Bike builder Willy Tan

DSC06407One of the bikes seen at the North American Handmade Bike Show this year had the name “Willy Tan” carefully labeled on the down tube. This small framed pink touring bike definitely caught my attention, and if fact was one of my favorites of the entire show. What caught my attention even more was that this bike was in the booth of the University of Iowa – the only academic institution at the show. The bikes on display were on par with the quality and workmanship of the rest of the show – many seasoned professionals with years of experience.

The University of Iowa program is lead by Steve McGuire, Professor of Metal Arts and 3D Design and Studio Division Coordinator in the School of Art & Art History. Thanks to the magic of social networking, I was able to get in touch with the builder Willy Tan and ask him some questions about the program, and this fantastic bike.

Willy, you are currently a student at the University of Iowa. What are you studying?
DSC06401Willy Tan: I am an accounting student at the University of Iowa.  I was lucky that Professor Steve McGuire, whom created the University of Iowa Handbuilt Bicycle course, allowed me to take the class even though I was not an art or engineering major.  Many students of the course are from the Studio Arts or Engineering departments of the school as the class is through the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa.
JAC: According to other reports, you’re also involved in bicycle advocacy work at the university. Can you tell us about that?
WT: I got involved in bicycle advocacy my freshman year at the Iowa City Bike Library.  Through the friends I made there, I got referred to be an intern at the Office of Sustainability at the University of Iowa to write a business plan and a grant for a bike-share program.  The grant I wrote was successful and we are currently in the process of procuring a bike-share program as a joint effort with the City of Iowa City.  I currently intern at the Office of Sustainability to promote bicycling on campus with activities like the winter bike challenges and free bike tune up days.
JAC: What got you interested in and involved with bicycle advocacy work?
WT: The Iowa City Bike Library was really where my bicycle advocacy work started.  It is a volunteer run non profit that provides bicycles to the community at a low cost and acts as a resource for aspiring bicycle mechanics.  I learned a lot of what I know about bicycles by being a volunteer mechanic and fixing donated bicycles for check-out.  The BL checks out bicycles for a deposit ranging from $75 to $175 for 6 months, if the user needs to return it within the 6 months, the deposit is returned, if the user chooses to keep the bicycle, the deposit is retained.  The idea of providing good working bicycles to those that don’t have access to or can’t afford resonated with me. The BL was a way for me to contribute my skills for the good of a community.
DSC06405JAC: You had a beautiful pink bike on display at the 2016 North American Handmade Bicycle Show. It was displayed along with works from other university students. Can you tell us about that bike, and the program that brought you all to Sacramento for NAHBS?
WT: The bike I built was designed for a shorter person hence the choice in 26″ wheels.  My sister wanted a full touring bike that could actually fit her without compromising the look and aesthetic of a solid touring bicycle.  I actually drew up this bike with my mentor and another local builder, Jeffrey Bock as we became friends after the University of Iowa showed bikes at the Iowa Bike Expo.  He guided me through the considerations for a longer chain stay, relatively low bottom bracket drop, ht and st angles and the fork rake.  I chose a smaller traditional tubeset which made the frame proportional looking in its size.  The Campagnolo parts were at my sister’s request but I chose a Sugino triple as it is one of the few companies that still forges crank arms that are 152mm instead of the usual 170 or 165.  Consideration was also taken in finding a narrow randonneur handlebar to match her shoulder width and a Brooks Professional S to match her saddle size.  I also shaped a “private-jet” brake bridge as she currently works at a private jet company as a personal touch.  Details of the bicycles can be seen here: [On Flikr]  My decals were made by my younger sister as she built the font on Illustrator.
The program is called the Handbuilt Bicycle [run] through the 3D Design department of the School of Art and Art History at the U of Iowa.  It was created by Professor Steve McGuire who was an avid cyclist himself (he races Arrowhead 135 and other winter endurance races every year on a single speed fat bike).  The class aimed to teach from a design perspective while providing students with fabrication techniques of how to build a bicycle.  It has grown organically into a class where both original design and quality are prized.  What sets the class apart from various framebuilding classes is that students are constantly questioning build techniques, design parameters, design procedures, and the big question: What is a bicycle?  I really enjoyed the “freeness” of the class which allowed me to build a lugged frame (many students focus on TIG steel or titanium) and has also forced me to make important mistakes.  My second frame I built is unrideable as I did not pay attention to tolerances and alignment.  It sits in my room as a constant reminder that mistakes are just around the corner and that I need to be alert every second that I am building.  Another unique thing about the program is that it brings in guest lecturers from the bike industry to talk about design principles and their “style”.  Last year, Erik Noren was the guest lecturer and this year James Bleakley will be having a lecture.  He will also be staying for a week and building in the shop which is cool because it allows us to see a master of TIG titanium work and share his tips and techniques.
DSC06397JAC: This bike was built for your sister?
WT: Yes, it was built for my older sister.  As she is a shorter woman, it is hard to find size-specific bicycles and parts on the general market.  I really wanted to build her something that fit her perfectly as she always had to ride a bicycle that is too big for her.  The only instructions I received from her were: 1) it has to handle intense touring, 2) NO MIXTE! (or very sloped top tube), and 3) “not look like a child’s bike.”  I had the opportunity to create something within those constraints.
JAC: How long have you been interested in bicycle building?
WT: I have always liked to tinker with things when I was young so just the thought of making my own bicycle was cool.  However it became an obsession when I picked up a copy of “Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles” at the public library when I was a freshman.  I started looking at other builders on flickr and their processes.  Coincidentally that was about the time of class registration and a friend told me there was this Handbuilt Bicycle Program.  I instantly email[ed] Steve and begged him to let me enroll in the class (I was a Business major and it was then a restricted class).
JAC: How many complete frames have you put together?
WT: I have 2 complete frames.  The first bicycle I built in class for myself can be seen here: [on Flikr], and the second complete bicycle is my sister’s.
JAC: Do you think you’d be able to build bikes like you are without the instruction you received at the University?
WT: The interesting thing about the Handbuilt Bicycle Program is that it does not really give that much instruction.  There are guest lecturers that demonstrate brazing and welding techniques and there is a talented teachers assistant, Billy Cho (he had sweet titanium bikes displayed at NAHBS), that teaches us how to TIG weld.  However the class provided a lot of direction and resources in order to achieve a frame.  It was very open to ideas and encouraged creativity.
I owe a lot to the Handbuilt Bicycle Program because it provided me with the direction and resources needed to build bicycles.  I met Jeffrey Bock through being at the program and talking to him has since refined more of my building procedures.  Jeff has also been a big resource and help when building my sister’s bicycle.  He painted the bicycle with his original stash of Dupont Imron.
JAC: Do you see bikes, and bike building, continuing to be a part of your life outside of the university?
WT: I definitely see myself continuing to build on a personal level.  After graduation, I will be moving up to Minneapolis to pursue work at a public accounting firm, but will also connect with the Minneapolis frame builders and their community.  I would also like to get involved with their bicycle advocacy group there.
JAC: How do bicycles fit into your daily life? What kinds of riding do you do?
WT: I try to do mostly recreational riding.  I started a student organization on campus called “Bike Friends” to get students that are interested in bicycling to go on shorter rides to get used to the local trails and gain confidence on a bicycle.  I also enjoy riding single track.  I enjoy leisurely rides especially when RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) comes around in the summer.  The route always changes and there is always unique foods offered by the towns it goes through!
Willy Tan’s bike demonstrates not only quality craftsmanship, the influence of mentors on the craft, but also the passion for the bicycle as art that continues to drive handbuilt bicycles in the US and abroad.