Cycling Science

This article was published in 2017, in Newsletter 132.

23 March 2017

Lecturers from the Cambridge Centre for Sport & Exercise Science (CCSES) at Anglia Ruskin University gave a talk on Cycling Science as part of the Cambridge Festival of Science.

The introduction by course leader Dr Dan Gordon soon made it clear that their focus was on competitive cycling (pointing out that when the Tour de France began in 1903 it was basically an experiment – was it even possible to ride that far?) – there was essentially no mention of the kind of utility cycling that Camcycle exists to promote. Indeed, I only saw one familiar face from Camcycle meetings.

Nevertheless, Dr Matt Timmis spoke on his research, funded by the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation, on barriers to children cycling to school (just 3% in the UK – although 50% say they want to). Not surprisingly, one major barrier is parental perceptions, and he’s developing videos to help train children in hazard perception. Good stuff, but he lost me at the start when he said it was good to see so many helmets there. What was that about? Obviously we were all cyclists, so did he mean that it was good to see lots of sporty types, or does he seriously think that we should all wear urban-warrior gear? Clearly the kind of cycling around town that most of our members spend most of their time doing isn’t actually on their radar at CCSES.

The following two talks were both full of solid science for those who want to race further and faster. Dr Justin Roberts, a nutritionist and former Ironman competitor, stressed that most cycling athletes simply aren’t taking in enough fuel – largely due to eating too much too close to the ride. In the hour or so before a ride you should only eat an energy bar or sports gel, it seems – and pasta-boosting should definitely be kept for the night before. Some cyclists even admit that they skipped breakfast altogether, trying to fit work and sport into busy lives. The big difference between them and professional riders, though, is not just that the pros get the timing right but that they eat the best quality food – natural, fresh, wholemeal.

Dan Gordon returned to amuse us with tales of his track-sprinting days and to talk about the totally different physiology of time-triallers. Most of them cycle 700km a week on average, but most of it is at (relatively) low intensity, i.e. at 70-75% of maximum heart rate. A higher pedalling cadence is more effective, and is becoming standard technique, but the body does have to be trained to it. Likewise, when George, a human guinea-pig, was wired up on a static bike, he found it harder going bent forward than in an upright position (owing to occlusion of the femoral artery), but the body can adapt to the more aerodynamic position.

At the end, the first question was whether milk is good for recovery? Yes was the answer (chocolate and banana varieties being popular, unsurprisingly). All in all, there was useful information here mixed in with a lack of interest in how most of us in Cambridge actually ride. But of course the point about normal cycling in normal clothes is that you also eat your normal diet. As it happens, I’d returned that very afternoon from a week in North Wales when I’d combined work with cycling (from Chester to Bala and back), and I’d found that hotel breakfasts and dinners were just right for hauling a smallish load up some steep little hills and usually into a chilly headwind. Not much need for scientists there!

Tim Burford