Book Review: Cycling Science
 – How Rider and Machine Work Together


Cycling Science

Cycling Science
 – How Rider and Machine Work Together
by Max Glaskin

Reviewed by Nick Dey

(Neunkirchen-Seelscheid, Deutschland (and Wigan, Lancashire)

Cycling_Science_CoverInvestigate the scientific wonders that keep cyclists in their saddles!

An ageing statistician once stated that there are 1.2 billion cyclists in the world (where’s the uncertainty?). We can all, I would guess, recall the first time we mastered the art of riding a bike – without stabilisers, I should add. My own experience involved a sadistic Yorkshire uncle, the legendarily bad children’s Raleigh Mayflower, a steep drop – those from Wigan will recognise the profile, from Haigh Hall plantation gates down to the trickling metallic orange of the river Douglas and the bridge of doom with its iron railings. The ear filling rush of wind, an attempted brake and steer, a crashing cacophony renting the still air, tears, torn clothes, bloody and bruised body parts, and a grin as wide as Lancashire – inspired by the immense satisfaction of taking control of the purple steed. The rest, as the great philosopher once said, is – much like the 2013 FA cup – history!

Anyone reading this will already agree that riding a bike is one of the most rewarding of human activities, whether from the euphoric wobbles described above, the utilitarian daily commute or the adrenalin rush of competition.

The introduction argues that…

“Cycling occupies a unique niche in the world. It satisfies concerns about the environment, sustainability, health and fitness, competition – while giving millions the freedom to travel independently. Their horizons forever expanded. These benefits would be mere anecdotes if it wasn’t for the fact that thousands of scientists have studied almost every aspect of is seemingly simple activity.”

In ‘Cycling Science: How Rider and Machine Work Together,’ Max Glaskin presents his ideas in a straightforward, user-friendly, and consistently informative and entertaining way. The focus is the science of cycling which and this made accessible by the subdividing the whole into themed chapters. With each focused on interrelated topics with the principles and thinking well-presented and supported through the use of info-graphics and supporting text pitched at an appropriate level for the non-specialist. The presentation of some traditionally tricky physics is dealt with intelligently and thoughtfully. All of which allows the reader to access a deeper comprehension and, with diligence, understanding of what goes on when designing, building, riding and racing a bicycle. Experts, fear not! The book contains, as all books of this type should, a very detailed reference and further-reading list with web links if available. I certainly appreciate the huge amount of research Max Glaskin undertook.

Reading this book, be it from cover-to-cover or dipping into it as the mood takes you, can only enhance the experience of cycling, in whatever form you may take it.

An unexpected bonus … One for you teachers and students of physics out there.

Several of my A-level and Advanced Higher Level International Baccalaureate students asked to have a look at the book (I was flicking through whilst they modelled the ‘head’ decay constant of several local beers). They were still engrossed in the book over an hour later having read through their lunch break – so much for the uninformed opinions concerning student concentration spans these days! As one enthused teen, with no previous interest in cycling, pointed out…

“This would have been perfect for the A-Level mechanics and materials unit. Where can I get a copy?”

Another, this time an IB student, politely requested to use the science within as a foundation for an investigation. It didn’t take long for me to agree and I can’t wait to see what research proposal he comes up with.

Both ordered that night and the former has since, after a hiatus lasting since his primary years, started riding a bike to and from school; Heady and immediate success indeed. Others are following in this pairs pioneering tyre tracks! Me? Well, I am one happy teacher of physics! Imagine the experiments and contextualisation of theory we will be doing now that I have a physics lab full self-motivated and cycling obsessed young scientists. Oh, and a ready supply of bicycles and willing ‘volunteers’ too!

So, why all this fuss and hyperbole?

This book delves far deeper than the usual training manuals and guides we are all used to. The science covered is always pertinently focused but also ranges far and wide, often revealing, and revelling in, the unexpected. Fundamental physics, engineering principles, materials science, human anatomy and physiology, statistics, sociology are, along with other fields, the spring boards used to leap into the story of the bicycle and its riders.

So what will you learn by reading this book?

As ever I’m loath to give too much of the detail away – I certainly had several ’aha! so that’s what’s going on’, and ’ooh, I’ve never thought of it that way before’ moments. I have decided to give you, good reader of all things pedal powered, a taste of the questions posed, and answered. An amuse-bouche-bicyclette if you like!


Fundamentals: chapter one introduces and asks several fundamental questions. “What are the forces acting upon a bicycle?” What is a bike – its components? “How efficient is a bike or why is it easier to ride than walk?” “Which bike should I choose (what is the most efficient design?)” “Why are men’s and women’s bikes different?” “What are the environmental impacts of cycling?” “Can cycling help me live longer?” “How risky is travelling by bike?” How much power can a cyclist generate?” “How can I compute the power output?” “Does a tandem have scientific advantages?” Along the way some beautiful physics and wider science is woven seamlessly into the context of bike and rider. Force & inertia, energy efficiency, power, the conservation of energy and the laws of thermodynamics and gender specific anatomy and physiology, are all introduced and developed a little deep than expected for such a friendly tome. Many myths are laid to rest along the way as the chapter ’…lays down a broad, smooth track for the journey ahead.’

Strength & Stability: the second chapter describes the physics that makes the bike – your bike – work so well (and not collapse beneath you – as happened to me in Shanghai!) We’ve all asked ourselves how much load our bike can take and this is where the chapter begins. You’ll even be able to estimate the stress acting on the various parts of your bike as you change position. There is then a fine treatment of material science – a very useful introduction to the field it proves to be. Stress (what you do to the material), strain (how that material behaves when you do things to it), the elastic limit (that sickening moment when the bars and tubes no longer return to their original dimensions… as recently experienced!), the Young’s modulus (the relationship between stress and strain) and, finally ultimate tensile strength… Or how close are you to actually breaking your frame (another recent, ahem, incident on a local track makes me wish I’d done my sums before pretending to be a rubbish version of Sir Chris Hoy!) all provide a solid foundation for the remainder of this long chapter. Our focus alights on frame geometry and bike fit – a very useful size chart is included, along with component specific energy and power efficiency (frame twist and crank deflection, etc) and then moves into suspension and the ever controversial self-stabilising dynamic models of the moving bicycle. This latter is worth a book in itself. The chapter concludes with a detailed, and fun, treatment of cornering, counter steering and the equilibrium of forces required in keeping you off the tarmac. The author doesn’t limit himself to two-wheels.

Materials: here we have succinct, ahem, material evidence for the ingenuity of the plethora of engineers behind the bicycle. The opening takes a novel approach, staring as it does with the fundamental states of matter and then plunging into the atomic structure and bonding of commonly used materials. Tubing follows; their diameters and, for me a very interesting knowledge gap filler, how they are held together. I couldn’t spot any reference to the precision of milling of the miter joint – the quality of which, an old time builder told me, adds a great deal to the strength of the frame? Polymers and carbon construction continue the journey which then flows into fluids, in all their guises; manufacturing, gas pressures (and how they affect riding), et al, then return us to the starting concept with the introduction of another state of matter, plasma – and why it may well play an important role in the future of bike materials. This is very novel contextual application of this ’fourth state’ and is well explained and supported by some vividly imagined and sketched diagrams: never an easy thing to do when trying to visualise such complexity in two-dimensions.


Chapter four is one for you speed merchants out there… Power! Where it is generated and where it is lost. The author starts by asking the obvious question, ‘how does a bike turn effort into speed?’ The pages dealing with foot-pedal interface and gearing efficiency caused me to rethink the paucity of my own shifts! The oft-ignored but ever vital chain is given the clean-up it deserves, and is brought bang up to date with the support of some very contemporary research. Again, much food for thought for the elite riders and coaches (but I’m sure Chris Boardman is fully up to speed). Wheel weight & mass distribution, spoke tension, tyres, braking, bearings – and as I desperately need a new wheel-set this is very pertinent – are well presented and contextualised, supported ably by some basic physics ranging from the typical simplified Newton’s 2nd Law (F=ma & Ƭ=lα), mechanical advantage and moment of inertia to harmonics and fundamental frequencies. Sigh, physics and cycling… bliss!

Chapter five is the main issue for the racer out there:  aerodynamics – how to push the air out of the way as easily and quickly as possible. I think I heard Chris Boardman, that man again, state recently that up to 80-85% of energy transferred by a racing cyclist is used to overcome that most insidious of opponents: air resistance… What a drag! We have all read about the pro’s and the many hours they spend undergoing wind tunnel testing – just look at the transformation in form of Vincenzo Nibali (2013 Giro d’Italia, stage 8.) Well, if you’ve ever wondered what dark arts they apply then this is the chapter for you. Not a single aspect of aerodynamics is overlooked and all concepts are, as usual, made accessible.

This excellent book closes by covering the one thing only hinted at so far… The human factor. I’ll be honest and admit that I read this first in a desperate attempt to find some secret, long hidden, key that would allow my 90 kg+ to get up hills faster than a sophomoric sloth! I really should know better! The chapter opens by introducing, clearly and simply, all the body systems involved. Anatomy, physiology, neurology and psychology, etc., are all interlinked. Many of the more recent issues in cycling are well treated. Especially interesting was the direct comparison the books format allowed me to make between altitude training and the cheats alternative, ’blood boosting.’ The short, medium and indeed long terms benefits to heart, lungs, body and mind, of riding a bike, especially with regards to regular high intensity training (rather topical this) is persuasively presented.

“Cycling protects against the long term risks of coronary heart disease, no matter how long you cycle each day – but cycling faster is better!”

Max Glaskin is an award-winning science and technology journalist with a special interest in cycling. He has contributed to a vast range of publications. He co-founded the Mountain Bike Club (of GB) and ran it for five years to help launch the sport. He has cycled over the Greater Himalaya and danced for the Queen as a member of the Bicycle Ballet!


Cycling Science Cycling Science
 – How Rider and Machine Work Together by Max Glaskin Cycling Shorts Rating

CyclingShorts Rating: Star Buy! – 100%: Read it: think, apply – ride smoothly, efficiently and swiftly!


Cycling Science – How rider and machine work together

Max Glaskin

Hardback Price: RRP £20.00

ISBN 978-0-7112-3359-1