Cycling Science


Alert reader and boyhood friend Scott (who now lives in Texas) emailed me a tip on a cycling book I might find interesting.  Scott knows I was a nerdy kid who was regularly told by his football coach to pay attention and stop debating the origins of the universe.  Scott knows this because I usually was holding these debates with him.  He therefore realized this sort of book would be something that I might enjoy.  He was right.

The book is called Cycling Science: How Rider and Machine Work Together, by Max Glaskin.  Through a series of two-page articles, Glaskin explores a specific aspect of the science which makes bicycles and their riders work.  He pretty much covers the gamut of topics, with chapters devoted to fundamentals, strength and stability, materials, power on, aerodynamics, and the human factor.  Each chapter has several heavily illustrated articles, each exploring a specific question.  Some of my favorites were:

  • How much power can a cyclist generate? (How many cyclists does it take to charge a lightbulb?)
  • Does a tandem have scientific advantages? (Are two heads better than one?)
  • How important is ultimate tensile strength? (How near am I to breaking my frame?)
  • What are self-stabilizing dynamics? (How does a bicycle keep itself upright?)
  • Why might plasma be the future of bike materials? (Will the stuff of the stars boost bike speed?)
  • How does a bike turn effort into speed? (Why do I need all those components?)
  • Why bother with aerodynamics? (Why is the wind always against me?)

Although the book isn’t afraid to take on scientific concepts such as rolling resistance, carbon foot prints, circular force, and other scary terms, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist (or any kind of scientist for that matter) to understand and enjoy the book.  Glaskin keeps the formulas to a minimum and explains concepts in laymen’s terms.  The illustrations (about half the page space is devoted to artwork) serve to explain the more complex concepts and how a cyclist might use them to his advantage.

There are graphs which describe the aerodynamic benefits of drop bars versus hands on hoods versus flat bars.  All things being equal, riders on a tandem can ride 3-5 mph faster than when riding individually.  Aluminum frames have bigger tubes than steel frames to increase the strength of this weaker material.  Your chain loses energy efficiency when it is loose and you also lose efficiency when you’re pedaling in the smaller sprockets (more friction).

The list goes on.  Each article stands alone and can be read in less than five minutes, thus making this book excellent bathroom material.  If you’d like to learn a thing or two about why your bike works and how you might get it to work better, this is worth your time.  It’s also a handy way to get some trivia so you sound important at all the cyclist parties you attend.  It’s an easy read that is sure to have something of interest for almost any cyclist.

15 thoughts on “Cycling Science

  1. I’m already hooked to this book from this post. I hope they mean how near we are to breaking “carbon” frame! If I’m able to break my aluminum frame, I’m definitely doing something really wrong!! And tandems, in my experience, are actually much slower than individuals if the route is mostly uphills. They only take the win on a downhill!

    1. With a tandem, you get two riders powering a single vehicle. Granted, the bike is heavier than a traditional bike, but its not as heavy as TWO bikes and the riders have a great aerodynamic advantage (one behind the other always). This means the major drag on cyclists (wind resistance) is greatly minimized for tandem riders while they are pushing less weight. Now if you’re climbing a hill, wind resistance is far less of a factor so other things become more important.

    1. No worries, buddy. I hate the fact there isn’t a spell check feature on comments! And the fact I cannot edit my comment on someone else’s blog. I’m always entering typos and I look like a complete idiot.

    1. Actually, I thought of you in the section discussing chain friction. Your fancy chain is discussed in relation to energy efficiency. Very interesting.

  2. Thank you for your kind words about my book. I’ve only just come across your post and am delighted the book works for you. I’m now turning it in to a lecture/talk so maybe, if I can take it on the road, I’ll come to your neighbourhood.
    In the meantime, happy cycling.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Max! I very much enjoyed the book and perhaps one day we’ll meet on the lecture circuit. Happy cycling!

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