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When Cal’s Human-Powered Vehicle Snapped in Two, Nobody Expected How it Would End

May 1, 2014
by Martin Snapp

Things were looking bleak for the UC Berkeley Human Powered Vehicle Team last weekend, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.

The team, all engineering majors, were on the verge of their big competition: the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Human Powered Vehicle Competition West, in Santa Clara. Rider Andrew Taylor had just started his practice run on Saturday morning when Reuben, the state-of-the-art vehicle that he and his cohorts had spent seven months building, crashed on the first lap.

“The first thing I thought was ‘Oh no! The bike!’ ” he says. “I looked back, and our roll bar was just dangling, and the bike was in two pieces. We thought our weekend was over.”

Note: Although they call Reuben a “bike,” it has about as much in common with your average street bike as a Ferrari F430GT racing car has with a Ford Focus. It is designed for sheer speed and nothing else. And why is it called Reuben?

“All our bikes are named after sandwiches,” explains team leader Kyle Zampaglione. “Last year’s car was called PB&J.”

The team—about a dozen strong—huddled over the remains of Reuben to figure out what to do next.

“We weren’t sure there was any way we could fix it,” says Taylor. “We told the race coordinator that we probably wouldn’t be back the next day. But after a little bit of thinking, we decided to give it a try.”

So they did what college students do: They pulled an all-nighter.

“We were fortunate that my dad was there,” Taylor says. “He has a machine shop in Burlingame, so we drove up there and started cutting off broken pieces and cutting the bike in half. But by 8 p.m. we got to the point where we had done all we could do at my dad’s shop. So Kyle got in touch with Dennis Lee, one of the machine shop technicians here at Cal. He owns a machine shop in Oakland that’s much better outfitted, and he said, ‘Meet me there at 9 o’clock.’ “

Zampaglione takes up the story. “We got about 20 percent of the work we needed to do there when Dennis said, ‘Oh, we used to make custom parts for e-bikes!’ So he pulled out a rear fork, and we realized, ‘This is perfect!’ All we had to do was figure out how to attach it to what was left of Reuben.”

By now it was 11 p.m.

“From that point it was just a montage of welding and cutting parts and filling holes,” Zampaglione says. “Fortunately, Dennis is a super-professional welder, and Andrew’s dad was helping out, too. But it still took us all night long.”

At 5 a.m. the new Reuben was finally finished. To test it, Zampaglione mounted the bike and rode it out the front gate into the street.

“It was raining hard, and there was nobody else around, and all you could hear was the sound of dogs barking and trains passing in the distance,” he says. “It was epic!”

Taylor says, “So we woke up the other drivers and said, ‘We need to pack up and go.’ We arrived my house in San Jose at 6, took a quick nap until 6:30, then jumped back in our cars and drove to the competition.”

“We didn’t unpack or change our clothes,” adds Harlan Kuo, who leads the structures and composites part of the team. “We just fell down on the floor.”

“And not everybody made it even that far,” says Zampaglione. “We just left them in the cars and let them sleep there.”

Arriving at the fairgrounds at 7 a.m., they immediately went to work making last-minute modifications on Reuben.

“We had to make our old fairing—the aerodynamic shield—fit on the new bike because it was slightly higher and longer than the old one,” explains Michael Ho. “It involved a lot of Gorilla Tape and Velcro. We were still making modifications on the starting line up to 10 seconds before the race.”

Then the gun went off, and the 2 ½-hour endurance competition around a 1.2 km obstacle race course began. Taylor was the first rider, followed by Kuo, Nicole Schauser, and Zampaglione.

“Our only goal was to get the bike to the end of the race,” says Zampaglione. “If it broke down ten minutes later, we didn’t care.”

“If the bike had snapped in half during the race, we would have picked up the pieces and carried them across the finish line,” says Alex Zhang. “There were two other teams that did just that,” adds Taylor.
They were slow getting out of the gate, so they started out in last place. But within four laps they had moved up to fourth.

“We really didn’t know where we were because teams were getting lapped all over the place,” says Kevin Huang. “We had no idea where we finished until the awards ceremony because some teams had penalty point deductions for hitting the cones. We were just happy to cross the finish line with the bike still in one piece.”

The awards banquet wasn’t scheduled to take place for another two hours—time they spent sleeping. Not trusting themselves to wake up in time, they decamped to the banquet hall and dozed upright in their chairs.

At 1 p.m. the ceremony commenced, opening with a special award to the Berkeley team as Most Determined.

“They gave it to us because they [had been] sure we wouldn’t come back on Sunday,” says Shang. “Then the guy said, ‘They gave an exceptional performance, as you’ll see when we present the awards for the race.’ At that point, we were thinking we finished maybe second or third. But at least we were going to be somewhere on the podium.”

Next came awards for innovation, male sprint, female sprint, and so on—the wait, says the team, was excruciating. Finally, the awards for endurance.

“We didn’t get third, and we said, ‘OK,’ ” says Zampaglione. “Then we didn’t get second place, and we thought, ‘No way! What’s going on? I thought we were going to be up on the podium!’ Then he said, ‘First place goes to the team that wasn’t going to race today.’ Everybody was cheering so loudly, we didn’t even hear him say ‘Berkeley.’ “

Victory included a trophy, which now sits in a place of honor at the UC Berkeley machine shop in Etcheverry Hall where Reuben was born, and cash, which they will use to help pay off the debts of Reuben’s construction.

Everyone insists the victory was a team effort, calling the student pit crew awesome.

So how did the team celebrate that night? “We all went home and went to sleep,” says Kuo. “Except for Kyle and Michael, who did homework, and Soroush and Andrew, who had midterms the next day.”

“Besides, we’re engineers,” says Ho. “Engineers don’t party.”

Note: People wishing to donate to the team can do so electronically via the GiveToCal web site, or by mailing a check payable to “ASUC/Human Powered Vehicle” at ASUC/Human Powered Vehicle, c/o LEAD Center
University of California, 102 Hearst Gym, MC 4500, Berkeley, CA 94720-4500. Request a tax-deductible receipt by emailing

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