Bike Builders members working in their cage in the Aero Hangar. Credit: Lauren Emo / Mustang News

When mechanical engineering senior Colin Reay came to Cal Poly, he had no prior interest in bicycles. Two years later, he found that he put over a thousand hours into creating one. Through Cal Poly Bike Builders, Reay found a community of people that could help him create any type of bike he could imagine. 

There are currently more than 7,700 spaces students can park their bikes on campus according to Cal Poly’s Transportation & Parking Services website – one bike space for every three undergraduate students. 

Among these bikes are student creations and an entire world of those students who design, build, iterate and eventually ride them.

Cal Poly Bike Builders Club 

Cal Poly Bike Builders has a fluctuating membership of around 15 to 20 students who work out of the Mustang ‘60 lab and the Aero Hangar. 

What draws these members like Reay to Bike Builders is the laid-back atmosphere and the willingness of other members to guide anyone through the process, students said.   

Reay joined his freshman year wanting to make an electric bike. He said that Cal Poly graduate Miles Curtis joined the project with him, taking him under his wing and helping to introduce him to the bike-building process. Now, Reay is vice president of the club. 

Since his introduction to Bike Builders, Reay has built a total of five bikes and numerous other bike parts. Reay has built a range of all different types from mountain bikes to his favorite, cargo bikes. 

“The thing that appeals to me so much about them is how utilitarian they are,” Reay said.

The current bike he uses every day is a cargo bike he made in Bike Builders. He takes it to school and around town, even using it to hold his groceries when he runs errands.  

Bike Builders president and mechanical engineering senior Walter Minehart was also introduced to Bike Builders in his freshman year and is now working on bike number seven. 

Minehart is building a commuter bike that is as small and weird as he can imagine with 20-inch wheels and bent tubes, he said. 

What Minehart likes the most about bike building is the “artistic industrial design side” and the ability to make, “something that’s weird and what you think is beautiful with personal touches,” he said.

Along with the creative commuter bike, Minehart is also improving a previously made “29er frame.” 

Mechanical engineering sophomore Bradley Maruoka customized a mountain bike with personal touches to match his body type. He said most bikes don’t fit him because he isn’t very tall but has a long torso, so he designed a bike with the length of an extra long frame that stands over a medium frame for his height. 

“That’s kind of the unique thing about our club, that you can actually build something for yourself that actually fits,” Maruoka said. 

Maruoka said in the last six months, he has put close to 7,000 miles on his mountain bike. 

Mechanical engineering sophomore Bradley Maruoka in the Aero Hangar with the custom mountain bike he built. Credit: Lauren Emo / Mustang News

Minehart said the ability to ride their finished creations in Bike Builders can give members a whole new outlook on the bikes. 

“You feel a lot more connected to it and kind of appreciative of what bikes do for you compared to walking or running,” he said. 

Bike Builders has been a starting point for members to access opportunities outside of the club. 

Minehart spoke extensively about his time with Bike Builders during internship interviews. 

For Reay and mechanical engineering junior Logan Femling, Bike Builders connected them to a contracting project for a customer in the Bay Area who wanted a custom cargo bike that could simultaneously hold his kids and other items. 

This customer happened upon Cal Poly’s Bike Builders online and sent an email to the club. Reay and Felming decided to take on the project, but they soon realized the process may have been greater than they anticipated. 

As the scope of the project seemed to navigate into something much bigger, Reay said he learned a lot about navigating contract work and sticking up for himself as an engineer. 

The project, which they thought would only take a couple of weeks, ended up spiraling into something much more time-consuming as the customer continually asked for new parts to be added to the project, Felming said. 

“With engineering, however long you think it’s going to take, it will take three times as long,” Fleming said. 

Regardless of these challenges, Reay said without Cal Poly Bike Builders, this learning opportunity may not have been available to him. 

Reay said most simple bike projects can take about 30 to 40 hours, yet this cargo bike took them close to 1,000 hours to complete. 

Reay said building a bike may seem like a simple thing from the outside, but it is not.  

“The further you go, just the more it kind of snowballs. It can definitely be a time-sink, but I think it’s a fun one,” he said. 

Although Reay loves bike-building and has already experienced life of a contract job, he said it will most likely remain a side endeavor in his future. He said this will allow him to maintain the creativity that drew him to bike-building in the first place. 

“What draws a lot of people to it,” Reay said, “is you get to combine sort of this artistic element with more of an engineering analytical approach.” 

Although he may not pursue it as a career, Reay said he is grateful for the industry exposure Bike Builders has provided him. Cal Poly Bike Builders was able to tour bike companies including Ibis in Santa Cruz, California and Fox Suspension. 

“I can’t overemphasize how much being in Bike Builders and also finding bikes and bike stuff has really been the thing that has helped me to develop skills and sort of just develop as an engineer and just kind of as a person at Poly,” Reay said. “It has definitely been the thing that opens the doors in terms of looking towards the future.” 

Bike-building and the Bike Builders club became not only a place to teach students to build bikes and launch job opportunities, but it acts as a cornerstone for connection and dedication among each other, students said. 

“I’m just always amazed at how consistently welcoming the group of people in bike builders is and how much they tend to care for each other’s experience,” Minehart said. 

Just last year, one of the club’s graduated members spent their senior year building a cage in the Aero Hangar so the Bike Builders club could have its own space to store all of its equipment and projects. 

Bike Builders wasn’t created with the intent to be a competitive approach to engineering, but the members and their work are just as impressive as any other competition-based club at Cal Poly, according to Minehart.  

“They are down to earth. They are my people,” Minehart said. “I went to meetings and everyone was welcoming, and it was just a cool place to be. Then after that, you realize all of these people are also really impressive and going to workplaces like Apple and SpaceX and wherever they want to.”

Looking forward, Cal Poly Bike Builders are preparing for their annual “Pixie Bike Derby,” an event to teach those with less knowledge of bike building how to make a vehicle. The Pixie Bike Derby is open to anyone of any major who wants to build a miniature bike. 

Single Track Vehicle Design Class

Some other smaller-scale bike projects that students undertake on campus occur in a mechanical engineering class offered at Cal Poly in the winter, ME 441 or “Single Track Vehicle Design.” 

Mechanical engineering professor John Fabijanic teaches the Single Track Vehicle Design class. He said there is just one rule to what students can make in his class: it must have two wheels. 

Students learn what goes into making bike-like vehicles and the models behind building bikes. Then they work to create those vehicles using tools in the Cal Poly Machine Shops: The Aero Hangar and the Mustang ‘60 lab. 

What Fabijanic said is unique about this class is they are much more focused on the tangible aspects of the bike and the rider’s experience with the vehicle.

“Most classes focus on just why does it stand up, and we’re interested in how do we have fun with them,” Fabijanic said. 

At the end of every quarter, the students can showcase their vehicles and have a chance to ride them. 

Fabijanic said he’s seen a variety of different types of bikes made throughout his time teaching this course including, mountain bikes, road bikes, tandem bikes, recumbents – in which the rider sits back — and Kenny farthings – which have a large wheel in the front and a tiny rear wheel. One quad tandem bike that sits four people used to appear at Downtown’s Bike Night frequently. 

Fabijanic said many who think about what goes into building a bike may consider it to appear easy, but it comes down to more than a couple of tubes and a few wheels. 

That’s why he said he hopes his students who are considering going into the industry and may someday become managers, can get this hands-on experience for a full understanding of what goes into creating a bicycle from start to finish.