We still don’t really know how bicycles work

Forget mysterious dark matter and the inexplicable accelerating expansion of the universe; the bicycle represents a far more embarrassing hole in the accomplishments of physics.

Let’s be honest, a bit of the pleasure at Chris Froome’s victory in the Tour de France is down to this being our second victory in a row and to the thought that the French haven’t won it since 1985. What must be worse for them, though, is that when it comes to the science of team cycling, even the Belgians are in front.
At the University of Mons, researchers are developing something called the Anaconda. It’s never going to be much of a speed machine because it is, in effect, a chain of monocycles with handlebars. These units are connected, by means of hinges that allow them to snake along, to a normal two-wheeled bike at the front. Every rider in the chain can be going in a slightly different direction, which means it takes an enormous amount of control and collaboration to move the thing forward. According to Olivier Verlinden, chief engineer on the project, the main qualification for riders is to be unafraid of falling off.
It’s fun, apparently. The idea is to unleash it as a beach-resort bike, the kind of thing that stag and hen parties will use to terrorise seaside towns across the world. But it is also scientifically interesting. Why? Because we still don’t really know how bicycles work.
It is rare that most people appreciate the bicycle, but it is quite an extraordinary machine. Push a riderless bike, letting it roll freely at high enough speeds, and it can withstand pushes from the side – it will wobble a little, but quickly recover. In the conventional analysis, that is because the gyroscopic force of the front wheel, its mass and the spontaneous turn of the handlebars all act together to keep the bicycle rolling forwards. This has something to do with the gyroscopic effect, the force that keeps a spinning top upright. You can feel this by removing a wheel from your pushbike and spinning it while you hold the axle spindles. If you try to change the orientation of the wheel, you’ll feel it push back against you.
The first mathematical analysis of bicycles suggested that this is also what keeps a moving bike on its wheels. But although the equations were written down in 1910, physicists always had nagging doubts about whether this was the whole story.
The most definitive analysis came exactly a century later. It involved an experimental bicycle that had all its gyroscopic effects cancelled out by a system of counter-rotating wheels. The effort of building such a strange contraption was worth it: the resulting paper was published the prestigious journal Science.
The publication plunged bicycle dynamics back into chaos. It turns out that taking into account the angles of the headset and the forks, the distribution of weight and the handlebar turn, the gyroscopic effects are not enough to keep a bike upright after all. What does? We simply don’t know. Forget mysterious dark matter and the inexplicable accelerating expansion of the universe; the bicycle represents a far more embarrassing hole in the accomplishments of physics.
And it may not be solved any time soon; very few researchers are working full-time on bicycle dynamics and there’s very little money in it. Once we’ve discovered exactly how these contraptions work, it might be possible to come up with bold new designs of bicycle – perhaps even better than the Anaconda. But nobody is desperate for that to happen; not even the French.
Maybe that’s OK. In an age where we have worked out the history of the cosmos and the secret of life, it’s rather nice that the humble bicycle keeps our feet on the ground. 
Cyclists during the Tour de France. Photo: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Are you ready to comply with the EU GDPR?

Alan Calder, the founder and executive chairman of IT Governance, discusses the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and how your organisation can achieve compliance.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will supersede the UK Data Protection Act 1998 on 25 May 2018, introducing new obligations for all organisations that process the personal data of EU residents.

The GDPR introduces significant changes in the areas of data subject and child consent, privacy by design, data breach notification, international data transfers and data protection officers, among others.

With the prospect of multi-million pound fines for non-compliance, and less than two years until the Regulation is enforced, organisations in the UK should urgently be considering what they need to do to comply.

The skills and resources required under the GDPR

The GDPR requires certain organisations to appoint a data protection officer (DPO). The role of a DPO includes informing and advising the controller and processor of their data protection obligations, monitoring the organisation’s compliance and performance, providing advice on data protection impact assessments, and giving due regard to risks associated with data processing operations. DPOs must have the legal and information security knowledge and skills necessary to help organisations achieve compliance with the Regulation.

As an expert in information security and data protection compliance, IT Governance has developed Europe’s first certified EU General Data Protection Regulation Foundation and Practitioner training courses to help individuals who are involved in data protection or who are looking to fulfil the role of data protection officer in order to achieve compliance with the Regulation. The certified training programme is designed to equip individuals with a comprehensive understanding of the GDPR requirements and a practical guide to planning, implementing and maintaining compliance with the GDPR.  

Inform GDPR transition planning through data flow mapping and gap analysis

An important first step in achieving compliance with the GDPR is to review your organisation’s data flows. A data flow audit will allow your organisation to map the locations of all personally identifiable information (PII), gain visibility over your data flows, develop effective strategies to protect PII, improve data lifecycle management and introduce efficiencies into your processes, and reduce privacy-related risks. 

Organisations that plan to comply with the GDPR but that lack visibility over their data flows are encouraged to conduct a data flow audit. The process involves mapping out the organisation’s data flows to get a comprehensive understanding of the sources from which the data flows. IT Governance can help organisations prepare for the GDPR with an extensive data flow audit that will enable you to identify the measures, policies and procedures needed to reduce the risk of a data breach.

Implement technical and organisational measures with ISO 27001

ISO 27001 is the international best-practice standard for information security management and encompasses three essentials aspects: people, processes and technology. The Standard is designed not only to defend your company against technology-based risks but also to prevent common security issues such as those caused by lack of staff awareness around current threats or ineffective information security procedures.  

Moreover, the GDPR clearly states that “the controller and the processor shall implement appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk”. These measures relate to personal data encryption and pseudonymisation; access and availability of data; the confidentiality, integrity and availability of processing systems and services; and regular assessment and evaluation of technical and organisational measures to ensure the security of processing.

An ISO 27001-compliant information security management system (ISMS) is founded on an enterprise-wide a culture of information security, led by the board. It necessitates that your organisation’s information security strategy be constantly monitored, updated and reviewed, and this process is amenable to helping you implement the technical and organisational measures of the GDPR.   

ISO 27001 can help you meet parallel GDPR and NIS Directive requirements

The NIS Directive, which is set to come into force at the same time as the GDPR, is designed to help organisations within the EU achieve a common level of security across their networks and information systems. The Directive applies to organisations providing essential services in sectors such as finance, energy and transport, as well as digital service providers.

Similar to the GDPR, the NIS Directive requires a robust ISMS and encourages a security culture. As a result, more and more organisations preparing to comply with both the GDPR and the NIS Directive are also seeking certification to ISO 27001. The Standard contains information security requirements that, when met, can allow your organisation to centralise and simplify your compliance efforts for the NIS Directive and the GDPR.

IT Governance’s ISO 27001 packaged solutions can help you tackle your organisation’s GDPR and NIS Directive compliance requirements as well as implement a robust  ISMS. The ISO 27001 packaged solutions provide a unique blend of expertly developed tools and resources that complement your organisation’s skills and resources at a fixed price and in a timely manner.

To find out more about GDPR compliance or ISO 27001 packaged solutions please visit (www.itgovernance.co.uk/iso27001-solutions.aspx), email servicecentre@itgovernance.co.uk, or call us on +44 (0)845 070 1750.

Alan Calder is the founder and executive chairman of IT Governance.