April 25, 2007
By Abby Rouse
Anyone who's ridden a touring bicycle for any great distance knows all about the torturous pain it can cause, with those little seats and no back support. In 1988, Israel Urieli decided he'd had enough.
"It was too painful to contort my body into that ridiculous position for long tours," Urieli, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, says.
Relying upon his engineering background, he came up with a solution - design his own bike.
"No bicycle was available to comply with my two conflicting requirement: comfort and portability," he says.
First, he needed comfort for long rides; both he and his wife, Nili, ride 30 to 60 miles per day during an average tour. Second, portability was critical. Urieli, fondly called Dr. Iz by his students, wanted to be able to take the bike apart and place it in a duffle bag while staying free of oil and grease.
Having earned graduate degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering, Urieli had more than enough knowledge and skill to make his own working designs. The first was completed in 1993 and called "Legbreaker 1," earning the name after Urieli suffered a mishap with the bike and spent the next six months on crutches.
He has since designed five models, starting with "Grasshopper," completing "Grasshopper 5" in 2000. The designs are quite different from your basic bike, having a comfortable recumbent configuration. Grasshopper 5 has been so successful that he has found no need to modify it.
Urieli uses steel and aluminum, but instead of a bicycle chain he uses a rubber belt drive, much like what's used in a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
"It's totally maintenance-free and clean, no oil or grease," he says.
The latest model is available in both front and rear wheel drive. The convenience of front wheel drive is that it leaves your hands free while your legs pedal, steer and keep you balanced.
Once you master this technique it feels natural and allows you to use your hands for, "more important tasks, like blowing your nose, taking photographs, or peeling a banana, all while riding," Urieli says.
While riding "Grasshopper 5," Urieli and Nili have completed a 500-mile tour of the Irish coast, toured Tuscany, Italy, France (including Brittany and Canal du Midi), Banff (Canada) and the NW US, Belgium (around Brugge). This summer they hope to begin the first leg of the Lewis and Clark trail -- 555 miles from Hartford, Ill., to Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Urieli says he made the bikes for himself and Nili and has no plans to sell them, though he has presented papers on his bike design at various human-powered vehicle conferences in both the United States and Europe.
Abby Rouse is a former student writer with University Communications and Marketing.