Montana State University

MSU students learn lessons building bike

April 24, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

Dan McMillan, a senior in mechanical engineering technology from Wilson, Wyo., takes the Fast Cat, Montana State University's first competitive recumbent bicycle for a test run. Photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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It is 30-plus pounds of chrome-molly, chain, cable and gears. It sits so close to the ground it can't navigate curbs or potholes. With its low-slung, reclining seat, it has been called the "Lazy-Boy of bicycles" by one of its designers-builders.

It is the Fast Cat: Montana State University's first competitive recumbent bicycle built with plenty of head scratching, sweat and ingenuity by a group of engineering students. This weekend, (April 28-30) the bike and its design team will head to San Luis Obispo, Calif., to compete in the national Human Powered Vehicle competition.

There it will race against bikes with names like Red Rocket, Pegasus, Secretariat and the ominous-sounding Retribution. Many competitors have years of experience and far more money than the shoestring budget Fast Cat was built on.

But talk to the MSU team and the competition seems almost an afterthought. What has occupied the students' minds for the past year are the multitude of problems associated with designing and building a project from scratch.

"It's a long process. No matter how much you do on paper or the computer you will still be changing things once you're actually working on it," said Robin Rocco, a senior in mechanical engineering from Helena. "We have classes about design, but you don't really get a feel for a project until you start with nothing and make all the decisions."

The team worked through computer models and a stack of papers with design specifications. They did research into aerodynamics, crank revolutions per minute and gyroscopic effect for balance. There were discussions about weight, welding, turning radius and something spookily called "parasitic mass."

They also had to learn to ask for help: technical, material and financial. Bangtail Bike, Napa Auto Parts, Strong Frames, Checker Auto Parts, HobbyTown USA and Ron VanHagen - team member Dan McMillan's uncle -- all pitched in to aid the students.

But the most vivid lessons were time management, working as a team and understanding that designing something and building something are not the same.

"I usually do my own thing," said Tad Taylor, a senior in mechanical engineering technology from Missoula. "It's a challenge to see eye-to-eye. Everyone has their own ideas."

None of the seven team members knew each other well before the project. They are a mix of two disciplines: mechanical engineering with strengths in design and theory, and mechanical engineering technology with the know-how to build. Taylor, in particular, has six years of welding experience outside of school.

The team custom built Fast Cat's frame of chrome-molly tubing. Skateboard wheels run through a lathe were used to help keep the enormous chain -- three and a quarter standard bicycle chains in length - flowing smoothly from the front crank to rear gears. The bike's front and rear canopies are of skin-tight, transparent blue plastic.

The team is hoping to reach speeds above 40 mph in the Fast Cat.

"I think it will depend on what we had for lunch that day," said Dan McMillan, a senior in mechanical engineering technology from Wilson, Wyo.

With the competition on the weekend of April 28, the team's faculty advisor, Chris Jenkins, has urged them to get in shape and get used to riding the bike.

"Just remember," Jenkins said, "a high-performance engine on a mediocre bike can exceed a mediocre engine on a high-performance bike."

The engines, of course, are the student's muscles.

The competition consists of a 40-mile endurance ride around a one-mile course with a hairpin turn; a 100-meter sprint; and a design presentation. All team members will ride a section of the 40-mile endurance race. The bike is principally the work of graduating seniors Rocco, Taylor, McMillan and Tyrele Schaff, a senior in mechanical engineering from Fishtail, Mont.

Team members Chris Raisl of Bloomfield, Mont.; William Bergum of Helena and Jen Munsell of Billings will also race, but are not graduating this year. Those three will build their own bike next year.

Team members have variously described riding the Fast Cat as "interesting," "unusual" and its performance as "squirrelly at first, but solid the faster you go."

During a test ride two weeks before the competition, the crew seemed amused and pleased with their creation.

"Look at that thing," Rocco said. "It's like a bullet."

The Fast Cat team has it's own website:

Contact: Chris Jenkins, head of the department of mechanical engineering (406) 994-2203 or