Single Secret of Successful Cycling – and Science

Maybe my whole premise isn’t right – that aerospace engineers and cyclists have an affinity. The only examples I have are myself, the Wright Brothers and Professor Dan DeBra.

If I were an HVAC installer who happened to ride a bike, chances are I’d know other HVAC guys who were bike riders, and think there was some mystic link between HVAC and cycling. And in fact, only a small percentage of all the aerospace guys I know do any exercise at all, let alone biking.

But I know in my own psyche the two go together.

I used to think it was a fascination with minimalism. Aerospace engineering is all about ridding the thing of mass. A 100,000 pound rocket has a payload of a few hundred pounds maximum. If the rocket comes in 1% too heavy, it can’t carry anything into orbit. A good bicycle comes in less than 10% the weight of its rider. Grams count.

But there’s something much more fundamental.

A scientist is constantly striving for a result – a definite link from smoking to lung cancer, a measure of how much water is on the moon, evidence of a new subatomic particle. Yet the key to successful science is to gather minute elements of information while drawing no conclusions – or drawing every possible conclusion and eliminating only those that systematically do not jive with the data.

This means only two types of people can succeed as scientists.

Either they have to be disinterested in a conclusion, content to gather data forever – they would be science bureaucrats. The pressure to publish tends to wash this element out. Or they are comfortable being fixated on a goal, but never rushing the process to reach it.

This dissonant tension was most evident in one of my mentors. At the end of each 12 or 14 hour day of tedium doing high precision thermodynamic measurements, Bill would light up his 20th or 40th cigarette of the day and say “I think we’ve pushed the frontiers of science back today – maybe 1 millimeter”. Then he would recant “but probably not.”

Exhausted and now frustrated I’d ask – why not?

“Because a millimeter is detectable, and I don’t think we’ve made any discernible progress.”

My mentor was taming his desire to make progress and reach important conclusions in favor of doing careful, impartial work which could be spoiled if we became too sure of what its conclusions might be.

It isn’t just scientific research that frustrates the natural desire to reach a conclusion. A radio engineer cannot build a complex transmitter and receiver in a day or a week. Despite the strong desire to realize the cool new product, the engineer’s mind every day is on just the circuit element being designed, doing that piece of the puzzle just right, and not rushing to achieve the final goal.

The ability to have a goal, and be content not to make much progress towards it, is what links scientists with long distance cyclists.

The longest day of your life on a bike is starting a ride in order to conclude it – whether it’s 15 miles or 150. Ticking off tenths of a mile and calculating how many remain and how long that will take at current speed is maddening and mind-numbing. Better to focus on keeping the pedals going around, navigating a straight, safe path, and becoming a cyclist in the Zen sense.

Don’t think about progress or goals, think about process and the present. If you think about destinations, not just boredom will defeat you. You’ll tend to rush, believing that higher speed equates to less time en route. All else equal, that is true, but the result of speeding up is tiring out more quickly, more rest stops, and the possibility of a serious bonk – which can lead to quitting the attempt.

Rushing is not a good thing over a week of 100+ mile rides. Faced with over 3 weeks of racing, even the superhuman riders of the Tour de France take most of its days relatively easy, riding in the peloton and striving only not to lose ground to the day’s leaders.

The dissonance is between the desire to get to the hotel, a shower and food vs. the reality: turning the pedals, ensuring you’re on the right road, and keeping the wheels rolling at whatever rate is possible as the sun moves from East to Zenith to West, as the rains come down, as clouds and wind cool you and sometimes buffet you to a near stop.

I have met a few long distance cyclists who are as lean and muscular as Olympic marathoners.

But I’ve met many more who are overweight, physically unimpressive middle aged men and women riding ordinary equipment. Their talent is not to climb an 8% grade at 16 mph. It is to be content to climb that grade in their lowest granny gear at less than walking speed so as not to tire out. They love the process of cycling, they are content to live in its eternal present. And they understand the power of patience. No matter how slowly those wheels turn, if they are turning, eventually, days, weeks, or months later, a goal will be reached.

Which is more than you can say for science.



5 Responses to “Single Secret of Successful Cycling – and Science”

  1. Marge Fiore Says:

    Hi Rick!
    I know a couple of aerospace engineers that ride bikes. Most of them are what I call “equipment geeks”, i.e. they MUST buy the latest, coolest, strongest, lightest sprockets, wheels, gears, bearings, frame…. You get the picture, and the technology crossover.

    My husband (who I am proud and happy to say that I converted fully into a bicycle rider when we first met) is a different sort of engineer/bike rider. He actually rides just to stay fit in spite of the desk job, and rides an old-fashioned upright-style bike (easier on the lower back) with a basket on the handlebars! It’s all about functionality as a carrying vehicle and a comfortable workout.

    This is the first time I have run into your blog! I have to agree with Arthur Clarke. I think you will satisfy your writing jones here, and go no further if you aren’t careful. Pace yourself!

  2. Alan Harbitter Says:

    As a supporting actor in “Travels of…” I’m obliged to comment. I do not consider myself a long distance cyclist. I’m a cyclist who gets suckered into long rides by Rick. Rick often quotes Dan Debra and credits him with the sage credo: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” I really like that credo and that may be why I’ve on occasion succumbed to Rick’s goading to accompany him to New York City or Deep Creek Lake or wherever, on bike.

    I’m a computer scientist, but I draw no connection between that discipline and cycling. There are a lot of computer scientist cyclists, but hey, there are a lot computer scientists. So no statistical significance there. What I like is that every ride is an adventure. And when you’re on a long ride and you suddenly (suddenly after many hours) find yourself in the middle of bumfuck nowhere with just your legs and 17 pounds of assorted metals, plastics, and rubber… that’s incredible feeling of self reliance. You might have a cellular phone. But you might not have a celluar signal. And the only way to get back to someplace where you’ll get one is to keep turning those cranks around. I could probably get the same kind of feeling from other adventure sports. But I love cycling–a sport over which Rick and I have become very good friends.

  3. Melissa Says:

    You know of at least one other aerospace engineer/cyclist (Darren – he bikes 50 miles a day to the office), and he knows a whole bunch of cycling engineers. My experience with both aerospace engineers and cyclists is limited to people that I’ve met through him, but I’ve come to see these two groups as creating a Ven diagram with a very large overlap. I don’t understand the affinity between the two…

  4. Rick Fleeter Says:

    At Stanford there was a lot of aerospace Guidance and Control work to make robotic bicyclsts that could balance and ride – eventually no-handed became the real challenge.

    Other aerospace bicycle interests:
    – Paul McCredy put a lot of work into aerdynamics of the rider, clothes, bike
    – fitting a flywheel on a bike to get it to balance w/o training wheels
    – putting aerospace materials to work on bikes – like the carbon frame

    Aerospace engineering can be a pretty slow and bureaucratic process. So maybe the attraction of a bike is you can take the same ideas and methods and use them in your basement w/o “help” from the USAF and Aerospace Corporation, and no MIL-Specs. I always wondered if my original bite of Eve’s apple was to give up bike repair and race wheel building (talk about lost arts) to get some aerospace engineering degrees.

  5. Sarah Wright Says:

    Well, there was a time in my life when I made a concerted effort to learn to like cycling. If I recall correctly, it was on a bike that Rick once owned. It didn’t take. I much prefer walking. But I have always enjoyed and appreciated Rick’s writing ability (anyone who is curious can ask him about geology 101, PLA, and a steak dinner), and enjoyed and appreciated Rick’s writing.

    Rick – this is a great site. I hope you’ll write more on this blog to give us wannabe writers and philosophers more opportunity to post back. Boof Boof!

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