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A Class for 'Bike Nuts'

Rod Searcey

LAB WORK: Connolly, second from left, teaches senior David Lau, master's student Jeff Zabel, Jaime Ashander and Bryan Johnson to build bikes from scratch.

The half-circle fishmouth of steel tubing is flush against another tube, and sparks are flying—so they say.

It’s difficult to see exactly how the tubes are being welded together because the view from inside a welding mask is very, very dark. But exclamations of “Wow!” and “Sweet!” bubble up from students in the bike design class. The comments seem to indicate the metal pieces that will ultimately become a bicycle frame have been beautifully, even classically joined.

“It’s by far the best class I’ve ever taken,” says senior Adam Piotrowski, standing in a corner of the Product Realization Lab late on a Tuesday night. “Everyone is passionate about bikes and you can feel the energy and intensity.”

A lot of students are passionate about bikes on this notoriously cycling-friendly campus. But the 11 students enrolled in Mechanical Engineering 204: Bicycle Design and Frame-Building are especially obsessed. Lecturer Ryan Connolly calls them “bike nuts.” As in, “There’s a certain limit to the number of bike nuts you can have in a single room before they start fighting about which designs are better.”

Piotrowski, for example, is building—from scratch—an “aggressive” mountain bike with a carbon-fiber fork. The materials science major has been cutting practice pieces in the machine shop and looking for just the right decal to put on his down tube. “You want it to be so right,” he says. “Because it’s the perfect bike.”

Now in its third year, ME 204 draws undergraduate and graduate students from many corners of the campus, clutching varied scale drawings. MFA student and sculptor Catherine Harris is designing a road bike to ride on a honeymoon voyage from Portland, Ore., to San Francisco. Senior Jaime Ashander, who’s used to working in a physics lab, is putting together a single-speed road bike for commuting. Then there’s senior mechanical engineering major Bryan Johnson, who’s into “urban assault” biking. Those low walls by Cubberley Auditorium? The bollards near Meyer Library? He’ll be able to leap onto them and spin around on the front wheel of the trials bike he’s building.

Instructor Connolly, MS ’02, is working on his fifth mountain-bike frame—he also has built a road bike—and he spends his weekends at the races. “Ninety-degree weather,” he tells a student who inquires about his recent 11th-place showing in a Santa Barbara competition. “Twenty-four miles in 2:07.”

Shop talk is like that: clipped and to the point. XTR Shimanos. CAD (computer-aided design) programs. TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding. Frame jigs. Head angles. Shortened chain stays.

The three-unit course is offered on a grade-only basis, and Connolly recognizes that the material is challenging. “You pass if your frame doesn’t break, and there’s no aesthetic critiquing,” he says, recalling some purple and green paint jobs of the past. And the end product is a bargain in anybody’s checkbook. Thanks to donations of pricey components from Bay Area bicycle shops, students can expect to pay about $600 for a bicycle—be it tandem, cycle cross, road, mountain or track—that would likely cost $3,000 from a custom builder.

“A frame-building class?” visitor Ross Shafer asked during a recent classroom session. “I would have gone to college for that.” Shafer is the legendary founder of Salsa Cycles in Petaluma, Calif., a hotbed of custom bike shops. He recently talked to Connolly’s students about some of the basics of the bike-building business. The class also takes field trips to Petaluma custom builder SoulCraft Cycles and travels to Morgan Hill to see how mass-produced bikes are assembled at Specialized Bicycles.

Brian Rulifson, a third-year graduate student in product design, had watched ME 204 classes in the shop where he worked as a TA for a couple of years before enrolling in the spring-quarter course. Although he holds a patent application for a medical device and has designed a collapsible aluminum chair that is held together by one string, Rulifson says building a bicycle is unlike any project he’s ever attempted. But when his mountain bike was stolen, he set his sights on designing a sub-$1,000 touring bike that will take him down Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway. “It’ll have a rigid frame and rigid fork, and I’ll put panniers on a rack on the back,” he says. “And I’ll love it for the whole 300 miles.”

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