, that he just might.

And Jim's weapon of choice is one borrowed from the professionals - his oval chainrings, Or more specifically, his Rotor Q-Rings.

Q-Rings, and their main competitor in this specific area of bike innovation. Osymetric,  are not based on new technology. Some of you may recall the Shimano ovular Biopace that enjoyed a brief fad in the 1980s that soon fizzled out - but things have moved on and the Q-Rings and Osymetric are both distant cousins to Biopace. 

Whereas Biopace never caught on in the pro peloton, both Q-Rings and Osymetric have been increasingly vying for the attentions - and the endorsement - of the World's leading riders. Bradley Wiggins and members of Team Sky have been using Osymetric for some time now and several of the Garmin Sharp team  have been using Q-Rings this season and in 2011 their Belgian rider Johan Vansummeren powered to victory in Paris-Roubaix using them.  Other riders have also recognised the benefits and gains to be had by switching from a circular chainring - 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, Marianne Vos and the young talent that is Taylor Phinney all advocate the advantages of the Q-Ring, whilst there have been reports of several riders this season sneakily using Q-Rings on the smaller chainrings, out of sight of their sponsors!

And as we all know, bike design innovation and our desire to emulate the pros are a heady and seductive mix. Now, more than ever before, these elliptical chainrings are becoming a serious option for amateur cyclists too. Like upgrading to a new wheel they offer a very viable and affordable option to dramatically improve your cycling performance.

Belgian cyclist Johan Vansummeren solos to victory in the 2011 edition of Paris-Roubaix, using Q-Rings. Photo: Garmin Sharp

So what is  the science behind these innovative products and what exactly are the benefits?

Both the Q-Ring and the Osymetric have been developed with the same principal in mind - to make the pedal cycle more efficient by concentrating a cyclist's power at the point in the crank's rotation where the force is at its maximum -  namely when the crank arm is in a horizontal position - and reducing the load at the weakest point of rotation - when the crank arm are in the vertical 12 and 6 0'clock positions, otherwise known as the 'dead spot'.  The chainrings are wider at the point where your force will be at it maximum, but reduce in width at the point where your force is at its weakest, hence the elliptical shape.

The result is that you are essentially pushing a bigger gear where the force of your pedal stroke is at its maximum, but at the 'dead point' the gear ratio is significantly smaller so your pedal stroke is smoother. The result, advocates claim,  is that your pedalling motion is more fluent and efficient.

The makers of the two systems (Q-Rings have been developed by the Spanish engineering brand Rotor, Osymetric by its inventor, the French biomechanical engineer,  Jean-Louis Talo) claim that the more efficient pedalling motion of their respective chainrings reduce the build up of lactic acid in your legs, increases your power and prevents muscle soreness after long rides. This is a direct result of the  better distribution of workload on the musculature of your legs.  In particular, it is on hills that cyclists most often report a significant benefit of an oval ring. 

And it is almost impossible to question these claims when  both the scientific and anecdotal evidence  is strong.    

The University of Valladolid in Spain has undertaken a series of tests with lab rats carrying out exactly the same exercises using conventional circular chainrings and Rotor's Q-Rings.  Their conclusions backed up the claims made by Rotor. The cyclists could maintain a higher effort for longer using Q-Rings and produced less lactic acid even when the same heart rate was reached.  A slightly higher power delivery was also recorded in sprint tests - again reinforcing the claim that Q-Rings supplied a higher biomechanical efficiency.

The data and the conclusions of the research team at the University of Valladolid certainly lend huge weight to the claims that the more harmonic pedalling stroke of the Q-Rings improved the performance of the cyclists who took part in the tests.  As their report states:

'We can conclude that, on one hand the use of the ROTOR system for cycling leads to a lower production of lactate that means a better metabolic efficiency. So cyclists can exercise longer. On the other hand, heart rate and blood systolic pressure are lower when exercise is performed with the ROTOR system. This suggests that the same workload can be faced with lower demands for the cardiocirculatory system.'

 

 

Even though Jim has only had his new bike for a little over a week, he has already noticed a difference in his pedalling stroke - though it too early to see the other benefits that the Q-Rings are alleged to bring.  Kalif Ismail, a member of Zappi's Cycling Club in Oxford has ridden on Q-Rings for some time now. "Each rotation feels much smoother and kills the dead spot in each revolution".  Kalif also  makes the point that you'll never get rid of lactic acid, but he has definitely noticed less build up using Q-Rings and the smoother transition has had less impact on his knees.  Would he go back to a circular chainring? "No. Q-Rings for life!"

So why aren't all of us using oval rings?

As Blake Lavelle of Velotcech Services, the sole distributor of Rotar Q-Rings in the UK,  explains, it is not always an easy sell - "people love innovation, but hate change" he says.  Despite the fact that many professional riders and teams have switched to oval rings, convincing many cyclists that these rings could dramatically improve their cycling is not always straightforward. 

Not all the press has been favourable and this has certainly not helped convincing the sceptics. Osymetric have been criticized for poor shifting, basic manufacture and the change in gear ratio is so severe that only the very strongest or those gifted with a majestic pedalling stroke - the Bradley Wiggins' of this World if you like - can use the Osymetric efficiently and smoothly.  And it is worth pointing out that Wiggins only uses them in time trials, where shifting is not such an issue.   

Q-Rings have faired far better in the press, however. Shifting is not an issue, though some commentators argue it can be a little slower than conventional chainrings. The engineering, the shape of the teeth and chain engagement are superior.  Another benefit of the Q-Rings is that is that you have a choice of 5 positions where you can set the Q-Rings in order to suit your style of riding.

The reluctance of many to buy in to the oval revolution is also possibly historical:  Biopace never succeeded in capturing the market, despite Shimano's best efforts to convince cyclists otherwise.  This is a legacy that many cyclists will cite as a reason for not going down the oval route again. Biopace, however, is fundamentally different from the physics that has dictated the design of both Rotor's Q-Rings and Osymetric. With Biopace, the larger gear ratio  is focused on the dead point, with the chainring a smaller width at the point where the pedalling stroke is at is strongest point. The reasoning was that the momentum gained as the pedal stroke moved through the point of most power move the stroke through the dead point more efficiently.  It had its advocates, but the overall reaction was that it was an unnecessary innovation that actually created nominal gains.

 

 

Shimano, like Campagnolo and now Sram, have invested heavily in the development of the circular chainring ever since and their stranglehold on the cycling industry may go some way to explaining why no bike manufacturer has yet to take the plunge and  produce any model that incorporates oval chain rings.  When that comes, expect others to follow. Bike manufacturers, for all their claims of individuality, are sheep at heart.

Admittedly, I was quite sceptical of  oval rings in the past,  though my wariness was based on little more than my own feeling that the makers were trying to reinvent the wheel - a bit gimmicky perhaps - surely the conventional circular chainring could not be improved upon? And anyway, oval rings were just plain odd looking! They gave me the impression that the ride would be akin to travelling in a car with oval wheels.   

Talking to cyclists who use them has completely altered that view - and the scientific studies have served to confirm the anecdotal evidence and claims. Talking to Velotech,  it is obvious that they have total belief and confidence in the performance enhancement the Q-Rings offer the cyclist, though they are honest enough to acknowledge that it does take a certain leap of faith to make the switch.  Their enthusiasm, however, born out by their own use of the Q-Rings,  is infectious.

Jim, meanwhile, continues to fly up hills on his Spin Spitfire MkIII Supermarine and,  just like the famous wings of R.J Mitchells iconic fighter plane, it is an elliptical design feature that is giving him the edge!

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Comment by Jim Gabriel on May 27, 2014 at 10:29

Just spotted John Watkinson's comment about tendon injuries. My $0.02 worth after a year and a half on Q rings is that I now realise, looking back, that the kind of pain I remember experiencing from time to time due to the damage I was doing to myself on previous setups is clearly a thing of the past. It certainly can't hurt to try the Q rings. The added smoothness, especially when cranking up hills, is a huge bonus.

Comment by Gavin Whitham on March 6, 2014 at 14:46

I had Shimano Biopace chainrings on a Diamond Back mountain bike that I bought about 1991.

I wasn't aware I had them until I looked at the chainring one day when I was struggling up a hill and noticed that the chain seemed to be moving in and out as I pedaled. I thought I had faulty chainrings at first and in the pre-Internet days it wasn't easy to confirm if that was a correct deduction or not. I think someone I was at University with told me about them eventually.

I don't know if they helped my pedaling or not as the bike weighed about 30kg and I could never get the front mech adjusted for the triple chainring properly. For me the biggest improvement in cycling in recent times has been the compact double chainring which has done away with the need for a triple chainring in many cases.

Gav.

Comment by John Watkinson on February 23, 2014 at 13:41

I wonder if anyone has experience of Q Rings being beneficial to recovering from achilles tendon injuries?

I am struggling with a niggly achilles tendinitis which limits my riding/training and wonder if they might help. Rest for 3 months didnt sort it. Wife just blames middle aged deterioration! 

I

Comment by Robert Michael Waite on February 2, 2013 at 8:41

This will definitely be a consideration when bike shopping in the future. If it's easier on the knees, it has my vote.


Moderator
Comment by Greg Russell on October 12, 2012 at 20:44

Fantastic article. My boss has these things and he loves them! I've got to complete my bike before I can even consider them.

Comment by Nick Williamson on October 12, 2012 at 20:17

Great post Dave, I'm going to have to try them out.......

Comment by Jim Gabriel on October 12, 2012 at 18:22

Thanks for this, Dave! A well-informed piece. I must say that I am not sure that I would have rushed out to buy Q rings on a whim, whereas when faced with the opportunity to buy a brand new bike with them fitted as an option, hauling me over the line wasn't difficult (thanks Blake!) and now, of course, I wouldn't go back. Russell (also of Rotor / Spin, another very helpful human being connected with Spin) (which, by the way, are astoundingly beautiful bikes with exquisite attention to detail and high quality engineering!) informed me that if the Q rings weren't set up correctly I'd notice immediately. There are well understood adjustments that will allow you to reach nirvana nonetheless. Conversely, if it immediately feels right, it probably is right. I'm happy to say that in my case the latter was my experience. See you all out there, on the hills...

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