The Science of Cycling
Bicycle design is a collaborative process involving industrial and software engineers, graphic designers, and various factories and teams to ensure technical and aesthetic efficiency for cyclists.
The first recorded invention of the bicycle (as it’s known today) was built in 1418 by Italian engineer, Giovanni de la Fontana, who constructed a human-powered device consisting of four wheels and a loop of rope that was connected by gears. The advent of pneumatic tire and the chain drive, followed by the development of gears, revolutionized bicycling in the 19th century and has only continued to advance using science and technology to the bikes we see and use today.
Cycling – especially elite cycling competition – would not be possible without a firm grounding in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. It all relies on the fundamentals of science. From the physics of force and movement, to the biology of metabolism and energy production, to the sophisticated industrial design and ergonomic engineering of components and materials, cycling is a deeply scientific sport.
Engineering: Anatomy of a Bicycle
Efficient ergonomic design must account for seat, pedal, and handlebar placement in relation to the cyclists’ body. The bicycle frame must be designed to handle dynamic loads like asphalt surface, the cyclist’s weight, and the pedaling force. The bicycle is a highly optimized structural design, making use of advances in composite engineering to allow the use of strong lightweight materials like carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is highly rigid and allows for lower resistance and easier handling.
Biomechanics: Human Body at Work
Cycling is a dynamic action. Effective performance on a bicycle requires adequate posture, flexibility, technique, and bike positioning; when cycling, the whole body is in action. The human body is not streamlined like modern bicycle design; to improve the cyclist’s aerodynamics, the rider positions his or her body to lessen exposed frontal area reducing wind resistance and increasing speed. The cyclist engages core muscles to stabilize the spinal column and pelvis to keep the torso and head tight in desired position; shoulder muscles work to reduce the load on the back and help relieve pressure from the hands.
Physics: Science in Motion
A bicycle is a device that can increase force or speed, converting potential energy into kinetic energy that the body and bicycle use as they gain speed. Cycling is made possible by complex physics involving numerous small components –the bicycle frame, pedals, steering column and wheels – interacting dynamically with input from the cyclist.
Technology: Frame by Frame
Bike frames have undergone quite an evolution in the development and use of new materials in the last 15 years. Today bicycles are made from materials such as titanium, aluminum, and carbon fiber, making them lighter and stronger than ever before. Designers use oval or tear-shaped tubing, optimize the length of the wheelbase and employ lightweight materials allowing the bicycle to be more aerodynamic while maintaining strength-to-weight ratio.
Nutrition: Science of Movement
Cycling uses energy we get from food and converts it into equivalent energy through the burning of calories. Although the exact number of calories burned during a bike ride can be difficult to calculate, on average, an 82kg cyclist riding at approximately 20km/hour will burn around 650 calories/hour (compare this to an Amgen Tour of California rider who can burn up to 1,000 calories/hour!).
Who would have thought that cycling was so scientific? And it doesn’t stop there. Science plays a huge part in your daily life and everything you do, whether you’re out cycling, cooking a meal or even fast asleep. If you look close enough, you’ll find that science has a hand in even the simplest things. It’s everywhere.