Leah's Bike

Not many engineers can say they’ve worked with local businesses, industry leaders and an 11-year-old girl to design new and innovative brakes for a bicycle.

Leah Xiao-Chan O’Keefe wanted a “big kid” bike that could shift gears, but she was born with fingers that did not extend past the first knuckle, and so braking comfortably or safely was impossible.

“I wanted a bike that could shift gears, but those bikes don’t stop when you go backward,” says Leah. “So, if you have one with shifting gears, the brake is on the handlebar, but I couldn’t reach with my hands.”

When mechanical engineering Professor Blaine Lilly heard Leah’s story, he knew her wish could be granted by two of his students: Paul Scudieri, a doctoral student in integrated systems engineering, and Kyle Russ, a master’s degree student in mechanical engineering.

“Paul and Kyle decided to work on this project out of the goodness of their hearts,” Lilly says, “but also because both of them wanted to have the experience of taking a real product all the way from the basic user need to a finished, manufactured product.”

Both bicyclists themselves, Russ and Scudieri designed a safe and effective lever and combined it with a hydraulic brake system that looked the same as those on Leah’s friends’ bikes.

“Whenever I was on my bike, I was thinking about Leah,” Russ says.

After numerous rides, Russ decided that hydraulic brakes would be the best fit for Leah.

However, just choosing a type of brake wasn’t the end of the process. Russ needed to acquire the best hydraulic brake system he could find, and so he turned to Hayes Brakes, a company that had previously fixed his own mountain-bike brakes — at no charge.

“I was so impressed with this company,” Russ says.

After just one phone call, Hayes Brakes shipped out, free of charge, the brake system they felt would work best for Leah. With the brake system in hand, the students needed to find a bike frame that could accommodate the brakes as well as the brake lever.

That process would prove more difficult than Scudieri and Russ initially thought. The brakes were a larger set and thus required a larger frame, but Leah is only 4 feet, 11 inches tall. The students soon found out that the smallest compatible frame, a Giant Rincon 12½-inch woman’s bike, was being discontinued; there were only seven in the nation.

Russ turned to employees at roll:, a Columbus-based bike company, to locate one of the bikes. As soon as he explained the project, the employees and even the owner, Stuart Hunter, wanted to figure out a way to help.

Hunter contacted Giant Bicycle Inc., and the company located the exact frame needed and shipped it to roll: which in turn sold it to Russ and Scudieri at half price. The shop also assembled the bike and donated any accessories needed for the project.

“Roll: was just great; all the employees there were super excited about the project,” Russ says. “They were so beneficial to the process.”

Then Research Alloys donated the materials for the brake lever and SRAM, a bike component company, donated a set of grip shifters for the bike as well as valuable time consulting with the students.

“It's a good project and a good cause,” Scudieri says. “What we found with these cycling companies is generally they were smaller companies, and they're very passionate about riding. Once we told them, ‘It's a little girl’s dream to be able to ride a bike,’ they said ‘Yeah, how can we help?’”

With the help and support of various companies, the students were ready to start designing.

After many iterations, wooden prototypes, Play-Doh models of Leah’s hands and conference calls with SRAM engineers, the brake lever and the bike were finally completed. Leah woke up Christmas morning to a brand-new bike that was tailored specifically for her.

“Just seeing her excitement was more motivation,” Russ says. “The entire intent of the process was to get Leah on a bike.”

This project helped Russ land his dream job as a biomechanical engineer with Trek Bicycle Corp. in Wisconsin after graduation in June; Scudieri expects to finish his doctorate in 2012.