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Laura de Vaan: pushing the limits with Dyneema® Carbon

World champion for time trial, hand cyclist Laura de Vaan has a drive for performance.

Unfortunately her bikes have not always been up for the task – several died along the way. Now with her new seat made with Dyneema® Carbon, she’s regained her confidence to push herself all the way.

At age 16, Laura de Vaan (1980) slipped off the last step of her staircase in her parent’s home in Grathem, the Netherlands. She didn’t even fall. However, this minor accident turned into chronic pain, with a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, which makes it impossible for her to walk.

Seeking a sport to stay active, she soon discovered wheelchair tennis. But that proved too painful – “My backhand kept hitting my knees,” she chuckles. Then in 2004 while at the local swimming pool, she heard about competitive hand cycling. “And when I went to the nearest club, I was immediately hooked forever.”

Road to world champion

Within a year she was offered to compete internationally. “They asked if I wanted to go to France but I said no, and that I only wanted to race in the Netherlands. But then it turned out that the European championships were taking place here, so I ended up competing internationally after all. But at least I kept my word about staying inside the country,” laughs De Vaan.

She ended up picking up two bronze medals, one for time trial and one for road racing. In 2006, she heard that women’s hand cycling was becoming an official event at the Paralympics 2008 in Beijing. “So I thought, okay let’s try! But at the same time I was thinking that I would just quit afterwards.” After all, there’s more to life than sports…

But when she placed fifth, she got hungry for more. “That was when I started putting training first – not as something I did besides my job.”

Her job since 2008 is completing her PhD in linguistics and literature at Radboud University. The title of her research: ‘Regular morphologically complex neologisms leave detectable traces in the mental lexicon.’ The subject clearly has nothing to do with her career as professional athlete. “Well, I guess there’s one connection: you have to keep going and going if you want to get anywhere,” says De Vaan who plans to finish her PhD this year.

Meanwhile, her newfound focus on biking made her the world champion in 2011 at Roskilde, Denmark. And at both the London Paralympics in 2012 and the Rio Paralympics in 2016, she received a bronze medal for time trial and silver for road race.  

Losing confidence

De Vaan’s bicycles have evolved radically over the years. “The first one I borrowed. It had the legs out front, with a 90-degree backrest. I was sitting on a pillow. For the time it was great, but now looking back, I’m amazed that I raced with that.”

Later, she switched over to a knee-positioned bike that allows cyclists to take more advantage of their core strength. Unfortunately, the bikes could not keep up with her performance. “I broke quite a few bikes. I lost faith and confidence in them and it was holding me back.”

The main problem was the weak point where the aluminum chair attached to the aluminum front fork. It just kept breaking.

“Around that time, I met some DSM people at a cycling event – some of them were even participating. We only talked casually. Then last year, Top Sport Limburg and DSM were connected and serious discussions began about making a hand cycle using Dyneema®.” The weak seat-fork unit seemed the obvious starting point.

World’s strongest fiber

Fifteen times stronger than steel but floats on water, Dyneema® has long been used to moor oilrigs, sail ships, stop bullets and repair human ligaments. As a fabric component, it’s becoming increasingly popular with high-performance protective sports apparel – from mountain climbing to motorcycling.

The ultra high molecular weight polyethylene fiber is also being engineered for many other applications, many of which are still in the development stage. One of the latest innovations is the composite hybrid Dyneema® Carbon which is now being applied to countless initiatives such as bicycles, golf clubs and a steering wheel for a rally car.

While pure carbon is a common component for many high-end bikes, it was not an option for the seat since carbon is relatively brittle and splinters when it breaks – which can cause injuries. It’s also very stiff which makes for a bumpy ride. But when used in a composite with Dyneema®, these problems go away – making the bike stronger, lighter and more impact resistant, while also dampening the vibrations.

Confidence regained

“I really saw it as a way to improve my bike and be more confident,” says De Vaan. “Now the seat and the fork are a unified unit. Plus, this new composite is easy to form compared to aluminum. So they were able to make a more aerodynamically complex fully-closed bike seat – perfect for gaining speed on the relatively flat course in Rio.”

“I remember when I first used the bike for the time trials in Rio, it felt very solid on the road. I pointed it and it went in that direction. Wind was not an influence. And I knew it was impossible to break.”

She was soon thinking how Dyneema® Carbon can help the performance of her fellow athletes. “One of my colleagues, a long jumper, told me how at critical moments he had twice broken his carbon blades. I immediately thought about Dyneema®.”

Moving ahead

De Vaan currently has her eyes set on next year’s world championships in South Africa. “There the course will be hillier, so I’ll need a lighter bike and Dyneema® can really help with that.”

After that, she’ll decide whether she’ll head to the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020. “But at one point, I’ll really have to quit,” she laughs.

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