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

Photo: Getty
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There's just one future for the left: Jeremy Corbyn

Labour's new leader is redefining Labour for the 21st century, argues Liam Young. 

The politics of the resurgent left comes down to one simple maxim: people are sick and tired of establishment politics. When one makes this statement it is usually met with some form of disapproval. But it is important to realise that there are two different types of people that you have this conversation with.

First there are the people I surround myself with in a professional environment: political types. Then there are the people I surround myself with socially: normal people.

Unsurprisingly the second category is larger than the first and it is also more important. We may sit on high horses on Twitter or Facebook and across a multitude of different media outlets saying what we think and how important what we think is, but in reality few outside of the bubble could care less.

People who support Jeremy Corbyn share articles that support Jeremy Corbyn - such as my own. People who want to discredit Jeremy Corbyn share articles that discredit Jeremy Corbyn - like none of my own. It is entirely unsurprising right? But outside of this bubble rests the future of the left. Normal people who talk about politics for perhaps five minutes a day are the people we need to be talking to, and I genuinely believe that Labour is starting to do just that.

People know that our economy is rigged and it is not just the "croissant eating London cosmopolitans" who know this. It is the self-employed tradesman who has zero protection should he have to take time off work if he becomes ill. It is the small business owner who sees multi-national corporations get away with paying a tiny fraction of the tax he or she has to pay. And yes, it is the single mother on benefits who is lambasted in the street without any consideration for the reasons she is in the position she is in. And it is the refugee being forced to work for less than the minimum wage by an exploitative employer who keeps them in line with the fear of deportation. 

The odds are stacked against all normal people, whether on a zero hours contract or working sixty hours a week. Labour has to make the argument from the left that is inclusive of all. It certainly isn’t an easy task. But we start by acknowledging the fact that most people do not want to talk left or right – most people do not even know what this actually means. Real people want to talk about values and principles: they want to see a vision for the future that works for them and their family. People do not want to talk about the politics that we have established today. They do not want personality politics, sharp suits or revelations on the front of newspapers. This may excite the bubble but people with busy lives outside of politics are thoroughly turned off by it. They want solid policy recommendations that they believe will make their lives better.

People have had enough of the same old, of the system working against them and then being told that it is within their interest to simply go along with it.  It is our human nature to seek to improve, to develop. At the last election Labour failed to offer a vision of future to the electorate and there was no blueprint that helped people to understand what they could achieve under a Labour government. In the states, Bernie Sanders is right to say that we need a political revolution. Here at home we've certainly had a small one of our own, embodying the disenchantment with our established political discourse. The same-old will win us nothing and that is why I am firmly behind Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a new politics – the future of the left rests within it. 

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.