vol 7, issue 7

The Inventors' Inbox

16 July 2012
By Mark Sheahan and Patrick Andrews
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Upcycling the bicycle cartoon

The inventors take on two-wheeled transport

Drinks bottle seat post

"This might allow liquid to be carried on indoor circuits - currently a major no-no for safety reasons"

Triangle framed bicycle

"It turns out that there is some mathematics which allows this total length to be minimised"

Multi-wheel bike

"These wheels would have different tyres, so that the rider could select one according to the terrain"

Our resident inventors discuss what innovations they might foist upon the world of cycling.


Even though we know the bicycle is as good as it gets in terms of efficiency, it doesn't stop some of us trying to improve it.


Yes, I agree it is difficult to invent for something that has almost been honed to perfection (much like the combustion engine). Also, looking through the many patents relating to bikes, it is unlikely that we would come up with something someone had not thought of before, e.g. a revolutionary 'blue sky' idea. Although with new materials coming out almost on a daily basis, alongside technological advancements, anything is possible.


A new generation of sports cyclists is avid for accessories, everything from light-up wheel rims to gel-damped saddles and clip-on satnav. I'm particularly fond of a laser device that has recently appeared, which projects a cycle lane outline onto the road wherever the machine travels.

All this kit is worth millions and lots of it is as much for show as it is of functional importance. Just as with motorcycling, or Formula 1, a large section of people want the latest, race-bred technology. Carbon-fibre frames and aerodynamic boot gaiters abound.

There are lots of categories of cycle racing, including road racing, mountain biking, velodrome racing, BMX and even cyclo-cross. I thought we might turn our attention to some inventions for the two-wheeled fraternity, Mark. You fire the starting pistol...


I will start with a confession; I like my cars and have not ridden a bike for over 40 years. This doesn't mean I can't invent something for or it, just that I need to work a lot harder.

As a pedestrian, a pet hate of mine is when people ride their bike on the pavement and get shirty if you are in their way. In the absence of law (as I believe they are breaking a bylaw), I would like to see bike fitted with a projected sound system at the front, so you a least can jump out of the way as they creep up behind you. This would also be useful for pedestrians at junctions, when some cyclists ride through red lights. You may say that bikes have bells to ring to warn others of their presence, but many don't use them.


I like it. Whatever system gets agreed for electric cars to warn of their arrival, would surely work for bikes too. When I was a child, we used to attach bits of plastic to the wheel spokes. These made a noticeable clicking but not a source of major noise pollution. Maybe future battery cars could adopt them too, if their motors can overcome the drag.

Drag is actually very important to bikes that are moving quickly, hence the fact that most land-speed-record attempts make use of recumbent designs within a teardrop shell. I've been lucky enough to meet with Graeme Obree recently and experience his perfectionist approach to breaking records. This applies to the minutiae of bike components as well as his own fitness.

How about a cycle training facility, in which a bike is placed on a fixed rig within a swimming pool? The extra resistance to the rider's arm and leg movements must provide a more demanding workout.

Perhaps a Tour de France simulator would be a good idea. Essentially a box with a bike inside placed on a rolling road with variable incline. The 'road' could be made to camber and slope according exactly to the part of the tour which the rider's speed had allowed him to reach at a certain time. The box might be heated or cooled to simulate weather effects and a point-of-view film of the journey projected onto the front of the box.


A cycling facility in a pool: this is ideal for certain excises and targeted sports (even for horse fitness), but not cyclists. There are much easier and effective methods available, with no need to get wet. Many of the exercise bikes already have track simulations and, I am sure have 'Tour de France' often (or is it 'trip the light fantastic'). You could, I suppose get the gym instructor to throw a bucket of water over you periodically, for rain, and the ice bucket, for hail.


Okay, how about a drinking bottle design which doesn't clutter the frame, but which carries the liquid within a detachable, lower section of the seat post? This might allow liquid to be carried on indoor circuits – currently a major no-no for safety reasons.


I am not sure people would want to be drinking from an area they are sitting on. It doesn't sound very hygienic and it would be too awkward and time-consuming to remove the seat to refill.


On an even more eccentric note, I'd like to suggest a bicycle wheel with no rim, but, say, three or five spokes. At the end of each spoke would be a further hub with a small wheel. These wheels would have different tyres, so that the rider could select one on each main wheel, according to the terrain. If you wanted to ride up steps, the main hub would be unlocked, allowing the small wheels to move from step to step. Passing over very soft or uneven ground, two small wheels could be used on each main wheel at the same time, with the hub sprung so as to allow a small clockwise and anticlockwise motion of the main wheel.


Even more eccentric, is that possible? I once convinced my Mother, on April Fool's day, that someone had invented a square-wheeled bike which was ideal for cycling up and down steps. Her comment was 'what will they think of next!', need I say anymore Patrick!


Necessity needn't always be the mother of invention, Mark. So, how about a bike with a built-in gyroscope? If Segways can do it then a bicycle could be made stable enough to allow people with lower limb disability to compete in races. It might even be smart enough to lower the spin rate when entering fast corners so that the machine could lean a little and then recover.


Isn't a Segway a bit like a bike, with built-in gyroscopes, already?


Only for those who can't tell the difference between sitting and standing.

Imagine a bike in which the triangle formed by the frame tubes between steering head, seat and pedal axle could be replaced by three, shorter tubes. It turns out that there is some mathematics which allows this total length to be minimised, although the tubes themselves might have to be a bit wider.

I'd suggest repeating this with the rear triangle too. The frame consisting of red and pink tubes only would be much more flexible, even in kevlar, and require some extra bracing at the joints.


In the interests of our 'inventor's inbox' column I decided to 'go over to the dark side' and borrow a friend's bike for the day. You often hear people say "it is as easy as riding a bike", meaning something is easy and, it was, but two areas I thought could be improved. The first was to have some form of suspension. London roads are not exactly flat and I felt every bump and pot-hole running up through my body. I wondered whether your small triangle-formed frame, with three extruding tubes is, with all its faults, a possible suspension solution?

On the standard bike frame each tube component supports the others, making it very strong and rigid when welded up, this configuration gives the structural integrity needed ('fit for purpose') between the steering head, seat, pedal axle and back wheel. Whereas, your invention, with the rigid frame between the seat and pedal axle only, having extended arms to the steering head and back wheel, would create inherent weaknesses at the welded end of each extending tube as it flexes in use. However, I quite like the idea of having some flexibility in set-up, as it may have a cushioning effect, thus acting as a form of suspension. For this to work, a single tube heat-turned to shape is a better option than welding. The tubing would need to be elliptical, very wide in its cross-section, to be able to flex up and down only, and not from side to side. The whole frame would be a single continuous tube, making it very much like a giant spring.


Will it climb staircases?


Yes, if you bounce up!

The other area of improvement that I thought of was adding a press button 'toggle' switch that you press to automatically lower/turn into play a bike stand arm (on one side only, at a very short leaning angle of around 85 per cent to the vertical).

This would save you putting your feet down at a junction and would be safer (as you make less of a target). I noticed some bikers lose their concentration trying to balance too much rather than fully concentrating on the road ahead.

It would also give you a smooth start, by pressing the 'toggle' button and peddling at the same time. A big factor is that it may look cool, a necessity for many cyclists, being, what looks like, in a perfectly balanced perched position (with no wobble). 

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