Fitness and power is key in the America's Cup, and Emirates Team New Zealand think they have an advantage by using bike style pedal winches. Andy Rice explains why

Ben Ainslie is known for his superstitions. For all five of his Olympic regattas he would start day one of the competition clean shaven but for the next week would not dare trim his beard until the medal was secure.

And all of his boats were called Rita, just as his first Optimist was known as more than 30 years ago. On 5 February Sir Ben turned 40 on and two days later he was at the newly opened America’s Cup team base in Bermuda with a hundred of his Land Rover BAR colleagues for the launch of his latest Rita, the 15m catamaran also known as R1.

Sailing one of their test boats, the Brits joined in on the back end of a session of training races that helped the race committee get their eye in, and also offered an opportunity for the four teams in Bermuda to hone their competitive instincts. Oracle Team USA was quick to push out a report of the racing, the defender proudly claiming victory with a scoreline of 16 wins and seven losses.

Artemis Racing was 2nd, SoftBank Team Japan third, and the Brits some way last with just one win and eight losses. “Unfortunately, the British seemed to be having issues and weren’t competitive which was a bit of surprise,” said Spithill, still smarting from having lost the America’s Cup World Series to Ainslie last year.

The phoney war begins in earnest

How much we can really take from these results, who can say? As of the first week of February, no team has yet sailed its race boat. The practice racing took place in test boats. And Artemis questioned Oracle’s scoring of the racing with a tweet that asked: “Who’s doing your maths?”

We’re in the thick of the typical phoney war that precedes every America’s Cup, although the teams probably know more about each other this time than they ever did back in the keelboat era.

Alternative facts aside, what’s clear is that the crews will be fitter than any previous edition of the Cup. The boats have been engineered and designed around the weakest link, which is how much hydraulic power the four guys on grinders can pump through those handles.

The skipper of Groupama Team France, Franck Cammas, tells me the athletes on the handles are working at an average of 400 watts of physical output, about the same as a Tour de France cyclist.

“In a 20 minute race, the crew are operating at an average of around 400 watts, but with peaks of around 630 watts for 30 seconds during some of the really demanding parts of the race.”

Are pedals really a secret weapon?

Talking of cycling, Emirates Team New Zealand’s ‘big reveal’ of cycling pedestals instead of traditional arm-powered grinding pedestals has got tongues wagging in Cup circles. Have the Kiwis really blind-sided the other five teams with the unveiling of their ‘pedalstals’?

It’s hard to believe that at least some of the other design teams hadn’t contemplated the possibility at concept stage. While it seems very likely that the Kiwis will be able to generate more wattage through their legs than through upper-body power, the potential downsides are more windage and hopping on and off the ‘bike’ between manoeuvres.

Apparently the New Zealanders have the option to switch out the bikes for more conventional grinding pedestals if they so choose, in which case they appear to have the best of both worlds. Emirates Team New Zealand outsmarted their rivals in the previous campaign by pioneering the use of hydrofoils on an AC72, but revealed their hand too soon to be able to hold on to the advantage over the fast-improving Oracle.

On this occasion their timing seems good, yet it’s hard to imagine that pedal power by itself is going to be the killer app. What it does suggest, however, is that the Kiwis continue to be the bravest and most experimental innovators in the Cup world.

“Strength and power have always been important in the Cup,” says Giles Scott of BAR. “But now it’s more about fitness. The fitter we are, the faster the boat will go around the track.”