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By now it is a pretty thoroughly appreciated fact that a man on a bicycle is the most energy-efficient apparatus on God's earth. By its use of wheel, lever and chain, the bicycle multiplies the effect of man's exertions by a factor of about five, depending on how it is figured and by whom. The odds against significantly improving the modern bicycle have seemed long. Multiple gearing was the last major technological breakthrough, and that goes back to the turn of the century, at which time one Rudolphe Muller defeated Edouard Fischer, a noted competition cyclist, in a mountainous 150-mile match race—Muller had two speeds, Fischer one. But since the perfection of the derailleur system in the '50s, the bicycle has been viewed as the javelin has. There it was, with little you could do but refine it—take off a few ounces here and there and play with frame angles.
However, because skyrocketing fuel costs and the idea of combining exercise with free transportation have sparked a steady climb in bicycle sales and use, the inventors are back at it. They are in good company. Between Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the Wright brothers, bike tinkerers came up with many of the later refinements of the industrial revolution: the ball bearing, chain drive, spoked wheel, aerospace tubing—the airplane itself, in fact—and the bamboo bicycle. To say nothing of the 60-pound iron tricycle for Victorian ladies.
One line of recent research has concentrated on reducing wind resistance, spawning long, low machines with radical fairings that enclose the rider. These exotic wind-tunnel creations do indeed move much faster than ordinary bicycles. Tandem versions have surpassed 60 mph under favorable conditions. But general road use is hampered by some very basic difficulties. To begin with, the streamlined vehicles are two or three times heavier than a quality bike, which can weigh as little as 20 pounds if you're willing to pay the price. Also, the rider, being enclosed, eventually suffers from the heat, and on hills the combination of added weight and reduced cooling has been a problem. Finally, side-wind handling characteristics can make these machines much more unstable than the conventional bike.
Inventor Larry Brown of Honolulu has gone a different route, starting with a careful look at the pedaling process—what the legs actually do in moving a bicycle. That study has led him to the cam drive, which may be the real leap forward. Brown, 54, is an MIT graduate and a past president of a Swiss-based international management consulting firm with such clients as Bosch, Swissair and Krupp. In World War II he was a Special Forces man for the Allies, assigned by British Intelligence to Moscow, and was wounded five times in action. Brown is a methodical man, and in his campaign to prove the superiority of the cam-driven bicycle, he has developed a convincing body of evidence.
Brown's well-supported conclusion about the mechanics of pedaling is that the legs do their thing mainly on a limited portion of the pedal stroke—that about 50% to 70% of the downstroke provides most of the energy propelling most riders. Independent researchers working with untrained riders tend to agree. Brown is convinced that even the use of toe clips and straps to produce power on the upstroke doesn't accomplish much; his idea is simply to make better use of the rider's energy, mainly from the long thigh muscles, when it is naturally available—on the fat part of the downstroke. In this, Brown goes up against a good deal of current thinking, particularly on the part of competitive riders who have long worked at "spinning"—making the motion of their pedaling style smooth and circular to get more use from other muscles. Cycling sage John Krausz has, in fact, defined the art of cycling as making perfect little circles with your feet. It has never been proved in a lab that riders really increase efficiency by doing this, and Brown isn't the first to see an advantage in a different kind of pedal stroke. Before the turn of the century, an elliptical chain ring had been developed. It has virtually disappeared, tending, as it did, to slip off the sprocket at high rpm. Also, like the cam, it played a little trick: it constantly changed the effective gearing. In consequence, pedal resistance also varied: after the downstroke, the pedal seemed to skip forward, creating an irregular motion. To accomplished riders this was disconcerting, but those without preconceptions often found it agreeable, because it was based on the natural inclination to thrust or lunge at the pedals, rather than to spin. With the cam, the motion is not rough, and according to Brown, the thrust is a more efficient use of the basic human musculature. He also suggests that the brief pause encountered in each stroke allows the muscles to relax, improving blood flow.
Easy to say, difficult to prove. Step one, in 1977, was an attempt at some U.S. time-trial records by Alan Kingsbery and Gary Holder, well-known competition riders. Until he had a severe accident in 1978, Kingsbery was a national medal holder, generally accepted as No. 1 in the U.S. in any event against the clock, and Holder was a respected national-class rider. Four records fell to a Brown cam-drive prototype, and interest grew. "It's different," said Kingsbery, sounding perplexed. "It's different, but, you know, it goes. You can really run big [high] gears with it." In the big leagues, big gears are the name of the game.
That machine, in a version called the BioCam produced by the Facet Company of Tulsa, was put on the market last spring. It's driven by a rod system—in contrast with the Selectocam, a subsequent Brown design, which is chain-driven—and it's expensive, $1,500 for the standard model, $1,900 for a Campagnolo-equipped version. Facet literature stresses the four records broken by Holder and Kingsbery, plus some perhaps more significant information on the riders' utilization of oxygen.
The ratio of oxygen consumed to a given amount of work is a sacred figure in sports medicine. The Facet brochure indicates that while this consumption varies from minute to minute as the athlete warms up, it's definitely less than a derailleur bike requires. The average improvement appears to be about 14%. A breakthrough of this magnitude regarding such a well-researched device as the bicycle seems amazing, and Brown himself is more conservative. His guess is in the area of a 10% to 12% improvement over conventional drive, but even half that amount would be enough to make a cycling coach look up with interest. The reason, in competitive terms, is simple. In racing situations, a rider who would be going into oxygen debt on a conventional bicycle would be less likely to do so on a more efficient cam bicycle, and less likely to reap the painful dividend of anaerobic waste products, such as lactic acid.
Exercise physiologist Ed Burke, who is affiliated with the U.S. Cycling Federation, has also conducted tests, and has this to say: "We found that the bicycle we were working with had the cam somewhat out of adjustment, and we worked only a short time. But with all that, we did get positive results in terms of oxygen use—between 4% and 5% improvement [over conventional drive], even under the adverse conditions. I want to look into it more, with a properly set up bicycle and with the cam fitted for a particular rider, which Brown is working on."
Timothy Mickelson of the now-defunct American Sports-Medical Training Center in Englewood, N.J. got results that convinced him Brown had something, as did the Federation's national coach and director, Eddie Borysewicz. Eddie B., as he is known, is an émigré Pole who defected to the U.S. during the Montreal Olympics. He brought with him a background of success in international competition. In the mid-'70s Poland dominated the amateur sport as Russia does now. He's a difficult man to convince, but he was impressed by the results of cambike tests run in Colorado Springs on such outstanding athletes as Pan Am gold medalist Paul Deem and the remarkable Greg LeMond, whose record three medals in the junior world championships of 1979 had never been achieved by a road man in the history of the sport.