How Do Under-Inflated Tires Affect the Difficulty of Riding a Bike?
AbstractIf you ride a bike, you probably know that you have to occasionally pump up the tires to keep them fully inflated. Over a long period of time, the tires slowly leak air, so their pressure will decrease. Have you ever noticed that it is actually harder to ride a bike when the tire pressure is too low? This is because the tires are a big factor in the rolling resistance of the bike. In this sports science project, you will measure how tire pressure affects the force required to move a bike. How important is it to keep your tires fully inflated?
Use a spring scale to measure how tire pressure affects the force required to pull a bike in a straight line.
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
Cite This PageGeneral citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.
Last edit date: 2017-07-28
Riding a bike is good exercise, and can be hard work! When you ride a bike, there are many different forces you must overcome in order to move the bike forward. There is always friction between moving parts of the bike, like the gears, chain, and wheel hubs. If you are pedaling up a hill, you must work against your own weight, plus the weight of the bike. Air resistance—the collective force that results from pushing millions and millions of air molecules out of the way when you move forward—also works to slow you down. Figure 1, below, shows where all these different forces act on a bike.
Figure 1. The different forces a rider must overcome to move a bike forward. (mountain bike image credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Ralf Roletschek)
What about the fourth force shown in Figure 1; what is rolling resistance? At first, you might guess that rolling resistance is just another type of friction, between tires and the ground, but this is actually not true. Bike tires are made of rubber, which is a soft material. When the soft tires come in contact with the hard ground, they deform slightly (Figure 2, below). Some energy is lost when the tire deforms and then bounces back to its original shape. Rolling resistance is the result of this energy loss as a tire continuously rolls along.
Figure 2. A tire deforms slightly when it comes into contact with the ground.
Now, can you imagine how tire pressure could affect rolling resistance? In this sports science project, you will do your own experiment to find out! You will use a spring scale, which measures force in newtons (N), to pull a bike along. You will change the tire pressure and measure how this changes the force required to pull the bike. Do you think it will require a larger force to pull a bike with under-inflated tires, or will under-inflated tires not make much difference?
Terms and Concepts
- Air resistance
- Rolling resistance
- Tire pressure
- Spring scale
- Newtons (N)
- What forces must you overcome in order to move forward when you pedal a bike?
- How do these forces change in different conditions?
- For example, does air resistance change depending on how fast you are going?
- Can weight make it harder or easier to ride a bike, depending on whether you are going uphill or downhill?
- What causes rolling resistance?
- If a tire deforms more, is more energy lost?
- Would a fully inflated tire deform more or less than an under-inflated tire?
- The Engineering Toolbox. (n.d.). Rolling Resistance. Retrieved December 18, 2013, from http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/rolling-friction-resistance-d_1303.html.
- Schwalbe North America. (n.d.). Rolling Resistance. Retrieved December 18, 2013, from http://www.schwalbetires.com/tech_info/rolling_resistance.
- Wikipedia contributors. (2013, November 12). Rolling Resistance. Retrieved December 18, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rolling_resistance&oldid=581319109.
News Feed on This Topic
Materials and Equipment
- Bike with training wheels
- Note: Due to the very low speeds when testing this science project, it is very difficult to balance a bike that does not have training wheels. It may be possible to do the science project if you have a third volunteer walking alongside the bike to keep it upright, but it is highly recommended that you use a bike with training wheels.
- The bike should be relatively clean and well-oiled before you start the experiment. See the Procedure for details.
- Volunteer to ride the bike
- Note: Rolling resistance increases as more weight is placed on the bike. The rolling resistance on a bike without a rider is very low, so it is very difficult to measure. So, for this science project, you need a volunteer to sit on the bike while you tow it along with the spring scale. This makes rolling resistance easier to measure.
- 50 newton spring scale; available from Amazon.com
- Large zip ties (3); available at a hardware store or from Amazon.com
- Bike pump with pressure gauge; available at a sporting goods store or from Amazon.com
- Open, flat area with a hard surface (asphalt or concrete) where you can pull the bike. A playground or long driveway will work well. Do not do this science project in a street or parking lot where there may be cars. It is very important to do the science project on a flat surface and not on a hill.
- Bicycle helmet for your volunteer
- Lab notebook
Disclaimer: Science Buddies participates in affiliate programs with Home Science Tools, Amazon.com, Carolina Biological, and Jameco Electronics. Proceeds from the affiliate programs help support Science Buddies, a 501(c)(3) public charity, and keep our resources free for everyone. Our top priority is student learning. If you have any comments (positive or negative) related to purchases you've made for science projects from recommendations on our site, please let us know. Write to us at email@example.com.
How Do Under-Inflated Tires Affect the Difficulty of Riding a Bike?
- Make a data table like Table 1, below, in your lab notebook.
- Your goal is to measure rolling resistance at 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of the recommended tire pressure for your bike. You can find this information written on the side walls of the tires. For example, if your bike tires have a maximum recommended pressure of 40 pounds per square inch (psi), you would test 10, 20, 30, and 40 psi. Once you have this information, calculate and fill in the second column, "Tire Pressure (psi)," accordingly.
|Tire Pressure (%)||Tire Pressure (psi)||Force (newtons)|
|Trial 1||Trial 2||Trial 3||Average|
- Since you will be doing this experiment at very low speeds, the force from air resistance is negligible. Since you will be doing it on flat ground, the force required to pull the bike and rider's weight uphill is zero. Therefore, as long as the bike is clean and well-maintained, you can assume that the force you will be measuring is mostly due to rolling resistance. Make sure your bike is clean and lubricated before you start the experiment—ask an adult if you need help.
- Take your bike, bike pump, zip ties, spring scale, volunteer, volunteer's bike helmet, and lab notebook to the area where you will do your testing.
- Use the zip ties to hook the spring scale onto the handlebars of the bike, so you can tow the bike along by pulling the spring scale. Figure 3, below, shows one way you can do this. You may need to adjust where you attach the zip ties, depending on the type of bike you have.
Figure 3. How to attach the spring scale to the bike handlebars using zip ties.
- Using the pressure gauge on your pump to monitor the pressure, let air out of both of your bike's tires until they are each at 25% pressure. For example, if the recommended pressure for the tires is 40 psi, let air out until they are at 10 psi. This information should already have been calculated and be in your data table like Table 1, above.
- Have your volunteer put on his or her helmet and sit on the bike. He or she should not touch the brakes or the pedals. The volunteer should only touch the handlebars lightly enough to steer the bike and make sure it goes straight.
- Grip the handle at the top end of the spring scale. Hold the spring scale horizontally (parallel to the ground) with the numbers facing up so you can read them. Make sure the hook at the bottom of the spring scale is attached to both of the zip ties, as shown in Figure 3 above.
- Slowly and steadily begin to walk forward and tow the bike along behind you. Do your best to walk at a constant pace. If you speed up or slow down, this will affect the reading on the spring scale.
- As you walk, look behind you at the spring scale and take an average reading. The spring scale might bounce around slightly, even if you do your best to walk at a steady pace. For example, if you see the spring scale bouncing between 10 N and 14 N, you would record an average value of 12 N. Record this value in your data table.
- Repeat steps 6–9 two more times for this tire pressure, for a total of three trials. Be sure to record all your results in your data table.
- Repeat steps 6–10 for each of the remaining tire pressures (50%, 75%, and 100%). Use your bike pump and pressure gauge to increase the pressure in both tires before each new set of trials. Be sure to record all your results in your data table.
- For each tire pressure, calculate an average force and enter this value in your data table. For example, if you measured 10 N, 11 N, and 13 N, the average would be (10+11+13)/3 = 11.33 N.
- Make a graph with average force (in newtons) on the y-axis (vertical axis) and tire pressure (in psi) on the x-axis (horizontal axis).
- Analyze your results. What is the relationship between tire pressure and rolling resistance? How does this compare to your prediction?
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
Automotive EngineerCars are an important part of our daily lives. We depend on them to perform everyday tasks—getting to and from school and work, sports practice, grocery shopping, and various errands—and also to keep us safe while doing so. Our cars can keep us cool or warm while we drive them, and they even help us find our way. The automobile is made up of complicated braking, steering, and electrical systems, in addition to the engine and drive train. All of these systems require a tremendous amount of engineering, which is the responsibility of automotive engineers. They develop the components and systems that make our vehicles efficient and safe. Read more
Physics TeacherOur universe is full of matter and energy, and how that matter and energy moves and interacts in space and time is the subject of physics. Physics teachers spend their days showing and explaining the marvels of physics, which underlies all the other science subjects, including biology, chemistry, Earth and space science. Their work serves to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, including all healthcare professionals. They also help all students better understand their physical world and how it works in their everyday lives, as well as how to become better citizens by understanding the process of scientific research. Read more
PhysicistPhysicists have a big goal in mind—to understand the nature of the entire universe and everything in it! To reach that goal, they observe and measure natural events seen on Earth and in the universe, and then develop theories, using mathematics, to explain why those phenomena occur. Physicists take on the challenge of explaining events that happen on the grandest scale imaginable to those that happen at the level of the smallest atomic particles. Their theories are then applied to human-scale projects to bring people new technologies, like computers, lasers, and fusion energy. Read more
Mechanical EngineerMechanical engineers are part of your everyday life, designing the spoon you used to eat your breakfast, your breakfast's packaging, the flip-top cap on your toothpaste tube, the zipper on your jacket, the car, bike, or bus you took to school, the chair you sat in, the door handle you grasped and the hinges it opened on, and the ballpoint pen you used to take your test. Virtually every object that you see around you has passed through the hands of a mechanical engineer. Consequently, their skills are in demand to design millions of different products in almost every type of industry. Read more
- How does weight affect rolling resistance? Repeat the experiment, but have different riders of different weights ride the bike. Does this change the force that you measure?
- How does speed affect rolling resistance? If you walk faster or run, does the force required to pull the bike increase? Do you think air resistance plays a role at higher speeds?
- Does it take more force to pull a dirty or rusty bike than a clean, well-maintained bike?
- How much more force does it take to pull a bike up a hill, as opposed to flat ground?
- Measure the rolling resistance of different tires or different types of bikes; for example, a road bike versus a mountain bike.
Ask an ExpertThe Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.
Ask an Expert
News Feed on This Topic
Looking for more science fun?
Try one of our science activities for quick, anytime science explorations. The perfect thing to liven up a rainy day, school vacation, or moment of boredom.Find an Activity