Jun 032018

Today is World Bicycle Day, one of the newest celebratory days announced by the UN. It was approved just 2 months ago on April 12th, 2018. Generally speaking, I find the avalanche of UN “special” days along with similar celebratory days announced by separate nations to be a bit over the top, but I go along with some of them because they give me the chance to promote certain causes that I think are worthy. Well . . . I think the bicycle is eminently praiseworthy. As the UN resolution notes, it is a highly sustainable mode of transportation, and it is highly efficient also. I’ve been a bike rider for 53 years (with gaps) and have one now at 67 years old. My bike gets me around easily and quickly, costs next to nothing to operate, does not pollute, and keeps me fit. I’d say win-win-win-win. When I was a teen, before I was able to drive a car, I had a bike that gave me complete autonomy from my parents and from public transportation. Now, in retirement, I have the same experience (slightly modified). I don’t need a car, and I don’t have to rely on local buses, tuk-tuks, whatever, to get me around. Also win-win.

The draft resolution for the UN was prepared by a committee representing Belarus, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Viet Nam, a broad enough band of countries around the world to show the universal appeal of the bicycle. Using the bicycle as a convenient (and cheap) way of getting around has definitely diminished over the course of my lifetime in both the developed and the developing world, but it still has its appeal. Rather ironically, in the 1970s, when I lived in Oxford in England, the huge majority of workers at the Morris Oxford plant in Cowley rode bicycles to work. I also remember a time when the roads in cities in coastal Holland were filled with bicycles, and the Dutch even had a system of free bike sharing, which has been emulated in many countries worldwide. Bicycle tourism was, and still is, a big deal. Just this past month, my hostel in Nepal was invaded by cyclists from Poland who were cycling in stages around the world, and when I got to Italy, the town where I was staying had a major bicycle rally on the day I arrived. Then there’s the Tour de France and its many imitators, attracting millions of spectators on the course and on television. The bicycle is a staple of modern life worldwide, yet it needs a bit of boosterism these days because in most places bikes are now in the (dwindling) minority of road users. This may have to do with the fact that people in the West nowadays would rather pay for transport that involves no physical effort (and then pay for gym membership to do their work outs – if they work out at all). But there must be other factors as well.

The common bicycle in use today was invented in the 1880s. Prior to that time, as shown in the gallery above, bicycles were typically driven by pedals on the front wheel. This setup caused a conflict between using the front wheel for both power and steering. The problem was solved by placing the pedals below the rider and linking them by chain to the back wheel, thus separating power and steering. John Kemp Starley produced the first successful “safety bicycle” (that is, rear wheel chain driven bicycle), the “Rover,” in 1885, which he never patented. It featured a steerable front wheel that had significant caster (rake of the front forks for ease of steering), equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel.

The safety bicycle completely replaced the high-wheeler in North America and Western Europe by 1890 because it became usable as a mode of transportation, and not simply a toy or novelty item. Meanwhile, John Dunlop’s reinvention of the pneumatic bicycle tire in 1888 had made for a much smoother ride on paved streets. The previous types were quite smooth-riding, when used on the dirt roads common at the time. Safety bicycles had been much less comfortable than high-wheelers precisely because of the smaller wheel size, and frames were often buttressed with complicated bicycle suspension spring assemblies. The pneumatic tire made all of these obsolete, and frame designers found a diamond pattern to be the strongest and most efficient design.

To me, the marvel of the bicycle is its mechanical efficiency (which you know instinctively if you are a bike rider). From a mechanical standpoint, up to 99% of the energy delivered by the rider to the pedals is transmitted to the wheels (provided all the moving parts are clean and well lubricated), although the use of gearing mechanisms reduces this by 1-7% (clean, well-lubricated derailleurs), 4-12% (chain with 3-speed hubs), or 10-20% (shaft drive with 3-speed hubs). The higher efficiencies in each range are achieved at higher power levels and in direct drive (hub gears) or with large driven cogs (derailleurs). A human being traveling on a bicycle at 16–24 km/h (10–15 mph), using only the power required to walk, is the most energy-efficient means of human transport generally available. On firm, flat ground, a 70 kg (150 lb) person requires about 60 watts to walk at 5 km/h (3.1 mph), that is, normal walking pace. That same person on a bicycle, on the same ground, with the same power output, can travel at 15 km/h (9.3 mph) using an ordinary bicycle, so in these conditions the energy expenditure of cycling is one-third of walking.

I don’t do a lot of long bike rides in a day, but I do some. I spent several days biking around the Alps in Slovenia and Austria 2 years ago, and earlier this year I did a 45 km afternoon run in hot weather (100˚F/39˚C) around sites in northwestern Cambodia. Cycling is a good way to see a lot of countryside up close. Better by far than walking or taking a bus or car. Not only do you have a lot of freedom – being able to stop and look around when you want – but you are also very intimately connected to the environment (same as walking, but faster). For long bike rides, nutrition is important (not to mention proper hydration). I drink a lot, and I usually take some kind of a sandwich cut in small-ish units, so that I can eat little and often. Having a full belly is never a good idea on a long bike ride, but neither is having low energy.

Typically, I make a white bread baguette filled with what is good locally. White bread lacks the nutrients of whole-grain breads, but the simple carbs are broken down more easily by your body. True to form, I like to mix a lot of different ingredients into the filling; monotony is never a good thing. Put in some protein for muscle repair, and whatever else gets your fancy. My last one was ham, Roquefort, and fresh figs. I tend to stay away from ingredients, such as tomatoes, that will make the bread soggy on a long trip. Once you have made the sandwich, cut it into small pieces and wrap them separately.