13 November 2015

A Little Boxing Science

I contributed to an article in the current issue of The Ring, known as The Bible of Boxing.  What's funny is that the December 2015 issue has been out in the US for some time now.  I've been checking in at WH Smith on Fargate for over a week.  After a good workout at Ponds Forge this morning, I nipped into WH Smith -- and they finally had it!

Keith Idec is the reporter I worked with.  He wrote nice article called "Balance of Power," in which he describes how big boxers combine intrinsic talent with skill developed over years of training to produce some pretty powerful punches.  I contributed to the section "Properties of Power" on page 63.  A few more of my comments appear on pages 64-65.

It was a lot of fun working on the piece.  The human body is capable of delivering enormous amounts of power over short time intervals.  Tour de France cyclists can briefly output over a kilowatt.  Boxers can surely do that over a the brief time of a monster punch.  There is no way I would want to be on the receiving end of one of those punches!

05 November 2015

A Week in Italy

We have Guy Fawkes Night here in England today.  Some simply call it Bonfire Night.  It's an interesting and, frankly, strange holiday.  But, hey, everyone likes a chance to see a good bonfire and watch fireworks, right?  Research work has kept me from blog writing this week, but I'll steal a few minutes to add some comments about our recent trip to Italy.

Both my daughters were off school last week, so my wife organized an incredible trip to Italy.  She is a master of international travel, adept with languages, great at planning and coordinating, and skilled at keeping costs down.  I'm the lucky guy along for the ride.  We left Sheffield on Saturday, 24 October and returned on Sunday, 1 November.  We visited Venice, Rome, Pisa, Florence, and Treviso.

Venice is like being on another planet, or more appropriately, being on another part of this planet -- the part with water.  Travel on or over water is the way to get around.  We took water buses to various parts of Venice from our rented apartment in Lido.  We walked over many bridges that covered canals.  I knew there would be many tourists, but I wasn't prepared for just how many.  Water buses were sometimes packed to the hilt.  Streets were occasionally so packed with people that it was hard to move.  Of course, we were contributing to the tourist count, but the number there in late October surprised me.  The giant ocean liner we saw in dock with a few thousand paying customers certainly added to the total.  I can only imagine what the middle of summer is like.

Below is a typical scene along a Venetian canal (click on the image for a larger view).
We paid for a half hour ride in a gondola.  As I told my wife, and like anyone working in a tourist town like Venice knows, were we going to make a huge effort to get here and then not ride in a gondola?  We also saw amazing glass blowing in Murano.  I never tire of seeing skilled people performing their crafts.  There are many forms of genius in this world.

Rome is a city I've wanted to visit since I was very young.  I was into politics by age six, even seeing some of the Ford/Carter debates.  Standing in the Roman Forum and trying to imagine the influence that place had on Western political thought gave me chills.  We had to visit the Colosseum, too.  The photo below shows the interior (click on the image for a larger view).
That place was crowded, too.  What amazed me most about the tourists was the large number who so often chose virtual reality over reality.  The inside of the Colosseum is one big selfiegasm.  I'm not trying to play off the late, great George Carlin and his comments about driving (click here for that) because we all have a line in our minds about many things.  Sure, we took a few photos and a half-minute movie, but most of the time we were inside was spent looking at and studying something we've wanted to see and experience for a long time.  Maybe at age 45 I don't get the thrill of having my back to something interesting and taking a few dozen photos like that, and then moving on to something else.

We saw many great sculptures, fountains, and buildings while in Rome.  Getting around was pretty easy, though being stuffed inside an overcrowded bus like a sardine in a can wasn't always fun.  But since new bus routes went into effect here in Sheffield, I've repeated that experience a couple of times this week.

A brief trip to Santa Marinella gave us a chance to swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Seafood was amazing there!  Italy gave us a chance to sample wonderful pasta, bread, and wine, but I really enjoyed the seafood.  When we got to Pisa, there was really only one thing to see in the limited amount of time we had to visit.  You guessed it (click on the image below for a larger view).
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a fun building to walk in!  The spiral staircase along the outside walls took us to a height of about 180 ft (55 m).  There was even a device at the top for dropping balls that could have replicated the (apocryphal) experiment Galileo performed there in the late 16th century.  The lean angle is only about four degrees, but it somehow feels more than that when you're looking at the tower or walking inside it.

Speaking of Galileo, I was most interested in seeing his tomb in Florence.  Check out the photo below that I took in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence (click on the image for a larger view).
I like seeing a great scientist appreciated!  I also enjoyed the lighting in the above scene.  Galileo helped push our understanding of the natural world and how to investigate it.  In other words, he helped moved us into the light from darker times in human history.  We also saw tombs for the great minds of Michelangelo, Rossini, and Machiavelli.

Italy was an amazing country for us to tour for a week.  Like many places we've visited, we left each city wishing for more time to explore.  I'm sure Italy's tourism bureau enjoys hearing tourists say that they left wanting more!  If we are ever in Italy again, I think we'll try to visit smaller towns that are less populated with tourists.  We've sampled some of the great Italian cities, sights, and food, but in the future, I believe we'll opt for a more laid-back approach that will allows us to experience more of Italy's "normal" culture.  Still, we had a great time!

02 November 2015

Catching up on Sports

I was in Italy all last week (more on that in my next post!) when a flurry of sports activity happened.  On Halloween the All Blacks of New Zealand won an unprecedented third Rugby World Cup.  It has been a real treat living in England for the Rugby World Cup.  I got to watch several games live on television.  The US didn't do well, but I got to root for local teams like England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.  At the end of the day, however, the two best teams, Australia and New Zealand, fought for the title.  I could only follow the end of the game on my tablet while in Italy.

The Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets in the World Series -- and I didn't get to see a pitch!  Games mostly started after I went to bed, and it was especially hard trying to follow the World Series while vacationing in Italy.  I remember so vividly the Royals winning in 1985.  Has that really been thirty years ago?!?  To bad I missed all the great comeback wins by the Royals this year.  But, hey, I got to watch the Rugby World Cup, and it's impossible to watch everything!

A story I worked on for the Wall Street Journal appeared in the paper on Monday, 25 October 2015.  Click here for the online version.  It was fun reading that in Italy!  The subject of the story is the great free-throw shooting of Elena Delle Donne of the WNBA's Chicago Sky.  Hitting 95% means hitting 19 out of 20, with crowd noise and pressure to boot.  She has amazing technique and my contribution to the story concerned the physics behind her great shooting.  By the way, it's cool that she and I share 5 September for a birthday.

Before leaving for Italy, I was coincidentally interviewed by an Italian online magazine, L'Ultimo Uomo.  Click here for the Friday, 30 October 2015 story that heavily quotes me discussing goals from corner kicks and other aspects of soccer physics.  The story is in Italian, but Google translate does a decent job of giving a good representation of what I contributed.  What was great about doing the interview was that the reporter was from Venice, which is one city I visited last week, but was contacting me from New York City.  He gave me a few good tips on places to eat while in Venice.  A great experience all around.

Sports like rugby and soccer have kept my interest while living in England.  I do miss seeing college football, and I'll especially miss seeing my Hoosiers and Commodores during college basketball season.  But one of the many thrills about being in a foreign country is experiencing new culture, and sports is a big part of culture.  I'm rooting for the Sheffield Wednesday to continue their unbeaten streak, which now sits at ten matches.  How great would it be to see the Wednesday get promoted out of Championship?  But I'd miss Premier League action in Sheffield next year!

13 October 2015

Hike into Padley Gorge

This past Saturday (10 October 2015), my wife, daughters and I returned to the Peak District for another hike, this time to the wooded area of Padley Gorge.  We had not seen much of the Peak District's wooded areas.  Weather was perfect and we had a great hike!  The photo below shows the wooded area where we were headed (click on image for a larger view).
We never tire of Peak District vistas!  Before reaching Padley Gorge, we passed by the Grindleford railway station.  I snapped a photo of the western edge of the 6230-yd (5.7-km or 3.5-mi) long Totley tunnel (click on the image for a larger view).
Hiking into Padley Gorge provided us with lovely forest scenery.  The photo below shows Burbage Brook, which runs through Padley Gorge (click on the image for a larger view).
One especially great thing about hiking in the Peak District is all the wonderful country pubs.  We ate lunch at The Grouse Inn, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  I had the best steak and ale pie of my life there!  Of course, we had to stop at The Fox House on our way home for dessert.  Living in Sheffield and being so close to the Peak District is spoiling us!

Rugby Knockout Time!

The eight quarterfinalists for the 2015 Rugby World Cup are now set.  My US team didn't fare too well, losing all four matches by combined point differential of 106.  Pool B was certainly a tough draw, given that Japan won three matches and didn't make the quarterfinals.  Scotland's dominating win over Japan ultimately sent the Brave Blossoms home.  Only Uruguay had a worse World Cup than the US, which probably doesn't help rugby gain in popularity in the US.

England was unceremoniously booted from the World Cup after its loss to Australia.  But there is still a great deal of excitement here in the UK as Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have all advanced to the knockout stage.  Action resumes this coming Saturday (17 October).

A colleague and I published a short paper on the fastest try in rugby earlier this year.  Click here to access the paper.  There is a lot of interesting physics in rugby!

28 September 2015

Learning Scottish History at Stirling Castle

I got up a wee bit late this morning after an incredible night staring at Earth's shadow on the moon.  Some time opened for me near the end of my work day, so I thought I'd update my sabbatical journal.

My family toured Stirling this past Saturday (26 September).  We could definitely understand how the city is known as the gateway to the Highlands.  I took the image below, which shows mountains in the background, including the National Wallace Monument to the left, and a statute of Robert the Bruce in the foreground (click on the image for a larger view).
Weather was perfect as we explored Stirling Castle.  There were many neat rooms to investiage, and the castle grounds were a lot of fun to walk.  I snapped the photo below of the Forework (click on the image for a larger view).
We were treated to a fascinating history lesson on the Jacobite rising of 1715, also known as Lord Mar's Revolt.  The castle hosts were in full costume, and they even taught us to rev up the fighters in preparation for battle.  Check out the YouTube video below.
We learned some very interesting Scottish history during our time in Stirling.  I've always thoroughly enjoyed learning history.  Being where history was made makes learning so much more enjoyable.

27 September 2015

Giddy over the lunar eclipse!

When the moon is at perigee, meaning closest approach to Earth, it looks big and is sometimes called a "supermoon."  That term originates in the codswallop known as astrology, but it's still a cool term.  If you were lucky enough to have clear skies today, you could see a total lunar eclipse.  It was amazing to behold!  I only wish I owned a camera capable of taking quality photographs at night.  The images below show the progression of the eclipse to near totality (click on the image for a larger view).
Being in Sheffield, England made me a tad nervous tonight because it's not unusual to have clouds in the skies over England.  But I got lucky and had nothing but clear skies all night.  It was amazing seeing all the stars near the moon that one never sees during a full moon.

I wrote recently about the awe I felt while witnessing a rainbow, and the joy I have studying the natural causes of such phenomenon.  Tonight's total lunar eclipse made me just as giddy.  Imagining Earth's shadow cast onto the moon's surface is one thing, but seeing it is so much more wonderful.  I hope you got to see it.  If not, you'll find plenty of better photographs on the internet.

21 September 2015

Great Views Atop Mam Tor

My wife and I hiked to the top of Mam Tor back in 2009.  Yesterday, our girls joined us for a return trip.  Though only just over a kilometer in elevation, the summit of "Mother Hill" provides wonderful views of the Peak District.  I took the photo below with Castleton just visible on the right (click on image for a larger view).
Photos simply don't do the views justice.  I also got a photo of Winnats Pass, which we walked through after descending from Mam Tor (click on image for a larger view).
It was great walking through Winnats Pass, especially when a flock of sheep decided to cross the road.  I took a short movie of the sheep stopping traffic (click below on the YouTube movie).
A neat problem in animal behavior could surely be obtained from the video as both sheep and humans (in cars) show heard mentality!

18 September 2015

Rugby World Cup Time!

The 2015 Rugby World Cup begins today.  England and Wales are hosting and it's exciting being in England while the World Cup is happening.  Australia and New Zealand are always tough, but England and Wales will try to make good use of home pitch advantage.  I'll certainly root for the US, but we are one of the long shots here.  The US is in Pool B with a tough South Africa team and a Scotland team that won't have to travel far.  I doubt the Rugby World Cup will be noticed much in the US, but I'm glad to be in England right now where I can enjoy the action on telly!

12 September 2015

Beauty in Nature

My younger daughter and I walked and hiked in the Peak District today.  We were near Castleton and scenery was amazing, as it always is in the Peak District.  A heavy rainstorm greeted us about halfway into our hike.  Neither one of us was bothered by the rain, especially when we could behold such a beautiful rainbow (click on the image for a larger view).
What makes such phenomena as rainbows so much more wonderful is that we understand how they are created.  Humans have provided natural explanations of such beauty, and the explanations themselves are a source of beauty.  I became a scientist partly because I was so enamored by the physical laws that govern everything.  If you are not familiar with how rainbows are formed, read up on the topic.  You'll find there's a lot of beauty behind the beauty we behold in nature.

11 September 2015

Up Close with the Tour of Britain

Stage 6 of the Tour of Britain came close to Sheffield today, so I got out to the Peak District to see the cyclists up close.  It was my first time seeing professional cyclists in a tour race.  Watching events like the Tour de France on television is great because I can follow the action for an entire stage.  Seeing stage action in person is thrilling for a few minutes, but then all that's left after the cyclists pass is a trip to a country pub.  Watching the cyclists go by was thrilling for me, and grabbing great food and a pint at The Fox House made the afternoon all the more better.

The profile of Stage 6 may be found here.  A colleague and I took a bus from Sheffield to The Fox House and set up just below the summit of the first King of the Mountain point at Millstone Edge.  By the time cyclists reached that point, they had traveled 83.7 km (52.0 mi) of the 192.7-km (119.7-mi) stage, i.e. about 43.4% of the stage distance.  The image below is a photo I took of Ian Stannard of Team Sky as he was about to be the first cyclist to reach the King of the Mountain point (click on the image for a larger view).
Stannard came in 27th today.  Italian Matteo Trentin of Etixx-Quick Step won the stage in a time 4h 45' 27" for an average speed of 11.25 m/s (40.50 kph or 25.17 mph).  I was very impressed watching those guys cycle up the hill!

The movie below shows the peloton going by.
After so many years watching professional cyclists on television, it was wonderful seeing them in action as they cycled right by where I was standing.

07 September 2015

Birthday at Hogwarts

I turned 45 this past Saturday (05 September 2015).  To celebrate my birthday, my wonderful wife planned a weekend trip to Northumberland.  She knew I've always wanted to visit Alnwick Castle, which was used for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies.  It was also used for last season's Christmas episode of Downton Abbey.  Before visiting Alnwick Castle, though, we had one little stop to make.

The bus ride north from Newcastle provided us with great vistas as we rode along the North Sea coast.  We hopped off the bus at Warkworth to see Warkworth Castle.  Wow, that place is amazing!  Dating to the 12th century, Warkworth Castle is as fun a castle to tour as we've ever visited.  My daughters, wife, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring all the rooms that are still intact.  It was fun getting lost in the castle!  Check out the photo I snapped below (click on the image for a larger view).
The flag on top is that of English Heritage, an organization we rejoined recently.  After a fun time there, and lunch at a local pub, we hopped back on the bus and headed for Alnwick.

Alnwick Castles is glorious!  Check out the photo I took below and see if you spot any resemblance to Hogwarts (click on the image for a larger view).
The castle dates to the 11th century; the Duke of Northumberland and his family still live there.  Because of the Harry Potter success, and all the other films and television shows that have made use of the castle, Alnwick Castle is much more commercialized than English Heritage castles.  It was still neat to see the magnificent castle and grounds.  I even took a broomstick lesson, and learned to fly after just that one lesson!  Don't believe me?  Check out the two photos below (click on the image for a larger view).
After I figured out how to call my broom, flying was a piece of cake!

I'm not sure if I've ever had a better birthday.  If you're ever in England, I highly recommend visiting Warkworth Castle.  We could have spent hours exploring there.  Visit Alnwick Castle, too, but keep in mind that it's more commercialized and some parts of the castle are off limits.

01 September 2015

A Visit to the Highland Games

Yesterday was the Late Summer Bank Holiday in England.  My family took advantage of the holiday weekend and hopped on a train for Glasgow, Scotland on Thursday, 27 August 2015.  We had been in Edinburgh a couple of times and spent Christmas 2008 in Inverness, but we had neither been to Glasgow nor seen any of the western part of Scotland.  We loved what we saw!

On Friday, 28 August, we visited Bothwell Castle.  We very much enjoy touring castles and learning more history.  I snapped the photo below, showing that a castle dating back to the 13th century can always use a little restoration work (click on the image for a larger view).
We had great weather to tour a castle last Friday, but had to content with Highland weather on Saturday with a couple of downpours.  I got to see something I've wanted to see for many years now:  the Highland Games.  We made our way via train and ferry to Dunoon for the Cowal Highland Gathering on Saturday, 29 August.  As someone whose professional life is spent with sports physics, I relished the opportunity to see sports I'd never seen in person before.  The image below shows a competitor from Germany throwing the 26-lb (nearly 12 kg mass) Braemer Stone (click on the image for a larger view).
The athletes could throw those massive stones for a horizontal distance greater than an American football first down!  We also saw the open stone throw (like a shot put), the Scottish hammer throw, the weight throw, the weight over the bar toss, and my favorite, the caber toss.  The image below shows the caber in flight (click on the image for a larger view).
I recorded a short movie of the best caber toss of the day.  The YouTube video is below.
The idea is to have the caber land on the thick end, and then fall over and land at 12 o'clock position.  The caber is 19.5 ft (5.94 m) long and held at the tapered end, which means more mass is on the opposite end compared to the end that's held.  That makes balancing the caber before the toss rather challenging.  At a weight of about 175 lb (79.4 kg mass), one cannot hold the caber very long.  A great deal of strength is needed to toss that large piece of wood.

As much fun as I had watching the Highland Games for the first time, I had even more fun learning about all kinds of new sports.  I've got a lot of respect for the men and women who competed in the events we saw.  Great strength and even greater technique are needed to be the best.

25 August 2015

Nerd on a Bike

My family spent last Sunday back in the Peak District.  We rented bicycles for a few hours and did the 12-mi (19-km) circuit around the Derwent and Howden Reservoirs in Derbyshire.  The Upper Derwent Valley is beautiful!  I was fascinated to learn that the dams in the reservoir and the surrounding land were so similar to the Ruhr Valley in Germany that pilots in their Lancasters practiced bombing runs in the Upper Derwent Valley in preparation for Operation Chastise in 1943.

We had a few climbs to make during our cycling, but nothing like the hors catégorie climbs found in the Tour de France.  I never cracked on the climbs, but I can easily see how the best cyclists crack on long and difficult climbs.  Lugging one's mass uphill isn't easy!  The photo below shows a nerdy physicist away from his modeling computer and in the saddle on a bicycle (click on the image for a larger view).
My cycling was made more fun with a backpack full of water bottles, umbrellas, extra clothing, wallets and purses, and other miscellaneous items.  I really enjoyed seeing all the bell heather on the slopes in the distant background.  We were helped by a few tailwinds in places, but fought headwinds in other places.  The exercise was great and so was my deepening appreciation for how unbelievably difficult it must be to complete stages in the Tour de France.  We only bicycled a distance about 10% of a typical Tour de France stage, and we weren't in the middle of a three-week effort.  I hope we can get back to the reservoirs during the next year.  We need to do the circuit twice!

19 August 2015

Getting Settled in Sheffield

There are many, many things I like about living in England.  Utility companies aren't among them.  We arrived in Sheffield on Monday, 3 August, but had to stay in two hotels (kicked out of the first because of overbooking!) before finally moving into a rental property on Wednesday, 12 August.  We were promised internet service by Monday, 17 August, but that's now been moved to Wednesday, 26 August.  Some of the most trivial tasks connected to utility companies take the longest time.

Because of a lack of internet service, I've been unable to keep my sabbatical journal updated.  I hope to do better in the coming weeks!  Setting my little rant against utility companies aside, I'll note that it's WONDERFUL being back in Sheffield again.  My family really enjoyed living here during the 2008-09 academic year, and we were thrilled to see the city again.

Getting to Sheffield was a hectic adventure.  The last week of July brought a lot of attention to my Tour de France work.  See my post here for a few stories.  After those stories broke, I was interviewed by the local news in Lynchburg (link here) and did a long radio interview for The Outspoken Cyclist (link here).  Those were fun to do, but we were packing for a little 6000-km trip!  We were sad to leave our dog behind, but she's in very good hands with my sister-in-law and her dog.  A flight to Iceland, then Manchester, and finally a cab ride to Sheffield, and we were ready to look for housing and get our daughters signed up for school.

So what is so great about living in Sheffield?  I love not having a car.  Public transportation is great here, plus I get to do a lot of walking.  I should shed a few unwanted pounds during the upcoming year!  There are many great parks here, plus Ponds Forge is a fun place to work out.  I especially love that Sheffield is adjacent to the Peak District, a place we got to know very well during our previous stay in England.  Last weekend, we returned to one of our favorite places, Peveril Castle, which is only about half an hour away by bus.  Views from the old keep are breathtaking, especially Cave Dale.  I had a lot of fun climbing the hills with my daughters.  My wife, an experienced and intrepid international traveler who makes my life possible, was content to film me sliding down a hill with my younger daughter in my lap as we dodged a few sheep on the descent.  A physics problem with an inclined plane is sure to come from that video!

I also like that Sheffield is extremely diverse.  We get to interact with people from all over the world.  Traveling does wonders for opening one's mind and putting down tribal instincts.  In the short time I've been here, I've already spoken to people from at least a dozen different countries on four continents.  The abstraction of seeing countries on a map disappears when I actually talk to people face to face.  The seemingly trivial realization that people from different parts of the world want out of life what I want -- a loving family, good health, a decent job, fun leisure time -- is something that's comforting for me.

On the research side, I'm just getting my feet wet this week.  I will be thinking a lot about "friction" during the upcoming academic year.  I'm anxious to learn and contribute!

31 July 2015

Sabbatical Journal

The 2015-16 academic year represents my second sabbatical year.  As I did during my first sabbatical year (2008-09), I will work with Matt Carré at the University of Sheffield in England.  Our first collaborative year yielded research results pertaining to the aerodynamics of soccer balls.  For this upcoming collaboration, I will join Matt's research group's investigations into friction in sport.  I've always been fascinated by the topic of friction, partly because the simple Coulomb model I learned as an introductory physics student is far from the complete story, despite the rather confident way in which Coulomb's model is usually presented.

I plan to use this blog space as my sabbatical journal.  My primary reason for doing so is that I am interested in keeping a record of what I will do over the coming year.  I think it will be fun to look back on some day.  Several colleagues, friends, and family members have told me that they are interested in knowing what my family and I are up to while we're away from the US, and that keeping a sabbatical journal is a good idea.  It always humbles me to think that anyone cares what I write in this space, so I'm flattered by the encouragement I've received to post regularly during my sabbatical.

Webster tells me that "sabbatical" may be used as an adjective with the meaning of "having the character of a recurring period of rest or renewal."  I'm not sure about "rest," as my first official sabbatical month, this July, has been anything but restful.  The Tour de France occupied my research time and kept me busy blogging predictions and stage results.  Media attention on my work further took my time as July came to a close.  I detailed some of that attention in my last post.  Even our local news ran a story on my Tour de France work last Monday (click here for that short television piece).  As flattering as the media attention has been, it only added to an already hectic week of preparing to move my family across the Atlantic.  I am fortunate, though, to have an extremely talented wife who makes international travel look much easier than it is.  Our two daughters, who were quite young during our first year abroad, have also helped in our moving preparations in more ways than they realize.

The second word in Webster's "sabbatical" definition that strikes me is "renewal."  That is a perfect word for a "sabbatical."  I joke with colleagues that my number-one rule for a sabbatical is "to put an ocean between me and my college."  Don't get me wrong.  I love teaching and researching at Lynchburg College.  Our physics students make teaching and researching thoroughly enjoyable for me.  One of my favorite former students, Crystal Moorman, will in fact be my sabbatical replacement, so my courses will be in good hands.  Despite my love for my job, being away for an extended period of time is vitally important.  A sabbatical gives me a chance to explore new research areas, meet and interact with new colleagues, and see more of the world.  That last item is important because seeing new places helps remind me that my little world in Virginia isn't the center of the universe.  There is much to learn from other cultures.  Just as my colleagues give me fresh ways to view the world scientifically, experiencing other cultures provides me with different perspectives on life.

We are near Washington, DC right now.  Our flight across the pond is quickly approaching.  Getting there will only be a small part of the fun that awaits us!

27 July 2015

Fun Chatting Tour de France Science

As the Tour de France was coming to a close, I had the opportunity to chat with some media outlets about the modeling research I was doing in connection with the world's most famous bike race.  ResearchGate interviewed me and posted its story on Friday, 24 July.  Click here for that interview.  The Washington Post followed that up with a story the next day, which may be obtained here.  After the race ended on Sunday, 26 July, CNN International had me on live for a short post-race discussion about the Tour de France research I do.  That interview may be viewed here.

Media attention is flattering, but it's never the goal of the research.  Doing the science well is my goal.  There were a lot of things my student and I had right with this year's Tour de France.  There were also a few things we had wrong.  Investigating what needs improvement is what really makes the work fun because I gain a better understanding of the natural world.  The Tour de France is immensely complicated.  There are scientists and engineers across the globe who have made enormous strides in equipment design.  Athletic trainers have helped athletes push themselves to the very limits of what human beings can do on a bicycle.  All of us are constrained by the laws of physics.  Watching the best of the best push those constraints to their extremes is pure joy for me.  Kudos to the all the cyclists, trainers, scientists, and engineers who gave the world three weeks of awesome fun!

26 July 2015

Greipel Sprints to #4 on Froome's Big Day!

We've done so well in the past when it comes to predicting the last stage.  It's mostly ceremonial, but there is usually a great sprint for the win.  Today was no different on that front, but rain really dropped speeds.  I've not seen rain in Paris like this on the final stage.  Check out Chris Froome and his Team Sky mates (click on the image for a larger view).
That was not long after the stage began.  Look at those wet streets!  I knew we would be too fast today.  Froome was offered some champagne to toast his victory (click on the image for a larger view).
The poor people running the cameras could barely keep their lenses dry!  Despite the rain, who could possibly complain about weather while riding through Paris (click on the image for a larger view)?
Now I can't wait to get back there!  Because the streets were so slick, race organizers called for all cyclists to get the same time with 68.5 km (42.6 mi) to go.  The screen capture I grabbed below shows the moment when Froome actually won the Tour de France (click on the image for a larger view).
Even though rain really slowed riders, we still got to enjoy a great sprint at the very end.  Who else but André Greipel was going to show the world who the best sprinter is?  He had himself perfectly situated for the final surge and powered his way past France's Bryan Coquard (click on the image for a larger view).
It was close, but the Gorilla always seems to be in first!  He now has four stage wins this year and ten overall.  He's the best sprinter in the world!  Below is a comparison between reality and our prediction.
  • Stage 21:  2h 49' 41" (actual), 2h 35' 06" (prediction), 14' 35" fast (-8.59% error)
More than being annoyed with the weather and how it affected our prediction, I was hoping to see faster racing on the ten loops in Paris.  It was still a wonderful sprint, though.  Greipel's average speed is given below.
  • Stage 21:  10.76 m/s (38.72 kph or 24.06 mph)
That is really slow for the final stage.  Thanks a lot, rain!  The weather didn't dampen the celebration as Chris Froome won his second Tour de France (click on the image for a larger view).
Froome completed the 3360.3-km (2088.0-mi) race in 84h 46' 14", which gives an average speed of 11.01 m/s (39.64 kph or 24.63 mph).  One has to go back to 2010 for an average speed that slow, and this year's race was the shortest since 2002.  Those mountain stages were truly brutal!  Froome was just 72 seconds faster than Nairo Quintana (left in the above image) and 05' 25" faster than Alejandro Valverde (right in the above image).  I loved seeing the kids on the podium!

This has been an incredibly fun Tour de France to watch.  My research student, Chad Hobson, made the science we pursued intellectually stimulating.  Just 342 days until the 2016 Tour de France begins!

25 July 2015

Pinot Tames Alpe d'Huez and Makes France Proud!

What an incredible finish to today's stage!  And what a great day for France!  Alexandre Geniez of France was the first to reach the summit of Col de la Croix de Fer (click on the image for a larger view).
Geniez had a great ride, but finished 25th today.  I love the scene below, which shows riders in the valley approaching Alpe d'Huez (click on the image for a larger view).
The climbers were preparing for their assault on the famous ascent.  Not long after beginning the climb, Vincenzo Nibali had a flat tire.  That was too bad, as it would have been fun watching him compete for the stage win; Nibali finished 15th today.  Frenchman Thibaut Pinot was the star on the climb, and won the stage by 18 seconds (click on the image for a larger view).
We did quite well today!  Below shows Pinot versus our prediction.
  • Stage 20:  3h 17' 21" (actual), 3h 15" 50" (prediction), 01' 31" fast (-0.77% error)
To be under 1% with an Alpe d'Huez finish makes us very happy!  But that happiness really doesn't compare to the joy I felt watching the best cyclists in the world compete on France's most famous climb.  Pinot's ride was inspiring, but I was probably more thrilled watching Nairo Quintana of Colombia.  That man can absolutely climb with the best of the best.  He did everything he could to overtake Chris Froome, and it was electrifying watching him tackle Alpe d'Huez with everything he had.  Quintana will take second this year, but at just 25 years old, he will be a rider to be reckoned with in future Tours de France.

Below is Pinot's average speed.
  • Stage 20:  9.332 m/s (33.60 kph or 20.88 mph)
In my wildest dreams I can't imagine riding today's stage at that speed.  Kudos to all those cyclists who could even finish such a challenging ride.

Chris Froome and his powerful Team Sky mates did what they had to do today to keep Froome in yellow.  Quintana offered a marvelous challenge, but Froome fought to 5th place today and kept his overall lead on Quintana to more than a minute.  We'll see Chris Froome win his second Tour de France tomorrow.

Tomorrow's 109.5-km (68.04-mi) flat stage begins in the commune of Sèvres, just southwest of Paris.  The mostly ceremonial final stage will take riders through many Parisian streets and end on the most famous of them all, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.  The final stage is always a challenge for modeling because the general classification leaders enjoy the final ride, while the sprinters will vie for the stage win once the streets of Paris are in view.  Below is our prediction.
  • Stage 21:  2h 35' 06" (prediction)
It's hard to believe the 102nd Tour de France comes to a close tomorrow.  It's been a fun ride!

24 July 2015

The Shark Jumps to 4th!

I felt like I was watching 2014 Tour de France today.  Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, who was such a joy to watch last year, showed that if he isn't going to repeat as champion, he will be a serious challenge for a podium spot in Paris on Sunday.

The penultimate Alpine stage took place on yet another beautiful day.  Cyclists have been lucky with mountain weather!  The hors catégorie climb to the 2067-m (1.284-mi) peak of Col de la Croix de Fer was more challenging than I initially thought.  The mountain not only tamed the Tour de France cyclists but our model!  But as tough as the ascent turned out to be, the scenery was still lovely (click on the image for a larger view).
France's Pierre Rolland was amazing today.  He led the charge up the monster climb and took the most points at the summit (click on the image for a larger view).
Nibali caught Rolland soon afterwards and appeared to get Rolland to work with him on the descent.  The two alternated drafting positions and fared well on the tricky turns.  I thought Nibali might even concede the stage win as long as Rolland would help him move up in the overall standings.  Rolland tried to stay with Nibabli, but with 16 km (9.9 mi) left, Rolland cracked on the climb toward Le Corbier, and the Shark took off alone.  Nibali was thrilled to win the stage (click on the image for a larger view).
Nibali looked like the Nibali of last year's Tour de France on the final climb.  As I noted in yesterday's post, our prediction was a bit bold.  The Alps were simply tougher than we thought.  Reality and our prediction are compared below.
  • Stage 19:  4h 22' 53" (actual), 4h 03' 33" (prediction), 19' 20" fast (-7.35% error)
That is our worst prediction since early in the race when the riders were near the English Channel.  To give you an idea of just how bloody tough modeling is, we need only have brought our cyclist power output down to 98% of its current value to match today's winning time.  The times on the steep climbs are very sensitive to cyclist power output.  You can easily see that while watching the race.  When a cyclist cracks on a climb, he'll likely lose a couple of minutes or more.  Below is Nibali's average speed.
  • Stage 19:  8.749 m/s (31.50 kph or 19.57 mph)
Tomorrow's final Alpine stage begins in the commune of Modane.  Cyclists will begin the 110.5-km (68.66-mi) mountain stage with a nice downhill as they head west for another rendezvous with the 2067-m (1.284-mi) peak of Col de la Croix de Fer.  But that will be only the first hors catégorie climb of the day.  The second one will close the stage and the riders' Alpine experience when they traverse the famous 21 hairpin turns up to the 1850-m (1.15-mi) peak of Alpe d'Huez.  Our prediction is below.
  • Stage 20:  3h 15' 50" (prediction)
I've been waiting all month for the Alpe d'Huez climb.  Tomorrow should be fun!

23 July 2015

Bardet Makes France Proud in the Alps!

Romain Bardet of France pushed my challenge from yesterday to the very edge.  The prediction I posted for today's stage was ambitious, and I admitted as much when I posted it.  I wanted to see a rider come in under five hours, and Bardet almost did it.

With temperatures around 32 C (90 F) at the base of the mountains and roughly 25 C (77 F) near the peaks, riders enjoyed a wonderful summer day in the saddle.  Alpine scenery was of course on full display.  The brutal climb up Col du Glandon separated the best from the very best, but all enjoyed views as good as it gets (click on the image for a larger view).
The screen capture I grabbed below shows the peloton with about 50 km (31 mi) left (click on the image for a larger view).
It is easy to see why that mountain is tough to climb on a bicycle!  Chris Froome got some help from a Team Sky mate on the way up (click on the image for a larger view).
I think that is Coca Cola!  It must have helped because Froome retains the yellow jersey with the same lead he began the day with.  The first cyclist to reach the peak of Col du Glandon was Romain Bardet (click on the image for a larger view).
Bardet is on the right and Winner Anacona (what a great name!) of Colombia is on the left.  Bardet would never relinquish the lead.  Look below as he makes France proud today (click on the image for a larger view).
As I noted above, Bardet wasn't able to sneak in under five hours.  Below is a comparison between his time and our prediction.
  • Stage 18:  5h 03' 40" (actual), 4h 50' 12" (prediction), 13' 28" fast (-4.43% error)
I was hoping for a special performance today, and that's what I saw!  Getting through today's grueling stage in just over five hours is quite an achievement.  There were cyclists finishing more than half an hour later after Bardet crossed the finish line.  I'm happy we're under 5% on such a difficult stage.  Below is Bardet's average speed.
  • Stage 18:  10.24 m/s (36.85 kph or 22.90 mph)
Tomorrow's Stage 19 is a deceptively short 138 km (85.7 mi), but a LOT of tough cycling will be shoved into those 138 km.  Picking up where today's stage finished in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, cyclists will have to contend with a category-1 climb right at the start.  After heading north, they will turn back toward the south where they'll face the hors catégorie climb to the 2067-m (1.284-mi) peak of Col de la Croix de Fer.  As if that's not enough, a category-2 climb will whet their cycling appetites before the category-1 climb to 1705 m (1.059 mi) elevation at the finish at La Toussuire.  Below is our prediction.
  • Stage 19:  4h 03' 33" (prediction)
I suspect we'll be a tad fast again, however, the best effort from the best cyclist in the world can certainly make that time.  I am not rooting for any particular cyclist, but I would love to see Chris Froome get challenged today so that racing will be fast and the action will be intense.  A great stage awaits us tomorrow!

22 July 2015

Geschke Prevails in First Alpine Stage!

Cyclists enjoyed wonderful scenery in today's first Alpine stage.  Unfortunately for Tejay van Garderen, who entered today's action in third place in the general classification, he got sick on the first climb and had to abandon the Tour de France.  High elevations and tough climbing would make all but the best cyclists in the world a bit woozy.  But check out my screen capture below as the peloton made its way up Col d'Allos (click on the image for a larger view).
A nice perk for those who can compete in the Tour de France!  Lovely, isn't it?  Temperatures got to about 30 C (86 F) on the climb, so many riders were content to have their jerseys open.  Simon Geschke of Germany was the first to reach the highest point (2250 m or 1.40 mi) in this year's Tour de France (click on the image for a larger view).
He looks happy to be finally going downhill!  Geschke skillfully maneuvered the treacherous descent with speeds reaching a reported 85 kph (53 mph).  He held on to win the first Alpine stage (click on the image for a larger view).
Germany now has five stage wins.  Herzlichen glückwunsch!  Below is a comparison between reality and our prediction.
  • Stage 17:  4h 12' 17" (actual), 4h 21' 10" (prediction), 08' 53" slow (3.52% error)
I'm definitely happy with that error after such a tough stage!  A total of 26 out of 163 cyclists beat our predicted time.  For a stage like today's in the Alps, getting our prediction at about 16% of the cyclists is fine by me.  Below is Geschke's average speed.
  • Stage 17:  10.64 m/s (38.29 kph or 23. 79 mph)
Tomorrow's Stage 18 begins back in Gap.  The 186.5-km (115.9-mi) mountain stage will take cyclists north to the commune of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.  There are a total of three category-3 climbs and three category-2 climbs, but tomorrow's star will be the hors catégorie climb to the 1924-m (1.20-mi) peak of Col du Glandon.  Riders will have to contend with 21.7 km (13.5 mi) of that climb!  Our prediction is given below.
  • Stage 18:  4h 50' 12" (prediction)
I feel like our time is a challenge to the world's best cyclists.  How many will come in under five hours tomorrow?

21 July 2015

Prediction for Stage 17

Tomorrow's Stage 17 promises great scenery as the Tour de France will be fully in the Alps.  Picking up in the commune of Digne-les-Bains, the 161-km (100-mi) mountain stage takes riders southeast for about 40 km (25 mi) before turning them northward toward the stage's category-2 climbing end at the ski resort of Pra Loup.  Alpine mountains will be on full display, particularly the category-1 climb to the 2250-m (1.40-mi) peak of Col d'Allos.

Will tomorrow be the day that teams challenge Chris Froome?  Or will teams wait for a later stage?  As with yesterday's stage, we never know what strategies will be like, but it's a lot of fun watching and finding out.  Our prediction is given below.
  • Stage 17:  4h 21' 10" (prediction)
A well-rested cyclist with nothing to lose could surely beat that time.  We'll see if racing is as fast tomorrow as it's been in the past two stages.

20 July 2015

Plaza Leads Breakaway to Stage Win!

There were two races in today's Stage 16.  The breakaway set a blistering pace and won the stage.  The peloton, which had all the general classification leaders, was content to concede the stage and jostle for position during the final descent.  It turned out that we were nearly perfect on the peloton, but, alas, we were too slow on the winner.

After 80 minutes of uphill racing, the average speed was a whopping 52.7 kph (32.7 mph).  A 15 kph (9.5 mph) tailwind played a big part in the early pace.  The weather was nearly perfect with warm temperatures (31 C or 88 F) and blue skies.

Peter Sagan was pure joy to behold today.  He is incredibly skillful on a bike and he got yet another second place today after catching all but one challenger in the various breakaway attacks.  And Sagan did it all without any team help!  The screen capture I grabbed below is Sagan getting 20 points for winning the intermediate sprint (click on the image for a larger view).
The first in the breakaway group to crest Col de Cabre was Belgian Serge Pauwels (click on the image for a larger view).
Sagan was in that breakaway group, and then he showed his skill on the subsequent descent (click on the image for a larger view).
As the main part of the Alps came into view, helicopters got some amazing scenery shots (click on the image for a larger view).
Who wouldn't want to visit the Alps?!?  The first rider to reach the top of Col de Manse was Spaniard Rubén Plaza (click on the image for a larger view).
Plaza made a great attack on the climb and left Sagan too far behind.  What was great about the breakaway reaching the peak of the final climb is that they were roughly 20 minutes ahead of the peloton!  Sagan fought hard during the final lightening-quick descent, but Plaza took the stage by half a minute over Sagan (click on the image for a larger view).
Below is a comparison between Plaza's time and our prediction.
  • Stage 16:  4h 30' 10" (actual), 4h 47' 26" (prediction), 17' 16" slow (6.39% error)
We were slow by about the same percentage we were slow yesterday.  Now comes the interesting part.  The last breakaway rider came in 23rd, nearly nine minutes after Plaza.  Last year's winner, Vincenzo Nibali, executed a nice attack on the final climb and was the first of the peloton to cross the finish line.  His time?  Nibali finished in 4h 47' 54", less than half a minute off our prediction!  That is why I noted at the beginning of this post that we were almost perfect on the peloton; but that's not what we're after with each stage.  Below is Plaza's breakneck average speed.
  • Stage 16:  12.40 m/s (44.64 kph or 27.74 mph)
Let that speed sink in for a moment.  That is for a 201-km (125-mi) medium-mountain stage!  Those riders in the breakaway went for the stage win, and they got it!

Chris Froome fought well on the final descent and made sure he would hold on to his prized yellow jersey.  His Team Sky mate, Thomas Geraint, suffered what looked like a devastating crash on the treacherous final descent, but Geraint admirably got back on his bike and proceeded to hold on to his 6th overall place in the general classification.

Cyclists will stay in Gap for a rest day tomorrow.  They will need all the rest they can get as four daunting mountain stages in the Alps await them.  I will get our Stage 17 prediction posted tomorrow.