Uncle Dave: Please help me with my important issues!
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Ask Uncle Dave: Can I Be a Bike Designer?

Words Dave Tolnai
Date Sep 27, 2017

Dear Uncle Dave,

I am wondering if it would be possible to be able to design bike frames without having studied engineering (or something close) through self-study?


A Devoted Self Starter

Dear Selfie:

Why does this keep happening to me? I write an intro that works perfectly for the thing that I write a few weeks later. Are you guys catching on to my wavelength, sending in questions that further my theme? Am I just reading whatever I want into things? Is this all just a drug-induced hallucination of my sixteen-year-old self? We’ll never know, I guess.

Complaining about the shortcomings of my education seems to be a subject that I adore, and speak about at length, and repeatedly. The good news is that I hear that engineering programs have made some progress since back in my day (which might actually make me feel a tiny bit worse?). Perhaps the modern engineer might feel a bit different, but looking back at my own sub-par education, there were probably only 3 or 4 classes that would be directly applicable to designing bikes. Some materials stuff…some basic mechanics type stuff…and the rest of it was just a bunch of shit that happened to me in a classroom at some point-and-time, only to flutter away and never come close to approaching relevance.

Indeed, for quite a while I imagined myself heading down the bike designer path, and this was an actual goal that I looked to for motivation, as I slogged through all of those dreadfully tedious courses. And then I got a co-op job in the bike industry that demonstrated that this was potentially a really terrible idea (for me), fraught with peril, and that I should run directly away from. But the course program that I designed for myself at least suggested that this could be a possible career direction.

For example, I took an elective in Finite Element Analysis, as I thought this might provide a handy primer in modelling and analyzing designs. Instead we used Mathcad to construct temperature models and learn the in-depth math behind FEA.

We had manufacturing courses that I thought might lead to practical knowledge about the applications of various manufacturing techniques. Instead we learned the detailed math behind the stresses and strains on extrusion dies.

We had a design project where I talked my team into designing a roof mount bike rack. And instead, we spent the semester drinking, sleeping in and missing class, only to panic-create something over the final weekend of the semester. Which, I have to take some responsibility for, but come on! What did they expect would happen?

Overall, my engineering degree felt like it was designed by some sort of math sadist as punishment to the rest of us for not loving numbers enough. Ya, ya, I heard those justifications that it was important to understand the underlying principals and mathematics behind these things that we were studying. I can assure you that it was not. This whole justification seemed designed to head off questions from students and to ensure that they kept their heads down, slogging away on math. And drinking.

So, I remained confused and purposeless, graduated, found a path, learned how to do things on the job, and made use of company resources and programs to treat the debilitating insecurities that I developed over my four years of schooling. I can imagine that many an engineer, and many a bicycle designer, probably feels similarly about their career trajectory.

To subtly change course, I have “designed” a bicycle or two in my day. That is to say, I worked with a reputable frame builder who made some sense of my drawing and the CNC’d pieces that I dropped in his lap. And I have nearly a dozen full suspension designs sitting in a folder on my computer that I have very nearly pulled the trigger on before the plans were dashed due to the unveiling of a fresh, mass-produced model that was lighter, cheaper and better in every sense. So I know a thing or two about half-assin’ some bicycle designs.

So if that’s what you’re talking about when you speak of “designing bikes” no, of course you don’t need to be an engineer. It helps, but it’s neither a dealbreaker nor the sole prerequisite for doing so. If you want to just put your own personal stamp on a hardtail, or hide out in your garage creating an overbuilt monstrosity that moves a bit on both ends while functioning as a direct insult of science and technology, fly at it. Nobody out there is going to stop you. You definitely don't need to be an engineer for that.

Really, the whole “engineering degree” thing really comes down to two things:

1 – It’s important for an engineer to recognize that something that they are creating has the potential to kill or bankrupt. On a large scale. Not just personally.

2 – Lots of math.

And that’s all an engineering degree is; a ticket that says “this guy did a bunch of math for four years and has a basic understanding that his actions might seriously mess some shit up.” Once that door opens is when you start generating the real knowledge, about building bikes, or building anything for that matter. That comes once you start sucking up institutional knowledge, and making mistakes with somebody else’s money. This is the part that you will be lacking.

Because most companies (and the engineers involved) are miles further down the road than you think they are. The inevitable problems that you are going to encounter were dealt with years ago. Their R&D budgets allow them to experiment and prototype things that you have never dreamed about. Their large development teams give them a platform to share, learn and pass along ideas and information, which creates a deep pool of knowledge. And their lawyers and insurance allow them to screw things up on a huge scale with minimal personal repercussions. Yes, wonderful things have been done by crazy people working alone in their garage, but it isn’t the norm.* And none of that even matters, because everybody knows that the most important work necessary to build bikes all happens in the marketing department.


Uncle Dave

*If you still insist… start by buying and reading these two books. This is the same advice that a guy who knows a lot about designing bikes gave me a few years ago. And I'm still making my way through these two books, so I don't know yet what the next part of the plan is.

Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design - Tony Foale (here, or direct from the author for a non-obscene amount)

Bicycling Science - David Gordon Wilson (here)

Uncle Dave's Music Club

I was driving home from my ride yesterday, and I started thinking about Ladyhawk. Ladyhawk are/were a bunch of hairy dudes from Vancouver. They made some good music and I saw them a bunch, but their Self Titled album is a gosh darn masterpiece. Meaning it has like 4 good songs on it. The masterpiece tag was fluid in the days of padding out albums. 2006! I can't even believe it. 2006.

She starts off with "48 Hours". Which is a bit of a slow burn, but leads nicely into "Dugout", which is where things start to pick up steam. By the time we get to "My Old Jacknife"...I'm just...like really happy. The intro. The fancy claps. Man oh man. Good times.

"Long Til"...okay. That one drags on for a bit. But it's fine. "Came in Brave" is fine and drags a bit as well. Not as badly as "Advice". I mean...they're good songs, don't get me wrong. "Sad Eyes/Blue Eyes" is probably for the fans only. But shit. That's all just leading to "Teenage Love Song" which is a gosh darn masterpiece. We said that already, didn't we? I mean it this time though. I really like that song.

And then just shut her down. You don't need to worry about the last two songs. Well...."Drunk Eyes" is fine. And "New Joker" is a pretty good, sad little outro. But don't worry about all that.

Selfie - your question that seems to have read Uncle Dave's mind has won you and Uncle Dave prize pack: a Stevie Smith Long Live Chainsaw Mudder now that the wet season is around the corner, a #scofflaws sticker and some NSMB.com wool socks. If you'd like to win a prize or two send your question to askuncledave@nsmb.com. Send us an email to claim your prizes!


Check out these items and several others in the NSMB.com store.

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+4 Cam McRae DMVancouver Mammal Chris
Tehllama42  - Sept. 26, 2017, 9:17 p.m.

This is absolute, pure, unadulterated gold. To which all I can add, is that if one looks at the skills required, sustained effort demanded, and willingness to tolerate inane circumstances to succeed as a bicycle designer: those same skills would hold you in good stead in a far more lucrative field, which would allow you to buy top of the line big brand bicycles at less cumulative effort than designing them. 


Another engineer, with all the requisite skills to do that, but doesn't and has an incomprehensible level of respect for those who do choose to make bikes.


+1 Ben
Mammal  - Sept. 27, 2017, 8:12 a.m.

That's a great point. 

Whether leaving it up to someone else would give you the same bicycle-related satisfaction, is another question. But designing your own bikes could also produce a special type of never-satisfied, personal bicycle hell, not achievable through any other means. So maybe a coin flip.


+1 Ben
Mammal  - Sept. 27, 2017, 8:05 a.m.

Agreed, agreed.

A Mech Eng degree will give you a pretty good shot at beginning to understand what you're getting into (and being able to absorb the other 99% that you'll need to learn about any specific niche). If you have  experience in design for manufacturing, even on a hobby basis, that would probably give you a  better head start toward small scale bicycle design.

One of the only people I know who designs and manufactures bikes (behind many of the best old Cove designs, and building me a custom hard tail as we speak) started out just building things with his hands and working hard to understand exactly what he was doing. Doesn't hurt to have a background in Engineering, but it's by no means necessary.

The thing about an Engineering education is that the amount of potential applications you can find yourself in is so vast, they need to give you a bit of background for everything (spread gun in Contra). You don't end up an expert in anything unless you pursue a specialization (more and more options for this route, these days). I, for one, did not, so I just found a job on the basis of "well, I know a bit of stuff about a whole lot of stuff". It just so happened that my scattered education and lifetime of dicking around with bikes, helped me get a decent job.


+2 Mammal natbrown
Ben  - Sept. 27, 2017, 8:45 a.m.

I relate to this on all levels. I have the same background and interests and it seems to be a common theme among engineers. Why are so many engineers into cycling? Is it as easy as a mechanical engineer likes mechanical things and bikes are mechanical? Also, engineers being quiet and reserved individuals whom are interested in individual / non-team sports?

I completely agree that the most important part of building bikes happens in the marketing department.

My favorite line:   And that’s all an engineering degree is; a ticket that says “this guy did a bunch of math for four years and has a basic understanding that his actions might seriously mess some shit up.”  Yup, way too much math for what I do.


+1 Dave Tolnai
ZigaK  - Sept. 27, 2017, 9:43 a.m.

As an engineer of applied mathematics, that later made his way to a civil engineering degree - engineers don't have the qualifications to moan about too much math, this is just barely scratching the surface of glorious mathematicing. :)

By the way looked up mathcad, looks very cool.


+2 Mammal Ben
Dave Tolnai  - Sept. 27, 2017, 10:11 a.m.

I think you've locked down the award today for "most engineery comment".

But what is an "engineer of applied mathematics"?  It sounds absolutely terrible.


ZigaK  - Sept. 27, 2017, 10:58 p.m.

It's the kind of mathematician that can (sort of) relate to real world problems.


+4 Cooper Quinn JT Ben Endur-Bro
earle.b  - Sept. 27, 2017, 9:58 a.m.

Want to design bikes? 





The two forums linked above hold pretty much every nugget of info you'd need to reverse engineer any bike, you'll have to do a lot of reading figure out how to sift the bs form the good info and what posters to watch for, but it's all in there. 

So no you don't need to be an engineer.


JT  - Sept. 27, 2017, 12:11 p.m.

Pretty dang true. Just got my license for Fusion 360 a couple weeks ago. Haven't sprung for bikechecker yet.


+1 Cam McRae
Luix  - Sept. 27, 2017, 10:18 a.m.

The beauty of bike design lies in its simplicity. Paraphrasing Einstein, in order to find a simple and elegant solution you have to go through very complex processes.


+1 Cam McRae
JT  - Sept. 27, 2017, 12:25 p.m.

First day of my first semester drafting class and the prof asked us if we were ready to kill someone and admitted to having been on the stand twice over his 40 years in manufacturing. Powerful and truthful lesson. You can't control how someone uses your design and you yourself by being human are subject to making errors, and those errors can have massive ramifications.


[user profile deleted]  - Sept. 27, 2017, 5:40 p.m.

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