Cycling Science: How Rider and Machine Work Together

University of Chicago Press
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Every July hundreds of thousands flock to the Champs-Élysées in Paris—and millions more to their televisions and computers—to witness the dramatic conclusion of the grueling three weeks of the Tour de France. There is no better measure of the worldwide love of the bicycle. But of the 1.2 billion cyclists traversing the world’s roadways and trails, few of us take the time to consider the science behind the sport. The simple process of getting about on two wheels brings us in touch with a wealth of fascinating science, and here journalist Max Glaskin investigates the scientific wonders that keep cyclists in their saddles. Cycling Science tours readers through a wide variety of topics, from tire rolling resistance and the difference between yield strength and ultimate strength, to the importance of aerodynamics and the impact that shaved legs have on speed. Each chapter explores a different subject—fundamentals, strength and stability, materials, power, aerodynamics, and the human factor—and is organized around a series of questions: What is the ideal frame shape? What is the biggest source of drag? What keeps a bicycle from falling over? How much power can a cyclist produce? Which muscles does cycling use? Each question is examined with the aid of explanatory diagrams and illustrations, and the book can be used to search for particular topics, or read through for a comprehensive overview of how machine and rider work together. Athletes have much to gain from understanding the science of their sports, and Cycling Science will be a must-read for cyclists of all stripes—professionals, recreational riders, and anyone seeking to enhance their enjoyment of cycling.
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About the author

Max Glaskin is an award-winning science and technology journalist with a special interest in cycling. He has contributed to a vast range of publications, including New Scientist, Reader’s Digest, and the Sunday Times.

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University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Jan 25, 2013
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Science / General
Sports & Recreation / Cycling
Sports & Recreation / General
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We intended the first edition of this book "to be

of interest to all mechanically inquisitive bicyclists,

as well as to teachers of elementary mechanics

or physiology, and to engineers and

others working on approaches to lessen our dependence

on high-energy-consumption transportation."

Since we wrote those words, in

1974, several developments have seemed to

confirm that the wave of popularity of the bicycle

that started in the early 1970s was not just a

short-term craze. The forced rise in world oil

prices and the occasional disappearance of easily

available gasoline (more significant in the

United States) at last convinced many people

that a long-term change was required in the affluent

way of life experienced by many in the

technologically advanced countries. Bicycling

began to be taken more seriously P- an alternative

to the use of the automobile and public

transit for commuting.

Another development with strong effects—

good and bad—was the New York City transit

strike of 1980. On the good side was the discovery

by tens of thousands of people that commuting

by bicycle was possible, and by many that it

was pleasant. On the negative side, there were

many accidents between bicyclists and pedestrians

and between motor vehicles and bicycles,

partly because of nonexistent or ill-conceived

traffic arrangements for bicycles.

A third development, wholly beneficial, was

the creation in 1974-75 of a new class of cycle

racing. The International Human-Powered Vehicle

Association, formed by Chester Kyle and a

small group of fellow enthusiasts in California,

sponsors speed trials and other races in which

there are no restrictions on vehicle design other

than that there must be no energy storage. The

xiii Preface

speeds already reached by the application of sophisticated

aerodynamic fairings and supine or

recumbent riding positions alone would have

seemed incredible a decade ago, and yet it

seems likely that 30 m/sec (67 mph) will be attained

within a decade. Enthusiasm for this new

sport is spreading and growing in the United

States and in Europe. The attendance at the first

racing meet in Britain in 1980 was more than

for all the previous U.S. meets combined. This

form of racing is certain to bring about a resumption

in the development of bicycles for

everyday use. A stream of new ideas was encouraged

by bicycle racing in the 1865-1895

period, but this stream was then reduced to a

trickle by the adoption of highly restrictive

rules for racing. Now we see new developments

in bicycle technology coming almost as a flood.

These developments have been largely responsible

for this second edition of Bicycling Science.

We have added a large amount of new

information about human power output under

various conditions, and have revised and expanded

the sections on aerodynamic, wheel,

and bearing losses. These inputs and outputs

have been combined in a new chapter on the

prediction of speeds for typical and hypothetical

vehicles for various levels of power input.

Thus we have tried to serve the new wave of

designers, planners, and builders of vehicles

both for racing and for everyday commuting use

with data and methods that should further the

designing of optimum vehicles.

We have also added a short chapter on the

technological history of bicycles and tricycles,

partly because it is a fascinating story and

partly because awareness of what has been tried

before can help to preclude the repetition of expensive

mistakes. In this respect we have the

same aim as "Professor" Archibald Sharp (who

was in fact an instructor in engineering design

at a London technical college), who wrote his

classic Bicycles and Tricycles at a time (1896)

xiv Preface

when, as at present, people were experimenting

with all manner of variations of cycle design

and construction. In his preface Sharp wrote

that "there are many frames on the market

which evince on the part of their designers utter

ignorance of mechanical science," and that "if

the present work is the means of influencing

makers, or purchasers, to such an extent as to

make the manufacture and sale of such mechanical

monstrosities in the future more difficult

than it has been in the past, the author will regard

his labors as having been entirely


Other good books on the science of bicycling

were published by authors such as R. P. Scott

and C. Bourlet in the same period. From that

time until the present revival of interest in bicycling,

technical authors turned their attention

toward automobiles, airplanes, and other apparently

more exciting challenges. The stagnation

of bicycle design, brought about largely by restrictive

rules for racing, was aided by the lack

of interest of publishers (and, perhaps, potential

readers) and by the astonishing new transportation

competitors—subways, cable and electric

streetcars, motorcycles, automobiles, the railroads

then reaching over 100 mph (about 50

m/sec), airships, and the early aircraft. We

point out in the first chapter that a similar,

though shorter, period of stagnation occurred

after 1825, and that this was probably due to

somewhat similar excitement about the potential

of railroad transportation. Inventive people

making improved bicycles in such periods of

stagnation found that their concepts (and their

manuscripts) fell on stony ground.

We as authors and bicyclists are fortunate to be

living at a time when bicycle design is undergoing

considerable change. In providing a technical

guide, we have tried to start at all times

from basic principles—which are, in general,

the laws of physics. We have been concerned

principally with dynamics rather than with statxv


ics. We have given raw data in those many

cases where the final answer, if there ever is

such a conclusion to research, is not yet known.

And occasionally we have made our own


Some readers may be interested to learn how

this book came to be written. Frank Whitt, who

is a chemical engineer, had been a contributor

to (and for a period the technical editor of)

Cycle Touring (Cyclists' Touring Club, U.K.)

and had contributed technical papers to symposia

and articles to magazines such as Bicycling.

He put these together into the beginnings of a

book. David Wilson was teaching mechanicalengineering

design at the Massachusetts Institute

of Technology, using bicycles as occasional

examples and supervising some undergraduate

projects and theses. He had in Britain a small

savings account which the Bank of England

would not allow to be transferred to the United

States. With the help of the journal Engineering,

and with prize money from the savings account

and a contribution from Liberty Mutual Insurance,

he organized in 1967 an international

competition for developments in human-powered

transportation. Whitt was one of the 73

entrants. They met some time after the competition

was completed in 1969. Subsequently,

Whitt asked Wilson if he could find an American

publisher for his manuscript. He had not

been successful in this endeavor in Britain,

and Wilson at first did no better in the United

States. Publishers felt that, whatever the quality

of a book on bicycling science, the potential

readership was so small that the considerable

exenditure of publishing the book was not


Then came the 1970s and the revival of interest

in bicycling. There was still no sign of any

change in bicycle design, but Frank Satlow of

the MIT Press decided to take a long shot by

proposing that the book be adopted. The manuscript

was accepted on the condition that Wilxvi


son add to it the results of the 1967-69 design

competition and any relevant research data, and

edit the whole book. That first edition was published

in hard cover in 1975 and in paperback

in 1977.

The continuing popularity of bicycling since

then, the wealth of new developments and data,

and in particular the intense interest in new

types of vehicles made us wish almost immediately

that we could rewrite the book. We were,

therefore, delighted when Frank Satlow asked

us if we would like to work on a second edition.

As intimated above, although this is called

a second edition, it is really a new book in

scope and style; we hope that it will be received

with the same goodwill and grace as was the


This preface is being written, sadly, by David

Wilson alone. Frank Whitt suffered a paralyzing

stroke in mid-1981, and as of the time of writing

(September 1981) he has not yet been able

to talk or to write. He is making slow progress,

and it is hoped that he will be back with his

insights, his experimental and design skills, and

his wealth of information to contribute to us all.

He is greatly missed.

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