To improve cycling safety, insight is required into the factors that contribute to road safety of older cyclists. From the wide range of possible factors, this paper addresses the role of physical effort on mental workload of cyclists with the aim to investigate whether physical effort affects mental workload of cyclists in real traffic in a field experiment. Two instrumented bicycles, a conventional bicycle and a pedelec, were used. Mental workload of cyclists in two age groups – 30–45 years and 65 years and over – was measured by means of a secondary cognitive task requiring the detection and reaction to visual stimuli on a cycle route that varied in physical effort and task complexity. We expected physical effort to impair performance on the secondary task in complex traffic sections and not in simple sections, and that this impairment would be greater for older cyclists because of age related reduced muscle strength than for younger cyclists. We expected this impairment to be smaller if a pedelec was used. If such would be the case, this would indicate pedelecs to be beneficial for this older age group, because of a lower mental workload. Our study confirmed that increased physical effort in complex traffic sections deteriorated the detection of relevant stimuli in both age groups. Overall, older cyclists had longer reaction times and lower hit rates than younger cyclists. Mental workloads of cyclists are basically the same when cycling on a conventional bicycle or on a pedelec. In theory, pedelecs may be beneficial to reduce physical effort in cycling in order to maintain enough mental capacity to handle complex traffic situations. However, this study did not demonstrate these benefits. As pedelecs are often used for longer trips, by elderly with low muscle strength, future studies should also explore the effect of higher physical effort over longer periods of time, and also specifically in elderly with low muscle strength.
Effect of physical effort on mental workload of cyclists in real traffic in relation to age and use of pedelecs