The University of Iowa's unique bike-building classes combining art and engineering set the worldwide standard.

The dozens of emails Steve McGuire receives each semester typically begin like this:

Dear Professor McGuire,

I am a freshman at the University of Iowa, and I chose to come here because I knew I would be able to take your bike-building course. I would like to meet with you to discuss what I need to do to prepare for the class and how I can get the most out of this opportunity.

They are love letters to the craft of bike building and testaments to the renowned reputation McGuire has built for the UI through a single, six-year-old class, Fabrication and Design: Hand Built Bicycle.

McGuire, professor of metal arts and 3-D design and Studio Division coordinator in the UI School of Art and Art History, created a curriculum for the class in 2010 to foster collaboration between the College of Engineering and the School of Art and Art History. The class also unites four artistic disciplines: sculpture, ceramics, jewelry/metals, and 3-D design.

Herky atop Old Capitol

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It was an idea conceived from McGuire’s passion—bicycle riding and epic endurance races—but conveys exceedingly practical information to his students.

“The idea for the class was to develop a course in which students learned a variety of skills that would be applicable across a range of disciplines. When you’re building a bicycle, you are modeling, you are fabricating, you’re designing, you’re doing a number of things that are pretty important in terms of being successful in both engineering and art,” he says. “So I set that side by side with what I love to do—I ride my bike.”

The class, informally called “Bike I,” has grown to include an advanced section—“Bike II”—for those taking it a second or even third time. The class size is limited by the number of frame jigs the UI has, currently 15.

Securing a spot is competitive, as evidenced by the emails McGuire receives. He reads every application and schedules personal interviews with finalists. He looks for undergraduate and graduate students who express a strong desire to take the course and who demonstrate a high level of commitment to their studies. Fall 2017’s Bike I and Bike II sections both were filled by March.

“I get really good students,” he says. “I won’t deny that I choose the best.”

Though male students have often outnumbered females in classes over the years, McGuire says that for the first time in the fall of 2017, women will outnumber men in Bike I six to four.

Chase Stevenson, a senior mechanical engineering major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is taking Bike II this semester to build an adventure touring bike with 29-inch wheels. Two semesters ago, he took Bike I and built a hardtail mountain bike with a suspension fork and 29-inch wheels, which he rides daily.

A professional motocross and supercross racer, Stevenson has always wanted to work in the bicycle industry. The hand-built bike class has fast-tracked his dream.

In 2015, Stevenson completed a summer internship at Trek Bicycles in Waterloo, Wisconsin. He’s one of two students from McGuire’s classes who have spent summers working in the manufacturing division of one of the largest bicycle companies in the world. This summer, Stevenson will intern at Soteria Bicycles, a start-up company in Cedar Rapids co-founded by UI graduate Allison Kindig, who took McGuire’s class while she was an engineering student.

Stevenson’s dream job would be work full-time at Soteria after he graduates in December.

“Without this class, I don’t think it would have been a possibility,” he says. “But this class has opened so many doors. It’s a huge gateway to endless possibilities—especially in the bicycle industry.”

steve mcguire with student in bike class
University of Iowa mechanical engineering student Ryan Rueckert, left, receives assistance from Professor Steve McGuire during the Fabrication and Design: Hand Built Bicycle class.

The classroom is more machine shop than lecture hall. The students gather around a laboratory table with McGuire and his teaching assistants, Patrick “Hunter” Creel and Ho Man “Billy” Cho.

They chat about recent rides, visits to the chiropractor, and baseball. The get to know each other and the bikes in their steads. Their majors are a mix of art and engineering, their styles a mix of hipster and science geek. Some aspire to work in the bicycle industry. Some want to perfect their fabrication and welding skills. Yet others will say riding a bicycle is simply part of their genetic makeup.

McGuire offers the day’s instruction, along with pearls of wisdom that can only come from tweaking the lessons year after year.

“The angle here changes ever so slightly. You want to be really precise.”

“Work with other people to check your math. It’s very easy to make mistakes.”

“In terms of the engineering of the bike, one thing to consider is there is a lot of force right here.”

“One thing you have to do is you have to make sure these are completely symmetrical.”

At the start of the semester, students decide what kind of bike they want to build. McGuire encourages them to visit local shops and test ride different models. Students then design their bike in AutoCAD, an engineering design software program, while at the same time learning to TIG weld in the shop, making several small sculptures for practice.

students working in bike class

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Students are given a choice of using either steel or titanium for their frame and begin measuring and cutting tubes. Once the pieces are on the jig and fit together, they begin welding the frame, followed by reaming the seat tube and head tube.

That’s the process in a nutshell. Building up the bike with components usually happens after the semester has ended.

Students are designing a bicycle frame, but the biggest challenge many encounter is making sure the finished product is functional, McGuire says.

“Any of the students who take the class will tell you that it takes an awful lot of time and an awful lot of commitment,” he says. “The bike has to work. It has to stay together and the frame has to be properly aligned. You have to pay attention to a level of detail that most people are not used to.”

Creel, who has taken the class twice to first build a fat bike and then a mountain bike, says the craft is something to which he’s become addicted. He’s a second-year Master of Fine Arts student who came to the UI to focus on sculpture but has become sidetracked by bike building.

His new passion is fueled by the thrill of riding a machine he built with his own hands.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” he says. “I remember Steve talking about it at the beginning of the first class I took. You know, I kind of understood it, but I didn’t. I absolutely love the bike and would never sell it. I think that the experience of riding something that you’ve built is super-special.”

Engineering students who take Fabrication and Design: Hand Built Bicycle, an art course, are able to not only build their own bicycle from start to finish but also fulfill a unique requirement in their curriculum at the UI.

In May 2015, the UI College of Engineering faculty approved a General Education Program requirement that all new undergraduate students take at least three semester hours in the creative arts. It’s a concept that’s gaining momentum at universities across the country, but one in which the UI was a leader.

Alec Scranton, dean of the College of Engineering, says the important connection between engineering and the arts is becoming more widely appreciated.

“The UI is a fantastic place for this kind of interaction to develop and thrive because of the tremendous arts and humanities that exist on our campus,” he says.

Students at the UI develop an understanding that the arts aren’t just things you go see and that the principles in both art and engineering are valuable and applicable to many careers.

“Without this class, I don’t think it would have been a possibility. But this class has opened so many doors. It’s a huge gateway to endless possibilities—especially in the bicycle industry.”

Chase Stevenson
senior mechanical engineering major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The comingling of art and engineering students in the hand-built bike class becomes a valuable asset as they apply skills and insights learned from each other, McGuire says.

“I think engineering students are surprised by the high level of tool knowledge that art students have, and I think that art students are impressed by the project sensibility that engineering students bring,” he says. “An engineering student will literally lay out their successive weeks five weeks in advance and plan when they’re going to do the work, and I think art students scratch their heads and think, ‘I would do well to do that.’”

Stevenson says the class is made up of people who approach their work from different mindsets. Engineering students base their answers on facts—the numbers show why something will or won’t work, he says. Art students, on the other hand, tend to never say never. Instead, their creative side pushes them to find a way to make something work even when numbers don’t support it, he says.

“Art students express their creative side, and engineering students express the logistical, ‘is it feasible’ side,” he says. “To get the experience of mixing them together is awesome.”

Ryan Rueckert, a senior mechanical engineering student who will graduate in May, says he was always open-minded about taking art courses, and now wishes he would have taken more.

“This has been a great opportunity,” he says. “The mindsets of how people work are kind of different, and learning to work those things together can be a challenge. But it’s really good, I think, for everyone involved.”

students in bike building class
From left, University of Iowa students Billy Cho, Connor Cullian, and Bryan Williams discuss how they will pack their bicycles in advance of attending the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Salt Lake City, Utah, in March. The UI was the first academic institution ever invited to the show, and this year took five students who built bikes in Professor Steve McGuire’s Fabrication and Design: Hand Built Bicycle class.

The Legend, as he is known, never pictured himself engineering a bicycle.

The nickname is fitting for a guy who has become as adept with a TIG welder as he is with a pottery wheel, and his bicycles are just as much objects of art as his clay tea kettles and vases.

Cho came to the UI in 2014 for his MFA in ceramics. As a graduate student, his work has been widely recognized and featured in Ceramics Monthly and American Craft magazine—publications artists don’t usually appear in until they’re deep into their career.

Ask him what he plans to do after he graduates in May and he isn’t quite sure how to answer. He was on his way to a career as a ceramic artist, following what he always believed to be his passion.

Then he met McGuire and discovered frame building, and he became a student of a new kind of art. He learned as much as he could, building a fillet-brazed road frame in Bike I, then a 27.5-inch mountain bike in Bike II. He got good—really good. He landed an internship with Black Sheep Bikes in Fort Collins, Colorado, during the summers of 2015 and 2016 making custom bicycle frames.

And he earned his nickname.

“I call him ‘The Legend’ because he’s attempted and accomplished things in frame building that are really remarkable all the way around,” McGuire says. “His internship at Black Sheep Bikes indicates just what he’s capable of. But when you see the frames he’s built, they’re really special.”

Cho humbly says the nickname is flattering, but it doesn’t mean much to him. What’s important, he says, are the skills he learns and that he is able to help teach them to others.

“The name is not too much of a thing I care about,” the Hong Kong native says. “I learn all this stuff and I want the students after me to be better than me. I just always do my best. I teach them what I know.”

detail of bicycle plan

James Bleakley, founder and owner of Black Sheep Bikes, has spent a week at the UI each year since 2011 teaching McGuire’s students more about the craft of bicycle building. In that week, he builds a frame from start to finish with the students’ help and also delivers a public lecture. The fifth year into this partnership, Cho was enrolled in Bike I, but it wasn’t until 2015 that Cho posed the idea of an internship with Bleakley’s company.

“When he asked, I accepted immediately,” Bleakley says. “I’ve admired his artwork, his pottery. What I was struck with was a high versatility from a creative standpoint and his ability to use 3-D design and computer-aided design programs. One of the things I really appreciated was his understanding of the different tools he could bring to bear on the question of ‘How do you build a bike?’”

Now Cho is no longer certain about his future. He loves ceramics, but he’s enamored with the thought of working in the bicycle industry.

“A career in frame building, yes, I think about it a lot,” he says, visibly nervous as he fidgets with the zipper on his hoodie. “Ultimately for me when I graduate, I will hopefully be getting a job in either field. That is an unknown right now.”

Creel, a second-year MFA student in sculpture, is McGuire’s teaching assistant for Bike I. With his long hair and beard, he’s the epitome of the cycling counterculture that has made gravel riding and racing so popular in recent years. Appearances aside, he too finds himself at a crossroads.

Creel grew up in Mount Vernon, Illinois, always riding his bike. Moving to Iowa City, he says, reinvigorated his “need” to ride.

“I knew there was a frame-building course, and that’s one of the reasons why I chose to come here for graduate school, because I wanted to build frames along with learning to TIG weld and all the other aspects that come with bike building,” he says.

He entered graduate school intending to focus on one thing—sculpture. That plan has now changed.

“I think as a graduate student there’s this idea of focusing on one thing, and I thought that’s what I was going to do. This class kind of transformed my idea of what I need to be focusing on,” Creel says. “I now have this other skill that I’ve developed with frame building. I’m looking into internships with frame builders, and there’s even a couple of us who are talking about collaborating or the possibility of a company. But it’s really thrown my idea of what I’m going to do with my life for a loop because I’m halfway through the graduate program and maybe more confused than ever. Building frames and making sculpture—I think there is some way to make these things co-exist.”

students working in bike class
At the start of the semester, students decide what kind of bike they want to build. McGuire encourages them to visit local shops and test ride different models. Students then design their bike in AutoCAD, an engineering design software program, while at the same time learning to TIG weld in the shop, making several small sculptures for practice.

To be sure, the frame-building course is uniquely Iowa—only a handful of other academic institutions around the world offer such an opportunity to undergraduates. Fabrication and Design: Hand Built Bicycle has put the UI on the map as the leader in academic frame building and as an institution that turns out students who graduate with skills and connections prized in the industry.

Those skills and connections translate into internships and jobs for students once they graduate.

In 2017, for the fourth consecutive year, the UI was invited to participate in the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, an industry trade show for the best frame and component manufacturers.

Don Walker, founder and president of NAHBS, says he first met McGuire and learned of the UI’s frame-building class in an online bicycling forum. Iowa was the first academic institution to be invited to show at NAHBS, though other colleges have since come on board.

“They’ve come and exhibited the last few years and shown some really good stuff. Those kids have got a good eye for detail and some great aesthetics and good designs and some really good craftsmanship,” Walker says. “They’re way ahead of the curve from a lot of guys taking it up on their own and practicing in their garage, and that has everything to do with the instruction.”

When first exhibiting at NAHBS, McGuire says, the UI was a novelty. Now the program is known.

“This past year when we went, people knew about us and the organizers said the University of Iowa is the model for academic frame building around the globe,” McGuire says. “That’s unbelievable.”

In April, the UI made a new entry on its bike-building résumé: McGuire was invited to attend Bespoked, an international handmade bicycle show in Bristol, United Kingdom. A bike he built in January 2017 and rode in the Arrowhead 135 endurance race in northern Minnesota that same month won Best Mountain Bike, Singletrack Choice Award—one of the most prestigious awards a frame builder can receive.

hand-built bicycle
Steve McGuire’s award-winning mountain bike.

Such accolades are certain to draw even more attention to the program, which ultimately leads to more opportunities for students. McGuire recalls first being contacted by Trek a few years ago.

“They saw a video about the program and they called and asked if they could bring their people here to take a look at what we do,” he says. “So their head of U.S. manufacturing came to the University of Iowa and sat in class and was blown away. And from there we established a partnership, so we’ve had students go on to intern at Trek, and one who will work for the company full-time after she graduates in May.”

Bleakley, of Black Sheep Bikes, says he’s “super-excited” about the evolution he’s seen in the program over the years he’s been spending time at the UI.

“I hope more schools follow suit,” he says. “It will be interesting to see if more programs pop up as a result of Iowa being at the forefront.”

The opportunity to watch Bleakley and other members of his team work during the week they spend at the UI is an experience Stevenson says he could only get here, and one that will certainly pay dividends in the future.

“They come here and do in one week what we do in a semester,” Stevenson says. “To just pick their brains and learn from them and gain that knowledge is invaluable. I think Steve does a really good job at giving us the tools we need and the connections we need to be as successful as we want to be.”

Creating a course that he is truly passionate about teaching has been the highlight of his career, McGuire says. The fact that students take their own initiative to leverage the experience and knowledge they gain in the class is beyond anything he ever dreamed.

“When I started this class, I did not think this would be a career option for students,” he says. “I understood for myself that I love bicycles, and I love being around people who work with bicycles, but I never imagined a student who was in this class would go on to work in the bicycle industry. To me, that’s just really cool.”

Story by Tricia Brown
Photography by Tim Schoon
Video by Clarity Guerra

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