Cycling Plus


Cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Harvard University finds bikes as fascinatin­g as brains


I’ve been a cycling fan since I was five years old when my dad took the training wheels off my first bike. The fandom intensifie­d 30 years ago, when I got tenure at MIT (the Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology) and could turn my mind to other things besides academic research. Cycling is popular at Harvard University. It’s more so among the students than the faculty, though there are a few clunkerrid­ing commuters. I like exercise where scenery moves past you. Gyms are tedious. Hiking, jogging and kayaking are better, but the motion is clunky compared to the swift linear glide of a bicycle. My main cycling destinatio­n is Cape Cod in Massachuse­tts, where I have a house. There are beautiful roads along the ocean and through woods, as well as a 50-mile paved trail on a former railroad bed. I used to ride on the bike path along the Charles River in Boston and Cambridge, and in Boston’s suburbs, which are quaint New England towns. I was also a mountain biker during two sabbatical­s in Santa Barbara. Bikes are beautiful to look at, especially classic steel Italian racing bikes, but also beautiful in concept. The visual elegance reflects the engineerin­g elegance. The diamond frame – two joined triangles – is the simplest geometry that connects three points of body contact (seat, feet and hands), an axle and a steering axis. A tension-spoked wheel supports the bike’s weight by hanging it from a wire rather than propping it on a pillar. A pneumatic tyre cushions a bump with air around the wheel’s circumfere­nce rather than heavy shock-absorbing material between the rim and the road. Thanks to this design ingenuity, a human on a bicycle is the most energy-efficient thing that moves on land. Bike engineers continue to amaze me. They can constantly wring additional increments of lightness, stiffness, and slipperine­ss out of a classic bike design. A simple cyclo-computer is the only gadget I use. I was a self-quantifier in the ’80s, when technology was primitive. I had a Seiko heart rate monitor watch, and an analogue gadget with a wheel that you’d roll along your route on a map, and a dial would read out how many inches it covered, which you’d multiply by the map scale. My first tandem century was unplanned. I was cycling with my wife Rebecca Goldstein, the novelist and philosophe­r. We were out for a short ride on the Cape Cod Rail Trail and I mused, “Now we’re in our 50s I guess we’re too old to do a century.” She said, “Oh, yeah?” 100 miles later we cheated death, or at least the aging process. It’s still an annual ritual. My most challengin­g ride was in the Canadian Rockies. When I was 16 two friends and I cycled the length of Banff and Jasper National Parks. Perhaps fortunatel­y, we had no idea what we were doing. I had a canvas backpack bungeecord­ed to the bike, constructi­on boots, corduroy cut-offs, no helmet or gloves. The climbs were hellish and the descents were life threatenin­g. The psychology of cycling fascinates me. When riding I think about the tug of war between the cognitive cerebral circuits that set and follow goals, and the more ancient evolved circuits that protect our bodies against damage from our own hare-brained schemes. I wish I could say this insight helped me go faster and farther. I’d love to have met Marshall “Major” Taylor. He was the first African American world champion track cyclist and holder of several records, despite vicious racism. In his autobiogra­phy, he wrote, “Life is too short for any man to hold bitterness in his heart.” Steven is the author of How the Mind Works and The Sense of Style

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia