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Space and Physics

How Do Bikes Stay Upright? It’s Not What You Might Think

author

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockDec 23 2021, 17:00 UTC
bike

Image Credit: RossHelen/Shutterstock.com

Bicycles are a bit of a mystery. The first bike was invented over 200 years ago and since then most of us will have experienced riding one. Yet it is still an open area of research as to how they work exactly. In fact, one of the explanations that is often given for the vehicle's ability to stay upright is not correct. Luckily, Derek Muller’s Veritasium is at hand with a fantastic video explanation.  

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We are usually told that a bike stays upright because of the spinning of the wheels. That rotation produces a gyroscopic effect. Just like a spinning top stays upright, so do bicycles, right? Wrong. Researchers have even built a bike without a gyroscopic effect showing that this cannot be the explanation.  

Muller, in his video, has a special bike that locks its steering wheel allowing it to turn in just one direction or blocking it completely. And that made it impossible to stay on it for more than a few seconds. That’s because the steering is crucial to balancing the bike. It comes instinctively to riders to make small steering motions and body adjustments, which keep the vehicle upright.  

But while controlling the center of mass of the rider-bicycle system is important, it is not essential.

In the video, Muller shows that a rider is not exactly necessary for a bike to stay up – bikes have inbuilt mechanisms for steering themselves. What’s more important is the fact that the steer and roll of a bicycle are coupled. The interactions between the two keep the bike stable.  

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For the full explanation, a lot of people falling off bikes, and much more check out the full video below: 


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