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Designs on a faster bicycle

Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2001

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- He once took apart the family television to learn how it worked, and to see if he could reassemble it before his mother returned from work. Years later, Jeffrey James Caswell constructed a bicycle built for speed from a purposely bent muffler pipe, an office chair, the fork of a Schwinn bike, mountain-bike handlebars and other used bike parts.

So it's not a completely illogical leap that Caswell's mind again is working overtime, this time contemplating how he will build a bicycle he can pedal faster than 70 miles per hour on flat land.

He calls his latest creation -- which exists only in his head and on paper -- the Spaceship.

It's an appropriate name, considering he expects to encase himself in a protective shell constructed from carbon fiber, Kevlar and cardboard carton packaging and will pedal from a position flat on his back. He plans to navigate with a camera cabled to a pair of virtual reality glasses he will wear, all in the pursuit of breaking bicycling's world-speed record and perhaps claiming a $25,000 prize for becoming the first cyclist to propel himself unaided at 75 miles per hour or more.

''It's partially about the need for speed,'' he said, ''but it's also about showing people that the possibilities in life are so much farther beyond what we imagine they are. It's about showing that, when used efficiently, the human body can go as fast as a car, and that's quite amazing.''

Caswell -- a Minneapolis man who attended South High School and at age 35 is contemplating taking a college course or two -- works full-time designing kitchens and bathrooms for Home Depot and dabbles part-time in buying, restoring and reselling old houses.

His passion, though, appears to be experimenting with a classification of contraptions called Human Powered Vehicles, built by a quirky collection of tinkerers -- HPVers, naturally -- who combine the latest technological advances with their own muscles to propel themselves on land, in the water or air.

Caswell can be found many evenings zipping around Lake Harriet on his ''Micro'' bike, a low-riding recumbent model that he made from the office chair, muffler pipe and spare parts he ''cannibalized'' from traditional bicycles that he once owned.

Most others in the 100-member Minnesota Human Powered Vehicle Association gravitated toward recumbent bikes because their backs and behinds couldn't withstand traditional bikes anymore. ''We're maybe a little bit more free thinkers than the everyday bike rider,'' said MHPVA founder/president Dave Krafft, a Dakota County paramedic. ''But most of us are just looking for something more comfortable to ride.''

Caswell, though, is thinking both big and small. His unusually low reclining position combats the HPVers' natural enemy -- air resistance -- much better than an upright bike and allows him to use his back and arms as well as legs for more pedaling power.

He fills an empty water bottle with compressed air to make a horn that sounds like a passing semi to alert vehicles to his presence when he's in traffic. He can pedal his Micro bike 31 mph on flat land, 56 mph down a hill.

''The smaller you are, the faster you go,'' said Caswell, who is 6-foot-5 standing but only 36 inches tall when on his Micro bike. ''The big joke is that I'm always the largest guy riding the smallest bike.''

Caswell never studied physics or aerodynamics, but his father and brother are engineers and a friend is a Boeing aerospace engineer. Their influence and his own curious mind have provided him with a storehouse of information on topics such as triangulation and high-tech building materials.

He hopes to build his Spaceship from a list of diverse products: lightweight carbon fiber to give the outside shell strength; fiberglass to keep the rushing outside air away from his body; Kevlar, a tough synthetic used in making bulletproof vests, to protect himself from the asphalt in case of a crash; and cardboard-carton honeycombing for interior strength.

The bike's design includes separate chambers for each leg. Air theoretically will be circulated through baffles in the chambers and propelled out the back of the shell to allow his bike to slice through the air as cleanly as possible.

Caswell is attempting to find sponsors to help finance a project he estimates will cost $25,000. He wants to have a prototype ready to take to Nevada in October, when a handful of elite HPVers will convene for the invitation-only World Human Powered Speed Challenge. Last year's winner traveled 72.75 miles per hour.

Caswell is hopeful his prototype will earn him an invitation to race in 2002. He said he thinks his design could someday propel him as fast as 80 mph. Theoretically, at least.

''In theory, it makes sense that it will work,'' he said. ''How it will work? You have to play with it a lot. It's all a matter of tweaking.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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