Though the bicycle has been around since the early 1800s, there are still things about the physics of cycling that scientists don’t understand. Like what distinguishes a beginner from an expert. 

In a new study in PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Michigan recruited 14 volunteers to show off their cycling skills (or, for half the participants, lack thereof) in the lab. In order to test how balance varies between inexperienced and experienced cyclists, the scientists gathered data on how the volunteers steered, their speed, the angles of their steering and wheels, and other physical information about how they moved while biking on training rollers. 

At slower speeds, they found, all the riders reported that it was difficult to keep the bike upright on the training rollers, and showed similar levels of balance. But as the cyclists pedaled faster, the scientists began to see differences in how the experts controlled their bikes compared to people who knew how to ride but didn’t ride often. The skilled riders were better at leaning their bodies to adjust their center of balance, while inexperienced riders primarily relied on steering to balance. And while all the riders rode in similarly straight lines, expert cyclists don’t work as hard to balance as inexperienced riders who are faced with the same physical situation. 

This makes sense if you’ve ever seen someone really struggle to ride a bike. Inexperienced riders tend to flail the handlebars around to stay upright. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever watched a bike race, professional cyclists merely tilt their bodies to round a curve. 

This research mainly proves that experienced cyclists are, in fact, better at cycling than beginners, but it could someday help lead to better knowledge about how people learn to ride bikes. 

All images via iStock