Bicycle Nerd Alert: 7 Fascinating Facts About Bikes

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Some more grist for my “Cycling Can Save The World” religion, Courtesy of Popular Mechanics. For example:

Put a person on a bicycle and they become the most efficient creature on Earth. No other living thing can expend so little energy for so much self-powered travel. And that’s just when riding along level ground. When a person rides downhill, the free energy from gravity reduces the demand on the human body even more.

If a cyclist and a pedestrian expend the same amount of energy, the efficiency of the bicycle means the cyclist will be traveling three times as fast. At an average walking pace, the walker uses more than six times the amount of metabolic energy above the resting level compared to the cyclist.

Running is four times as energy-greedy, and neither they nor other self-propelled athletes, even the world’s fastest, can keep up with a top cyclist. Usain Bolt ran at 23.35 mph in the 2009 Berlin World Championships, but for less than 10 seconds. Speed skater Jeremy Wotherspoon set a world record of 32.87 mph over a 547-yard course. But no athlete could run or skate the 35.03 miles that Chris Boardman rode in one hour at the Manchester (U.K.) velodrome in 1996.

I like this one, too:

The more people cycle, the safer the roads seem to become. That’s not just true for cyclists—it’s true for all road users, even drivers confounded by the influx of bikes.

In Portland, Ore., all deaths from traffic accidents declined from 46 to 28 per year between 1997 and 2007, while the number of cycling trips quadrupled to total 6 percent of all journeys by 2007. Similarly, cycle use in the Netherlands increased by 45 percent from 1977 to 1997, while cyclists’ deaths fell by almost 40 percent. In Berlin, between 1990 and 2007, the share of bicycle trips doubled to 10 percent while serious injuries to cyclists fell by 38 percent.

The phenomenon of safety in numbers is not so hard to understand. A growth in the number of cyclists makes them more visible, and drivers change their behavior accordingly. Cities are more likely to provide safer road designs and facilities for cyclists when there are more of them about. And when some drivers switch to cycling, it means there are fewer cars on the road, which reduces the chances of anyone colliding with a high-speed chunk of metal.

Read them all, though!

Cycling Will Save The World: Reason #463

So it’s not only good for your health, it’s good for your brain.

No surprise here, of course, or for anyone who is a devoted cyclist, and equates a good ride with maintaining sanity.

But it is pretty impressive when you take a look at the evident mental benefits:

Several studies have shown that exercises including cycling make us smarter. Danish scientists who set out to measure the benefits of breakfast and lunch among children found diet helped but that the way pupils travelled to school was far more significant. Those who cycled or walked performed better in tests than those who had travelled by car or public transport, the scientists reported last month. Another study by the University of California in Los Angeles showed that old people who were most active had 5 per cent more grey matter than those who were least active, reducing their risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

But what is about cycling that leads me to believe it has a peculiar effect? John Ratey is a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He can’t point to a specific reason but says he has seen patients whose severe depression has all but disappeared after they started to cycle.

Rhythm may explain some of the effects. “Think about it evolutionarily for a minute,” he says. “When we had to perform physically, those who could find an altered state and not experience the pain or a drag on endurance would have been at an advantage. Cycling is also increasing a lot of the chemistry in your brain that make you feel peaceful and calm.”

At the same time, the focus required to operate a bicycle, and for example, to negotiate a junction or jostle for space in a race, can be a powerful medicine. Dr Ratey cites a study his department is currently conducting. More than 20 pupils with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are expected to show improved symptoms after a course of cycling.

The link between cycling and ADHD is well established. It’s “like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” Dr Ratey says. Ritalin is a stimulant commonly used to treat ADHD in children by boosting levels of neural transmitters. Exercise can achieve the same effect, but not all exercise is equal.

In a German study involving 115 students at a sports academy, half the group did activities such as cycling that involved complex co-ordinated movements. The rest performed simpler exercises with the same aerobic demands. Both groups did better than they had in concentration tests, but the “complex” group did a lot better.

Cycling has even been shown to change the structure of the brain. In 2003, Dr Jay Alberts, a neuroscientist at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute in Ohio, rode a tandem bicycle across the state with a friend who has Parkinson’s to raise awareness of the disease. To the surprise of both riders, the patient showed significant improvements.

Dr Alberts conducted an experiment, the results of which were reported last month. He scanned the brains of 26 Parkinson’s patients during and a month after an eight-week exercise programme using stationary bikes.

Half the patients were allowed to ride at their own pace, while the others were pushed incrementally harder, just as the scientist’s tandem companion had been. All patients improved and the “tandem” group showed significant increases in connectivity between areas of grey matter responsible for motor ability. Cycling, and cycling harder, was helping to heal their brains.

I’d say this certainly qualifies as severe mental stimulation (saw this on the plane home this week; ridiculous in most respects, though redeemed entirely by the sheer pleasure of watching the riding sequences):