The Bicycle Recycler

American Artisans, People, Sports
on August 18, 2002

A glance at the bicycles lining the walls of Peter Wagner’s garage easily reveals his imagination and originality. He has working bicycles of every type, such as tandems, hand pedal bikes, and even something called—very appropriately—a “Whymcycle” (pronounced “whimsical”).

Wagner, 49, is known as “the bike guy,” and on any afternoon, you’re likely to see children in his Davis, Calif., neighborhood trying out his collection of unconventional bikes, created from parts given to him by friends, neighbors, and people who know his reputation as a man with a passion for bikes.

“I’m just a guy who tinkers around,” says Wagner, a schoolteacher. “In creating my bikes, I love taking an idea and making it a reality—and seeing people actually ride what I’ve created.”

He hasn’t kept strict count, but Wagner figures he’s made nearly 200 bicycles since junior high, many patterned after antique models. About half have been Whymcycles.

His most complicated bike to date is a lime green model that also floats on water. It was created for a 1999 kinetic sculpture race of human-powered, all-terrain works of art. Wagner built a brightly colored amphibian bike—a four-seater with pontoons on the sides and a paddlewheel on the back.

This year the bike endured its heaviest load yet on water when four grown men rode it at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers. “Their combined weight must have been at least 800 pounds,” Wagner says with a chuckle. The unusual bike tilted a bit at the end of the race, but made it to dry ground and won the award for “most artistic bike.”

“It was the largest vehicle to complete the race,” Wagner says, with a hint of pride.

Whimsical and useful

Wagner got hooked on pedal power at 4 when he rode his sister’s bicycle. He loved the feeling of freedom that a bike gave him. When he made his first bicycle—a crude tandem—at age 13, he used diagrams published in Popular Mechanics. Since then, he’s refined his technique.

His trademark—the Whymcycle—is a bike with a platform, the width of a skateboard, between its two wheels. The rider powers it by making a bouncing motion on the platform, which turns an offset rear hub and propels the bike forward. The Whymcycle is Wagner’s version of the Ingo-Bike, also called the Exercycle, manufactured by the Ingersoll-Rand Corp. from 1934-37.

The Ingo-Bike had a small wheel in front, a larger wheel in back, and a platform in between. Wagner saw the bike in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and resolved to make one.

Wagner occasionally gives away the Whymcycles to his friends, and he also sells them for less than $200 through a juggling catalog (jugglers like the unusual bikes to spice up their acts).

He’s not interested in capitalizing on his love of tinkering. “I’m not a businessman. People tell me I should advertise my bikes on a website and sell more of them, but I’m not interested,” he says. “I build bikes for the love of them.”

Wagner spends at least five hours—sometimes much more—each week, tinkering and creating something useful from parts that others ordinarily would throw away. When an employee at the nearby recycling center saw three old bikes being thrown away, he saved them for Wagner.

“Rather than going through the crusher, they were used to build a hand bike for a 3-year-old with bone disease, so he can go gallivanting around town just like everyone else,” Wagner says.

Indeed, Wagner’s inventiveness has helped about a dozen others living with a disability—such as Michele Mantay, 45, who suffers from a disease that weakens her muscles. For Mantay, Wagner created a quadricycle in which two or three people can sit on the bike’s platform.

Mantay likes the bike because the larger wheels make it easy to pedal. “I can get exercise with another person and use the bike even though I’m not very strong,” she says.

Wagner, who worked closely with Mantay to build the bike to her needs, made pedals from an exercise bike with loops to hold her feet and placed a plastic box on the back to hold groceries. The designer bike easily can be steered with a tiller by any of the riders.

Such custom bikes for special needs may retail for as much as $1,000, but Wagner sells them to people he happens to meet or who seek him out for a fraction of that cost. Or, he simply gives them away.

“I am not in this for the money,” he says. “I like building unique custom bikes because it enables me to use the parts to provide a solution. I’m a problem solving sort of person.”

Occasionally, his special-needs inventions don’t involve wheels. When he met Paul Knott, a paraplegic and former firefighter, they struck up a conversation, and Knott mentioned that he was trying to build a backrest for his new van—one that would keep him upright, because his upper body muscles aren’t strong.

“He came over to my house one day with a big grin and said he had made the backrest for me—all out of bike parts already stored in his garage,” Knott says. The backrest is now installed permanently in Knott’s van. “My one complaint is that he just never mentions money,” Knott says. “I pay him whatever I can, when I can.”

‘For the fun of it’

Wagner’s love for bicycles certainly puts him in the right place. Davis is known as a bicycle town; its logo is a high-wheeler or penny farthing bike, with a high front and low back wheel, a model popular in the early 1900s.

Davis began building a network of bike paths throughout the town in the 1960s to encourage efficient and non-polluting transit. At the town’s annual bike parade, the Cyclebration, people ride on all kinds of bikes to celebrate pedal power. Wagner is a familiar sight at the Cyclebration and always arrives with half a dozen bikes for the crowd to try.

“Bikes are a low-cost, fun way of transportation,” he says. “And they last forever. My motto is that people should ride as many bikes as they can.”

Armand Prieditis, 41, who owns a software company in Davis, bought one of Wagner’s Whymcycles several years ago. “You get a wider field of view than on a traditional bike, since you’re standing up,” he says. Prieditis finds riding the Whymcycle gets his quadriceps in shape for skiing and running; his children, ages 10 and 6, love the bike because it’s so novel.

Novel is what fuels Wagner’s passion. On a recent day in his garage, he showed off a bike that once was a Yamaha motorcycle. Pedals are placed where the motor once revved.

As his son, Colin, 12, and his friends rode Whymcycles and high-wheelers, Wagner tried out an “upside down bike”—a bike literally turned upside down, with pedals where the seat used to be, and a new seat placed on top of a spoke several feet in the air. With a running jump, he was up on the bike and wheeling down the pavement eagerly.

“I make bikes for the fun of it,” he says. “Riding them and building them keeps me happy.”