1 July 2016

Science and cycling

Jose Sanchez pedals past the MagLab. Jose Sanchez pedals past the MagLab. Stephen Bilenky

During the sport's biggest month of the year, MagLab staffers talk about how biking enhances their life — and their science.

By KRISTEN COYNE

As happens every July, sports fans worldwide are fixing their eyes on France, where some 200 spandex-clad, iron-calved cyclists will struggle up mountains, zigzag through villages and sprint across fields in the famed Tour de France.

At the MagLab, a number of biking buffs will be closely following the 23-day event. These are no armchair enthusiasts: They log in many miles on their own bicycles, whether commuting, negotiating a gnarly forest trail, or sprinting in a packed peloton.

In honor of the 103rd tour, and in celebration of the links between sports and fitness and science, we talked to some of the lab’s bikers and learned how their life — and their work — is better when they pedal.

A team on the road and in the lab

When Vaughan Williams joined the MagLab two decades as a mechanical designer, he needed a way to stay fit. After a colleague introduced him to cycling, he began spending his lunch hour on wheels.

He's been doing it ever since.

But he doesn't bike alone. People started joining him, and today a core group of a half dozen avid cyclists regularly hits the road come lunchtime for a 20-mile circuit. In colorful jerseys astride carbon frames, they race along tree-lined streets near the MagLab's Tallahassee headquarters.

"It's quite competitive," said Williams with a wry grin. "These guys always hurt me."

Their peloton represents an eclectic cross-section of the lab, including guys from the machine shop, a physicist, a veteran magnet technician and a senior manager.

"The bicycle is a great equalizer," said Assistant Lab Director Tom Cordi. "All your status goes out the window."

When you're speeding around corners just a few inches from one another, things like rank and department don't mean much, said Williams. What matters is trust, communication and competence in the saddle.

"It builds a camaraderie between coworkers in different areas," said Williams. "You have scientists and technical people, with the common goal of fitness."

On slower stretches of their ride, the cyclists swap stories about their personal lives and projects at the office. That easy rapport on the road translates into better work in the lab, said Cordi.

"It's a form of social networking — a network that wouldn't exist otherwise," said Cordi. "It's a kind of cohesive force. It brings the lab together."

Life in the fun lane

Many years ago, on a warm Christmas morning in Miami, Jose Sanchez awoke to discover that Santa had been very good to him: Under the tree was a black Huffy bike with a really cool banana seat — white with gold speckles.

A passion for biking was born.

Decades later, after moving to Tallahassee to study physics and science education, Sanchez fell in with the local mountain bike crowd. He met his future wife there, and their lives now largely revolve around the sport. She works in a bike shop, and they're both active in the Tallahassee Mountain Bike Association. They hang out with other bikers, help build and maintain the area's 80 miles of off-road trails, and plan their vacations around cycling.

"We don't go anywhere without mountain biking," said Sanchez, assistant director of the MagLab's Center for Integrating Research and Learning.

Sanchez enjoys the science and engineering aspects to the sport: the mechanics of the bike, exposure to nature and knowing how to create a path through forests and parks.

But that's not the main draw. "It's difficult, it's challenging," said Sanchez. "But it's thrilling at the same time."

It's not just a sport for Sanchez: It's a way of experiencing life.

"You can have all types of adventures on the bike," he said. "You can see a lot more of the world." It beats a car as a mode of transport, he added, with better access to scenery, people, nature and fresh air. And compared to foot travel, it covers a lot more ground.

But the bottom line, Sanchez said, is that it's a blast. "I really haven't found anything that's more fun."

Pump air, not gas

For physicists Hans van Tol and Julia Wildeboer, biking isn't just fun: It's how they get around.

When Dutchman van Tol moved to Florida 15 years ago, he bought a bike before he bought a car. After all, he had been riding to school or work on two wheels since the age of 10.

He covers 20 miles on his daily commute on one of his four bikes, leaving the family's one car with his wife. Turning his commute into a workout makes perfect sense for the busy scientist.

"I get 40 minutes of exercise a day, without losing any time," said van Tol, a researcher in the lab's Electron Magnetic Resonance Facility.

It's as good for the wallet, he noted, as it is for the waistline. Pumping air in your tire is free. Pumping gas in your tank takes a budgetary toll.

Coming from a bike-friendly culture, van Tol has worked to make his adopted home better for cyclists. He has served on numerous boards and committees and worked with local officials to improve safety and roads for two-wheeled transport.

Of course, van Tol can't help but bring a scientist's mind to his avocation, tracking his progress on his bike computer.

"I like to keep the numbers," he said. "I have the data for how many miles I ride and what my heart rate is."

Wildeboer, a German native, also grew up commuting by bike. When she came to the MagLab three years ago as a postdoctoral associate, she opted for a bicycle as her sole vehicle. Like some of the other early-career scientists at the lab, she finds biking and public transportation a budget-friendly alternative to car ownership.

So whether heading to work, the grocery store or the gym, she's pedaling. No traffic jams, no hunts for parking places, no gas stations draining her bank account.

For a theorist who spends her day at a desk, biking recharges her mental and physical batteries.

"You feel refreshed," said Wildeboer, who often works at home in the evening. "I take a small break from science. So maybe [biking] contributes to science in some way."