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Wheels of Wonder

From dockless bike sharing and electric bikes to puncture-proof solid tires and lightweight disk brakes, bicycle technology has come a long way from the traditional Schwinn cruiser of the 1930s – let alone from the 1858 velocipede nicknamed “Boneshaker.”

Bicycles are a $6 billion-a-year industry in the United States, with many models imported from China and Taiwan. And engineers play a major role in advancing design. Recumbent bikes, for example, owe their popularity to MIT mechanical engineering professor David Gordon Wilson, who organized one of the first recumbent bike contests and was invited to edit Bicycle Science, the bible of bicycle design and MIT Press’s most popular work. University of Nevada, Reno, mechanical engineering professor Eric Wang, an avid cyclist and racer, has a Ph.D. in bike design and has helped improve suspension systems and helmets, among other innovations.

Engineering students also have come up with ingenious designs, like the Milwaukee School of Engineering undergraduates who developed, among other prototypes, a hands-free recumbent bike. Stanford undergraduates learn to build their own bikes in Mechanical Engineering 204 – one of the most popular courses in the Product Realization Lab. And Ohio State grad students designed a bike for a girl who couldn’t operate traditional brakes with her malformed hands.

Then there’s the University of Toronto team that founded Aerovelo, designer of the world’s fastest pedal bike, the Eta. The egg-shaped, aerodynamic Eta clocked world records four times, most recently in 2015 at 89.59 mph. The race track is Battle Mountain, Nevada, where the annual World Human Powered Speed Challenge is held on one of the fastest, flattest, straightest roads on earth.

Despite such advances, bicycles still hold mysteries. “Everybody knows how to ride a bike, but nobody knows how we ride bikes,” Mont Hubbard, an engineer who studies sports mechanics at the University of California, Davis, told Nature in 2016. The article, entitled “The Bicycle Problem that Nearly Broke Mathematics,” was about the work of an engineer from Massachusetts named Jim Papadopoulos who has pondered the math of bikes in motion his whole life.

Jim Papadopoulos on his bike

Jim, on his bike.

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