Are chemists predestined to become cyclists?

Reading a newspaper my eye is drawn by articles containing either of the two words: ’chemist’, ’cyclist’. Obviously if the article is about a Nobel prize winner or Lance Armstrong it is justified to use them, but often either term is thrown in to emphasise the unworldliness of the subject under discussion. When these two words come in the same article, it is invariably to underline the eccentricity of the person concerned.   

Are chemists predestined to become cyclists? I suspect the arcane rules a cyclist must memorise to know which derailleur gear to choose when the hills get steeper, come naturally to one who has learned the underlying empirical rules of organic synthesis. However there are not many chemists amongst the top ranks of professional cyclists.   

Messrs Armstrong, Ullrich and Zabel were all professional cyclists from an early age and had no time for the delights of the burette or beaker. I can only find one professional cyclist who trained as a chemist - one member of the Australian womens’ cycling team is a graduate chemist. She has given up designing wastewater systems in Sydney to cycle round Tuscany. Not a bad idea really.   

There were chemists who cycled. Alfred Bird was the owner of the custard powder factory that bore his name. He was not the creator of this ambrosia. That was his father: another Alfred Bird, who invented custard powder and baking powder. Oddly enough Alfred senior was a member of the Chemical Society, a forerunner of the RSC. His knowledge and expertise were well regarded. When he died in 1878 his obituary appeared in Journal of the Chemical Society. It mentioned his achievements and abilities, but not his pioneering efforts in the food industry which had made him a very wealthy man indeed.   

Alfred junior, not perhaps as well known, introduced substitute egg, blancmange and crystal jelly powders. He realised publicity would sell products. On one occasion he broke the ’end-to-end’ Land’s End to John O’ Groats record, a major challenge for British cyclists, on a tricycle using Charles Dunlop’s new-fangled pneumatic tyres.   

A chemist who had a famous trip on a bicycle was Albert Hofmann. This Swiss chemist was working on the extraction of active compounds from rye ergot, when he isolated lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and accidentally ingested a small amount through his fingertips. Noticing the effects, he investigated further and three days later, on what became known as ’bicycle day’, 19 April 1943, deliberately took 250 microgramme of LSD. He didn’t feel too bright after this and promptly cycled home, where he found his next door neighbour had turned into a witch! He then lay down and experienced an LSD trip. Later he and his colleagues studied the effect of this hallucinogenic drug through self-experimentation. Times have changed. 

Many cyclists hold chemists and chemistry in low regard, not realising how much their sport owes to chemists. And I don’t mean those backstreet labs turning out designer steroids. An unknown chemist developed Brooks Proofide leather dressing to waterproof leather saddles. Chemist Norm Larsen developed a mixture of oil and solvent to displace water from metal surfaces. It took him 40 attempts to find an effective mixture for water displacement, hence the name: WD-40. Another school of thought uses waxy lubricants such as White Lightning for bicycle chains, formulated to keep them clean by Paul Maples, a research chemist and cyclist. 

There was a time when most people in industry cycled. My wife’s grandfather cycled to work every day from his Cheshire home to Brunner Mond with many others. If the peak oil theory (that global oil production could soon peak, signalling the end of cheap oil) proves to be correct then we will all be cycling soon. This might not be such a bad thing for science. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: ’I thought of that [the theory of relativity] while riding my bike’.