They say you never forget how to ride a bike. And at a new STEM-based exhibit at The Health Museum, visitors will see nostalgic models that may call to mind their first time on two wheels.
Part of the ‘Gear Up: The Science of Bikes’ exhibit at the Health Museum
With 13 bikes on display and interactive exhibits that demonstrate how the machines work, “Gear Up: The Science of Bikes” is particularly timely as the U.S. is experiencing a renewed interest in biking and, as a result, a shortage of bikes at retailers nationwide.
“In light of the pandemic, everybody is focusing on getting outdoors and being healthier,” says John Arcidiacono, the museum’s President and CEO, who adds that the environmental impact of biking also aligns with the museum’s mission.
Early models of bikes on view will wow kids, including a penny-farthing, the antique style with a front wheel that is comically larger than the rear wheel.
Penny-farthing bikes were custom fit to riders, which included children. A placard explains the name originates from a small and large British coin, the penny and the farthing.
Other bikes show how the transportation has modernized over time — from a 1950s cruiser that drew influence from locomotives to the types of carbon fiber bikes used this summer in the Tour de France.
Some designs are just plain cool, including a vintage Italian road bike.
Kids will spot a unicycle and a clown bike. One over-the-top model is fashioned from three bicycles stacked on top of one another, propelled by a total of 330 chain links.
Both a tricked-out, custom bike covered in gleaming chrome and a 1970s Huffy with a banana seat are examples of how bikes were once inspired by choppers and motorcycle culture, says Arcidiacono, a biking enthusiast who has participated in the Texas MS150.
Visitors will learn how folding bikes, now used by commuters in densely-populated cities who carry them inside their offices, were dropped by parachute in World War II to fighters on the ground.
Other examples of innovation include a RoundTail and a fatbike, designed for difficult terrain and rough weather.
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A wheely good time
Interactive elements throughout the gallery — where the song by The Police, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” plays as the museum’s gentle reminder to socially distance — provide lessons about motion, physics and force.
Kids can rub a crayon on paper over tires to compare patterns from different treads, then launch small balls down ramps to learn about the law of motion.
Near a Big Wheel bike on display, they’ll study nine shades of red to guess which is the exact color of a stop sign.
Manipulating colorful gears serves as a lesson on torque. Visitors can grip wood, plastic and rubber brakes to decide which is most effective.
A “bike body xylophone” plays musical pitch on bike frames made of carbon fiber, titanium and aluminum. Objects suspended in blue liquid demo how the shape of a bike helmet affects a rider’s speed.
Other hands-on elements teach how a bike stays upright and why it’s harder to pedal uphill.
Lessons in motion
Guests can take their new scientific knowledge to the streets at a series of riding events the museum has organized in partnership with Houston BCycle, the non-profit bike share company.
To highlight the environmental benefits of biking, “we thought it would make sense to celebrate and promote cycling in Houston, especially at a time when people are turning to safer — and healthier — outdoor-based activities,” says the museum’s Becky Seabrook.
Abby Fernandez of Houston BCycle says the partnership is a natural one, noting that the BCycle station located at The Health Museum is one of the most-used in the city.
At the group-ride events that promote a healthy lifestyle, the public is encouraged to use the hashtag #forthehealthofit.
“I am a huge advocate for people to be outside more,” says Fernandez, who views riding as a way to discover Houston’s neighborhoods from a fresh vantage point. BCycle is currently adding e-bikes to its fleet, she says, as more people use bikes “not just for getting from one place to another but as a way to explore the city.”
Alison Bagley is a Houston-based writer