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Riding on Ice (A Lesson in Conceptions)

posted: 12.14.12 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs


As a boy, the absolutely most fun winter activity was taking my bike down to the ponds a block from my house and riding on the ice. At first I didn’t even know if it were possible. Can ice hold a bike? (Easily.) Would it be too slippery to stay upright or get any traction? (Not if the ice is dry.) I learned how to turn (slowly), accelerate (slowly), stop (slowly), and fall if I was going to fall (quickly). I learned what would happen if I hit icy ruts: that I was going to fall, quickly. Those childhood experiences formed my habits of how to ride a bike in icy conditions.

Now my bike ride to campus is three miles, and the city never plows the bike lanes in winter. (In fact, it actively plows snow from the car lanes into the bike lanes. Hosers.) For a few years I battled the ice in just the ways my childhood taught me. And then I got a set of studded tires. (Yes, they make studded bike tires.) I didn’t realize they’d be really any different to ride than regular tires—sure, a little noisier, like studded car tires, but no big deal, I thought. Incorrect.

While I’ve been writing about conceptions of writing for years, I never stopped to think that I have conceptions of riding. The studded tires have changed them.

Most of it is physics. Take a three-pound wheel and give it a spin. Now add two and a half pounds of steel studs out on its rim and spin it again. What happens? Rotational inertia: it’s harder to accelerate a heavier wheel than a lighter wheel; it’s also harder to accelerate a wheel with most of its weight  out on its rim than a wheel of equal weight with most of its weight at its hub. (So making the wheels two pounds heavier apiece actually creates more resistance than just adding four pounds to the bike frame; because it’s rotating mass, its weight multiplies.) And because of conservation of angular momentum (this is the coolest video), a heavier wheel resists axial changes in direction (turning or tilting left or right) more than a lighter wheel. Which means that things. slow. down. when you run studded bike tires.

And now I have to think differently about riding my bike.

The studs change my doubts and fears: I don’t have to be afraid of ice ruts anymore. (The tires really do work.) And they change my behavior: I have to leave more time to pull out in front of cars, because I just can’t accelerate as quickly with the heavier wheels. I’ve also changed my stance, or alignment, toward winter riding: snow is less intimidating now, but the thigh-burn that accompanies increased pedal resistance is a turn-off. My planning changes, too: as others report, I do have to add some extra time for my daily ride. And my expectations change: I don’t expect the bike to corner or stop as well now, either.

I find myself transferring this knowledge, as well. First, I never realized the extent to which wheel weight is a variable in bike speed. Know what I’m looking for come summer? Light-weight rims and tires. And I can take my new knowledge of studded tires and generalize it to other wheel/tire situations. I can further generalize my learning beyond bike tires: maybe getting 5-pound-lighter wheels for my economy car really would help its gas mileage. (And now I understand why cars with relatively little horsepower already tend to run tiny tires.)

So, end of lesson: This is what we mean by changing students’ “conceptions” of writing. Asking students to do something different in writing than they learned to do much earlier in life awakens them to variables they didn’t know were variable; asks them to change attitudes and behaviors and plans and expectations to accommodate the new variables; and awakens their imaginations about how if this experience can be so different, perhaps other experiences more and less closely related will be different too.

Thus, as I think about next semester’s syllabi, I’m wondering, what are the studded tires of writing?

Categories: Douglas Downs
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