In our neck of the engineering-sports world, real technical information is hard to come by. No conspiracy at work, just the simple, elegant way bicycles get the job done. For example, when they get sick, repairs or replacement is easy. No need for entire industry just to fix them.
Furthermore, you can go into the bicycle making business with just a few fundamentals. You need customers. They can be your isolated country, or ethnic community, or high flying income strata. You need manufacturing assets, but most bike mechanisms are basic metal working, very mature processes, easy to manage. Finally, you need business skills: to price, promote, and distribute efficiently. Those apply to nearly every commodity and go back to the earliest days of commerce.
What about the bike itself, you may say? With an auto, or smart phone, or medical device you must have cutting edge technology. Anything less is failure. With bikes, you can simply imitate designs and aesthetic that are decades old. Thoughtful copying is the backbone of cycling and makes barriers to entry low and keeps everything relatively safe and predictable.
So, I guess that’s why technical discussions rarely appear outside of misleading marketing campaigns. Where are our technical forums? They have come and gone but, today, they’re mostly gone: Bike Tech, Bike Science; and there’s rec.bicycles.tech (mostly a free for all). Our industry can’t support (aka, doesn’t require) a public, journal quality medium to explore how things work.
Trust me, however, this will soon change. In the meantime (today), let’s celebrate the few solid works we have on our subject. One that has eluded general discussion is a fabulous textbook for a beginning material science college course of study: The Bicycle and the Walkman.
C.J. McMahon and C.D. Graham created, in 1995, a fabulous introduction to materials that covers both structural (bicycle spokes) and electrical (the walkman) properties. What better way to learn than discussing mechanisms with which all the students are intimately familiar? Darned, 20 years too late for me. This is the last word on and the closest look at steel wire spokes you’ll ever need.
These two fine authors teach at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The book found its way to my attention shortly after publication and, boy, did it ring true. Jon and I had spent some years studying bicycle spoke function at Stanford, in the Department of Material Science. None of our work, conducted with the wise assistance of Prof Drew Nelson, was published but the findings were consistent with McMahon and Graham.
An unintended message of the book resonated powerfully with us. The increasing importance of microstructure (analysis, understanding) in material science. After all, bicycle spokes are cold formed wire in simple tension. But, for us working with Prof Nelson, microstructure held the secrets about how they work and why some fail. The Stanford department had only recently (early 1980’s) changed its name from Department of Metallurgy to Material Science. The focus was broadening and microstructure was the frontier.
From that department, one faculty member, Craig Barrett, left and co-founded Intel. This was the dawn of silicon chips, built on the microstructure insights that were pouring out of material science. Cycling, in a small way, caught those coat tails and received some of the benefits.
When McMahon and Graham penned their book in 1995, those studies had made giant leaps forward from the ’80’s. And combining bikes with electronics was more than a clever way to attract student attention. We all know the composites of the future are becoming microscopically engineered and will include electron flow for data, energy, movement etc. in their basic structure. And then rapid prototyping, too? Welcome to Star Trek.
Amazon sells used copies of this cool book. If you have the slightest interest in advancing your understanding of bicycle spokes, buy one today. It’s not dense, reads more easily than most Scientific American articles.
Don’t be afraid to know more about bicycle wheels. The closer you get, the more mesmerizing they become.