My Interviews



The following is a series of phone conversations I had with MIT professor emeritus of engineering, David Gordon Wilson, in early 2009. It is no small recollection to me that one of David's books, Bicycling Science, was partly instrumental in pulling me to starting thinking and writing about technical cycling topics on what is now my discontinued bicycling blog, Cozy Beehive. I also happen to have Dr. Wilson's seminal text in turbomachinery design and have enjoyed the fresh take on the design of efficient turbomachines. I hope you will enjoy this five part series of Q&A with a great intellectual and one of human power's great technical souls. Blogger isn't a particularly powerful platform for moving posts across blogs, therefore I hope you will forgive any text formatting discrepancies which may have crept in.


Published on April 27, 2009

Last week, I had the honor to chat over the phone with Prof. David Gordon Wilson of MIT. It was an initiative I took as something told me I had to find out how he's doing and what he's up to these days, at the same time capturing some of his views and experiences on cycling, past and present.

Prof. Wilson is to the recumbent HPV as perhaps Gary Fisher is to mountain biking. A keen hiker and bicyclist, he was a former president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, and was editor of its journal Human Power from 1984 - 2002. During this time, he also taught engineering design, turbo-machinery and heat exchanger design to students at MIT. One of the many feathers in his cap was the Avatar-2000, a recumbent bicycle he co-designed with Fomac Inc. It won the non-UCI world bicycle speed record twice, 1982-1983.

While these things may not be quite familiar to people who don't know him well, his name is most popularly associated with the seminal text Bicycling Science, a book that acquired an almost cult like status after it was published by MIT Press in 1974. Flushing away previously held myth and folklore, it shed light into the physics and engineering of bicycles and steered the way for better technical understanding of the subject. This, together with some other supplementing events, stamped the official authority of bicycle 'guru-ship' on him.

Today, the book has undergone 3 revisions and is still studied and quoted from by cyclists and enthusiasts world over. I personally remember the occasions when I would borrow this book from my college library and sit on it for days. So much was my interest to read and understand this text that I got fined on several occasions by the library for not honoring my return dates (sheepish grin).

Source of photo : Wicked Local Winchester

Prof. Wilson was born in 1928 in Warwickshire, England - a long way in the shadow of the first World War, and just a year or two after John Logie Baird had given the first public demo of the television and English women over 21 years of age had been enfranchised (Source). Ever since his childhood, he loved riding a bicycle and made it an immediate hobby, even prime to that of his desire of being a pilot.

In a chapter of his upcoming Memoirs, he writes that it was on his ninth birthday in February 1937, that he was presented for the first time with a Hercules single speed boy's bicycle by his father. By the time he was 12, he was riding a 3 speed bike with 26 inch wheels and handlebars that could be reversed to the semi-dropped position. By today's standards, it would easily be called a 'clunker', but David looked forward to every journey on that machine. In fact, he was to ride it for the rest of his stay in Britain for almost a quarter century.

WWII came and went and despite having some difficult personal experiences to go through, he would be single handedly organizing bicycle tours across the country with his friends while studying at Bishop Vesey's Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield. After graduation, he was encouraged to take up mechanical engineering at the University of Birmingham. This was a course of action that he fell back on after being turned down for armed service in the Royal Navy due to the demobilization (Memoirs manuscript, Chapter 3).

He first crossed the Atlantic in 1953 after a PhD from University of Nottingham, working his way in the engine room of a cargo boat on the Glasgow-Montreal run. In 1955, he was awarded a post-doctoral Commonwealth-Fund fellowship for study and research at MIT and Harvard. He worked as a turbine engineer at Boeing. After returning to work in Britain in the gas-turbine industry, he taught for two years in Nigeria and worked briefly with the VSOs (the British precursor of the US Peace Corps) in the Cameroons. For six years before joining the MIT faculty in 1966, he was Technical Director and Vice President of Northern Research and Engineering Corporation (NREC) in London and in Massachusetts.

It was there while working for NREC that he got the bright idea of sponsoring a worldwide bicycle design competition. It worried him as he discovered that as opposed to England, fewer adults were actually riding bicycles in the US. From many unfavorable personal experiences, he was also concerned that there were glaring deficiencies in modern bicycles that made using them more dangerous than they should have been.

So a competition to design a better bike that would encourage more cycling was proposed. It was widely publicized in the magazine Engineering from 1967-1969 and on April 11, 1969 the winning design was picked. It would be a recumbent bicycle designed by W. Lydiard which, to David, would spur a deep interest in recumbent design. He designed one in 1970 and took it to MIT to show it to his students, after which he decided to ride it home through Cambridge. To his amazement, people cheered him as he went past. The comfort, speed and safety benefits of recumbents were a revelation to him and he openly supported the movement in his teachings, letters and interviews. This interest in human powered vehicles, together with the book Bicycling Science that he had published soon after, would lift him to the status of a bicycle guru.

As if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, he also worked as a consultant to Abiomed Inc. where he designed the centrifugal pump used in Abiocor, the world's first artificial heart. In 2001 a group of MIT people ("Ignite") joined him to form Wilson TurboPower Inc., a startup company part-owned by MIT, with the aim of developing and producing very-high-efficiency regenerative heat exchangers and gas turbines. Dave was chair of the board of Common Cause, Massachusetts, in 2003, a group trying to reintroduce democracy into Massachusetts politics. He also co-founded and took leadership of MASH (Massachusetts Action on Smoking and Health), a group that worked for nonsmokers' rights.

He happened to even tell me the following :

"I used to be a beekeeper and worked for a bee farmer in Perry, Iowa a while ago."

David has held a number of respected positions, everything from an engineer at Boeing, gas-turbine designer at Ruston & Hornsby (UK), to editor of Human Power Journal, Chair of the IAP Policy Committee, VP of NREC, to currently Emeritus Professor at MIT, and President and CTO of Wilson TurboPower Inc. See here for more on his research interests and honorary titles accumulated over the years.

In the next couple in installments of this series, I will present to you some of the details of the conversation I had with him. Everything from Bicycling Science to his views on the current energy crisis. So stay buzzed!

PART II : Bicycling Science, It's Beginnings 

Published on April 28, 2009

Q. David. Let's talk about Bicycling Science, and the first edition ever. I'm curious what really got that whole project started. What motivated you to put together a compendium of knowledge such as this?

DGW : Well, if you read the book I've written a little about it there. When I first came to the United States from Britain in 1961, I discovered I couldn't carry over some of the funds I had back home with me here. The Bank of England wouldn't permit me at that time to take my savings out of Britain. Strange. So while at MIT, and feeling a little guilty at abandoning my native land, I decided to give away some of that money as a top prize in a bicycle design competition. Entries came from far and wide and one of the them arrived to me from a guy by the name of Frank Rowland Whitt.

Q. Why did you choose to put your money here as opposed to something else? Did you feel that the bicycle could be improved upon? Was there a deficiency or deficiencies you believed could take some addressing?

DGW : Sure. When I first came here, I observed that strangely there weren't many avid cyclists around. Growing up in England, I know a lot of people rode back home but it wasn't obviously happening here. Bicycles weren't too safe either and I saw a number of people involved in injuries and nasty crashes due to discomfort, faulty equipment and so on. Bicycles were expensive and required a good deal of energy to propel. I had a strong feeling that there was room for new improvements in this area for human powered land an example, why not consider one which had a better riding position? And so I proposed this competition and with a little help from a publication at the time known as Engineering, I was able to receive a great deal of publicity for it for over two years.

The competition details from a page in Engineering. Borrowed with permission from David Wilson's upcoming Memoirs, Chapter 10. 

Q. So Frank Whitt sent you a possible design as an entry to this competition?

DGW : Well, yes he did. Unfortunately, he didn't win. In fact, after the winners were announced in April or something like that of 1969, I received a letter from him showing an interest in actually getting to meet me and discuss bicycle designs. He said he had some ideas and I said, sure...I like the plan. So the next time I went to London, I had a meeting with him over a meal in this most fascinating place, his 'London club'. We had an interesting discussion of bicycles in one fine restaurant in this crusty establishment.It was later, as I remember it, we were at this station waiting for my train back to the airport when he handed me some dog eared sheets of paper in an old envelope that he had written on the topic of bicycle motion. He thrust it into my hand and requested my help getting them published in the U.S, alluding to the fact that he was finding it difficult getting his ideas published in non-S.I units in Britain. I don't think he favored the idea of doing otherwise. I said I would try, took the envelope from him and parted ways. His papers interested me quite a bit and I tried to keep my promise when I was back here.

Initially, I met with disapproval from many U.S publishers for almost two years. No one really entertained this idea of publishing something on bicycles, leave alone physics and old ideas. It was then that the editor of MIT Press by the name of Frank Satlow (who happened to be a friend), approached me saying he would agree to publish it on the condition that I edit and re-write much of Frank's original papers, and that I include some more up-to-date information for readers. It sounded agreeable to me. After giving it a good look, and much revisions from my side, I had a new book, which I decided to title Bicycling Science : Ergonomics And Mechanics. I had it published by MIT Press soon and I think they made a good lot of money from it thereafter. More than what we expected actually.

Q. Why do you think it became so successful?

DGW : A number of factors, and luck was certainly one of them. Philip Morrison, the (late) renowned professor of physics at MIT whom I hadn’t met at the time was a prolific book reviewer for Scientific American. He wrote a rather glowing review in that highly regarded journal about the book. That brought it to the attention of at least thirty-five other publications, the book editors of which then felt it necessary to review it. Reviews are very important for books. Even in those days books came pouring out of publishers’ presses, far too many for even a specialized publication to review those just in its own field. The reviews of Bicycling Science were, then, of very great value. The book began to be bought at a far higher rate than The MIT Press (or I) expected. It turned out to be a very nice deal.

Q. Most interesting. Let's go back a step here. Who was this Frank Whitt anyway? I mean, what did he do in life?

DGW : Well he was an old bachelor living by himself and a good man. He made a living making chemical warfare for the military. He was a chemist I understand, working for the government.

Q. Wow. That's a bit odd. Where do warfare and bicycles meet? What's the common thread there?

DGW : Yeah, I don't know...I thought it was slightly paradoxical myself, that someone making weapons to kill and destroy would be inclined towards more environmental initiatives such as advocating bikes. Hmmm....(quizzical sound). He had some time for himself to think for sure.

Q. Yeah, he must have had some strong connection for bicycling to explore it so seriously.

DGW : Oh yes, absolutely. There's no question that he didn't have a passion for bicycles. I don't think he would have imagined writing such a thing otherwise.

Q. Did Frank see this work?

DGW : He did. The book was quite successful, attaining an almost cult-like status. In the early 90's, we desired for many changes in the original for a second edition, and we needed his help. Unfortunately, by the time Satlow asked us to think about writing the second edition, Frank Whitt was no longer around. He had a massive stroke soon after we began writing the sequel. That sad loss led me to promulgate several myths and inaccuracies in the first chapter on "History" in Bicycle Science II. My beginning intention was in writing history as an interested observer, not as a historian. But that didn't do very well.

A group of historians in London rightly pointed out mistakes and wrote me a correction paper to this "history" of mine. It was embarrassing but at the same time, I was very grateful to their effort and wisdom. In fact, when writing the third and final edition to the book, I openly invited their help and contributions in order not to make any additional mistakes that required further revisions. As a token of gratitude for their assistance, I began the first chapter of the book with a piece on genuine history and its purpose as opposed to amateur and fake history.

* * *

In the opening paragraphs of Bicycling Science, (3rd Edition), in the first chapter titled "A Short History Of Bicycling", David Wilson wrote thus :

“Those who are ignorant of history are not, in truth, condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana claimed. However, people do spend a great deal of time reinventing types of bicycles and of components, and one purpose of this necessarily brief history is to give would-be inventors a glimpse of some of their predecessors. Sir Isaac Newton said that we make advances by standing on the shoulders of giants, but we must first know that there were giants and what they accomplished. Another purpose is to kill the many-headed Hydra of bicycling myths. People invent these myths – for instance, that Leonardo da Vinci or one of his pupils invented the chain-driven bicycle – for nefarious or self-serving or humorous purposes, and the myths are immediately picked up by journalists and enthusiasts and almost instantly become lore, however false. Historians repeatedly denounce the fakes, but the amateur historians continue to report them as if they were true. These people seem to practice a crude form of democracy: if they read something in ten publications and the contrary in one, the one reported most often is, they believe, correct.”

PART III : On the Passion for Bikes and Pedal Power

Published on April 30, 2009

Q. Tell me what got you into cycling?

DGW : Well...when I was four or five in Britain in the early 1930s, the life goal of all young boys was to be "engine drivers", and I was no exception [engine = rail, locomotive]. Trains were still romantic. A little later I transferred my ambition to that of being a pilot. A more immediate goal was to ride a bicycle. My parents were adamant that I would not be allowed to ride a bicycle until I was nine, and promised that I would get one then. I was not a rebellious kid, and accepted this restriction with good grace, while being envious of my friends who were given bikes much earlier. My desire did, however, rise to a fever pitch. As my ninth birthday approached, I began reminding my parents of their promise. Dad went down to the coal cellar and brought up an ancient "Hercules" single-speed boy's bicycle, grossly dirty and as heavy as sin. Most child psychologists would aver that it could not possibly excite any emotion other than repulsion. However, I was thrilled to bits. I rode everywhere I could, especially to Sutton Park, the two-thousand-plus-acre stretch of grassland, woods and lakes that distinguished our town. My friends and I loved to crawl through tunnels in the gorse bushes and swim in the lakes and climb trees. Later that year I started in the junior school of Bishop Vesey's Grammar School, a venerable institution founded in 1527 for poor children, but in my time firmly middle class in clientele and high class in education. I would bike the 2.5 miles there after breakfast for the start of school at 8:15am, leave for lunch at 11:45am to bike home, bike back for classes at 2pm, and then home at 4:15pm. I looked forward to each trip on a bicycle. I still do.

Q. And the bike after that?

DGW : By today's standards, it maybe called a 'clunker' you know...wasn't very flashy, but it had a three-speed gear, 26-inch wheels, and handlebars that could be reversed to the semi-dropped position. Having done really well in academics in senior school, I was placed into an advanced stream called 3A, and the competition for me from other students became stronger. However, I was in danger of losing out because I was so enraptured during classes at the thought of my beautiful bike shedding down the hill. And improvements kept suggesting themselves. My first purchase was of beautiful Lauterwasser handlebars. Later I wanted a Cyclo derailleur three-speed gear. The Cyclo company was the principal manufacturer of derailleur gears in France, and its UK branch was in Birmingham. I was learning the value of money and of trade, but I bought my gear. My friends said that I was unnecessarily ostentatious when changing gears near them and especially when near young women. Derailleurs were not very common at that time.

Q. Sounds like you were very happy then with the machine. How long did you ride it?

DGW : For rest of my life in Britain, almost a quarter-century.

Q. Very impressive. (coming to think of it..that does not even equal my total age). Were you technically inclined with your bike then?

DGW : I bought my own gear and would try and work with it myself. I remember those long rides in wartime, in the early months of the Second World War...where prior to the rides, I would be well prepared in advance. I would take my bike apart to that last ball bearing and put it together again lovingly with grease and oil. I would even get my hands on nearly every book that covered bicycle servicing and touring. I loved doing things with the bike, tinkering with it... In fact, I loved fixing things from a young age, not just the bicycle.

Q. Is that what interested you in engineering later on...or...?

DGW : It did play a role, yes. After graduation from Bishop Vessey's, I presented myself for induction into the Royal Navy. However, the end of the war in Europe took place in May 1945, and the end of the Pacific war seemed close, and at the recruitment offices I and my class buddies were informed that we were not wanted in the armed services at that time of demobilization. There was some sort of encouragement to go into engineering, which I had intended to do in any case, and to offer ourselves for military service subsequently.

Q. What bikes did you ride here, and how many do you own?

DGW : Mostly recumbents. Let's see... I have 1...2....3......4....about..5 recumbents including a recumbent tandem, and 2 mountain bikes. Then there are 5 other bikes between my wife and daughter. So about 12 bikes in total for the family.

Q. Oh! Is your wife an enthusiast as well?

DGW : Oh yes. Ellen happens to be an avid cyclist. Infact, one of the reasons I chose to get together with her was because of our similar interests.

From left to right : David Wilson, daughter Susan and wife Ellen on their way to Gloucester Massachusetts 2004. Courtesy:

Q. Can you remember a very memorable ride, that perhaps still sticks in your head?

DGW : Hmm...there are many. One notable ride I attempted was a 160 miler on a recumbent from Massachusetts to group up with some friends of mine for a hiking trip in NH. Pinkham Notch. It was an 8 day hiking trip, and I remember having a lot of luggage on the bike. The roads at that time weren't too good either, and this was back in 1986. So I was pulling a lot of weight with me that day. Later on the hiking trip was were I met my would-be wife, Ellen.

Q. Sounds like that tiring effort paid off in a suitable life partner! ...Since we're in the topic of pedal powered, I have read that you even use or own a pedal powered lawn mower. Is that true?

DGW : Well yes. It was something I and a student of mine at MIT designed. His name was Micheal Shakespeare. Considering the amount of budget we had, it was beautifully designed and executed. It gave it some airtime on some popular TV shows.

Q. Most interesting. It seems you are a proponent of pedaling to help power daily chores. What are your thoughts on that?

DGW : I think that the historical use of human muscle power was not only crude, but it was 

always short of the optimum. We find time and again that people were called upon to produce maximum power output, for instance in pumping or lifting water from a well or ditch, using only their arm and back muscles. No one thought of extending this work to the leg muscles. These tasks were also mostly of the slow, heaving variety, so that our unfortunate forebears had to cope with heat stress on top of the use of usually inappropriate muscles moving against resistances which were too large at speeds which were too low. In fact, doing this kind of work makes you feel not too superior compared to your ancient ancestors. People are still required to heave and shove with all their might, gaining an occasional inch or two. In some tasks, leg muscles are the most appropriate for the task. I have written in detail about the history of muscle use in the first chapter of Pedal Power. There, I also review machines that did well using leg power to get things done. Even pedal powered riding mowers.

Q. But David, I can't understand how efficient a pedal powered lawn mower on grass will be compared to just pushing it around...

DGW : ...My co-author and I talked about that in Bicycling Science. The energy required to pedal a machine across soft ground is so high that the only way pedaling becomes superior to pushing a mower would be for the pedaler to be either stationary or moving slowly, while the cutter, presumably light in weight, covered a considerable area.

Q. So it has to run slow and cover a large area to make sense, efficiency wise.

DGW : Correct.

Q. Your daily transport. Do you commute to work by bike?

DGW : Oh yes. I rode my semi-recumbent. My commute to MIT was 8 miles one way. So about 16 miles of round trip each day. To Wilson Turbopower, it was 5 1/2 miles one way.

Q. You say that in past-tense. Are you still riding these days?

DGW : No, I've taken a break. I've had some health problems and had to get replacements done for both knees. After a certain age, your body starts to say no to the things you always enjoyed doing. It doesn't please me.

[Correction from David Gordon Wilson May 2, 2009] : What I meant here was that I’ve taken a break from riding my recumbent. I’m riding a semi-recumbent (the Rans Dynamik Trail.) I bought it when our daughter Susan, then eleven, left me on our hill (it’s 23% in places) on her new bike when I was on my old heavy recumbent. I found that I could still beat her up the hill on the Rans. I’m building a new recumbent at home. I “finished” it last year, but most of the brilliant ideas I had for improving it didn’t work, so I have to do some re-work. And my new left knee is becoming much stronger.

Q. I'm sorry to hear that and I hope your knees feels better. While we're at the topic of transportation, why do you think people don't ride bicycles here more? Its a definite problem in the U.S. Everyone needs their cars to go 1 or 2 miles. Its ridiculous. Even walking has taken a second page to motorship.

DGW : That's a definite problem here simply because vehicles are heavily subsidized in a variety of ways in the U.S. That's where some the gas tax goes. In this kind of environment, there is huge incentive to drive and cyclists are a minority. If you're among the minority, you must be pretty determined to be one. Gas taxes combined with fuel inefficient cars also aren't helping Americans. Even the legal attitude around bicycling is not quite good. I remember back in Britain, while a member of the Cycling Touring Club or the CTC, we had our own legal group to whom we could lodge complaints and issues should any of us have an incident with a motorist. You just don't find that here very often.

* * *

Below is a picture of the pedal powered lawn mower called The Shakespear Lawn Mower. It was designed and built by Michael Shakespear as a Bachelor Thesis in Mechanical Engineering at MIT supervised by Professor David Gordon Wilson. It used a reel mower between the two rear wheel drives, a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub gear and a single wheel in the front. His mower was described in Bicycling Science as "very heavy, but still gave easy cutting". David Wilson, in a chapter of the book Pedal Power (mentioned above), described what would have been the second phase, which used two drive wheels in front and a single rear steering wheel. Cutting was done by something like a hedge clipper, that is, two combs moving back and forth to shear the grass off between the teeth (kind of like how your electric razor combs work)

Shakespear's thesis can be ordered from Document Services of the MIT Libraries. Bicycling Science also covers the technical aspects of the design.

PART IV : On the Passion for Bikes and Pedal Power (Contd...)

Published on May 11, 2009

Q. David, what prompted you to move to the U.S?

DGW : I taught for two years in Nigeria but contracted severe malaria and had to leave. I received an unexpected job offer from London University to teach engineering there, and accepted it. But the big shot making the offer went back on his word. Eventually I accepted another offer from a Cambridge, MA R&D company which I joined in 1960. In 1965 MIT offered me a position as associate professor and I joined the faculty in '66.

Q. Did you find yourself absorbed in the cycling scene here pretty quickly or...?

DGW : Oh yes. Infact, I was a member of the League of American Wheelmen for sometime. Now its known as the League of American Bicyclists.

Q. I had the privilege of glancing over a few pages of your memoirs. You mention a most delightful experience when having granted the opportunity to fly the MIT Chrysalis. This was a human powered airplane?

DGW : Oh yes. Yes, it was. It was slow, but human powered.

Q. Could you tell me a little more about that experience?

DGW : I'm not sure of the year, but there were some faculty members and a group of Aero-Astro students who formed the MIT Chrysalis committee. The idea was to construct a human powered airplane to challenge other designs to the Kremer Prize. It was a monetary award given to the aircraft that could maneuver a one mile course in the least time. I think the wind had to be below 3mph or something like that. Anyway, the group came up with this human powered biplane made of aluminum tubing, styrofoam and Kevlar. At that time, I was editor of Human Power and on that account, I was invited to be part of the MIT committee. It was a privilege indeed. That's how I was given the opportunity to fly the aircraft when it was built. I didn't go up too high but it was an thrilling experience. I recall as I was flying it, my flight instructor pedaled on his bicycle on the runway beneath me shouting out instructions. It was like a dream come true. I think even a few women in the faculty were given the chance to fly the aircraft.

Q. Let's shift gears and come to the topic of bicycle designs. Over the past few decades, the UCI has become this notorious entity for stifling innovation in cycling. As a prominent bike guru yourself, do you believe there's something more to be discovered? There are some that say the bicycle has reached a level of perfection. Others believe there's more room for improvement. What do you feel?

DGW : Looking at it, so many designs have come about over the years and numerous configurations have been experimented with, removed or changed. It would baffle me if, despite all this, a new change to the bicycle be something enormous. Frank Whitt shared the same conservative outlook. I mean, in his writings, he said he believed the bicycle had achieved a state of near perfection.

Are there little places for improvement? Yes. I like the new enclosed belt drives, and if coupled with a an efficient transmission system like a Rohloff 14 speed, it could see very good potential. Considering recumbents, I think there is room for improvement especially in making designs that assists people with physical challenges. A narrow, leaning tricycle design is an example. Ron Beam was a recumbent enthusiast who had to switch from bicycles to tricycles (regular tricycle recumbents) when he became too old and frail to be able to pedal up a hill and keep his balance. We should also see some development of lightweight disc brakes for road bikes in the coming time. Rim brakes are bad, especially on long descents when they can heat up your rims and cause your tire to explode and so on. 

I remember back in the days when I took note of Shimano's bad brake designs and wrote letters to them advising what could be improved upon. Ofcourse, they read it and chose to ignore me. 

I spend a huge amount of time developing a wet weather brake. Me and my students worked on a wet weather braking system based on Raybestos, a material with a remarkable property of having nearly equal dry and wet coefficients of friction. This was at a time when we had almost zero braking in wet weather. My students and friends and I labored for around ten years and produced a brake that was almost perfect (I'm rather modest about it). It worked as well in the wet as in the dry, it was self adjusting, would fit in the same place and with the same brake levers as regular brakes, and the pads would last almost for ever. (I used a Positech brake for several years as the only brake on my first recumbent at a time when I was riding around 10,000 miles per year. It never needed new pads, and only one cable adjustment was required in that period) We worked with three companies to try to get it adopted. A lawyer who read about the brake in Bicycling petitioned the CPSC to have its performance specified on bicycles. The bicycle industry didn't want this, it dithered, and then suddenly switched to aluminum rims to avoid having to use our brake. So now we have rims that, if used long enough, will certainly explode - I have had six do so in my lifetime. If you are unlucky you could be converted into an instant vegetable for life. The bike industry knows about this but is apparently uninterested in doing anything about it.

Q. You sound very irked about this issue.

DGW : Absolutely. It irritates me that in countries where there's little regulation, the biggest changes to bicycle designs have to come through the ambulance chasers - the lawyers. The lawyer route is expensive. First someone prominent has to be killed. Then years of discovery and pre-trial stuff goes on during which more bicyclists are killed and seriously injured,and then usually the case is settled out of court. I have frequently been involved as an expert witness, and it is not pretty. Shimano's brake designs were appalling during the time. Having found my own family in peril (I have written about it here), I wrote to Shimano advising them to revise their design and consider some of my own recommendations. All I got for my trouble and concern were a whole lot of nasty letters from US enthusiasts who felt that I was damaging the sport through over-concern on safety and implied that I was a muddled academic who was somehow responsible for my own family's life-threatening experience.

Q. Could you tell me more about these brakes?

DGW : The concept for the brakes was developed and patented by Brian Hanson and me, and we built many prototypes and I hawked them around to try to get them picked up by bike or brake companies. Positech, mainly Allen Armstrong, a super designer from Arlington MA, heard about the brake and we happily came to an agreement to work on the concept together. He improved on our design, patented it and made about five prototypes. We tested them thoroughly - amazing performance, even on steel rims - and sent them to various companies for their tests. The brakes performed equally well in the companies' tests. No company wanted to take out a license or to buy the brake rights. The only result was that a prominent company tried to design something to get around the patent and called it something like a double-leverage brake. Also we spent a huge amount of time and money. I used one of the prototypes for many years on my first SWB, which had a highly loaded Moulton 16x1-3/8 steel wheel, and it worked beautifully wet and dry. The hard pads we used lasted for years.

* * *

David Gordon Wilson's and Brian Donald Hanson's brake patent can be viewed here. Hanson was a graduate student in the Mechanical Engineering department at MIT. His thesis on the brake, titled "Wet-weather-effective bicycle rim brake: a product-development exercise" (1971) can be read in a PDF here.

PART V : On the Passion for Bikes and Pedal Power (Contd...)

Published on May 14, 2009

Q. Earlier we talked about how the bicycle, although a very stable design refined over the years, could use smaller improvements. But a handful of folks also imagine very radical designs altogether. We live in the internet age, and every so often now, we find some 'designer' coming out with an odd looking bike that has no practical value. Am I missing something? I guess what I'm trying to ask is should critics of such works forget about practicality and focus on the fun in the art?

DGW : Obviously, this isn't something that has begun now. Yes, we have had some impractical designs over the years that never made it. But personally, I have nothing against artistic designers. In fact, one year, when I was judge at the International Bicycle Design Competition in Taiwan, I noticed many of the designs actually came from artists. Sometimes, they can produce a good design. For example, take Sam Whittingham's Varna Diablo or Fred Markham's Varna Mephisto as examples. Both broke speed records and were designed by one man - Georgi Georgiev, who happened to study art and is an architect.

Georgi Georgiev, picture courtesy Varna Handcycles

I wouldn’t want to stifle innovation, but I wish there was much more attention to doing something about the many life-threatening problems with bikes. I’m about to write to the bicycle-safety person on the CPSC, the principal government watch-dog on the subject, to find why my earnest and expensive testimony on the topic last year has apparently been totally ignored. I hope that he tells me that something is happening, in which case I’ll let you know.

Q. One of the longest running debates in the world of cycling happens to be that of helmet wearing and its benefits vs the harm they cause indirectly. Its a topic that often polarizes people. Where do you stand in this debate?

DGW : Well Ron, if you're asking me whether I support mandatory helmet laws, the answer is no. I don't think anyone must be forced to place a lid on their heads. But I don't like my insurance money going to idiots who get injured and are now vegetables in hospitals because they didn't choose to wear one. That is ridiculous.

Q. ....Right. But what of the people who decry the use of helmets? Many at times, I find they base their views on statistics and you know, some sort of 'research' done by professionals in other countries. Among the most prominent studies were these Australian ones that showed how mandatory helmet legislation back in 1990's decreased the number of bicyclists on the road in the following years....

DGW : ....They are statistically incorrect.

Q. Another popular one seems to be that helmet wearing actually increases the number of injuries.

DGW : That's stupid. Its like saying that uniformed soldiers who go to war wearing helmets get injured more because they wore a helmet. Of course they got injured more. They went to war and got shot at! The others did not. They sat at home.

Besides, helmets not only protect you while you're riding but also when you're not. I remember an incident that happened with me not so long ago. I was at this busy intersection walking my bike. For some reason or the other, I felt a little heavy in the know...a dizziness. A little later, I fell onto the road. I didn't get too hurt. If I weren't wearing a helmet, I'd imagine something worse would have happened to me. Its desirable that cyclists wear helmets. But there are one or two everywhere who oppose it. Once, I visited Adelaide to present a topic on bicycling safety. The reception was very negative. These people aren't ready to understand the benefits of helmets for their own sake and the sake of others. Talk about the costs of hospitalization that others have to shoulder! Its not pleasing. I believe helmet wearing has a strong benefit-cost ratio, both for the wearer and to others in society.

Q. What courses did you teach at MIT?

DGW : I joined the faculty in 1966. I taught turbine design, heat transfer, thermodynamics, and the senior course 2.70.

Q. I think you can learn a lot of science and engineering from bicycles. Do you support using the bicycle as a platform for such an initiative?

DGW : Oh sure. I often did that in 2.70, asking students to improve some aspect or another of bicycles as projects. Frank Whitt supported that idea too, I believe.

Q. Really?

DGW : Well yes. He proposed that physics experiments be taught in schools and colleges using bicycles. I thought it was a good idea.

Q. Let's switch gears, Dave. The environment. Do you believe in Global Warming?

DGW : Oh yes.

Q. There sure is something about this issue that raises skeptics among people? I guess its happening in the world, but its not an "in-your-face" thing.

DGW : Well, that's what the Bush Administration did. They stifled the issue in front of the public. They also refused to endorse the Kyoto Accords because to do so would threaten the "American way of life". The cliff may not be seen now, but when it does arrive, it'll be too late to go back. Its a big plunge from there.

The issue is real and a number of people have written on it. Recently, I read Jared Diamond's book Collapse : How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed....

Q. ....The Pulitzer prize winning author..

DGW : Yes. And in it, he describes the massive deforestation that took place in Easter Island. Infact, he writes that the society collapsed entirely due to the environmental damage. Same goes for the Greenland Norse, the Mayans of Central America, the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island. Environmental damage slowly kill societies.

Q. I came across one of your energy policy proposals online on your website. In it, you write that engineers should take responsibility for the energy crisis...

DGW : Oh no.. at the time I wrote it, it was sort of a joke. Anyway, they do have a role to play no doubt. Civil engineers created construction systems, transportation systems, and water-supply and sanitation systems that enabled us to live in great cities. Mining engineers enabled vast quantities of coal, oil and gas to be delivered to factories and to our homes. Mechanical engineers invented steam engines, railroads, turbines, oil-field equipment, internal-combustion engines, automobiles, airplanes, and the means of producing these so inexpensively that we all feel that we have a God-given right to own and use lots of everything. Chemical engineers devised means of refining petroleum and gas fuels to drive all these types of power producers. Electrical engineers developed alternators and means for delivering electric power to us all, and information systems that, while entrancing us and bringing us closer together, increase the demand for goods and services and for ever-more travel.

Q. You also propose a "progressive taxation" policy.

DGW : Yes. Personally as an engineer, I like to come up with sound decisions that affect policy. You can read most of my ideas in the proposal. What irritates me is that no one has taken an interest to publish it. I proposed to MIT to have this out as a news release and they gave me a cold shoulder. Hopefully, I'll get more people to take interest in it.

Q. Perhaps I could do my part through my blog....

DGW : ..Maybe you can!

Q. David, I've had a wonderful time chatting with you on these topics. Its going to be memorable. You certainly have some sound ideas and I really hope that more people would know you, not just as a name behind Bicycling Science, but as a person. Good luck with your health, Wilson Turbopower and MIT.

DGW : Its my pleasure. Thank you, Ron.

* * *

Prof. David Gordon Wilson has written an energy proposal and a progressive taxation policy to go with it, on his website. He calls it "an innovative policy producing incentives for reducing the use of nonrenewable energy, of resources, and of polluting emissions, and which simultaneously increases employment, reduces poverty, and discourages illegal immigration."

It is a must read for anyone interesting in some stimulating ideas for our times. This, from a world renowned engineer, cyclist and author of Bicycling Science. Thanks for reading!



2. JOBST BRANDT : Wikipedia

The following is a series of interviews I initiated with the late American mechanical engineer and cycling legend, Jobst Brandt. I consider myself lucky enough to have talked with him in 2010, nearly 5 years before his death. In the interviews, I drove him to talk about his early life and career, his views on bicycle design, his relation with contemporaries such as Sheldon Brown, his bestselling book on wheel building and of course, some of his legendary and well documented cycling trips. The interview was popular and widely read on my discontinued bicycling blog, Cozy Beehive, where it was first published. Blogger isn't a particularly powerful platform for moving posts across blogs, therefore I hope you will forgive any text formatting discrepancies which may have crept in.

PART I : Published on March 7, 2010

Jobst Brandt during his traditional tour of the Alps in 2008. Image Courtesy : Source

If you will forgive my black and white comparison, there exists two categories of people - the purists and the pragmatists.

Purists go strictly by the book. They are conservative about new methods and much comfortable in being a step back from the rest, never wavering from first principles. Pragmatists do what is necessary to be practical and are ready to push the boundaries into new knowledge. They follow experimental evidence, rather than strictly following someone's theories as to why the world behaves the way it does.

I'd like to think a good bit of both is needed when one is an engineer. Not only do you have to be conservative with designs that are stable and cost effective but you must also be results oriented and ready to accept or apply something new if that's what a correct interpretation of data reveals.

I must admit it was a bit difficult for me to wonder where I'd place Jobst Brandt, a Stanford alumni and legendary author of The Bicycle Wheel. This work is widely regarded as the bible of wheel building.
For starters, Jobst is a resident of Palo Alto in California. While he is a graduate of a reputed institution and an acclaimed author, his experience is also quite rich through an engineering career that spanned from Porche automobiles, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Hewlett-Packard to Avocet bicycle products. For others, he is a person of many words, opinions and very colorful Apline cycling memories. Perhaps nothing may be more famous about him than his myth busting advice and recommendations on everything cycling.

Getting back to my point earlier, reading this book entertained in me the notion of Brandt being the quintessential engineer, you know, the idea I talked about earlier. Guided by both theory and observation of failure rates, Brandt documented in simple English how to build the most durable wheels at one's leisure.

A highlight in this work was in how he managed to convince readers that the bicycle wheel is an unusual structure that beat intuition, hence conventional wisdom and folklore would not work in understanding it. It was the precise scientific method with which he approached the subject that was most fascinating to read.

But even three editions later, as reviewers say, the book didn't expanded itself to absorb the current advancements in wheel building. The book didn't explore new methods in finite element analysis in novel low spoke count designs, came the complaint.

Then there were others who remarked that the book was the work of an opinionated pedant, a cranky Luddite, a hard headed, pompous individual resistant to change. That the book didn't correct erroneous statements, graphs, calculations and so on and so forth.

Brandt himself has not shied away from his critics, some of them engineers, and has been fighting back with nothing less than outspoken defense. When asked about this, his understatement would be that he is used to this. Yet, you get a sense that there's frustration somewhere when he admits it is the highlighting story of his engineering career.

I suppose it is easy for someone to be enveloped in other people's criticism of Brandt and his ideas. But it was hard for me to read him as I have not known him personally.

A few weeks back, it dawned upon me that I must engage in learning where Jobst Brandt and the geography of his ideas and opinions sprout from. I thought that might be a rewarding experience and it was to a degree, as he was very forthcoming in reply to my barrage of questions. The secondary objective of this exercise was to have the enigma of Jobst Brandt as a person stripped away and have this brought to the readers of this blog.

A dated image showing Jobst Brandt navigating unpaved sections on the Gavia Pass

PART II : Published on March 9, 2010

Author's Note : This week, I will present to you the conversation I had with the interesting and sophisticated personality that is Jobst Brandt. Topics range from his personal life, his professional career, his cycling achievements and some of his steadfast opinions on engineering and the state of cycling today.

1. We mostly know the man Jobst Brandt through online articles and a book, but what are the missing links in the story? Firstly, where were you born and was the bicycle a constant in your upbringing?

JB : I was born in NY and moved to Palo Alto in 1938 when my father took a position at Stanford University. I have a BS in Engineering from the same. I started bicycling at age five and found it useful to go to school and to the community center and swimming pool that was more than a mile away. We even did outings to the yacht harbor, five miles away. I was gifted with big lungs and strong legs and so I enjoyed it.

2. What did you like about mechanical engineering that made you pursue it? Did you always feel math and science was your forte?

JB : I suppose one is born with a preference for music, sculpture, or science in various forms. At preschool age I was always interested in how things worked... mechanically and otherwise. Electronics was not one of them.

3. What were some of the most memorable things you did in your engineering classes at Stanford? Were you involved in extra-curricular activities and such outside classes?

JB : Not much, my interests were in practical things. Railroads and steam engines were a large attraction for their mechanisms and how they worked. The same went for cars that needed much mechanical assistance in my youth.

4. I see. So tell me where this passion for the physics, mechanics and failure of bicycle parts come from anyway?

JB : These are standard failure mechanisms of machinery that I watched with interest starting in my mother's kitchen and our cars and bicycles.

5. Do correct me if I'm off a bit here in reading you. Would you consider yourself frugal? Did you parents ever bring you up this way, cultivating in you the need to be conservative with finances or was it the engineering career that taught you that money and resources are limited, hence design must be based around that.

JB : I think you are jumping to conclusions. As a youth I lived through the days of the second World War in which many things were scarce (due to the "War Effort") so we were careful about what was thrown away or repaired. I don't see a great frugality in my habits, I think they are more in line with not being a conspicuous consumer. I know many bicycle riders who are embarrassed to patch a tire tube because they don't want to be seen as poor people or cheapskates.

6. Have you ever considered teaching?

JB : Yes and no. I seldom have time to develop a routine. Guest speaker is a better venue.

7. Would you kindly share a little about your professional background for my readers? I've read that you've had a stint at some big names such as Porsche, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, HP, Avocet etc? How do you explain a famous bicycling personality working in all kinds of places, from premium sports car company to computers to particle physics before jumping into the bicycle industry? I mean, you must have picked up on a considerable wealth of knowledge from all these experiences.

JB : I think you confuse bicycle technology with general engineering problems. Be that a cogwheel mountain railway or a sewing machine, failure occurs for the same reason, that of misunderstanding of the mechanical demands by the designer. My work at SLAC introduced me to computing and enabled me to develop cam shaft design programs as well as graphic display software that most people at SLAC and HP used.

The wheel drawings in my book were drawn with my own software and along with that, I wrote the finite element program to analyze wheel deflections and spoke elongations. That program came from a pressure vessel analysis one of my colleagues wrote for his masters thesis at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

8. Remarkable! You're probably more than qualified to put forth an opinion here. As an engineer, what do you feel about the state of engineering these days? How do you compare engineered designs now to those in your times?

JB : I believe it has always been poor in most places with singular exceptions, and those names certain engineers don't forget... like Leonardo, Tesla, and van der Waals, whose work is mainly misunderstood. Some people have heard of van der Waals forces but that's all. It involves, among other things, adhesives that are a mystery to most technical people. This gets close to tire patching and why patches won't stick.

9. Do you have any examples of poor engineering in our current atmosphere?

JB : Toyota is a good example of bad technical management. Managers who manage technical people must understand the technology they expect from their people. Many of my managers recognized my understanding of machinery and assigned complex problems to me that others in the group did not master, be that in the US Army Corps of Engineers (weapons assembly, demolitions and bridge building), Porsche, SLAC, HP Frequency and time (Interferometers and optics), opto-isolators or memory disk friction and other mechanical problems.

Those Toyota cars should never have gotten this far if the designs were reasonably reviewed and subjected to proper road tests. They weren't, probably under the belief that competitors were not operating any differently. This is a top management failure that reaches down to the lowest levels.
I am dismayed at the press analysis of the whole affair, instead of recognizing it as bad technical management. Having seen such design problems I think I have a feeling for this.

10. To wrap up this're probably retired now, is that correct? What do you do these days?

JB : The work at HP ended and did not get renewed so I am on vacation full time. I ride the bike when I can and see how my friends are doing. I live alone and my sons live nearby, but even closer is my former wife. One of my brothers lives in London and keeps in touch by email.

*  *  * 

Author's Note : Jobst Brandt wrote the following in 2004 to the topic 'Learning To Ride A Bicycle'.

"It seems to me children who don't easily learn to ride a bicycle may not be inspired by other children "on the block" who have already achieved this mobility and may not have seen their parents ride. My experience, both as a child watching siblings learn to ride in a single session, and as an adult doing the same with my children, makes me think that this is the case. 

Training wheels make an unstable tricycle of a bicycle, tricycles having been banished from our toy repertory for falling over when ridden too fast in curves. The method most commonly used by successful teachers is to hold onto the saddle such that the child cannot tell whether the parent is still holding on, or at least has the hand where it could help in the event of instability, while pedaling along. 

I have not seen this method fail with normal athletically inclined children in the 4-5 year old range. It seldom takes more than one session to get the child riding solo. Of course there must be a trusting child-parent relationship for the child to believe this is a reasonable endeavor."

PART III : Published on March 11, 2010

Author's Note : In this section, I press Jobst to talk about his online persona. People have mixed feelings about him. One side has it that he's an interesting person with an immense wealth of knowledge and experience. Another side is always wary of his crusty, irritable personality which they feel can be off-putting and hard to work with. What does he feel about all that? Well, find out.

11. There's the real Jobst Brandt, and then there's the online Jobst Brandt. The latter portion in your claim to fame seals your status as a no-questions-asked guru of bicycling, if you will. I was interested in knowing where all this began. Did someone invite you to compile these words of wisdom and archive them online or was it self-started?

JB : I started writing them long ago to fill voids in mechanical understanding that I perceived. Becoming a guru was from the attacks that responded to my explanations of natural phenomena. The impression probably comes mainly from bikers who believe in their "common knowledge", that is mostly misdirected. They feel they need to defend that position and go on the attack. Just search how many so called engineers insist that my analysis and instructions on the bicycle wheel are all wrong. I'm used to that. It's the story of my engineering career. I hear similar stories from other engineers.
For years, there was just one newsgroup before splitting up into tech, misc, rides, market, etc... Back before it grew out of its pants it was a pleasant place with only rare disagreements. Once the place became noted, the BS artists realized they had a rostrum from which to spread their religion.

12. You also have an almost cruel stance against irrational statements. You are popularly associated with this wise, very experienced man with meticulous attention to detail, but also moody and cranky and perhaps a little myopic to suggestions while sticking to old fashioned advice. Do you agree with some of these views?

JB : I have little patience with people who write anonymously, mainly because their reason (incompetence) for doing so. Well they don't explain why it is "old-fashioned" advice. Much of that comes indirectly from my bicycling that is not racing. That Sierra ride that is on someone's web site is a classic for iconoclasts.

They feel that I am not giving them their due when in fact I don't mention their style that they are trying to claim is the only way. Another earlier point is that I was a faster and stronger rider than most of the locals and that irritated newbies. I am old and slow now but still go on long rides.

13. Coming back to this idea of people having misdirected knowledge, what's your pick for one that you find having to straighten out often?

JB : A classic is that a hub of a bicycle wheel "hangs from the top spokes". That struck me when I first got a high class Cinelli bicycle. I realized that this ignores pre-stressed structures and that most people wouldn't recognize a pre-stressed structure if they ran into it. I once took a train to Budapest solely to see the worlds first significant suspension bridge, the "Chain Bridge".
This bridge was built without suspension cables that Roebling had not yet invented, so all elements were long steel pinned bars. Click on center picture second row and see some of the beautiful structures engineers have built. The last shot in that sequence is the Chain Bridge. I was not disappointed.

14. I'm curious - do you personally know any of these online folks you exchange all this information with?

JB : A few who are pleasant, yes. That's where I found the German (Klaus Schmidt) who assisted me in proof reading the German translation of my book. He once wrote off and on to rec.bicycle, but when it got big and broad and rude, he bailed out. The same seems to have happened to Bruce Hildenbrand whom I mention in one tour report.

15. Which brings me to probably one of most important questions to wrap up. How well did you know Sheldon Brown and could you write a little about your relationship with him?

JB : I got along fine with him and we talked at InterBike for a few years until he said he was coming out my way in the summer to visit his daughter Tova, who was attending UC Santa Cruz. I met him at his motel in Santa Cruz, 65 miles from my house, from which we took a great ride along the coast and up through big redwoods before he descended to Santa Cruz from Summit Road while I rode home. He took the FAQ title page picture of me standing over my bicycle on that ride and I took some good ones of him that I am sure his wife has suitably saved.

Jobst Brandt and Sheldon Brown in Santa Cruz in 2006. This photo was borrowed from the latter's journal, where he had documented the day's ride with Jobst.

16. He was a renaissance man. Do you feel the cycling world is a little emptier without his presence of mind?

JB : I liked him a lot and found him to be no mechanical dummy. As you may recall, The London Times wrote a glowing obituary after his sudden death that came after the second time he came to Santa Cruz on which he and his wife had a lovely ride around the place. He was already suffering from deterioration but didn't let it take his bicycling away. The next time I saw him he was on an electric three-wheeler at InterBike, no longer able to walk. A great man! As you see, he believed in the stuff I wrote and put it on his web site.

*   *   *

Author's Note : Here, I have dug up two relevant snippets. They contain Jobst's replies to newsgroups folks. In one, he clarifies the loads on the bicycle wheel that appeared difficult to grasp for one gentleman. In the other, he admonishes someone for posting anonymously. Be warned! Never post anonymously if you are writing to Jobst. And while you're at it, avoid smileys and other nonsensical characters too!

Topic : Bicycle Wheel Loading (1999) : Eric Salathe initially wrote : "The Bicycle Wheel is beautifully written, but the persistent lack of acceptance of this idea among its readers, as well documented on this list, shows that the 'wheel stands on its lower spokes' slogan does not accomplish its function."

JB's reply : "I chose not to condescend and state anything other than what is engineering fact, explaining why and how the wheel works. I know that many people have great difficulty visualizing this and I believe that is why the wire spoked wheel remained misunderstood and not analyzed until "the Bicycle Wheel" was published. Previously many authors wrote extensively about what they believed took place. None of these recognized that the top spokes or, for that matter, any other spokes of the wheel were affected by the vertical load except the bottom few in the tire contact zone. That loads only unload spokes was also not understood. When a wheel is overloaded or crashed to destruction, none of its spokes are overloaded (other than possibly being kinked after becoming slack).

I am fairly sure that the whole subject is still a mystery to most people who should understand it. I overhear conversations and see postings here that reveal these misconceptions. Even people who seem to grasp the concept have said as much as "I crashed my wheel and have to get all new spokes".  Progress is slow in coming."

Topic : Anonymous Postings (2009) : "Dan O" initially justified to Jobst the unseen value in anonymous postings by writing : "What's in a name? You must assume that any information you make available on the internet will be harvested, stored, and used indefinitely and completely outside your control. This information can be accessible to any and every wacko 'in the world'. The availability of information can even affect the security of other people who might never have chosen to make it publicly available. So it is a sensible basic tenet to not provide unnecessary information to systems outside your own control."

JB's reply : "I suppose you don't take off your dark glasses when introduced to people with whom you exchange thoughts and ideas. That and chewing gum is something one once learned not to do in polite societal encounters. I realize that this forum lost all that about 15 years ago and now we occasionally read about newsgroups that have vanished for the large volume of rude and anonymous postings.

I hope you noticed that the least civil postings come from a raft of secret agents. Even Sheldon Brown had no effect on the genre in his days in spite of his courteous style of asking these writers to sign their work with real names. I guess this is like many other fads that people follow without cause or reason, like wearing dark glasses in all weather and night time too to have the I-spy look."

PART IV : Published on March 15, 2010

Author's Note : Thank you for patiently waiting to read Part IV of this exciting and important interview. 
In this installment, I asked Jobst to tell us more about his career path at Porsche and Avocet. The discussion then flows into his unique bicycling interests. Why does Jobst have only one bike? Why doesn't he believe in cycling races? What does he love best about Europe? You have lots of material to read below!

17. We discussed your engineering career in brief but a complaint was that I didn't burrow into specifics. Firstly, my readers and I are very interested in knowing how you landed a job at Porsche. Could you please elaborate on the nature of the work you had there?

JB : Sure. I was stationed in Germany (Aschaffenburg) near Frankfurt in the US Army Corps of Engineers and wanted to buy a car because all I had was my bicycle as transportation. I found that I could buy a 356 Porsche at a reasonable price and did so. In that pursuit I reviewed the owner's manual and was told most of it came out of the factory shop manual, that I also examined.
The translation from German to English was poor and in some places incorrect so I dropped in on the Porsche plant in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen after I got out of the Army and was on my way south to visit my bicycling friends in Florence. I proposed to their personnel manager that I go to work there and with my knowledge of German and English along with my facility with automobile jargon in English, I could do the manual a service.

I was hired to come to work in the fall and did a good job in translation, a version that was recognized as better than what they had. When that job was done, I asked to be transferred to engineering and was assigned to the chassis, brakes and steering division. When I got there, the project leader felt he had too many people and transferred me to Special Products (the racing department) that was just being started.

As I started design work, more and more of the car was transferred to my drafting board and I did the layouts for the chassis, wheel suspension, brakes, steering and transmission. I got along fine in that team and stayed with it until the car won the Belgian GP and Mr. Porsche said it was too expensive. So when he had achieved what he wanted, that racing department was dissolved. I transferred back to the production car division and designed the steering and front suspension.

18. Looking back at Porsche now, what lessons did you learn? Would you drive a Porsche if you had the money to afford one?

JB : From my work there, I discovered why one should not build rear engined cars, air cooled engines and torsion bar suspensions. That Porsche persisted in that design was unfortunate and you see they gave up on air cooling when it died everywhere else in the industry. I wrote for Wikipedia why we ever had air cooled engines in the first place but the Porsche faithful deleted most of that essay, as you can read at Wiki. The "Why" part of that thread is slightly what I wrote but has been diluted.

19. Interesting! So again, would you buy a Porsche or not? How about a Porsche instead of a bicycle? That's a trick question.

JB : Today's Porsche is more a show piece with allusions to great handling and power, but it remains only a symbol with little practical value, much like a Corvette. These cars are mainly image with little real significance.

Ever since returning the the US from Germany, I have driven one make of a station wagon or another. They have served me well and I have transported many bicycles to interesting ride locations.  I don't think you can make a real parallel of driving a car and riding a bicycle.

20. Porsche was one of the many places you worked at. You also worked for Avocet. I understand you were a tire designer, is that correct? How did your hand play a role in better designs there?

JB : When the Hoffacker brothers started Avocet, I came up with the name and the logo, which I had as my linoleum block Christmas card for 1973. I've carved a linoleum block for many years, something I learned from my father. The subjects are many - birds, machinery (RR locos), the Locher dual side engagement cog wheel and the Stelvio National Parks logo.

I saw Avocet as a way of getting some bicycle features I couldn't get elsewhere. The Altimeter was an important one for me because it's logic has a good patent that is essential to accumulate climb, something others with altimeters cannot do correctly because they have no hysteresis that ignores small dips in roads or barometric fluctuations. I suspect most of them are not aware of these problems and never think of adopting that patented concept. It took me a while to explain it to Avocet engineers making the hardware and software.

I also wanted slicks, recalling how well our Clement tubulars cornered on wet and dry without miniature car treads that do nothing. Avocet recognized the advantage and made the best slicks ever. To assure riders that one can corner on them, I had a picture taken with me cornering hard. They also had the lowest rolling resistance when they were built by IRC. IRC no longer makes bicycle tires.

Photo showing Jobst Brandt testing a pair of Avocet tires

21. Let's talk bicycles. You've often been photographed with a tall and yellow steel bike. Infact, I have not seen any other bikes associated with you. Would you tell us more about it?

JB : When my Cinelli got old and developed cracks from riding Campagnolo Record hubs with a long overhung axle on the right end, my good friend and great riding companion Peter Johnson built me a new frame. Earlier, Tom Ritchey had built me a bicycle that I had wrecked by descending into a cross-drain on a forest descent, so Peter built the bicycle you see in photographs. It has an oversized downtube and is fillet brazed. It needs a paint job now that it is about 20 years old.
The reason for yellow is that cracks can be seen better than on most other colors than white. I realized that getting rid of the crack generators was better than a good color. That's why I am riding Shimano 7-speed hubs that have no axle overhang as Campagnolo hubs. Peter also built me a new fork with a threadless steer tube for which Ritchey gave me the stem.

21. So you have no other bikes apart from the yellow one?

JB : No. I never had more then one bicycle mainly because I maintain it and can ride only one. That's my main problem with the bicycle faithful. They collect these religious symbols and treat them as near human icons.

22. Typically, how much would you ride your bike in a year when you were young?

JB : I have always ridden about 10,000 miles per year and probably still do, now that I am retired. That comes to about 200+ miles per week. After a recent car incident that caused a couple of broken ribs, followed by much rain (daily) I missed about four weeks of riding and am getting back in shape now. That isn't easy for an old man.

23. I'm sorry about the accident but for a person of your cycling calibre, you should be able to ease into cycling without problems.

JB : I don't recall winters being so wet and cold but that slows me down these days.

24. As a well-respected engineer and cycling enthusiast, what do you think of UCI's decisions to ban certain bike designs? Do you think its healthy for the sport or are you one who supports tradition?

JB : That is a mis-characterization of racing rules. The rules are there to attempt to make a "level playing field", not to prevent technical advances. The HPVA is there for innovative two wheel designs, most of which violate the concept of preventing mechanical advantage to win in competition rather than by athletic ability. As I mentioned, I was aware of that in my younger days when I was faster than all others on the road through ability rather than a special bicycle.
I don't support tradition, in the sense of freezing technical advances to an older time. I think advancements can be made but not in "space age" technology for bicycles.

25. Do you believe that bicycle design has reached a state of saturation, if you will allow me to use that word? If not, where could some more genuine improvements be made according to you?

JB : It is not bicycle (technical) but rather in styling design where the effort lies. Saturation only appears to those who don't understand what the problems are. Classically, the threadless steertube was a great leap forward and has not been accepted as such by most of the contributors to There is where saturation lies.

26. Do you have time to follow cycling races and all the doping drama? Do you have any 
opinions on Lance Armstrong's uncertain comeback, or on the talented Alberto Contador?

JB : I don't like professional sports and don't follow them, other than having seen the GdI or TdF on my bicycle trips in the Alps. That goes for team sports, skiing, and other "my aerobic abilities are greater than yours" type competition. No one benefits from that in contrast to demonstrations of skill as in music, painting, sculpture, and ballet. Art is full of pleasant venues. This other stuff is just a bunch of gladiators. Just look at the bodies of US football players.

27. Did you race back in the day? Were there any wins or accolades?JB : Only a couple of time trials. I decided that massed start races were full of hazards and some trickery. I only raced a couple of times before I decided to concentrate on touring.

Dated photo showing Jobst standing proudly with his friend at the peak of the Penserjoch. This is a 1950 m foot climb near the Italian-Austrian border.

28. Touring is one what I wanted to concentrate this discussion on. Your Alpine tours are stuff of legend. I spend some time reading your colorful tour reports and loved the prose. It seems to me you have made an enjoyable annual tradition out of this. What got you interested in the Alps from a cycling standpoint?

JB : My father was a tourist as I am and though he did his trips by car with the family, it was not planned with motel reservations but rather "eine fahrt ins Blaue" as it is called in German - "a trip into the wild blue yonder". When he took his appointment to Gen. Lucius Clay to go to Heidelberg, the US economic headquarters, he put us up in civilized central Switzerland and so doing took us on a car trips over the old and famous mountain passes. I recall these times as a high school youngster vividly as does my older brother. Of course I wanted to see those places again and doing so on a bicycle was a better experience.

29. If you don't mind, tell us about your favorite spots out there?

JB : Pleasant hotels in villages or even solo in the mountains are common in Europe, something that makes it more pleasant. Also, these are family operations with no motel chain in the background. We have similar places in the Sierra and so we choose to stay there.

A photo from 2006 showing Jobst Brandt with his friend at the Iseran Pass in Savoie, France.

30. Have you openly supported bicycling advocacy? Also, what message do you have for those folks who desire to adopt bicycling as a mode of transport?

JB : I think my advocacy should be evident from my ride reports. These reports are not filled with arduous hardships and suffering, but rather the beauty of the places and people I encounter. I think that is what life is about and many people have followed these trips. As I ride here and in the Alps, I am often greeted by name from people I don't know. I find personal notes taped to the poster of me at the cliff in the Refugio Bonetta.

Don't cycle unless you are a good physical specimen, otherwise its a drag and no fun. Also, get off the million dollar non steel bicycle.

*  *  *

Author's Note : I mentioned in the interview that I enjoyed the colorful prose in some sections of Jobst's ride reports. Here's an example I wanted to share with you, sourced from his 2006 journey :

Friday, 14 July (Samedan - Borgomanero, 222km, 1200m)

"We pushed off into a cool sunrise, choosing the urban route through Celerina and St. Moritz (1837m) to get a closeup view of the ritzy hotels, so called after hotelier C├ęsar Ritz (1850-1918) who invented the genre in Paris. Among other things, we passed the giant aerial tram, the Signalbahn, that connects downtown with ski and hiking area toward Piz Nair (3056m). 

Riding west along Lake Silvaplana, past Silvaplana (1815m), at the north ramp of the Julier Pass, the scene was right out of a tourist calendar. Farther on, we rode along the Silsersee, the source of the Inn River, to reach the one sided Maloja Pass (1815m). From here a curvy zigzag but brisk descent took us down the wall of the box canyon to the flat valley above Casaccia (1458m) and on down the valley toward the Italian border at Castasegna and finally Chiavenna (325m).
We crossed the Mera River to ride along the west side of Lago di Como to appreciate the many unbelievably ornate villas with manicured gardens surrounded by stone walls, fences of fancy ironwork, and neatly trimmed hedges. Sail- and motorboats were sailing on the lake and once in a while a ferry/cruise boat plied its course between the major towns around the lake.
Before I realized it, we had passed through Menaggio where I had planned to turn west to Lago di Lugano to view more villas, but we were doing all right here and continued to the outskirts of Como where we took secondary roads south of Varese to Borgomanero (538m). We found a wonderful hotel with a garden dining atrium at the end of a long cul-de-sac off the busy main street.
We parked our bicycles in the garage and got cleaned up to appear for dinner in our travel finery to enjoy a delicious Italian dinner on this comfortably warm summer evening. During dinner, alpine swifts darted overhead, picking off insects while giving their characteristic modulated chirp as they worked until dusk. After that, bats took over the task. "

PART V : Published on March 18, 2010

Author's Note : The following correspondence completed my interview of Jobst Brandt. In this final section, I asked him what his opinions were behind being famously anti-helmet. I also dug a little deep into the criticisms of his book by experts in the bicycling field and asked him what he thought about some of them.In the end, I must say it was a pleasure chatting with him. Certainly, a few rapid fire Q&A's will not do justice in coming to understand the kaleidoscope of his bicycling philosophy. So I'm grateful to him for being the patient customer he was for this small period of time and co-operating with me in this wonderful idea.

31. What is your stance on one of the longest running debates in cycling? Pro helmet or anti helmet and why? For sometime now, people have been saying that helmets are inadequate because they do not protect against twisting forces. These days, helmet manufacturers are actively pursuing the design of "anti-rotational helmets". For instance, LAZER helmet has an interesting video and the host is Dr. Ken Phillips who gives an overview of the research he has been doing in helmet safety. Can this appease the complainers?

JB : That is a classic of missing the point, to just look at motorcycle helmets and see what is needed and useful, something that is not applicable to bicycling for the size, weight and lack of cooling. If you look at current helmets, they are a thin mesh of Styrofoam with no structural integrity. The LAZER project is barking up more religious belief trees. The video is a great sham.
I avoid helmet discussions because they are a religious belief. There are no realistic tests and all the people I know who crashed with one received severe head injuries as bad as if they had no helmet - usually skull fractures in the face. In contrast, I and my fellow riders have crashed often and not gotten head injuries other than a scrape that drew a bit of blood.

As I pointed out, Muhammad Ali's glove has far more cushioning than a bicycle helmet, yet it was possible with a mass far less than a human skull for him to deliver knockout punches, protection against which the bicycle helmet is touted.

32. Interesting. You always have some strong reasons behind certain viewpoints, such as the one against helmets. My readers and I were also fascinated by your rationale for choosing yellow paint on your bicycles.

JB : I suppose I'm less fashionable than most people, but I think good fashion is also the most useful design, something we don't see much these days, primarily in the cars and houses we build. The boom-box in cars is a great example of this. Most cars have four exhaust pipes and a lot of other non functional features as it looks and sounds different. Bicycle helmets are a strong fashion statement with their blowing flame shapes like hot rod cars.

33. One of my final questions to you concerns your book The Bicycle Wheel. Can you briefly run us through why you had this work published? Was it out of a strong desire to fill, perhaps a void, in the understanding of the wheel? Or did someone solicit you to write it?

JB : No one solicited anything, with nothing being known about the subject and with the total faith in bicycle mechanics to be doing the build and repair the best way possible. As I mentioned, there was much doubt when the book came out, even from some stodgy engineering professors who felt passed over by a mere bicyclist.

34. The reviews of your book are varied. I believe there are quite a number of people who think that you've done a great service in writing this, others think you're plainly against modern bicycle wheels and expected something more in a book that is titled "The Bicycle Wheel".

JB : The reviews I read gave the impression that I explained about what people want to find... a justification of their expensive "modern" wheels. Meanwhile, the essence of how wheels work and how to build durable ones hasn't changed. It is the website folk who are testy and nasty as thy look for justification of their expensive, unreliable and non metallic wheels, something they don't find in my book. Their criticism is similar to the bicycle helmet advocates who attack anyone who doesn't wear a helmet when bicycling. If you watch you may have seen the videos and stories of collapsing and disintegrating "modern" wheels in racing and touring. I don't want to write a justification of these wheels and dilute the essence of what makes reliable wheels.

35. What about other, more notable critics? Did you ever have a chance to look over John S. Allen's review of your book on Amazon? Mr. Allen is a technical bicycling consultant with an engineering degree from MIT. He's an expert witness and has authored multiple books on bicycles, commuting and repair. For your convenience, I'll bring that snippet to you. Mr. Allen wrote the following on Amazon back in June, 2005 :
"There is one serious error in Brandt's book, and I am astonished that it has not been corrected through 3 editions. A graph, on page 39 in the 3rd edition, shows the change in spoke tension with lateral loading of the rim. The left spokes are shown to go into compression. They can't, as they simply flex once they are slack. It might also be asked whether this graph reflects the influence of spokes that are differently stressed as the load is applied at the bottom of the wheel. To do so would require a more complicated mathematical model than I think Brandt was able to command.

I also disagree with Brandt's advice to tension spokes until the rim begins to deform. It can then deform further due to increased stresses during riding, and loosen the spokes. I have seen a new wheel which failed after a few miles for this reason. Spokes should be tight, but should leave a margin of safety. If the rim deforms before the spokes reach their optimum range of tension, then they are too thick for it, or it is too weak for them.

I would really like to see this book updated with today's more sophisticated finite-element analysis, including analysis of stresses in the novel low spoke-count wheels. But for people who are willing to build conventional wheels -- the better choice anyway for most cyclists -- this book is a valuable and fairly comprehensive reference. "

Your thoughts?

JB : I recall that item from years ago. I explained that the graph mentioned actually plotted spoke tension of left and right spokes independently and then superimposed the two graphs because they use the same axes, but both do not do what is shown. In fact, part of the continuous curves show spoke compression that does not occur. The purpose was to show the response of spokes to side loads rather than to follow them to the limits evaluated.

I explain clearly in the book that when deformation occurs, the wheel is too tight but that there is no permanent damage that cannot be recovered by reducing tension. It is a method of finding the upper limit without a having a tensiometer.

I found much of his criticism in the same vein as I have heard all along. No one ever wrote about this subject (hence the name of the book) and when some technically minded folk see the book, they feel cheated for not having had the first stone to throw in this forum. They don't say what they would have written or explain what their perception of the stress/strain graphs would have been. They just say what I wrote is mostly wrong and let it ride there. I don't feel compelled to respond to these complaints because they are largely baseless.

As you see, Allen believes the current wheels are "today's more sophisticated FEA" as though mathematics had changed. That's a shot in the dark because it doesn't explain what would be different and why. That is because there is no difference other than the software being more available than when I did the analysis. The results would not be any different.

The book has been reviewed by enough engineering experts to make me sure the analysis is correct. As I said, the critiques are sniping because the implied other solution, the "correct" one is not shown. The reader is left to wonder what the implied correct solution is.

I included reference to Prof. Karl Wiedemer's analysis (Cologne Tech, Germany) in the bibliography.  He wrote his finite element work at the same time I wrote the book, and have a pre-print of his technical publication. I also visited him in his home in Siegen and gave him a copy of my book about which we talked at length.

The interview ended here.
* * *

This graph on page 39 of the book The Bicycle Wheel was critiqued by John S. Allen, a consultant and expert witness in bicycle accident lawsuits. These curves show change in spoke tension and the force required to displace the rim and cause these tension changes. Courtesy : Jobst Brandt.

An excerpt from Page 37 of his book on bicycle wheel stiffness should leave some of you with something basic to think about.

"Stiffness, in its various forms, is a subject often discussed by bicyclists with a regard to components as well as frames. Stiff wheels are often mentioned with approval. However, it should be noted that a bicycle wheel is so rigid that its elasticity is not discernible because the tires, handlebar, stem, frame and saddle have a much greater combined elasticity. Therefore, the differences between well constructed wheels are imperceptible to a rider. The "liveliness" attributed to "stiff" wheels is an acoustic phenomenon caused largely by lightweight tires at high pressure and tight spokes with a high resonant frequency. This mechanical resonance can be heard, and possibly felt in the handlebars, but it is not related to the wheel stiffness.

Stiffness is a measure of how hard it is to deflect the wheel, or more precisely, the ratio of load to displacement. Stiffness is not strength. For example, Plaster of Paris is stiff, but not very strong. Since wheel stiffness is so often discussed, the various aspects of stiffness are treated here in more detail than they deserve. Wheel strength, and not stiffness, is the important consideration. If the wheel is strong enough for its intended use, then it is more than adequately stiff.

The terms "stiffness" and "rigidity" are often used when people talk about bicycles. Unless these terms are defined, they are just as vague as the even more popular catchall term "responsiveness". These technical-sounding words can be misleading. Stiffness alone is not the ultimate measure of a good wheel, but rather the balance of stiffness and strength that enables it to carry loads and withstand shocks. "



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