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The (Still) Mysterious Physics of Riding a Bike

A new study comes closer to cracking the code.
The partiers at the 2013 Santa Cruz Bike Party are balancing fine.
The partiers at the 2013 Santa Cruz Bike Party are balancing fine.Flickr/Richard Masoner

Science nearly has bicycles figured out. Researchers have a good grasp on why bikes can balance by themselves, and are getting better at keeping them standing up in bike share stations. What’s less understood, says Stephen Cain, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is how people stay on bicycles.

On the surface, it’s a strange space for scientific analysis. Most people know how to ride a bike—about 94 percent of Americans, according to a recent survey. There seem to be few big-budget industries that stand to gain by understanding the evidently complex biomechanics of riding. Furthermore, researchers already understand the most basic basics of biking: riders keep their center of mass over the wheels, using steering and body movements (a lean here, a lean there) to guide this, the most elegant of machines.