Revealed: the cause of the Australian team pursuit bar failure
After six months of soul searching following the Tokyo Olympics, AusCycling has handed down its finding.
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For Australian cycling fans, it was the defining moment of the Tokyo Olympics: the sight of Alex Porter tumbling to the ground, face-first at 65 km/h, in the qualifying round of the men’s team pursuit. The Australian team had fallen victim to a catastrophic equipment failure, with the handlebar unit on Porter’s bike snapping through completely, leaving Porter nowhere to go but down.
After a friction-burn-covered Porter had picked himself up, the Australian team was granted a restart by the commissaires – but it was an unexpected speed bump in the well-regarded squad’s search for Olympic gold, and at the very least seems likely to have had a psychological impact. The Australian team ultimately finished third after New Zealand suffered a crash of its own in the bronze medal ride-off; Italy pipped Denmark to win gold with a world-record time.
That bronze would prove to be the only medal Australia’s track cyclists would take home from Tokyo – a minor bright spot in the smallest Australian cycling medal haul in 41 years. And that bright spot was, itself, tarnished by an extremely high-profile and embarrassing equipment failure.
All of which prompted some serious soul-searching at AusCycling, the national governing body of the sport, who promised a “thorough investigation and review of the factors involved in the incident.” Melbourne-based 3D printing specialist Bastion – the manufacturers of the failed component – pledged its support through this process, committing to “using all means available to investigate why this occurred.”
More than six months after that fateful day, following a press conference on Thursday (attended by CyclingTips), AusCycling has released a 171-page report on the incident.
Here’s what they found.
The road leading up to the Tokyo equipment failure was a long one, beginning in early 2018, and it was driven by pursuit of incremental gains. In the executive summary of the report, AusCycling states that “like most failures, there is no one cause for this event, there is however a prime cause which had more impact than any other.”
That “prime cause” was an inadequate specification (by AusCycling) of the base bar, which when put into use was exposed to 1.5 times the forces they had designed it for. The report adds: “the subsidiary causes can be classified as inadequate governance: inadequate functional configuration control and physical configuration control.”
The blame for the “specification inadequacy” lies not at Bastion’s feet, but within AusCycling, with organisational failings from within the Australian Cycling Team infrastructure contributing to the incident.
In 2018, the Australian team changed its team pursuit squad’s starting order and technique, and introduced smaller bike frames to improve aerodynamic performance. For Alex Porter, that introduced a “physical distance conflict” with the team-issued Argon 18 bike – in real world terms, his knees were hitting the base bar. Argon 18 quoted a cost of AU$32,500 for a revised part, with no guarantees of delivery in time for the team’s Olympic preparations. AusCycling pursued a local solution – a 35 mm-longer base bar, manufactured by Bastion Cycles. Bastion’s pricing details have been redacted due to “commercial confidentiality.”
By 2019, the part had been specified by the Australian Cycling Team – not Bastion – with a brisk turnaround: the timeframe from design to manufacture had been dropped from 10 to four months. That introduced compromises, including a directive from the Australian Cycling Team’s performance systems manager to drop fatigue testing from 200,000 to 50,000 stress cycles.
“Individuals made it up as they went along.”AusCycling Report
That specification was seven months before the original Tokyo Olympics date, but the event was then delayed by COVID-19 until mid-2021. That should have allowed further time to get the system dialled – and to test the bar past its original 50,000 cycles – but because of a lack of checks and balances, “the 150,000 cycles of missed testing were never reinstated.” Meanwhile, the bar was being ridden, ultimately up to the point of failure.
According to Bastion’s own press release today, the base bar was designed to the brief provided, but was “only 65% as strong as was needed in competition conditions” and subjected to “1.5 times the maximum static load specified by the design brief”.
According to AusCycling’s report findings, “the 3D-printed Base Bar mates to a machined steering fork and immediately forward of the most forward attachment bolt was a .29 mm elevated area which raised the local stress.
“Even without this mismatch, the high rider forces would have precipitated a failure elsewhere on the Base Bar.”
Obviously, the base bar failure came on the most public stage possible, with the eyes of the world watching on. For AusCycling, it became a question not just of a broken handlebar, but about systemic failures that allowed that broken handlebar to happen.
“Whilst an organisational structure was in place for the Australian Cycling Team, there were scant policies or processes in a technical sense,” the report notes. That had a troubling implication: “individuals made it up as they went along.”
And while in the lead-up to Tokyo there was an internal Equipment Steering Group formed within the Australian Cycling Team pursuing a vision of “zero failure rate”, AusCycling admits that there was “scant documented structure behind the vision to implement it nor was this vision conveyed to Bastion Cycles.”
In addition to the poorly communicated vision and the inadequate specification, there were incomplete instructions provided to mechanics on the ground in Tokyo, with a “comprehensive Bicycle Build Book drafted, [that] … only partially covered the technical aspects.”
In Alex Porter’s bar and bike fit, “a requirement, which was out of the ordinary, arose.” That is: the performance team wanted him on a smaller bike for aerodynamic purposes, and he was then kneeing the handlebar.
“This requirement was first delayed, poorly specified, then hastily effected and then in use, extant check and balance systems were ignored,” the executive summary notes unflinchingly.
Where to next?
In a press conference announcing the findings of the report, AusCycling CEO Marne Fechner noted that “reading the final report was uncomfortable”, but that the organisation had pledged “an attitude of transparency and openness during and after this process.” That goal has been achieved: the full 171 pages, in sometimes dry detail, are available for public review here.
AusCycling has been through a significant period of upheaval in the months following the Tokyo Olympics. Many of the senior figures that presided over the culture in the team – including performance director Simon Jones – have moved on, and the cycling team is regrouping for the next Olympic cycle. For that, reconciliation needs to occur, and Fechner offered her apologies to the athletes, in particular Alex Porter. The report is fairly scathing for the Australian Cycling Team, but, Fechner says, “it’s been an extraordinarily worthwhile process to have gone through.”
While Bastion was operating within the brief that was supplied to the brand, Fechner notes that there are “mutual obligations – not only for AusCycling but Bastion – moving forward, and any partner that we work with in this nature of making bespoke parts.”
Bastion suffered a pretty torrid few days on social media as they were attacked for the failure of the part that they’d manufactured. In Thursday’s press conference CyclingTips asked what kind of reputational damage that had caused for Bastion, and for that matter, Argon 18. That reputational damage, Fechner says, didn’t just impact Bastion but also AusCycling: “our aim is to work really cooperatively to make sure we do better next time.”
Such a collaborative process – rather than directly following the spec provided by AusCycling – could have averted this issue occurring: “One of the recommendations talks to the way that Bastion and AusCycling moving forward with any partnership actually check and challenge when they’re putting specifications forward – that we spend time really robustly testing specifications, and design, and the need, even, for those changes,” Fechner said. “Yes, there should have been or could have been an opportunity to check and challenge the ISO specs that were used … and hindsight is not our friend in this case.”
As for Bastion, in a brief press release the company co-founder Ben Schultz noted that it was “heartening to know that the quality of our products was not the primary cause of the failure,” but that there was work to do in “improv[ing] our capabilities and knowledge base.” Five of the 19 recommendations from the report applied to Bastion.
“You don’t fail until you give up,” Schultz said. “We have always said that no matter what the results of the report were, we would treat this as an opportunity to learn and become stronger as people, and as an organisation. In team sport, we win together, lose together and critically, learn together. Bastion is committed to working with AusCycling and the team as we address each of the recommendations and work towards the future.”
With the review process into the crash now complete, AusCycling has its eyes on the future too, and has pledged to “adopt all recommendations, which will complement two major initiatives that have run parallel to the investigation”. To that end, the High Performance Program is undergoing a rigorous review, and a new executive general manager of performance, Jesse Korf, has been appointed.
“This is an opportunity for a reset,” Fechner said. “Culture and process needs to play a much greater role in the high performance environment.”