The Physics of Bicycles

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The Physics of Bicycles 1


Even the earliest bicycles used spokes of one sort or another. In fact, even in ancient times many chariots and animal-drawn carts used spokes. A spoked wheel can be made as strong as a solid one and have only a fraction of the weight.While early spoked wheels were almost always made out of wood, the bicycle wheels and spokes of today are made out steel or aluminum or occasionally more exotic materials such as carbon composite or ceramics.

Minimizing the weight of the wheels is extremely important in bicycle design. Why does weight matter? Each time you push the pedals, you have to accelerate the weight of the wheel both forward and around its center. In other words, the wheel undergoes angular and straight motion simultaneously. You can see this when you ride--the front tire of your bicycle rotates while it moves forward along with you and the bike.

Tangential & Radial Spokes

There are many different ways to spoke a bicycle wheel. Most bicycles have tangential spokes, meaning that the spokes do not connect from the hub to the rim in a straight line, but at an angle. There are many different patterns of tangential spokes. Occasionally bicycles will have completely radial spokes. These spokes go straight from the hub to the rim of the tire. Wheels typically have tangential spokes. The way in which the wheels are spoked determines how they will perform.

You can spoke the front wheel completely radially, but the rear wheel had better not be spoked radially. There is no way to convey the twist of the wheel out to the rim to drive you forward. Tangential spoking helps transmit the torque from the hub out to the tires.

Not only would a radially spoked rear wheel be less efficient than one spoked tangentially--it would be significantly weaker. A bicycle wheel needs to be able to handle a variety of forces. Besides holding up the weight of the cyclist, a wheel must withstand the forces of pedaling and braking and the jarring effects of the road surface. The benefit of radial spoking has to do with the stiffness of the wheel (less deformation makes the wheel slightly more efficient).

The Physics of Bicycles 2

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MLA Citation:
"The Physics of Bicycles." 22 May 2018
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Gear Exploration

The gears of a bicycle make pedaling more efficient, allowing the cyclist to travel faster and more easily handle steep grades and other obstacles.

What You Need:
To try this activity you'll need the following materials:

* A bike with gears
* A piece of chalk or masking tape
* Paper and a pencil

Shift the gears so that the chain is on the smallest cog in the front, and on the largest cog in the back.

Mark the top of the rear tire with the chalk, or with a piece of tape.

Note the position of the pedals. Have someone hold the bike upright as you turn the pedals one full revolution, so that the pedals return to their original position.

How many times did the rear tire revolve? Write down the number of revolutions. (Note: you may have to have a friend control the rear tire with his hand, so that the tire does not spin freely past the point that the pedals pushed it to.)

Now try the largest gear in front combined with the smallest gear in the rear. How many times does the rear wheel revolve for one turn of the pedals?

Which of these combinations would be better for climbing a hill? Which would be better for a sprint on a flat road? (You can test your guesses later by riding the bike!)

Experiment with the intermediate gear ranges. Make a chart of the number of rear wheel revolutions each combination of gears produces for one pedal revolution. Why do you think bikes have evolved to have more and more gears?

Human Power

The bicycle is a tremendously efficient means of transportation. In fact cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel--including walking! The one billion bicycles in the world are a testament to its effectiveness. The engine for this efficient mode of transport is the human body. Because bodies are fueled by food, diet plays an important role in how the body performs. Different muscle groups and types provide the power. Genetic inheritance, intensive training, and a competitive drive help top athletes push the boundaries of endurance and speed on the bicycle.

How Far Do You Want To Go?

It takes less energy to bicycle one mile than it takes to walk a mile. In fact, a bicycle can be up to 5 times more efficient than walking. If we compare the amount of calories burned in bicycling to the number of calories an automobile burns, the difference is astounding. One hundred calories can power a cyclist for three miles, but it would only power a car 280 feet (85 meters)!

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