How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1007

How do bicycle shocks and suspension affect the performance of a bicycle? — D
When the wheels of a bicycle are attached directly to the frame of a bicycle, the wheels and frame must move together. When one of the wheels hits a bump, both that wheel and the frame must accelerate upward together. When this happens, the bump exerts a huge upward force on the wheel and everything, including the unfortunate rider, experiences a sudden upward acceleration. A sudden jolt of this sort is unpleasant—the seat of the bicycle pushes upward violently on the rider and the rider feels large forces throughout his or her body. Each body part pushes upward on the body part above it so that everything leaps upward.

To reduce the upward acceleration that the rider experiences, the direct connection between the bicycle wheels and the frame can be replaced by a spring suspension. When the wheel of a bicycle with a spring suspension encounters a bump, the springs compress and the force on the frame and rider is much smaller. The rider still accelerates upward, but not as rapidly as the wheel and without the abrupt jolt of a suspensionless bicycle. In fact, by the time the rider has begun to rise much, the wheel will probably have rolled back off the bump and the spring will return to its original shape. Overall, the rider will barely move at all and will hardly notice the bump.

But a spring suspension isn't perfect by itself. Suppose that the bicycle rolled over a curb and onto a sidewalk. This bump doesn't end—the pavement level rises permanently. When the wheel hits the curb, it rises suddenly and compresses the spring. But since the wheel never drops back to its original height, the only way for the spring to decompress back to its original shape is for the frame and rider to rise. And that's what happens. But the frame and rider don't stop moving once the spring has reached its original shape. They have upward momentum and they continuing rising. The spring begins to stretch upward now. Eventually the frame and rider stop rising and begin to descend again, but they continue to bounce up and down as though they were on a pogo stick. In effect, they are on a pogo stick. When a spring is compressed or stretch, it stores energy. If there is nothing to get rid of the energy stored in the bicycle's compressed or stretched spring, the frame and rider will continue to bounce up and down indefinitely.

To stop the bouncing (and prevent most of it in the first place), a bicycle with a spring suspension also has shock absorbers. These devices waste energy whenever the wheel and frame move relative to one another. Whether the spring is compressing or stretching, the shock absorber extracts energy from the wheel, frame, and spring, and turns that energy into thermal energy. As a result, the frame and rider don't bounce significantly after the wheel rides up and onto the curb. Similar issues occur in cars, where shock absorbers damp out the bouncing that can occur because the car body is suspended above the wheels on springs.


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