Science of cycling remains still largely mysterious


Recently, a bicycle has become not only a transportation but also a trend item. Environmental issues contributed to the growth of bicycle market. As the bicycle market grew, more and more people started to buy and ride their own bicycle. However, there are only a few people who understand the intricacies of how cycling actually works. Let’s take a look at some questions about the bicycle.

What do we know about the bicycle? We know one simple principle: pedal turns a gear that turns a wheel. But it’s physics that is really fascinating. As we think more deeply, more and more mysteries appear — how the bicycle goes straight, what factors work to balance when it moves, etc. Quantum physicist Michael Brooks summed it up nicely in a 2013 article in the New Statesman: “Forget mysterious dark matter and the inexplicable accelerating expansion of the universe; the bicycle represents a far more embarrassing hole in the accomplishments of physics.”

Then, you might think that the design of bicycle has the key of the physics. The answer is, it actually not. Indeed, bicycle manufacturers put a lot of effort and energy in designing bicycles. They put new carbon fiber frames, different sized wheels or tires with different thicknesses. But these are the result guessed by a lot of tests, not mathematically calculated theories.

Although scientists don’t know the exact factor, we know some simple basics. Bike going straightly isn’t just because of the force of momentum pushing it there. First, the bike can’t go straight if the handlebar is fixed. Second, one of the key figures is handlebar angle. The angled handlebar makes an effect of sliding from tilted wall. This is because the steering axis and the contact point are at different places, so the front tire moves towards the steering axis. That helps the bike self-steer and makes the bicycle stable when a rider is on it. What we still don’t know is how these forces, as well as the gyroscopic effect of the tires turning, interact with one another.

The reality is that bike design really hasn’t improved in decades, says Jim Papadopoulos. People have just tried to improve the appearance and reduce the weight of bicycles. So, what we can improve now is change the rider. To bicycles, riders are the most important factor for getting balanced. The aerodynamic position of a rider is certainly important if the road is not really smooth. We can credit the bike for a lot of things, but the real machine that we have to think about more is the rider driving the bicycle forward.



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