Sorry, I can’t tell you

31/07/2014

Sorry to be annoying but there are a few things I can’t tell you in this post – such as who, where and when. And I can’t show you any pictures. But I can tell you what.

Last week, having done a respectable few road miles including a surprising 20% climb, I caught the train.

Opposite me was a guy who looked about the same age and he had a well-appointed 29er. He told me where he’d ridden from that day and I suggested it was about 80 miles away.

He looked blank and said he hadn’t done the sums but yes, it had been off-road all the way. He was training.

He was a little disappointed with his training ride because he’d been trying to keep his average speed down to 7.3 mph but hadn’t got it below 7.8 mph.

Most of us train to cycle faster so what kind of training, I asked, involves trying to keep your average speed down?

Long distance, he said.

How long is long distance?  I asked.

400 miles, he said.

Off road, he said.

Non-stop, he mumbled.

Right, I said.

“Are you insane?” I thought, but didn’t utter.

Some time soon he’s going to spend 52 hours pedalling, while eating, drinking and sleeping, his way across 400 miles of rough tracks, up thousands of feet of ascents and down thousands of feet of descents. He’s going to do it because it’s not been done before and he likes a challenge. He might not succeed.

Either way, at some point soon, I’ll be able to tell you more, about who he is, where he was riding, when and how he got along.

Until then, I’m going to respect his modesty and his own, mistaken, belief that nobody would be interested in him.

But please, even though you don’t know much at all about his inhuman escapade, do wish him luck. That’s the least he deserves.

Don’t tell the fat old man

02/07/2014
Screen shot 2014-07-02 at 14.50.42

That’s not me at the front and that’s not a fat old man behind.

It’s been a tough few weeks, trying to ride as much as possible in between work. It was made tougher by the appearance of a ‘fat old man’ on the track each morning, arriving earlier than me and leaving later. It got tougher still when I learned that he’s not fat and he’s younger than me.

Then he had the nerve on Monday to sit on my wheel for 20 minutes while I pushed the air aside as fast as I could. Afterwards, as I ‘warmed down’, he slid past and thanked me for providing shelter from the wind. Polite, yes, but somewhat galling. I could’ve done with some aerodynamic help myself, I thought.

The next day I got a copy of new research into just how beneficial wheelsucking can be. It contained the most dramatic figures I’ve yet seen. OK, they were obtained from experiments with dummies in a wind tunnel and shouldn’t be confused with the real world, but they blew me away.

Under ideal conditions, say the Australian researchers, a rider tucked in behind a leader can reduce their drag by 49%. That’s huge. I’m not saying we were in the ideal conditions on Monday morning but it did, then, seem even more unfair if the ‘thin young man’ might have almost halved his drag by tucking in behind me.

Mind you, the same research confirmed that by riding close to my rear wheel, he would also have smoothed my wake, reducing my own drag by a useful 5%. So maybe that’s why I did achieve my fastest average speed yet this year.

Whoosh! The truck pushes more air right in your way

Whoosh! The truck pushes more air right in your way

The scientists did some neat research into what happens to the aerodynamics when two cyclists are riding bit and bit, taking turns at the front. You know that feeling you get when a truck overtakes, of being shoved backwards by an invisible maw? Well, the same happens when a rider comes out of the slipstream and draws level with their mate. The drag on both riders increases.

Not that I’m going to tell any of this to the ‘thin young man’. Why should I help him any more? It’s about time he took his turn at the front.

For more info, see The effect of spatial position on the aerodynamic interactions between cyclists by Nathan Barry, John Sheridan, David Burton and Nicholas A.T. Brown

There’s no business like …

30/05/2014

The Times Cheltenham Science Festival pageNormally these posts focus on the work of others and I’m usually spoilt for choice because, on average, I come across one new research paper about cycling and science every single day of the year. And that’s in the English language, only. You can see them all by following @cyclingscience1 on Twitter.

So today I’ve been struggling to decide whether to describe a new way of detecting when pro cyclists are lying dopers, or the treatment of vulval swelling among long-distance female cyclists (perhaps as a partner piece to the post about the “third testicle“) or how engineers view the benefits of cycle helmets.

Then it struck me that I should write about the Science of Cycling – a live presentation that’s part of The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, on Sunday 8th June 2014, from 4.30pm.

I got involved in October 2013 when I saw tweets that heaped embarrassingly high praise on my book, from someone called Andrea who claimed also to have “a cunning plan”. Falling into Andrea’s trap, I responded. And I’m glad I did. Andrea turned out to be Andrea Sella, professor of chemistry at University College London and an avid cyclist with Hackney CC.

Through the magic of Twitter, emails, text messages and very occasional phone conversations, the outline of a new kind of event took shape. Andrea’s love of eye-opening, mind-expanding demonstrations were designed to complement information and facts from my book.

Over the months, I’ve blagged equipment and material from the cycling industry while Andrea has accrued weird and wonderful things from the outer reaches of science.

But one thing was still missing – an expert practitioner.

Fortunately, the solution was found at Bespoked – the Handbuilt Bicycle Show at the Olympic Velodrome last month. There was Ted James – leading edge framebuilder and ultra-skilled BMX rider. We were thrilled when he agreed to take part in the Science of Cycling presentation.

Yesterday, the three of us came together for the first time. We put our heads together on the full contents for the hour-long show and, with all the demonstrations, explanations, live action cycling, clear explanations, big-screen graphics and exclusive video clips it came to a little under 5 hours 45 minutes.

So, we have a few days to trim it and use only the very best bits which will reveal unusual and unexpected aspects of cycling and science to all those people who are lucky enough to have booked tickets.

Hope you can make it and don’t be scared to ask questions because our aim is to provoke and stimulate.

See you there.

How green is your bike? Ask Specialized

30/04/2014

Cycling is environmentally cool, right? Cyclists are not merely friends of the Earth but lovers, carers and life-long best mates, right? Bicycles are as benign as a gentle breeze wafting a summer meadow, right? Wrong. A new report says otherwise. It lays bare the impact that manufacturing bikes has on the environment. It’s not pretty.

ImageJust in case you suspect that it’s propaganda put out by the roads lobby or auto industry, you should know that it’s actually been produced at the expense of, and with huge help from, the third largest US bike seller, Specialized. With their income from 9% of the US bicycle market, they’ve paid three post-graduates at Nicholas School of Environment, Duke University, to dig the dirt on how much of our planet’s resources are used and abused to make the machines we love.

It’s a big report. There’s a massive amount of detail. It deserves to be studied and the facts and figures broadcast, published and gossipped. Such as the fact that it takes more than 30,000 litres of water to make just one Roubaix fork. Specialized uses enough water making Roubaix frames to supply the water needed by 477,000 people per year. “These numbers are staggering”, say the authors.

Making a a kilogram of a carbon frame uses 45% more water than an aluminium frame but, getting its own back in the race to depleteImage the planet, aluminium frames require more energy during their manufacture. “Over 58.7 gigawatt-hours are used per year to produce all the Allez framesets sold in a year, which is enough power to supply New York City for approximately 128 hours. The Allez frame’s most energy intensive process is artificially aging the aluminum frame to achieve specific metallurgy properties. This requires the frame to be heat treated at 400°F for ten hours.”

Other figures are equally shocking. In making all of the Allez framesets that are sold in a year, 6.4 million kilos of carbon dioxide equivalent are released into the atmosphere. To make the Roubaix frame, 1.01kg of waste are generated. For every kilogram of chain produced, there’s an astonishing 3.69kg of waste.

I won’t go on – you can read, open-mouthed, all 179 pages of the report yourself. Download it here. And do compare it with the impacts of other forms of travel, as detailed in the first chapter of my book, Cycling Science.

Of course, Specialized doesn’t do any of the manufacturing itself. It’s done mostly in China and Taiwan, with some components made in Japan. Each country, and each region within it, has different environmental goals. Some even have to meet national or international standards.

And Specialized must be applauded for being so candid about the impact that the making of their bikes is having on Earth. If ths publication can encourage other manufacturers to be equally transparent then there is hope that they will all work together to reduce their eco-footprint – not to boost cycling’s genuine green credentials but for the sake of the planet.

Image

Anti-Gravity Cycling

16/03/2014

Why does a moving bicycle stay upright? It seems a simple question but, as yet, nobody has been able to answer it exactly.

Scientists are getting closer but mystery still surrounds the precise way geometry, mass, gravity, velocity and gyroscopic forces combine to keep an articulated two-wheeler coasting along, even when there’s no rider.

Now one expert of bike stability, Professor Andy Ruina of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has been discussing a curious finding that adds a little more to our knowledge. Last year he presented it to a quiet meeting in Japan. This month he repeated it in the US. If you weren’t at either, here’s the gist.

First, his students built a tricycle, with one wheel at the front and three at the back.Bricycle static

Like most tricycles, the front wheel steers. Unlike most tricycles, there is an adjustable suspension spring for the rear set of wheels.

It’s not a suspension spring to absorb vibration. Instead, it can be adjusted to allow the tricycle’s rear wheels to lean into the corner, in the same way that the rear wheel of a bicycle leans in.

Pushing the bricycleWhen the suspension spring is given complete flexibility, the rear wheels tilt as the rider leans into the corner, exactly like a bicycle.

When the suspension is locked to rigid, the rear wheels are locked upright and the tricycle corners exactly like a tricycle.

That’s why Ruina has nicknamed this hybrid machine as a “bricycle” (not to be confused with the energetic Bricycles cycling pressure group in Brighton UK).

The weirdest thing happens, though, when the suspension is adjusted somewhere in between being being totally flexible and being locked rigid, at a critical point where it counterbalances the forces created for steering.

Leaning in anti-gravity

Suspension adjusted to eliminate the effect of gravity

At this setting, the suspension eliminates the effects of gravity.

It becomes an anti-gravity bricycle.

When the bricyclist tries to corner, by turning the front wheel and/or leaning towards the centre of the curve, the bricycle does not respond. It will not change direction. It just keeps on going straight on.

So, by switching off gravity, it’s impossible to alter course.

What does this clever experiment reveal?

Well, now we know that, as cyclists, without gravity we would be fated to riding forever in one direction. If we wanted to change course we’d have to stop, dismount, pick up our bicycle, turn it and start off again. Our bicycle would be as manoeuverable as a train that’s gone off the rails.

We may curse gravity when we’re riding uphill but, from now on, we should give gravity due praise every time we steer.

*I first stumbled across an abstract of Professor Ruina’s paper and tweeted it in January 2014, later that month he kindly engaged in a Skype conversation. Since then, he and his team have posted an explanatory video of the bricycle in action, with a full explanation of the physics at work. It’s well worth watching – several times!

"Shall we just cycle home?"

“Shall we just cycle home?”

Better out than in?

27/01/2014

Is it more effective to train outdoors than in?

In 2003 a woman with Parkinson’s Disease was the stoker on the back of tandem. To keep the pace being set by the male captain, she had to pedal much faster than was easy for her during the ride across Iowa. The happy result was that the symptoms of her degenerative disease were lessened significantly.

Since then, repeated intense exercise has been considered a good way to mitigate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.

One result is that patients have been encouraged to work out on stationary bikes in gyms. As many cyclists know, this experience just doesn’t compare to riding the open road. It lacks the movement, fresh air and engagement with the real world that is afforded by a real spin.

Now research has shown that intensive cycling hard out on the road could benefit a person with early Parkinson’s Disease more than the same level of exercise on a gym bike.

Why is this?

“If person’s living with Parkinson’s were to be free to ride safely on a recliner bike or tandem bike, the external cues of other people on the bike trail and wildlife may do more for the person and their disease than riding on a stationary bike at home,” says Megan Joanna Avilla, in her Masters thesis, Acute effect of intense exercise on rhythmic gait in persons living with early Parkinson’s Disease.

She may be right. The experience of changing scenery, moving air, seeing people and sensing the environment might enhance the physiological effects of exercise.

If Megan Joanna Avilla’s thesis is correct, does it mean that all outdoor training for any cyclist is more effective than exactly the same exertion on rollers indoors? Do our bodies get fitter by riding through the open air than within four walls?

The implication for all cyclists, including those without Parkinson’s Disease, is that working out could be better than working in.

How much better? Has this been tested? If not, I volunteer (weather permitting).

training ride

Better out?

gym bike

Than in?

The Lessons of 2013

28/12/2013

Every week I scan the abstracts of about 25 new papers published in peer reviewed journals and by universities. Sometimes I have access to complete papers.

They are all relevant to cycling and I try to stick to the one that have some basis in, or relevance to, science. Considering I read only those written in English, ones that cross my radar and ones that I have any hope of understanding, clearly there’s a lot out there that I miss. Nevertheless, the pickings are rich and diverse.

While I tweet nearly everything I find (@cyclingscience1), here’s a summary of  a little of what I’ve learned this year from those thousands of diligent researchers who continue to add to our understanding of cycling.

I don’t necessarily agree with any of them.

• Yoga stresses the heart and respiratory system less than cycling
• The weaves of skinsuit materials affect your aerodynamics
• Bike reviews criticising comfort are largely untrustworthy
• Regenerative braking for e-bikes is going to blossom
• Cycling in London is either more dangerous or the safety models were wrong
• The Mayor of London is more worried about commerce than road safety
• Mountain bikers suffer the worst injuries in the first third of an endurance race
• French riders in the Tour de France live longer than mere French mortals
• Traffic calming and separate cycle paths make cycling safer in Netherlands
• Medics worldwide believe that bicycle helmets are fantastic
• The health benefits to US society of cycling outweigh the costs
• Caffeine definitely helps if you drink it, but not as a mouth rinse
• Cars don’t pass helmeted cyclists any closer than they pass bare-headed riders
• Steer by wire is on its way for e-bikes
• Support for, and research into, safety in numbers is growing
• Male cyclists have bigger thighs than triathletes
• The secrets of bicycle stability and steering remain enigmatic
• The best time to ride along Oxford Street in London is 10:07 on 25th DecemberOxford St cycling 25 Dec

To stay ahead of the bunch in 2014, buy a copy of Cycling Science and follow the tweets @cyclingscience1

Strava users help sports science – unwittingly

20/11/2013

Do you use Strava? If so, you may have contributed unwittingly to pioneering research that could help all cyclists.

Three Italian researchers accessed the data of almost 30,000 Strava-using cyclists. (Put simply, Strava is the social fitness app that tracks your ride and creates a leaderboard for all rides on the same route) The users were anonymous to the researchers so it could be anyone’s data – including your’s.

SocialBlog_In-Situ-1024x592Then the researchers mined this mountain of data. They wanted to see what kind of exercise leads to better performances.

Sports scientists, doctors, physiologists and others have been doing the same kind of research for decades. They’ve come up with a lot of credible theories – but they’ve been based on the results from a few dozen professional or, occasionally, a few hundred experienced participants.

Those old studies look tiny compared to the cohort used by Paolo Cintia, Luca Pappalardo and Dino Pedreschi of the Dept. of Informatics at the University of Pisa, Italy. Thanks to the Strava data, they had an enormous sample size of 29,284 cyclists to study. The vast majority of them would have been amateur (that’s you and me) and their fitness levels would have ranged from the near-elite to the pathetic (me).

In the old days the quantity of data would’ve been too much information to handle easily but, with every second of those riders’ activities in stored in digital form, the researchers were able to drill down relatively quickly.

Fortunately for all sports scientists and coaches, the findings from the huge sample corroborate what’s suspected already from the old, small studies. Exercise on its own doesn’t make you perform better; it’s down to training.

“Athletes that better improve their performance follow precise training patterns usually referred as overcompensation theory, with alternation of stress peaks and rest periods,” say Cintia, Pappalardo and Pedreschi.

“To the best of our knowledge, our study is the first corroboration on large scale of this theory, mainly confirming that “engine matters”, but tuning is fundamental,” they say.

Sadly the potential for data from Strava and other social fitness platforms to help scientists get new insights is now restricted. Paul Mach, an engineer at Strava and creator of Raceshape, implied by tweet that the researchers had only acquired the data because they had “hammered the v1/v2 API before it got shutdown. We blocked an Italian univ[ersity] IP a while back. Probably them.”

Screen shot 2013-11-20 at 15.55.01

This approach by Strava gives the company more control over who can access the anonymised data of its users. “Data acquiring has been a fundamental part of our work,” the Italian researchers say, “We did it through Strava’s API (version 2.0)*. Unfortunately, Strava changed his [sic] API policies in June 2013, so it is not possible to download data anymore.

“At that time, we asked Strava and they were still developing the new version of API. Now it seems that such new version is finally available but you need to request the access to Strava developers.”

Neveindexrtheless, expect more results soon from the Strava data that Cintia, Pappalardo and Pedreschi harvested before the tap was turned off. “Currently we are investigating other fascinating aspects emerging from Strava data, we hope to get new results for helping cyclists in their training life. Specially because we are cyclists, too,” they say.

And if Strava relents and let’s scientists get fresh data, it’s likely to be just one source of information that could benefit all of us, including the most pathetic riders (me) in unexpected ways. “We are sure that the increasing diffusion of training devices (powermeters, heart rate monitor etc) and social fitness applications will give us the possibility of a deep and new study of training science,” say Cintia, Pappalardo and Pedreschi.

Their research paper is available here and they were scheduled to present it in December 2013 at a workshop of the IEEE International Conference on Data Mining in Dallas, Texas

+++++++++++++

*Update at 16:56 GMT 20/11/13: From Paolo Cintia – “The data acquisiton was done after a request to Strava developer, explicitly highlighting the scientific and anonymous use. Furtherrmore the access to the API was public.”

Update at 09:00 GMT 5/3/14: From the researchers: “We are currently working on some improvements and extension of the cyclists’ study. Our purpose is to create a model able to detect if a person trains in the right way or not. In the meanwhile, we opened a blog where we tell in a divulgative way our scientific works. You can find a post about the cyclists’ study here

Ouch! How to hurt good on a mountain bike

03/09/2013

MTB injuries

Falling over themselves

05/08/2013

ImageThere’s a fair amount of cycling science research that seems, on the face of it, quite silly. And there’s been a little clutch of such projects published in the last month. Here’s one.

You know when you’ve fallen off your bike, don’t you? Several of your senses tell you irrefutably that you are no longer pedaling upright but are, instead, upside down with your head in a termite nest and your feet in a giraffe’s mouth.

Nevertheless, five Korean engineers, who may be among the small minority of Koreans who have yet to buy the Korean edition of my book, think the human body needs help in identifying when cycling’s gone wrong.

They’ve put a tilt switch and an accelerometer inside their helmets. Whenever they fall off their bikes, the sensors emit a signal. Uncertain as to the significance of these signals, the engineers perfected algorthms to fuse and analyse the data.

Now they are utterly confident that this marvellous technology tells them they have fallen over.  “The algorithm of the third method we developed achieved 100% accuracy in fall direction,” they crow.

Well done, chaps, at last there’s technology to rival the top-tube gadget of the 1980s that told you when you were cycling up hill.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers