Sir Isaac Newton used cycling to inspire his work, argues Dr Hutch

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Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion states, “A body will remain in a state of rest or continue in its uniform motion in a straight line unless acted on by a force.” It’s also known as the law of inertia.

Of course, you knew that already. Who among us doesn’t keep a copy of Principia Mathematica on the bedside table? What is less well known is that all of Newton’s work was inspired by his love of cycling. Inertia is familiar to all of us, except we know it better as, “I don’t care if you’ve ridden 100 miles in five hours, get off the bloody sofa and help me move this bookcase.”

Nothing has inertia like a cyclist has inertia. Inertia depends on mass, except in the case of cyclists, when it’s mass x miles just ridden x age. What Newton was demonstrating was that even in the 17th century, he had a modern coach’s appreciation of the need for rest and recovery. The only force great enough to overcome the sort of inertia that a cyclist can muster is food. Spousal swearing will get nowhere.

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The “uniform motion in a straight line” bit makes it clear that Newton was an old-school time triallist. It’s hardly surprising, since he came from Grantham, just beside the A1 dual carriageway that has always been the spiritual home of UK time triallists. No line straighter, no motion more uniform.

Again, the only way to disturb the inertia of a time triallist is with food. As with recovery, the uniform motion will definitely not be disturbed by spousal swearing, because if being slagged off by significant others was going to work, time trialling would have died many years ago.

Law abiding cyclists

Newton’s Second Law states that, “F=ma”. Or to put in a slightly less piss-off-if-you-can’t-do-algebra sort of a way, “The change in an object’s momentum is in proportion to the force applied to it.” The harder you pedal, the greater your acceleration.

From this I conclude that Newton might have been a cyclist, but he never tried to win a village-sign sprint on a winter hack.


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Anyone who’s ever tried to whip one of those into a full-blooded lunge for the line, mudguards rattling and chain squealing, knows that a winter hack is the only object in the physical universe that can destroy energy.

Newton’s Third Law is probably the best known. It states simply that, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

For example, if, at the front of a pace-line, you twitch your elbow to bid the rider behind come through and do their turn, his reaction will probably be to tell to you to “F*** off.” (Or, as Newton no doubt thought of it when his friend Samuel Pepys had refused to come though and take a pull when they were riding round South Cambridgeshire, “Te x SP = FO!”)

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Similarly, the reaction to a fine, well-timed attack in a race is usually someone chasing you down and bringing the rest of the race with them.

In the workshop, you can note how a seized bottom bracket can push back against its end of the spanner every bit as hard as you can push against yours. And at a more metaphysical level, any betrayal of optimism about a fine day’s ride ahead will usually create the equal and opposite reaction of a puncture.

Next week, we look at Albert Einstein’s conjecture that the whole of space-time is in fact curved, an idea which came to him as a result of trying to explain to his school headmaster why it had apparently taken him over an hour to ride the five miles from home: “It’s not my fault, Sir, it’s the fault of the whole universe.”

  • J1

    “a winter hack is the only object in the physical universe that can destroy energy.”

    Haha

  • I didn’t understand well the newton law. But this the only force great enough to overcome the sort of inertia that a cyclist can muster is food. ..