Several people emailed me with a link to this article in Scientific American.
I am familiar with some of the people and the work outlined in the article, because five years ago I wrote a piece about it.
Jim Papodopoulis, (Left.) featured in much of the Scientific American article, wrote an extremely lengthy 2,200 word response in the comments section and invited me to reply.
At the time I stated that I was not prepared to write a similar length reply, but would discuss the subject over the phone. There never was a follow up phone call.
There is an old British saying that goes, ‘Bull shit baffles brains.’ And clever sounding waffle can impress, especially if published in a notable magazine. But analyze the piece and it says nothing of value. The SA article states:
Everybody knows how to ride a bike, but nobody knows how we ride bikes.
Of course there are people who know how we ride bikes, but most just do and don’t try to over think it. One of the purposes of this blog is to explain the workings of a bicycle in a simple manner.
So how do we balance on a bike? The gyroscopic action of the spinning wheels is only one little piece of the equation. Actually, when riding slowly, (As slow as you possibly can.) The slowly turning wheels generate hardly any gyroscopic force, and so have little or no effect on staying upright.
It is a simple balancing act, like balancing an upturned broom on your hand. You constantly move your hand to keep it under the center of mass. (The broom head.)
In fact it is easier to balance a broom than it is to balance a broom handle without the head. Therein lies a clue. It is because the center of mass is high above the palm of your hand. Just as when riding a bike the center of mass, (The rider’s body.) is some four feet above the point of contact. (The tires on the road.)
It is almost impossible to ride a bike slowly in a straight line. It is a constant steering the bike left and right to keep the wheels directly under the center of mass. You can even ride slowly ‘no hands.’ It then takes movement of the hips and upper body to remain balanced. Much the same way as riding a skate board, which has very little gyroscopic help from its tiny wheels, or a surf board that has no wheels.
Then as you gather speed it is the momentum of the body’s mass that keeps you upright and going straight. The faster you go the easier it is to balance and to steer left and right by simply leaning left and right. A surfer too, when going slow is constantly moving his body to stay upright. As soon as he catches a big wave and is traveling at speed, he easily stays upright and steers left and right by leaning in that direction.
So how we balance on a bike is no huge mystery, it is a kin to surfing, skating, and many other human activities that become second nature with a little practice. And yes, things like frame geometry and gyroscopic action enter into it. Here is a link to a previous article I wrote on head angles and steering, that explains further. It also explains counter steer, which according to the Scientific American article is another mystery that no one knows about.
I did a quick YouTube search to see if there was any progress on the work on the “Riderless Bike.” I found this little video from last year.
The bicycle, one of the simplest and most efficient machines ever invented by man. Two wheels make it efficient, more efficient than three or four wheels that most other vehicles need to stay upright.
For all useful purposes it requires a rider in order to stay upright. And although it will stay upright for a brief moment without one, if it does not have a rider, what is the point of a bicycle or motorcycle? It is not a practical vehicle to carry anything other than a human passenger.
The bicycle is a mechanical extension of the human body. Riding one is a simple skill that even a small child can master. Once learned it becomes intuitive, a skill that lasts a lifetime, no more difficult than walking or running.
The bicycle has changed little over the 130 odd years since the chain driven bike appeared. There is a reason for that. It has to do with the old saying that goes. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even if the math doesn’t add up.
I believe science, in this case, is trying to find answers to problems that don’t exist. The fact that the world wide bike industry is not exactly lining up to buy into the new tech is another clue that nobody cares.