Saturday, September 30, 2006

My secret life

Those of you who know of me only as a climate scientist might be surprised to hear of my alter ego as an amateur engineer and forensic scientist, which I was reminded of via email this morning.

It relates to a design flaw with modern mountain bikes, which occasionally causes very serious crashes (the front wheel becomes detached, typically at high speed which results in the rider plumetting head-first into the ground). Like all intermittent faults, the frequency of the problem is debatable, but at least one person is now in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and several more had serious (life threatening) head injuries which resulted in lengthy hospital stays (this guy in particular was very lucky to live). I won't bore you with the full technical details, which can be found on my disk brake and quick release page.

Anyway, the relevance of this to me is that I was the one who firstly worked out that there really was a problem, and then analysed the system sufficiently well to diagnose the underlying cause. I did this against a background of sceptical cyclists telling me that I was making it all up. (Front wheel retention has a long and chequered history and in the past failures could be correctly blamed on user error, but modern bicycles have introduced a crucial element into the mix.) It took me a few months to put the theory together in a complete and convincing manner, at which point most of the big names in the field (ie independent engineers with an interest in cycling) quickly endorsed it, but the industry has continued with implausible denial and obfuscation for several years since. (I've found the process to be useful training in dealing with both extremes in the climate science debate). Cannondale did some thoroughly fraudulent testing for the CPSC in the USA, "proving" that there wasn't a problem. Even the CPSC themselves got in on the act by writing a letter to tell me about an open meeting to discuss the issue, but not sending it until 2 days after the meeting had taken place (which entailed them sitting on the letter for several weeks, after emailing me a censored version which omitted the vital information). The cycling press are of course in the pay of the industry via advertising, and tried their best to downplay the issue and encouraged riders to not kick up a fuss.

So the story has been been rumbling along gently for the last few years, with continuing occasional reports of problems (eg here). I understand there are a couple of cases slowly working through the legal system, and there was an out of court settlement earlier this year.

In my in-box today:
Well just go the latest Dirt Rider [cycling magazine], Issue 124. And on page 13, there is an ad for the Fox Talas II with "Changed Dropout Slot Angle for Disk Brakes". And on P 59, under the Marzocchi Marathon Race review, "But kudos to Marazocchi (and other manufacturers) for identifying a potentially lethal disc brake and drop out combination..."
So, having discovered, investigated, and solved this problem essentially single-handedly in the face of widespread opposition, and after dragging the manufacturers kicking and screaming to the point where they actually start to take some action, I've now been airbrushed out of history.

Perhaps in a few years I can look forward to someone breathlessly announcing through the pages of Nature saying that climate sensitivity is very likely close to 2.5C...

Update: it's actually Dirt Rag, and their full review of the Marzocchi forks is available on-line here. This is the same Dirt Rag that wrote the following in 2003 (issue 102):
Once we heard about the problem, we contacted a few reputable sources who seem to agree that while Annan's concerns might be valid, those concerns are only in the rarest of cases-such as severe neglect or care for parts, poor or improper assembly or just plain stupid combination of parts (such as a light-weight cross country suspension fork on an off road tandem).

10 comments:

Belette said...

Curiously enough, this: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=James_Annan&diff=prev&oldid=77840541 came up on wiki just recently....

James Annan said...

Maybe there is some renewed interest floating around in bike-world...I don't pay it much attention these days.

Anyway, isn't it time that page was deleted?

EliRabett said...

Post it on sci.environment for Vandeman if you want to start a war....

James Annan said...

Oh no, now he-who-must-not-be-named has been summoned...he'll probably be along in a minute with his particularly indigestible brand of spam.

Steve Bloom said...

Oh, he's not that bad. It's just an excess of sincerity...

EliRabett said...

More seriously, I seem to recall something like this with the old style bike brakes where you pushed the pedals backwards to engage

James Annan said...

No Steve,

He's a monomaniacal lunatic.

Lab Lemming said...

Is there such a thing as a polymaniacal lunatic? As for the disk brakes, you should have put your money where your mouth is, a la climate betting, and patented a new slot angle for the purpose of preventing wheel loss. Then you wouldn't have to worry about research funding.

Anonymous said...

Is there such a thing as a polymaniacal lunatic?

Well, perhaps that's not for me to judge :-)

Nice idea on the patent - but actually there is lots of "prior art" and existing solutions. Far from making money, I'd have been throwing it away on lawyers...

Lab Lemming said...

Aren't the Japanese specialists at patenting pre-existing technologies for new applications? Like the laser pointer and the cat thing.

Or you could just ride an old bicycle...