Re-envisioning the bicycle

Gregory Degouveia puts art, practicality and fun to his health-promoting, pedal-powered creations

Gregory Degouveia sits in a food cart that he built.

Gregory Degouveia sits in a food cart that he built.

Photo by Claire Hutkins Seda

If you’re still trying to burn off holiday calories, and pondering how to do it, here’s a sensible, green solution: Bike more.

Chico is a bicycling mecca, with numerous bike shops available for a quick tune-up, a handful of well-maintained bike paths, and not an overly big incline in sight. And with artist and metalworker Gregory Degouveia in town welding together custom-made, heavy-duty bike trailers, side-by-side cruisers, and an electric-assist kitchen-on-wheels, there should be practically no excuse to grab the car keys instead of strapping on a helmet.

Still trying to muster up an excuse? Degouveia will set you straight on the health and other benefits of getting outside on a bike. “You’re getting exercise,” he said. “You’re actually seeing the city that’s around you. You’re more aware of what’s happening, as you’re not just locked up in a box viewing the world from an external situation—you’re a lot more a part of it. You get to enjoy the town and how beautiful it is—all the trees.

“You’re not using fossil fuels,” Degouveia continued. “It makes economic sense, and it’s kind of relaxing …. It’s right in so many ways.”

What about the fact that it just … takes longer?

“This town is so small and flat, you can get anywhere in town within 10 or 15 minutes of [the time it takes] a car,” Degouveia said, putting that argument to rest.

Degouveia has been cycling around Chico since he arrived here as an undergraduate at Chico State in 1995. Three years later, he began pedaling a pedicab downtown, “trying to make money for snowboarding,” as he explained it. In 2000, he built his first pedicab from scratch. Soon after, he began some of his more widely known projects, such as his “Big Kid Bike,” a Big-Wheels-style lowrider for adults. Many of Degouveia’s projects are creative reinventions of the bicycle, designed with both aesthetics and practicality in mind.

“You want to hop on the bike?” he asked, standing next to his green two-person bike, the “Go Dog Go,” which he built for Burning Man a few years ago. With this bike, two riders are stationed side-by-side at a slight recline, more like they are sitting in a paddle boat than a typical bicycle-built-for-two.

“It’s like having tea on a bike,” Degouveia said with a smile, as we pedaled around the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road, where Degouveia lives. He noted that he typically prefers to use new materials, buying steel and bike parts from local companies on a per-project basis, but he also reuses parts and builds according to what the client requests.

Degouveia uses his welding skills for a variety of projects outside of the bike realm as well, from custom-made modern lamps to metal conceptual art. He builds his contraptions—bike-related or otherwise—at the warehouse of the Chico Urban Artists Collective, of which he is a member.

The collective, which generally focuses on art pieces and art cars for Burning Man, has an expansive warehouse on the Midway, across from a walnut orchard. Degouveia’s projects—from the grown-up Big Wheel bike hanging from the ceiling to a modern lamp in the office—are sprinkled throughout. He has recently begun projects focusing on solar heating, including a solar hot-water heater he built for GRUB, constructed with a large black tank and a huge reclaimed window.

“We have this resource called the sun, and solar panels aren’t the only way to use it. There are these other, more low-tech, easy-to-fix options,” he said. Degouveia has designed such low-tech green contraptions as a bike-powered flour mill commissioned by Chico resident and Butte Bicycle Coalition co-founder Karen Goodwin, which she uses at home and brings out to events.

Degouveia’s most popular bike attachment is his basic food cart, a large cart designed to carry heavy loads. “Most bike carts you get over the Internet … are made as lightweight transporters—the wheels are good for about 100 pounds,” Degouveia said. His heavy-duty food cart, by contrast, has pedicab wheels built to withstand up to 1,000 pounds of weight. Degouveia said he routinely hauls 300 to 400 pounds behind his bike.

Although many of us might shudder to think of pulling hundreds of pounds of weight by bike, Degouveia is simply stepping up to his clients’ requests for useful bike attachments. Also, unlike machine-manufactured items, Degouveia’s products are hand-welded for a snug and stronger fit that will last—“a more thorough way of doing things,” as he put it.

Degouveia’s plans for 2012?

Finishing a massive “bike clock,” which consists of 10 bikes tick-tocking away via a system of bike gears; making more solar heaters and retooled electric-assist-style bicycles; and “maybe something for Burning Man.”

“I do want to play around with more electric-bike systems,” he said, “to make them simpler and more robust than [those] I’ve used so far.” Thus, even if your reason to bike is just to get out in the fresh air, you won’t have to pedal quite so hard.