From his skunkworks in Chico, Calif., metal fabricator and bike builder Greg Degouveia of Big Kid Bike (bigkidbike.com) forges a new breed of vehicles that push the envelope of awesomeness.
Behold the 205-pound Kitten, a behemoth that rolls on steamroller-like car tires. Observe the Jesus Lizard, a four-person pedal-pusher that corners like a modded gecko. Witness the Bigger Wheel, a grown-up version of the childhood favorite that looks like it came of age on the set of an Easy Rider remake. All three push cycling to the next level (or perhaps the one beyond that).
After a spin on the Kitten at last year’s Maker Faire in San Mateo, I had to learn more.
Nik Schulz: How and when did you get started building big kid bikes?
Greg Degouveia: I’ve always been a tinkerer and designer, taking things apart to see how they work (and sometimes not being able to put them back together). After a few years of renting a pedicab in college to pay the bills, and a summer of learning how to weld and fabricate metal, I decided to build my own. Because of that experience, I saw that I had a natural skill for building and fabrication. Following that, I re-enrolled in college, changing my major to manufacturing.
NS: So now you make your living as a bike fabricator?
GD: No, not yet. The pedicab keeps my head above water while I try to make metalwork art my main source of income. My marketing skills need a lot of work, though. All of the work I’ve received has been from people that have been referred to me or have seen me at my shop.
NS: Tell us more about your shop.
GD: It’s a mix of storage and workspace dominated by different bike parts and metal creations. One-quarter of it, filled with some basic shop tools — a 110-volt MIG welder, band saw, a few angle grinders, a drill press, pipe bender, and a 2-gallon compressor — is devoted to steel fabrication.
I also have a table for electronics tinkering and one for sewing, but the welder, angle grinders, and band saw see the most use. I build large items on the floor or design them modularly to be assembled from multiple small pieces.
There’s also a very long, expensive wish list of things I would like to have: TIG welder, plasma cutter, lathe, mill, tubing bender …
NS: Describe your design and development process.
GD: The initial design usually comes from a basic concept, which is followed by designs on paper. There I’ll add and subtract features and figure out if the original concept is workable. I used to build a proof-of-concept piece with chopped bikes, scrap metal, poor welds, and sharp edges. Now I build straight from the design when the concept is clear and I understand the method of execution. I’ve also been toying around with Google SketchUp but I’m still learning how to use it.
NS: How long does a bike typically take to design and build?
GD: Depending on complexity, from a few days to a few weeks. The Jesus Lizard took me six weeks from design to completion, with design taking about two weeks. Each pedaler had multiple sets of gears: a basic set for road riding and a super-low “sandcrawler” gear. Working with multiple gear sets took some time.
The Kitten took me about a week for the frame and wheels. The headlights and brakes took about another week.
NS: What sorts of reactions do you get from people who have ridden the bikes?
GD: People like them. Some like the ride, some like the look, some are impressed by their sheer size. Each bike is different. The Bigger Wheel was built to be ridden like a caffeinated 10-year-old. When the right person rides it really hard, they come back with a devilish grin on their face. That’s when I feel fully satisfied. The Kitten was built because the wheels were free. It’s excessive and inefficient — it’s sort of the anti-bike.
NS: What’s your favorite project so far?
GD: As far as bikes go, the Jesus Lizard; it’s a lot of fun and rides like nothing else. Although it’s 25 feet long, it has a 7½-foot turning radius. You can ride it at full speed (about 17 miles an hour), throw it into a hard corner, and it will hold firm regardless of whether or not the passengers can. Assuming that acceleration is not a limiting factor, a person on a two-wheeled bike would find it hard to outmaneuver the Lizard.
It used to have a head that would go up and down, move side to side, and open its mouth, but this one time, at Burning Man, the neck didn’t make it back.
NS: What’s next in terms of future projects?
GD: The Choo-Choo Train, a pedal-powered train with multiple cars, capable of being pedaled by kids or grownups. It will resemble a toy train and have similar design characteristics to the Lizard but be a lot lighter. I’m hoping to get it going by next summer but I’m in need of more funding.
NS: Will the public be able to see it somewhere?
GD: When it gets built it will be in Chico but I would love to tour it around different cities. I’d actually love to bring it to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
NS: Why do you do what you do?
GD: Let me step up on my pulpit … I would like to get more people on bikes for fun, transport, and health. I’d like to see more folks bike-commuting and reducing their car and fuel dependence. Creating interesting, functional, fun bikes is my way of coaxing more people into the bike-riding fold.