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.