Making Sport of Physics

Time to Get Rolling — Stage 1 Prediction

The 103rd Tour de France commences tomorrow.  For those of us that follow the yearly race, a day like today makes us say, “Finally!”  I thoroughly enjoyed giving my talk this afternoon on my Tour de France and World Cup football research work.  I tried to whet the appetite of those in the audience anticipating the start of tomorrow’s first stage.  My colleague, Zing, snapped the photo below just before my talk got underway (click on the image for a larger view).

I unveiled our Stage 1 prediction during the talk, but before I do that in this space, a few more words.  In past years, I’ve watched the Tour de France in my Lynchburg College office via an internet feed.  I could snag a few images of each stage by simply printing my computer screen to a file.  Stages would usually end around noon, meaning I could watch in the morning and still work a mostly full day afterwards.  Now that I’m in England, stages will be run during afternoons, finishing in early evenings.  That makes it much harder for me to follow the race and still get lots of work done.  So despite being much closer to the action this year, my blog posts will be less detailed and contain fewer images.  I’ll still post a prediction before each stage is run, though.

Tomorrow’s Stage 1 begins in the French commune of Mont Saint-Michael.  Cyclists will head mostly north along the coast for the 188-km (117-mi) flat stage, which ends on Utah Beach in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.  Below is our prediction.

  • Stage 1:  4h 20′ 25″ (prediction)
Will we be fast?  Slow?  Nail it?  Who knows?  But it’ll be fun seeing how close we come!
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Who will win this year’s Tour de France?

I don’t know!  That response happens to be one of the best responses a scientist, or anyone for that matter, can give to a question.  No reason to assert a claim without data and evidence to support the claim.  As a scientist, I’m trained to make conclusions based on data and evidence.  But I’ve had a lot of fun in recent years publishing Tour de France stage-winning-time predictions on this blog.  My research students and I have honed a physical model for a dozen years now.  The recipe is fairly simple.  We take stage profile data, add some cyclist power output, toss in some air resistance and road friction, and then mix the ingredients up with the laws of physics.  A tasty summer treat indeed!

But the question that serves as this post’s title is one I’m asked by media every year.  It’s a fun question because I can’t possibly know what will happen over the course of a gruelling three-week-long race.  Will there be big crashes?  Injuries?  Which stages will be hit with bad weather?  Cycling teams certainly aren’t sharing their strategies with me.  I do freely admit, though, that publishing our winning stage-time predictions prior to each stage being run has made the science much more exciting — and the science was already exciting!

For the first time, I made a prediction for the overall winner.  I did so with all the caveats mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Will I feel bad if my pick doesn’t win?  As long as he competes well and doesn’t get injured, no, I won’t feel bad.  There are a handful of elite riders with strong teams who have legitimate shots at winning cycling’s most famous race.  I picked one of them — but I’m not revealing the name in this space.  At least not yet.  I was recently interviewed by TOUR Magazine, which is based in Germany.  My prediction for the overall winner sits on page 36 of the current issue (July 2016).  Because the magazine was gracious enough to chat with me about my Tour de France research work, I’ll throw the magazine a little love and ask that if you’re really interested in my pick, you’ll go there.

The 103rd Tour de France begins day after tomorrow (Saturday, 2 July).  I’ve been invited by the Department of Mechanical Engineering here at the University of Sheffield to give a talk on my Tour de France and World Cup football research.  My talk will begin at 2 pm on Friday, 1 July and will be held in LT 15 in the Sir Frederick Mappin Building.  I plan to unveil our Stage 1 prediction during the talk.  I’ll also post our prediction after the talk in this space.  If asked during Q&A, I may even offer my pick for this year’s winner!

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Writing a Good Journal Article

I gave an invited talk today at the University of Sheffield.  The topic is important to me, but the topic had never been the subject of one my talks before.  I was asked to talk about writing a good journal article.  Sure it’s something I’ve learned to do over the years, and it’s something I’ve counselled students on during my time at Lynchburg College.  I’ve written a couple dozen research articles in my life, including a long review article, and I’ve written a book for the general public.  But how to describe writing in a talk?  That was definitely out of my comfort zone!

Like any challenge I face, I embraced the task before me and thought about how I could describe good journal writing in a 50-minute talk.  Writing for me is so discombobulated at times.  I jump right in, write a few paragraphs in what will eventually be the middle of the paper, and then I do something else.  The main struggle in preparing today’s talk was how to present something nonlinear in a linear way.  Whether I succeeded or not is up to the audience.

The audience, by the way, was great!  I got lots of though-provoking questions.  At least half the audience spoke English as a second language.  I admire those people because not only are they bilingual, something I wish I could join my wife in being, they are making wonderful strides to improve their English and publish the exciting research work they do.  It has to be daunting to express thoughts and ideas in ways one is not accustomed to doing.

My colleague, Zing, was gracious enough to snap a couple of photos of me while I was giving my talk.  The one below shows me just getting going (click on the image for a larger view).

I wish I had a better way to hold my reading glasses, but the top of my head is what works for me!  It was fun giving a talk on a new topic, one I’d not thought of as a talk topic before I was asked to make it a talk topic.

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Rock Climbing in the Peak District

After getting turned around in the fog a couple of weeks ago, I made another attempt to see the beautiful sights atop the rocky promontories on Hathersage Moor.  My wife, younger daughter, and I experienced a lovely day in the Peak District this past Sunday.  No fog got in our way!

We began our hike southeast of where the A6187 meets up with the Burbage Brook.  Carl Wark was our first destination.  My younger daughter likes to describe herself as a mountain goat because of her skill navigating over and up rocks and boulders.  She’s certainly our family’s best climber!  I snapped a photo of the Hathersage Moor while on the way down from Carl Wark (click on the image for a larger view).

We then made our way to Higger Tor.  The photo below was taken from Higger Tor and shows Carl Wark to the left (click on the image for a larger view).

Is that a gorgeous view or what?!?  We had no climbing equipment, so we avoided the sheer rock faces and hike up the scattered boulders.  That might have been more fun than climbing with ropes.  We had to think about which path to take and where to step.  My daughter did a great job leading her proud dad up to the top.

Not content with two promontories, we left Higger Tor and hiked up to Stanage Edge.  The photo below shows millstones made from gritstone and some of the sheep we met on our hike (click on the image for a larger view).

We had a lot of fun walking through the tall bracken; some of it was as tall as my daughter.

The walk back gave us a couple of interesting moments.  I was leading my daughter as we neared the Burbage Brook when I stepped in a sink hole.  Before I knew it, I had mud a few inches above my boots.  I didn’t panic and sink any more than that, and I was able to get myself out.  I’m glad my daughter wasn’t leading; she would have sunk in to her knees at least.


We had to jump across the Burbage Brook.  I did fine, but my daughter slightly lost her nerve as she jumped from the bank.  I caught her, but her trailing boot landed in the water.  I pulled her out quickly.  She then sat on a boulder and took off her boot.  I couldn’t help but laugh when she turned her boot over and a bunch of water spilled out.

After all that fun we had a great meal at the Fox House pub.  We’ve never had a bad meal there!

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Brexit After All

The votes were tallied and nearly 52% of those votes supported the UK leaving the EU.  I knew the vote would be close — all polling leading up to the vote suggested as much — but I confess I’m surprised that “remain” didn’t carry the day.  These are strange political times we live in.  Both left and right have serious divisions with them.  Here in England, I’ve heard isolationists on the right who fear the “other” side with some on the left who want to blow the establishment system up, thinking that starting over is the only way revolution will happen.  Strange bedfellows indeed.

While on a recumbent bike at the gym this morning, I watched on live television the British Prime Minister resign.  That David Cameron would leave isn’t a shock, but it was something else watching it happen in real time.  He’ll likely leave in October.  My family picked an interesting year to be in England!  We’ll leave an England at the end of July that will be rather different from the one we’ll visit if we are lucky enough to return in the future.

The Brexit vote reminds me of just how divided people are on certain ways of viewing the world, and how the groups rarely intermingle.  I admit that I wanted the UK to remain in the EU, and essentially everyone I know here feels the same way.  At least three times this morning I heard something like, “Everyone I know voted to remain.  How did we lose?”  While working at a university, I primarily interact with people in academia and professionals with “white collars.”  I simply don’t cross paths with the large number of people in Sheffield who work “blue collar” jobs in various industries.  I certainly don’t view one group as being better than the other; my career choice has put me in proximity with one group.  I learned this morning that Sheffield voted to leave by a margin of 51% to 49%, meaning the people I associate with were part of the minority opinion.

I’ve heard much talk about there being “two Americas” in the US.  We will have a choice this November between two candidates who poll at #1 and #2 historically on how much they’re despised.  And both have earned those rankings.  But people who support one candidate can hardly fathom the thinking going on inside the heads of those support the other candidate.  I can’t help being like that myself.  It has always been a complete mystery to me why so many in my country support citizens owning semi-automatic (or fully automatic) weapons.  And that’s just one example of many that make me feel like I’m part of one of the two Americas.

It will be interesting to see how everything unfolds as the UK moves forward.  We’ll certainly be keeping up with UK politics after returning to the US.

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Great Father’s Day in Hathersage!

There was no way I could attempt to stay up all last night and watch the deciding game of the NBA Finals.  The game here began at 1 am today.  So I made sure to enjoy myself all of yesterday for Father’s Day.  I’ve been called “son,” “brother,” “husband,” and “uncle” in my family life, the latter of which has been particularly fun.  In my professional life, I’ve been called “doctor” and “professor,” though I’ve never liked all those titles.  The one title I love above all others is “daddy,” which has evolved to “dad” as my girls have gotten older.  Hearing “dad” always makes me happy and represents the best way a part of me can live on after I die.

My wife and daughters know how much I love the Peak District, so we all went to Hathersage for a little walking and a visit to a great country pub.  Because my older daughter has a broken left pinkie toe, we kept walking to a minimum.  Walking the countryside was still a lot of fun (click on the image for a larger view).

I never tire of the lush green grass on the English countryside.  We walked along River Derwent for awhile before crossing it to get to a pub (click on the image for a larger view).

After walking got our appetites ready for a pub visit, we nipped into The Plough Inn.  We had wonderful food there, including delicious desserts that should be reserved for special occasions only.  Give The Plough Inn a try if you’re ever in Hathersage.

My wife and daughters gave me a great Father’s Day yesterday, though every day feels like Father’s Day when I’m fortunate enough to hear my daughters call me “dad.”

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From Joy to Sadness

I have so thoroughly enjoyed my time in Europe over the past year.  It is hard for me to believe that my family will be flying home in about six weeks.  I have also enjoyed using my blog for a sabbatical journal.  I’ve been able to record thoughts on holidays my family has taken, and I’ve noted times when I’ve interacted with media and given talks.  There has been some sports science writing, too, which is how this blog got started.  At the beginning of this week I put a few words in this space that pertained to the massacre in Orlando.  And now something else has happened to motivate me to write outside my comfort zone.

Just before 2 pm yesterday, my research colleague and I joined a couple of his colleagues and watched England’s thrilling 2-1 win over Wales.  We all felt joy as England pulled out the win with an exciting goal late in the match.  But in the middle of the match, my colleague checked his phone and saw that an MP from West Yorkshire had been stabbed and shot.  That was big news, partly because gun crime is so rare here and partly because the last time an MP was murdered was in 1990.  My colleague said the name Jo Cox, and though I’m not sure, that may have been the first time I heard her name.  I’ve watched and read a lot of BBC while living here.  And I’ve followed the Brexit debates rather closely.  It is entirely possible I’ve heard the name Jo Cox before, but I don’t remember.  It takes awhile for a visitor like me to learn all the names and places involved in important issues.

When I got home from work, my wife and I learned that Jo Cox had died from her wounds.  I spent a little time last night getting to know her from various websites.  She pursued ethical and humane solutions to the problems in Syria.  She saw it as a moral obligation to help migrants fleeing the strife in Middle East conflicts.  Her website highlights recent efforts to help people with cancer.  And some deranged individual takes her life because, from all reports I’ve read, he hated her position on the Brexit issue.  Wow.  A woman who has done more good for more people than her murderer could fathom is dead because of her political stances.

Hatred of the “other” is a powerful motivator for some people.  I’ve seen too much of it my country, and it’s sad to see it here in England.  Less than a week ago, 49 people were slain because of hate, fear, and credulity.  And I may be guilty of possessing the brain state based on the fact that the more people killed in a given atrocity, the more abstract the event becomes for those not directly affected.  After all, it is much easier and less time consuming to read about one murdered MP than it is to read about 49 victims of a mass shooting.  It may not be fair, but that’s the way it is.

There will always be certain stories that tug at our empathy.  I learned that Jo Cox is survived by a husband and two children, ages 3 and 5.  Seven years ago, my family was preparing to leave England.  I was nearing the end of my first sabbatical, also spent at the University of Sheffield.  My daughters at that time were ages 3 and 5.  I cannot even imagine leaving England then without their mother.  Putting aside what my own grief would have been like, I cannot even imagine what my girls’ lives would have been like in the past seven years without their extraordinary mother.  It is empathy that plays a large role in the solidarity we humans have with each other.  And it is empathy that makes me feel sick to my stomach when I think about what happened yesterday.

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Fun at the Engineering Researcher Symposium

I was invited to give the keynote address at the Engineering Researcher Symposium here at the University of Sheffield.  The logo for the event appears below (click on the image for a larger view).

A conference organiser asked me to speak on my Tour de France work, my World Cup football work, and give a physics preview of the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  That’s a lot of material!  But I embraced the challenge and condensed what I normally talk about on those research areas.  I hope it was successful.  One of my office mates, PhD student Zing Siang Lee, took the photo below (click on the image for a larger view).

As you can see from the slide I’m looking at, I was discussing the profile of Stage 17 of last year’s Tour de France.  My research students and I have taken stage profiles and converted them into series of inclined planes.  When modelling reality, start simple and only add complexities as needed.

I thoroughly enjoyed giving the keynote address.  Even more fun for me was watching the other presentations, seeing the various posters set up for the poster session, and meeting and talking to so many people excited about research.  There is nothing quite like being in a room with people who have learned something new and are dying to share the news.  I was the sponge in the room, going from person to person and absorbing as much as I could.  When I got into academia many years ago, I knew that I could not be an effective teacher if I wasn’t passionate about research.  After yesterday’s symposium, I’m full of new ideas for what I’ll be teaching at Lynchburg College during the upcoming academic year.

After all the talks were completed and the poster session had finished, awards were given out.  I was thrilled when another of my office mates, postdoc Raman Maiti, won the engineering researcher of the year award.  He certainly deserved it!

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Hike to Carl Wark and Orlando Thoughts

I resume my sabbatical journal writing after lunch today with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I was thrilled to be out in the Peak District this past Saturday with a couple of friends from work.  On the other hand, what happened in Orlando yesterday was so horrific that it’s impossible for me to not put a few thoughts down in this space.  But where to begin?


Beliefs matter.  Beliefs lead to actions, which have consequences.  Most of the time consequences are benign, but sometimes consequences are fatal.  I’ve spent the majority of my life devoted to science.  Nothing in human history has proved more powerful and more accurate for helping us understand reality than science.  We are in a continual cycle of collecting data and evidence, forming hypotheses, peer reviewing work of others, and creating models of the natural world.  Though we never reach absolute truth, we constantly strive to improve our understanding of reality.  If new evidence comes along to shake our understanding of something, we go where the evidence takes us.  The models we create of reality surface only after much struggle and many hours of work.  We never simply assert truth.  I cannot wrap my head around what it feels like to read an assertion in an ancient book and come away thinking I’ve learned something about reality.


When all but one in a crowd of people entered that nightclub in Orlando this past Saturday night, they did so because they enjoyed life.  By dancing, laughing, singing, talking to friends, they celebrated the only life we know we have.  But one person, according to initial reports, had a problem with something as intrinsic to those people as to any of us.  Sexual orientation.  A belief not founded in reality contributed to the deaths of about 50 people and the wounding of at least that many more.  Were there other factors at play?  Most certainly.  But all those factors merged into hate so powerful that taking life became something doable.  And two prior FBI investigations provided no obstacle to purchasing an assault rifle, the AR-15, very popular in the US.  Now that the worst mass shooting in US history has happened, will more people want to be armed?  I won’t be surprised if gun sales go up.


So what was I doing this past Saturday?  Two of my work colleagues and I took a bus to the Peak District with a walk in mind.  But weather played some tricks on us and we lost our path.  After getting to the top of Carl Wark in the Hathersage Moor, we were supposed to hike over to Higger Tor.  We did well to stay close to Burbage Brook but we lost our way in the fog atop Carl Wark.  Check out the photo of me on top of the promontory (click on the image for a larger view).

I’m told there is quite a view behind me!  We were inside of a cloud and couldn’t see anything off the promontory.  But the great thing about the Peak District is that you really can’t go wrong with your walking direction.  Once we got to the A6187, we entered the Longshaw Estate and hiked to Padley Gorge.  I visited Padley Gorge last October (click here for that story), but my colleagues saw it for the first time.  It’s a great place to hike and has lots of neat paths (click on the image for a larger view).

I can imagine starting off a creepy story with a detailed description of the above path.  Just look at those trees!

I reach the end of this post and I feel weird.  The thought of breaking this post into two separate posts did enter my head.  But I think my short description of the hike I did this past Saturday is where I wanted to go after putting a few thoughts down about Orlando.  Because all I was doing was enjoying life with friends.  I’m no better or worse than those people who were murdered in that nightclub.

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Holiday in Cornwall

It is a beautiful spring day in Sheffield.  The high will be about 24 C (roughly 75 F) today and the sky is a bright blue.  It felt wonderful working out at the gym this morning and then walking to work.  No better day to be alive than this one!

My daughters had their half term holiday last week, and we took advantage of their time away from school to visit Cornwall.  It turned out that train tickets cost about twice what renting a car for a week cost, so I got to drive again.  I drove more than 1000 miles (more than 1600 km) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Though I’m now completely acclimated to driving here, reversing is still tough.  I never realized how much muscle memory I have in my left hand for driving backwards.  Using my right hand to steer while in reverse is akin to trying to write with my left hand.

Scenery out the car window was great.  Unlike in the US, roads here are essentially unsullied by billboards.  What I did see here much, much more than in the US are windmills and solar farms.  My wife took the two photos below while I was driving in Cornwall (click on the image for a larger view).

Good for England for pursing energy sources that represent alternatives to fossil fuels.  It was nicer to see collecting stations for wind and solar energies than seeing inane billboards shoving advertising in my face every few miles or so.

We took many back roads in Cornwall.  That meant I got to experience beautiful, but dicey, one-lane roads.  My wife took the photos below (click on the image for a larger view).

Meeting an oncoming car was a lot of fun!  One of us had to back up to a slightly wider part of the road and let the other pass.  That’s when I put my right hand’s reversing prowess to the test.  Of course it was fun backing up and meeting up with an oncoming car in that direction!

While in Cornwall, we visited three castles.  The first was Tintagel Castle, where King Arthur was supposedly conceived.  Putting folklore aside, I can’t recommend visiting this castle enough if you’re ever in Cornwall.  Vistas there are breathtaking.  The photos I took simply don’t do justice to what we saw (click on the image for a larger view).

The best photo I took of the castle ruins is below (click on the image for a larger view).

We had so much walking and hiking around the ruins, along the myriad of paths, and near the cliff edges.

Restormel Castle was our next English Heritage destination.  The circular Norman castle is shown below (click on the image for a larger view).

This castle was fun for my daughters as they ran all over the place and kept hiding from my wife and me.  I just hope a little of the historical significance of the castle rubbed off on them while they hid in 800-year-old ruins!

What was great about visiting the third castle, Pendennis Castle, is that English Heritage was hosting a special World War II commemoration.  My family were awed by seeing a Howitzer fired.  The photo below shows the big gun a few minutes after it was fired (click on the image for a larger view).

We saw swing dancing and heard songs from the ’40s.  There were also displays that educated us on WWII rationing, coastal defence, and propaganda art from George Butterworth.  The photo below shows a good look at the castle Henry VIII got built (click on the image for a larger view).

I relish learning and experiencing history.  Trying to imagine the positive and negative ways we humans have gotten to where we are today will never be a boring mental exercise for me.  If you’ve never visited a museum or a monument or other such place, do so.  Take your time and read the signs.  Most importantly, think and imagine.  You won’t regret it!

There was no way we could visit Cornwall and not drive out to Land’s End.  The cool thing about driving there was seeing the ocean on both sides of the road, and as we got closer to our destination, the ocean on each side kept creeping closer.  I was blown away by what I saw there.  Such beauty at the coast made me feel lucky to behold it.  A photo again simply does no justice to reality (click on the image for a larger view).

And we could not leave Cornwall without hitting the beach.  The photo below shows Porthmeor Beach in St Ives (click on the image for a larger view).

After getting sun on the beach, we took a tour boat to Godrevy Lighthouse and saw seals in the wild.  Check out the lighthouse in the photo below (click on the image for a larger view).

Both sky and water were so very blue and lovely to see.  Seeing seals in the wild was a first for my family.  It was better than seeing them in a zoo — by far.

We got to see and experience a great deal of Cornwall.  It was a wonderful holiday and a week we’ll never forget!

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