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AtomicZombie Extreme Machines Newsletter for December 11, 2014

water bicycle

Welcome to Atomic Zombie's Murphy's Moments

When bad things happen to good builders


As most of you know, when I build a bike or trike, the entire build takes only days, and everything always goes together the first time with almost no planning or effort. Yeah, right!

No build would ever be complete without a few speed bumps along the way. Welded backwards, cut too short, one bolt too few, wrong bearings, out of welding rod, flies in the paint, hammer on the thumb, failed test ride, and the list goes on! I like to call these "Murphy's Moments", after the renowned law that states, "If anything can go wrong, it will."

So, to prove that nobody is safe from Murphy and his frickin' Law, here are some laughable moments that I can remember while working on some of the plans and other projects. At the time, perhaps I wasn't laughing as much as cursing, but now that I can look back, I do get a chuckle.

StreetFighter - The Impossible Axle Seize!


While I was building the StreetFighter Racing Quad, I had the most bizarre issue with one of the prototype axle adapters that to this day I can't explain. The axle adapters connect the freewheel and disc brake to the axles as you can see in the photo above.

Normally, they simply slide on the axle where they are affixed by a bolt through the part and the axle. For this project, my axles were 3/4" cold rolled and the bore on the adapter was a loose enough fit that the part would slide right on the axle with ease. But, at one point in the build, I slipped the adapter onto the axle; that's when things went awry.

broken axle

As usual, the part slid right on the axle. There was enough play to slide a toothpick in there, so I wasn't worried about anything getting stuck, especially on the perfectly new cold rolled precision ground axle shafting. Well, Murphy had a different plan that afternoon. The adapter suddenly became stuck near the end of the axle and no matter how hard I twisted, it just wouldn't move.

The axle had no burs; it was not rusted and there was no grit on either part - it just magically froze. To make a long story short, look at the shrapnel in the photo above; that's what it took to remove the part! I actually tried everything from heating with a blow torch to using a pipe wrench to free the part, but in the end, I had to saw it into three pieces. Yes, sir, even cutting it in half was not enough!

Upon inspection, there was no hint of what could have gone wrong. The disc brake side axle adapter went right over the axle, even with all the scarring from the pipe wrench, so I couldn't find anything on the axle that was causing the part to freeze. The only explanation was Murphy who conveniently did this to me on a weekend knowing I had no spare axle adapter and intended to spend the day enjoying a long test ride. Three weeks later, the machine shop made me a new adapter - ack!

E-Style Electric BMX - The Crash and Burn Effect!

electric bike

Perhaps this one was only partly Murphy's Law fault, leaving the other half of the blame to the crazy dude that didn't listen to reason. When I was building the E-Style Electric BMX, I originally put on a pair of front suspension forks from a mountain bike. Now, this might not seem like a bad idea, but if you know a little about electric front hub motors, then you probably know that this is a recipe for a face plant. Here is the problem in brief. Front suspension forks have aluminum dropouts. Aluminum is an evil unpredictable metal. Front hub motors introduce heavy torque to the axle. The axle is connected to the dropouts. Eventually, the aluminum dropouts rip away from the fork tubes and you get a very rude and swift introduction to the pavement. Sadly, I knew this ahead of time.

I never intended to release the plan with these forks, but didn't actually think that such a well-made set of forks would be an issue, so I threw them on for some test riding one weekend. My hub motor was only rated at 500 watts, but I did modify the controller and bump up the voltage from 36 volts to 48 volts, boosting the top speed from about 25 Mph to 40 Mph or better! There I was smoking down a street in my neighborhood and I took a sharp turn into the parking lot of the coffee shop I like to visit, trying to look cool as I carved into the lot running under silent electric power. Actually, I did look cool until the exact instant that the front wheel went in a different direction than the rest of the bike!

As I toppled in a most spectacular way right in front of the coffee shop window, onlookers gazed in horror, most thinking that I was going down for the count. Somehow, I managed to flip over a few times, each rotation bringing the heavy frame and battery pack across my back, until I finally lay flat out, with the bike on top of me like a cartoon, with the front wheel carelessly rolling to a stop at the end of the parking lot. I do have to thank Murphy for taking my bike, but leaving my noggin intact. By some miracle, I didn't suffer a single scratch during that monumental fail!

hub motor damage

My brand new, mountain bike suspension forks and front hub motor, did suffer some damage, though. The dropouts sheared away from the fork tubing and all of the wires that feed into the hubmotor were torn away from the motor shell. And, just to make sure I didn't forget my error in judgment, I had to drag the damaged electric bike six blocks back home!

broken electric motor

Of course, there's usually something positive to gain from one's stupid mistakes. This incident taught me to never trust aluminum to anything but pop cans and how to disassemble and rewire a brushless front hubmotor. I carefully cut back the copper windings to reattach the wires, sealed up the unit and it still works to this day. The hub motor is now more than 10 years old and holding!

The Pedal Powered Sub Experiment - AKA Boat Anchor!

pedal submarine
Sometimes the fusion of "silly idea" with "spare time" results in something new and wonderful. Other times, it ends up leaving you treading water with a 25 pound egg beater stuck around your ankle. This is the story of the latter. Once again, I can't blame Murphy all that much for this fiasco, but it was too funny not to mention here.

I decided one afternoon to cobble together a vehicle that would allow me to effortlessly pedal around the lake with my head above water and then do a few underwater dives and fun maneuvers. The theory was all there: propulsion through a 18 inch propeller; 20:1 ratio pedal powered transmission; rudder for left and right; independent fins for up, down, and roll; and air ballast for neutral buoyancy. Hmmm...the more I write about this, the more I think I could revisit this project. OK, back to reality.

water bike

The camping weekend rolled around, so I packed up my new revolutionary aquatic transportation device and headed out to a nearby lake. Knowing without a doubt that my invention would work perfectly on the first test ride, I jumped in the rowboat, paddled out into the center of the lake and setup for the initial voyage. I even taunted my first mate, claiming that I would reach the shore first. I set the neutral buoyancy rigs (empty plastic jugs) into the frame, jumped in the water and then set myself up on the recumbent pedal powered contraption.

After finding a precarious balance in the water, I proclaimed, "Paddle away, Gilligan. I'll wait for you on shore" and then began pedaling to engage the propeller.

With excitement, I felt the pull of the propeller and backwash of water from the slipstream created by the thrust, but that soon turned to surprise as the bike rolled out of balance and began plummeting towards the bottom of the lake. OK, so the neutral buoyancy idea didn't work out so well, but those ropes holding the water jugs did a great job of wrapping around my ankle as the bike started to sink!

What to do? Yell for my first mate to pluck me and my failed contraption from the water? Try to tread water all the way back to shore and proclaim success? Perhaps I should follow tradition of great mariners before me and let the cold dark lake claim both me and my lifeless hulk of a ship? Well, the last option would be the least embarrassing, but I eventually took the first option. Maybe I should have named the contraption "The Icarus Complex" instead.

Did Murphy set my buoyancy ropes ajar, or was it just a combination of too much free time coupled with a not-so-good idea? I will never really know, but I do know that one of these days I will probably build the "The Icarus Complex II" just to sort out the mystery!

The DeltaWolf - Two Foot Test Ride!

recumbent trike

The DeltaWolf Recumbent Trike was one of my favorite rides of all time. It was fast, super low, handled great and comfortable to ride. Well, actually, all recumbent trikes really are, but there was just something cool about my trusty Wolf. Most of the DeltaWolf build was actually Murphy free. Sure, I welded the bottom bracket on in reverse, messed up one of the wheel lacings and briefly lit the garage on fire while grinding, but those events are almost considered normal now! But, the real Murphy Moment appeared during the filming and photo shoot for the initial test ride.

derailleur failure

When a new bike or trike is ready for a test run, I like to make it a big deal with a decent background for photos and plenty of room to film the ride. All of this takes up an afternoon of planning, packing equipment and then driving to the location to take photos of the ride. So, I packed up and drove to an outdoor trail where I could take photos against a nice scenic river background. This was going to be great! I had a new recumbent trike, a video camera set up on a tripod and a fantastic scenic background. It was time to launch.

I jumped in the pilot's seat and gave the camera a thumbs up just before pushing hard on the pedals. But, instead of dirt spinning up from the rear wheels, there was a loud crunch followed by the rear derailleur hammering the back of my seat! I definitely wasn't the spectacular take-off I had envisioned.

In my hurry to get out and test ride the DeltaWolf, Murphy took the opportunity to blind me from the fact that I had not actually welded the entire joint between the rear derailleur support bolt and the frame, which cause an almost instant transmission failure. Well, it wasn't a total fail actually; I did manage to travel about 2 feet in the forward direction just before the loud crunch followed by my blank stare into the camera. What makes this incident even more "Murphy-like" is the fact that I was hours from home, had no way to fix the damage and had to pack everything up again and call it a day.

So, that proves that Murphy can be a patient hunter, waiting for an opportune moment to inflict maximum annoyance into your otherwise perfectly planned day. Be aware of this!

Sparky Electric Minibike - An Unexpected Lift Off!

electric bike

The DIY electric minibike I call Sparky is a fun yet powerful electric scooter that can propel its pilot up to city traffic speeds with acceleration that rivals most cars. This little powerhouse is ultra fun to ride and can be used in places where a conventional noisy gas scooter cannot. Of course, I wanted to bring Sparky out to camp on weekends to enjoy blasting around the grounds without bothering anyone.

One weekend, we headed to a public campground and set up our tents. I took Sparky out for a ride around, blasting up and down the roads and trails, doing wheelies and spinning up gravel to the amusement of the other campers. Sparky always generated interest and I enjoyed showing off the raw power that this tiny little bike had, often to the disbelief of those who tried to outrace me on gas scooters, or even their mountain bikes. But, on this fateful day, I really gave a few people a surprise, as Sparky emitted a thundering bang and then attempted to become airborne, sending me over the handlebars!

mini bike

Here is how Murphy caused this interesting mishap. For some reason, the bolts that hold the rear axle in place had loosened, causing the side of the rear tire to rub against the frame tubing. This introduced a huge amount of friction, which caused a large amount of heating of the rear wheel. Plus, the fact that I pumped the tires up with a small electric pump what I know had a faulty pressure gauge (showed 15 PSI too little) and you have a recipe for a mighty fine bomb!

When the rear tire finally exploded, it was almost on fire from the friction and had at least 20 PSI more pressure than it was rated for. The result was seriously intense! Before I could even register the amazingly loud crack of the popping tire, I was already heading over the handlebars, with Sparky bucking forward like an angry electric bull bent on my destruction. I managed to land on my feet, but the momentum of the bike still travelling at 30 Mph sent me flat on my back, making the entire spectacle all the more entertaining for my audience.

The lesson here is that no part of your equipment is ever safe from Murphy and his treacherous laws. He can turn any object into a weapon of embarrassing destruction. A tire becomes a bomb, then a bike becomes a catapult. Who would have imagined such a thing? Murphy!

The Giraffe Unicycle - Ground Control to Major Tom!

tall unicycle

Now, you might think that a six foot tall, one wheeled vehicle wouldn't even need Murphy's Law to create a situation destined to end badly. OK, you are probably correct in that assumption, but I must proclaim that it wasn't my lack of circus skills that nearly broke my ankle, it was Murphy!

After many requests from our bike building community, I made a set of DIY Plans that include a Short and Tall Unicycle. I had some basic unicycle skills from way back in the day, but not much on the tall version, so I fully understood that on this photo and video shoot I would be taking one (or more than one) for the team. I decided to shoot this one near our house on the dirt road, just in case things didn't work out. In hindsight, that was a good idea.


To be honest, riding the six footer was easier than the short unicycle. I could wobble down the road mostly under control for as far as I wanted on either one. To get on the tall unicycle, I climbed a ladder and launched from there, travelling a few hundred feet down the road where I tried to turn around and come back. My method resulted in a 50 percent success rate. Falling off the tall unicycle wasn't too bad; I just had to control my landing and try to grab the back of the seat so I wouldn't scratch up my nice new home built unicycle.

I was starting to enjoy riding the tall unicycle and was getting better on each launch, able to carve the 180 degree turn and ride back most of the time. Seeing this glimmer of success, Murphy instantly decided to apply his law and wanted all of this to end badly for me. This time, he also mustered the law of gravity to help intensify my punishment, mixing this with well known "snagged pant leg" effect, which has plagued cycles since the invention of the bicycle chain. See where this is going? Down!

As soon as my pant leg was snagged by the chain, the unicycle stopped suddenly, launching me forward with no ability to straighten out and land gracefully. By the time I was freed from the jaws of the chain ring, my angle of re-entry was most unfortunate. I landed hard, twisted my ankle and wrenched my back, finally coming to rest in the nice soft tree line!

To add insult to injury (or injury to injury), Murphy gave my one last kick, sending the unicycle crashing down on top of me with such precise aim that the back of the seat hit me right in the melon! So, like I said, it wasn't my lack of circus skills that caused this two weeks of ankle pain; it was simply Murphy once again exercising his supreme power over mechanical objects, proving that, "If anything can go wrong, it will."

Have you ever had a Murphy's Moment? Tell us about it to share in an upcoming newsletter.

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