Bicycle remix: a $25 Craigslist buy, scrap metal tubing, welding and curiosity

When Nick Belsten first eyed the pile of scrap metal tubing, he saw wind chimes.

Castoffs from fences installations, the galvanized pipe pieces held too much potential to be ignored. Belsten packed as much as he could around furniture and other household goods headed to his family’s home in Florida.

He did craft a fine chime but got to thinking bigger. Belsten, a rising electrical engineering junior, pondered building a very tall bike. Instead, he and a friend settled on a very long bike.

16 foot bicycle
EE major Nick Belsten’s 16-foot bicycle, with home-welded trusses

In the span of about a day, after classes ended in April but before his summer Vanderbilt research internship began, they built a bicycle. Two seats, two sets of handlebars, one set of pedals, and quite difficult to turn.

“I bicycle commute around campus and am familiar with how bikes stay stable but the long bike responds differently,” he said. “It took a few minutes of practice and thinking about how the dynamics of the long bike are different from a regular bike before I was able to stay upright.

“In particular, the long bike is much more flexible, so you have to remind your brain to take that into account, otherwise you just subconsciously treat it like a normal bike and then always fall over,” Belsten said.

belsten baha motorsports
EE major Nick Belsten in the Baja vehicle engineered by the Vanderbilt Motorsports Club

The bike remains in Florida, in the garage. Unlike some other projects, including a 16-foot-high seesaw, it has not been dismantled. To be clear, 16 feet is nowhere near the “record” for a two-seat bicycle. The Guinness Book of World Records in 2015 confirmed a team from The Netherlands built one that was just over 117 feet in length. A team from Australia topped that earlier this year with a bike nearly 135 feet long.

To be fair, these don’t look all that much like traditional bicycles, with wide ATV-like tires and commercially manufactured aluminum trusses used to hang stage lighting.

belsten wind chime
Wind chime adorned with a painted wood mango, in homage to the tree

In contrast, Belsten used real bicycle tires and welded his own trusses. As part of the Vanderbilt Motorsports team, he’s helped build race cars for the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual student competition and became more interested in mechanical engineering.

As a sophomore, he took Statics, which was outside of his major, and learned how to analyze the strength of trusses. He picked up welding on his own and continues learning more this this summer with a class led by Phil Davis, staff engineer and adviser to the Motorsports Club.

The bicycle project neatly coincided with the 200th birthday of the two-wheeler, which the American Society of Mechanical Engineers is celebrating throughout the year. German inventor Baron Karl von Drais is credited with creating a two-wheeled “running machine” in June 1817. A rider propelled his laufmaschine by walking or running, much like toddler bikes of today.

But Belsten, who is minoring in physics, already moved on. He’s collected lengths of PVC tubing and thought about building a pipe organ. Reality of campus dorm life has him considering something smaller, like music boxes.

Check out the video of Nick and his dad on the long bicycle.