Archive for November, 2012

Cycling and the fourth state of matter


The ionised gas stuff, not the bloody stuff

One of the most surprising things I stumbled across when researching Cycling Science was the potential application of plasma to cycling. As has been frequent in recent year, I have to thank Bob Jones (names changed to protect the innocent) for not only pointing me in the right direction but also giving me a good shove to get me there sooner.

Plasma is the fourth state of matter. Most of our bikes are made of solid matter and our riding would be very uncomfortable without being able to put gaseous matter into our tyres. Liquid matter is becoming more common on bikes as hydraulic brakes are being fitted to off-road, commuter and road bikes.

But plasma, well, I’d thought that was only for oversized TV sets or blood transfusions (which, incidentally, are mentioned elsewhere in the book). Then I went for a ride along the seafront with Bob.

I’d known Bob for 25 years. Well, I’d known him for about six years, when he was a keen young racer. He stayed in the sport and I didn’t so I lost contact. Some 15 years later he tracked me down and hauled me back into writing about bikes once more. Yes, the book is his fault.

But this is a no-blame blog and Bob’s idea that day on the seafront was to lend me a small-wheeled e-bike that gave me the acceleration and speed of a sleeping donkey.

Then he mentioned plasma. He said he didn’t understand it. He said it sounded quite fantastic.

He gave me a name and a number. I rang it and asked about plasma. The man explained. I understood it. It was fantastic.

The explanation is in the book. Plasma could make you ride faster.

Of course, it’s still a concept and hasn’t even been taken to the prototype stage.

But the theory’s good and the technology is part-way there.

So it’ll only be a matter of time before the UCI bans it.

The lure of the future


There’s been a flurry of news about genuinely new technologies for bikes, mostly involving digital electronics. These stories are seductive because they fulfil our desire for an exciting, better future. I know this all too well – I earned a living from writing such stuff for more than a decade.

One downer is that most of them are chimeras. They never materialise. In Britain it’s known as the Tomorrow’s World effect, after a TV programme that, each week, highlighted innovations but which were never seen again.

Of course, that’s a little unfair. While the novel devices and gadgets don’t themselves become commercial products, some of the underlying technologies are picked up and find their way into successful, popular designs.

So that’s my excuse for showcasing a few of the innovations for cyclists that have floated across the internet recently. They may disappear, they may become mainstream or the ideas embedded within them may surface in a completely different manifestation. Whatever – they’re fun.

A head case from MIT

Wired has featured a helmet that, allegedly, can detect brainwaves. It’s a student project at MIT and it has been suggested that it could be used to detect the intentions of cyclists and trigger the operation of digitally controllable electronic components. So it could, with a single thought, illuminate a left-turn light.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Consultants have turned a smartphone into a virtual gearlever and so do away with human thought altogether, according to my old editor Paul Marks at New Scientist. With its internal accelerometer, a prototype app and a Bluetooth connection to the electronic gear mech, the mobile phone makes the chain shift between cogs automatically and maintains a steady cadence for the rider.

Stop me and buy one

If the Bluetooth connectivity tech from Cambridge Consultants is allied with MIT’s helmet they could be harnessed by Saarland University’s digital braking system. Then all a rider would need to do would be to think about slowing and, hey presto, the brakes would be applied, the tyres would never skid because the wheels would have a digital anti-lock function and the gearing would change down automatically and make it easier to start pedalling.

Full of holes

Battery-powered enhancements are not for everyone so how about a puncture-proof tyre? Britek Tire and Rubber came up with an air-less car tyre almost a decade ago but have not yet succeeded in going mainstream with it. Now they hope that mountain bikers might adopt it. I’d love to hear from anyone who has ridden these tyres.

Full of good in tensions

Finally, something that genuinely deserves to be supported by the cycle industry – an independent lab for assessing the friction of all bicycle components. Friction pales in comparison to drag in terms of wasting a cyclist’s energy but, with aerodynamics becoming reasonably well understood, this new facility should become very busy as riders want to shave even more seconds off their competition times.

That’s the future. Maybe. Waddyou reckon?