Bicycle Symposium

This morning I pedaled to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to attend a bicycle symposium.  I had wanted to spend the day there, but our neighbors invited us to lunch at Parivar.  Couldn’t miss that, so I just sat in for the first two presentations and pedaled home.

Locked my bike to an over-engineered bench rather than the unsecured bolt together rack at the door.  

Most students simply brought their bikes in (kids rocking bmxers!).

A solenoid valve in a display case in the Darrin Communications Center (the building in which the symposium was held).  Beautiful valve, yes, but why is it there?  The Darrin Communications Center is named “in recognition of a lifetime of dedication, loyalty and support to Rensselaer” by David M. Darrin, Class of 1940 and Rensselaer trustee.  Completed in 1973 at a cost of $6.2 million, the Darrin Communication Center was constructed with funds from two federal financing sources.     Mr. Darrin was a senior vice president and treasurer of the Automatic Switch Company (ASCO) of Florham Park, N.J.  ASCO is the world’s leading manufacturer of solenoid valves.  The valve in the picture was manufactured by ASCO.  

The first speaker was David Corr, a professor in biomedical engineering at RPI.  A very knowledgable fellow and good at sharing what he knows.  He gave us a crash course in skeletal muscular physiology.  It was fun to be learning in a lecture hall setting.  I took notes like a madman–like I had never left college.

We learned the mechanism for muscle force generation.  The brain sends electrical signals through nerves to skeletal muscles.  The signals cause stored calcium to be dumped and the presence of calcium triggers muscle contraction.  When it is time to relax the muscle, the calcium is quickly taken up again.

Muscles perform differently based on which fibers are present and their configuration.  Fibers first.  First, slow oxidative fibers.  Commonly known as slow twitch.  These are strong with good endurance.  Run off of oxygen.  Aerobic.  Called Type I.  Second, fast glycolytic fibers.  Fast twitch.  These can contract very rapidly but fatigue rapidly.  They run off of glycogen.  Anaerobic.  Called Type IIB.  Third, fast oxidative glycolytic (Type IIA).  Think of these as a hybrid of Type I and Type IIB.  These are fatigue resistant fast fibers.  Most muscles have some of each type, but some have one type in greater concentrations.  Fast twitch muscles predominate, for example, in the eye.  The muscles move eyes very quickly, but your eyes can easily fatigue if  overused.

Now to configuration.  Easiest to understand when you look at the ratio of fiber length (FL) to muscle length (ML).  With a high ratio of FL/ML, the muscle will contract further (excursion) and quickly.  Think hamstrings.  With a low ratio of FL/ML, you get greater strength.  Think quadriceps.

Thus enlightened we were given suggestions on how to best train our motors.  Three kinds of development.  When we start a new training program, the first thing that happens is our muscles learn to contract more efficiently.  We get relatively big performance boosts quickly without growing new muscles.  Since power is the product of force and speed, the quicker contractions give us more power quickly, but then we plateau.

Step two.  Hyperplasia.  We add new muscle cells.  How we train will determine how the new cells are added.  If we run, new cells will be added in series to increase excursion (runners use relatively long motions compared to cyclists).  If we bike, cells will be added in parallel (we use a short range of motion but need more power).  Lesson here is cross training makes you more generally powerful (you’ll add cells in series and parallel), but if you want to be really good at one thing, do that one thing only.

Third step, hypertrophy.  Individual cells get bigger.  Fluid hypertrophy is increasing cells by adding liquid.  Muscles get bigger.  Think body builder.  Huge muscles with plenty of force, but maybe not much power (the muscles lack velocity, the other half of the equation to generate power).  If you want big muscles, train with several sub max repetitions.   Myofibrillar hypertrophy, on the other hand, will get you power.  Think olympic lifter.  Not as bulky as the body builder, but this kind of cell development will get you the velocity to round out the power equation.  To get here, do three max effort reps (dead lifts) and then immediately move into polymetrics (light and fast exercise).  Example?  Step on and off a box very quickly.  Important thing to remember.  If during the polymetric phase you start to fatigue and slow, better to stop.  If you continue at the slower pace, you will train your muscles to contract slowly.  You’ll lose the velocity you were aiming for.

Let’s relate this to cycling.  Mr. Corr works with elite cyclists.  He says even elite athletes don’t understand how muscles work and how to make them work better for their particular discipline on the bike.  Want to be a sprinter?  You need crazy power.  You must generate this power (watts) at high cadences.  We know pedaling at 90 rpms is pretty normal.  Now high cadence climbers like to keep it up at 110.  Road sprinters may hit 125.  Track sprinters?  150-180!  On the track you’ve got one gear so if you want to go faster, you have to spin those pedals faster.  Some racers can put out 1600 watts, but the best racers can do that at very high cadences.  Thats the mark of a sprinter.  They can be spinning along at 100 and then explode to 180 rpms.  Sick power.

Anyway, too often sprinters will push big weights on the leg press for too many reps and be done.  What happens?  Big muscles like a body builder–not optimized for sprinting.   They should be upping the weight to the point they can do only three and then immediately stepping up and down on the box very rapidly.  Or on rollers?  Sprint as hard as possible for a couple of minutes then go into a series called the cadence pyramid–pedal for two minutes at a fast cadence (say 90) and then pedal slower for a minute, then pedal for two minutes at a higher cadence (say 100) and then slow, then higher still (say 110).  You get the idea.  Polymetrics will help you develop power (force times velocity) rather than just strength.

The take away for me is that I need to train for what I want to do.  I want to get groceries and exert no more power than needed to stay upright so that I minimize force on my joints.  My goal, see, is to pedal for life, for transportation, and do it with my original parts.  I won’t be surprised if I need new hips and/or knees at some point, but I’d like to push the need out as far as possible.  My training, then, needs to be chill training.  Not super high cadence.  No need for explosive power. Pretty cool to learn about how we can make our bodies do amazing things, though.

The next speaker was Chris Patton (whom downhill enthusiasts will recognize as the national downhill champion for 2011).  His introduction was rushed (so I may not have this right), but I believe he is an RPI grad and now works at Cannondale designing bikes using CAAD.  He showed us how new frames are modeled.  A skeleton is set up and then tubes are fleshed out and then accessories (like cable stops and the like) are added.  The models let you scale the design up and down for the different sizes.

All very cool, but then it was time for me to pedal to lunch.  I missed so much!  Next up was Carl Schlemowitz from Viscous Cycles in New Paltz.  I met him at NAHBS in Indy a couple of years ago.  My friend Patrick was working for him at the time, so we were invited into the booth to buy little Viscous shot glasses that came with a shot of some high-end whiskey.  He sat behind me at the symposium.  I recognized him and gave him a big hello.  Sorry I didn’t get to hear him talk.

Then Peter Stull from The Bicycle Man in Alfred Station, NY, was going to talk about recumbent design.  Mr. Stull bought an existing recumbent manufacturer called Linear Recumbents.  I’ve enjoyed recumbents (a friend gave me a Lightning P-38 which I enjoyed for a decade and then passed along), and would have enjoyed hearing what Mr. Stull had to say.  He clearly knows recumbents.  His bicycle shop sells every brand I can think of and many I have never seen.

The lecture I really wanted to catch, though, was to be delivered by Larry Ruff, Supervisor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Engineering’s Advanced Materials Lab.  He was going to talk about bicycle frame testing and failure analysis.  Check out the cool testing rigs he has made!  Presumably measures rear triangle deflection or even applies pressures for fatigue testing. 

Fork testing rig.


Accelerometer.  Test equipment, but check out the beautiful case!  Why isn’t everything made with such care and precision?

You can tell he is a nice guy.  Just look at him!  That’s what happens when you love your work.

These testing rigs really got my juices flowing.  Sad part is I could have driven back over there after lunch to catch Larry’s lecture.  He was going to talk from 3:30 to 4:30.  Happening as I type this.  Still, no reason to drive all that way and pack too many things into one day.  Instead I decided to sit in bed, Lacey snoozing beside me, and type out this tome.

What about lunch at Parivar?  The place rocks so hard.  The grocery is huge and well stocked.  Fresh fruits and veggies looked terrific.  Fresh herbs included beautiful bunches of mint and cilantro and bags of fresh curry leaves.  Frozen prepared foods and exotic sorbets.  Dried beans and spices, of course, and tons of them.  I got a bag of Lay’s India Magic Masala chips that I am very excited to try.  Also a bag of muruku from Surati in Toronto (if you don’t have a bag at the side of your bed, well, sucks to be you) and a container of coconut cookies from Rajbhog Sweets in Jersey City (delightful, light and vegan yo!).

The cafe in the back?  I will be going often.  I had idli and vada combo.  Perfectly steamed rice cakes and the lentil doughnuts were to die for.  Sambar was great.  Chutneys were great.  I had a Limca soda.  National soft drink of India, I understand.  Not pronounced like lime-ka.  It is limb-ka.  Sorry, India, but I wasn’t thrilled.  Too subtle (not enough sour or sugar for my high octane western palette).  Next time I will try a Thumbs Up.  Lacey had today’s special saag dosa.  Filled with potatoes and spinach (saag).  Perfect.  Fairly priced.  Everyone who works there is super nice and helpful.  Go!

That’s it friends.

Take care!


One response to “Bicycle Symposium

  1. Pingback: Bicycle Engineering Symposium | Randal Putnam Loves to Pedal

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