16: John Castellano

Today we’re going to learn a bit about cannoli, radio controlled ducks, and motorized unicycles.

The second mad scientist we got to work with at Ibis is John Castellano. John escaped the clutches of Catholic school in Northern New Jersey and wound up at MIT studying engineering. And are we glad he did. John is one of the smartest and most genuine people we’ve ever met, and the help of John’s designs the 90’s were a golden age for Ibis. Or maybe we should say a pivotless titanium age for Ibis. Either way, it was a good time.

John brought us the Szazbo in 1995, a 5” travel suspension bike that utilized his Sweet Spot™ suspension system. Then a couple years later the revolutionary and legendary BowTi, Followed by the SilkTi and then the Ripley. The last three all utilized pivotless technology.

We conducted an interview with John back then, which we repeat below. But first, our first detour of the day for a little bit of fun John trivia that probably most of you don’t know.

John’s uncle was Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza in the Godfather. Who’s Clemenza you ask?

This guy:

Peter Clemenza

Clemenza had one of the most memorable lines in the whole movie. After Rocco Lampone kills Paulie Gatto in the back of a car while Clemenza is taking a pee, Clemenza famously ad-libbed: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,”. Yes, that’s John’s uncle. Note the Statue of Liberty in the background of this scene, and the great music.

Fun Fact:

Many people don't know that the scene following this one was deleted. In this scene, Clemenza (pictured) launched into a long lecture about tartaric acid, one of the byproducts of wine production.

In addition, John had a full face shot cameo in the second Godfather movie and his sister and father were in Part I, primarily in the wedding dancing scene (John told us that his mom still gets checks from the Screen Actors Guild for his dad's participation in the movie).

John Schools Francis

John has always had quite the penchant for fixing things. Later you’ll learn how he fixed the Space Shuttle. During the filming of The Godfather, Part II, there was a scene that wasn’t going so well, a very long shot that required numerous takes. It was the scene in which the young Clemenza's girlfriend was in a play, and one of the actors was pointing a gun at his own head and had to tear it away with the other hand. The problem was, he was deathly afraid of guns and couldn’t properly pull the gun away from his head take after take. He was too scared of the gun and was way to tentative with the directions that Francis Ford Coppola was giving him. The shoot went on all morning. They broke for lunch and fifteen-year-old John, who was sitting there watching the whole thing, went up and made a suggestion to director Coppola. He simply told Francis to tell the actor to overreact, then maybe he wouldn't be so sheepish looking in the scene. The actor did that, and they got it on the next take. Little Johnny schools Francis!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled interview that we conducted with John in 1999. Bikes have come a long way, but John was way ahead of his time, so the interview doesn’t feel dated, certainly not 12 years dated.

Ibis Interviews John Castellano

Education? I served six years with the Sisters of Charity, then six years of public schools. Four (and a half) years at MIT and lots of skateboarding on the streets of Boston and in the bowels of MIT. Then I spent five years at Hughes Aircraft working on satellites and the Space Shuttle, learning how to make really expensive stuff.

Hobbies? Mostly mountain biking and boardsports. I love to ride my full-suspension skateboard, and I go snowboarding, skimboarding and wakeboarding whenever I can. And homebrewing beer!

Family? My family’s back East, but we visit for holidays and for summer vacation at the Jersey Shore. We all go waterskiing and bodysurfing in the warm Gulf Stream waters... no wetsuit required!

Where are you from? I was born and raised in North Jersey. My dad worked about ten miles away in Manhattan, running an asphalt crew. I learned how to drive on a steamroller in New York City when I was two years old.

Were you always a gearhead? Well I guess it all started with my electric trains. One of my first memories is learning about short circuits at age three when the tinsel fell off the Christmas tree onto the tracks and stopped the train. I went on to make elaborate layouts with lots of automatic controls and stuff. Eventually I had a layout that could run three trains on the same track automatically, while we raced 500 lap races with slot cars. You had to race across the train track each lap without getting hit by the train. There were some great crashes.

How did you get started building stuff with wheels? I loved to power slide my slot cars, so I started souping them up and building faster ones with bigger motors. My dad and I also built these “gravity carts” that I could race with my friends down the local hill. One of the high points in my early life was when the local bully “borrowed” my cart to thrash on it. He wound up rolling it over and went crying home with major road rash!

What were your first associations with bikes? My family had a couple of old clunkers, but there were always tons of bike parts and frames around because my dad used to bring home beat bikes from the housing projects in New York City where he worked. Then we’d spend the weekend mixing and matching parts until we came up with a rideable bike. I had a succession of “Stingrays” with various appendages on them, such as chopper bars and sissy bars. For fun, my best friend and I used to pour cleaning fluid on our bikes, then light them on fire while jumping them off ramps. I tried to build a suspension bike with a friend of mine when I was about 14, but we didn’t quite pull it together.

What else did you build and modify as a kid? My other big passion at the time was model planes. I built a few from a kit, then started designing my own--everything from hand-launch gliders, to circle burners, to radio control planes. I learned how to read blueprints, rebuild engines and, most important, how to design and construct properly triangulated frames. This helped immensely when I started designing off-road wheelchairs and bicycles.

When did you first get involved with Ibis? When I was building my first off-road wheelchair, I went to see a talk given by Scot Nicol about Ibis bicycles. I was after information on brazing techniques, but that’s when I first heard the Ibis philosophy on bike geometry. This would have been about 1987. Scot was very generous with information, and helped my wheelchair project get going. Consequently, after I built the first prototype Sweet Spot bike, I took it to Scot, because I knew he was someone who cared deeply about cycling, and would give it an honest evaluation.

Where did the idea for the Bow-Ti come from? I had always been intrigued by the idea of a pivotless suspension system, so that was percolating in my head. Then after I built the prototype Sweet Spot bike, I was trying to envision a way to utilize that suspension concept with a flex pivot. When I worked at Hughes Aerospace, we used flex pivots often because they don’t wear out, they don’t require lubrication, they’re simple and super lightweight. I mean when you’re 23,000 miles from the car, you don’t want something to break. So I was drawing sketches and I came up with what we now know as the Bow-Ti. I made a little brass model of it and it seemed to work - stiff laterally and soft vertically. So I patented it.

Tell us about the development of the Bow-Ti. Well, really the first prototype Bow-Ti was a computer model that I “rode” on screen for about three months, playing with tube diameters and wall thicknesses. Then we built one in actual titanium that we could ride and test and measure stiffnesses on. Then some more time on the computer doing Finite Element Analysis, or FEA. This gives pictures showing predicted stresses on the tubing and the gussets, so I could refine the shapes. Then we started cranking them out!

Where does the Sweet Spot Suspension design fit in today’s market? Today, most manufacturers give you a choice between long-travel downhill bikes and short-travel cross-country bikes. The long travel bikes are heavy and sluggish, and only work well where you can keep your speed up. The typical cross-country offering is set up stiff to resist bobbing and so it isn’t very plush and only works well at medium speeds. The spring is too stiff for good low-speed suspension, and the damper is too stiff for high-speed absorption. But there are many riders who want a high-performance long-travel suspension that doesn’t feel like a marshmallow when you pedal it. For them, there is the Sweet Spot Suspension.

The Sweet Spot’s patented suspension feels plush and active over a wide speed range, from grinding singletrack to banzai downhills. The spring and damper soften when you sit down to suck up bumps and ruts almost like a downhill bike. The bike floats over obstacles, yet it climbs and sprints as efficiently as a hardtail, without eating any of the rider’s pedaling energy. The key to all this is the patented placement of the pivot which allows the suspension to respond to the terrain, without responding to the rider’s pedaling motion. You don’t have to compromise between suspension performance and climbing ability - the Sweet Spot lets you have it all.

How big a role does fashion play in product development and product popularity? The bike industry does tend to be pretty fad-oriented. When something appears to be the next big thing, the big manufacturers jump on the bandwagon and hype it up. Too many bikes look pretty but work poorly. But there’s always a group of hard-core riders who really care about what they’re riding and how it performs. These people should all buy Ibises.

What products are you working on for the future? I’m not at liberty to discuss that. Actually, I’m working on new Sweet Spot bikes, and on a couple of other suspension ideas. And about a million other things.

Do you like Coca-Cola? Always.

What will bikes look like in 5–10 years? Well traditional hardtails probably won’t change much--that’s a stable design - but suspension bikes are still evolving rapidly. There seems to be an obsession today with having a lot of pivots. But mountain bikers don’t want to rebuild pivots, they want to ride! I favor single-pivot and pivotless designs, and I think they will win out in the long haul. They perform better and have a clean look. Future bikes will have softer lines, and will use better materials and new construction techniques.

Talk a little about your involvement in:

Suspension skateboards: I started skateboarding a lot at MIT with my buddies. It was the perfect atmosphere for development as we tried to eke out better performance from our boards. We built several suspension skateboards with elastomersprings and improved steering geometry to prevent speed wobbles at 40MPH on the Kancamagus Highway. We raced down parking garages and used to ride all night in the “infinite corridor” down in the basement at MIT. Sometimes we even went to class!

Landsailers: I was a crew-member on a racing sailboat when a friend invited us to try landsailing. A landsailer is a wind-driven speed vehicle, about 20 feet long and 16 feet wide. The sail is more like an airplane wing than a sailboat sail: 22 feet long and only 4 feet wide. We used all kinds of construction materials, like aluminum, spruce, fiberglass and epoxy to build them. The “sails” were kevlar and carbon fiber. I did lots of design, fabrication, pit crewing and driving. We’d race them in organized competitions on dry lake beds all over the California desert. Racing speeds approached 100 mph with the right wind conditions.

Cobra wheelchairs: I first got the idea for the Cobra off-road wheelchair in 1984, after reading a wheelchair “road test” in Car and Driver magazine. I’d just gotten a mountain bike, and started drawing pictures of a mountain bike wheelchair. After I left Hughes, I spent two years building and refining the Cobra, on the trails and on the computer. I built a few dozen of them, and they get used for everything from fishing to downhill racing to trekking in the Himalayas. As I got involved in suspension bikes, naturally I started pondering suspension wheelchairs. Since you can’t stand up on a wheelchair, suspension is very desirable. That’s the new ACE.

Can you tell us more about a new ACE?: The new special-built full-suspension wheelchair is the ACE, which stands for Attitude Control Equipment. It’s got some new features on it, like real-time attitude control that hasn’t even been heard of in auto racing-yet. When something is as complicated as this, I let the design take shape slowly in my head in 3D. Paper is too confining. I spent a lot of time in the shower dreaming up the suspension linkages for this one. Attitude control means that the rider can control the attitude or orientation of the chassis--pitch up/down, roll left/right, and yaw left/right--like an airplane. You can suck up waterbars and diagonal ruts and, most important, set up for whatever you’re about to hit. Racer John Davis is also the ACE--or Attitude Control Expert. On their third race together, the pair of ACEs--the man and the machine--became one and took victories in the dual slalom and the downhill at Mount Snow.

Motorized unicycle: This started out as an electric bicycle I built in high school. I pulled the battery and starter motor out of my sister’s VW Bug, and grafted it onto my “Stingray.” After a couple of years, the electric motor was replaced with a gas unit. Then the frame disintegrated. I combined the parts into a one-wheeled device which could be ridden with roller skates on, but just barely. It had a top speed of about 20 miles an hour--then you’d crash.

Hughes Aircraft: I started MIT majoring in Electrical Engineering and built stuff like guitar fuzzboxes and this thing that became known as a Castellanoscope. It hooked up to your stereo and turned the music into these great patterns on a TV screen. Then I switched to Mechanical Engineering and got my degree. I got a job in the Electromechanical department at the “Huge Aircraft Company” in California. My first week there, they had a test failure for a radar antenna mechanism for the Space Shuttle. It was being tested under vacuum in the Space Simulation Lab. When they got the unit cold, they heard this thump-thump-thump coming from the giant bell jar. They opened up the chamber, dumped it in my lap, and said, “Here, fix it.” This unit was scheduled to fly on an upcoming Space Shuttle mission, so the pressure was on to find and fix the problem, and to convince NASA and the Air Force that it was solved. I also designed Sun Sensors for satellites, so we spent a lot of time staring at the sun in the Arizona desert. Through a filter, of course.

Racing VW’s: My sister gave me her old ‘60 Bug for my birthday, and I immediately started trying to make it handle like my old slot cars. I made it wider and lower, then swapped in a bigger motor. Then I moved to L.A., where everybody races everything, and speed parts are available. So I started racing weekend autocrosses, competing with Porsches, Z-cars, Tigers, Mustangs--you name it. One time it started raining, so the cars with slicks just spun out and it became the battle of the street cars. I wound up getting the fastest time of the day because I could hang onto these huge power slides--like a big slot car! You wanna race?

Legacy Two-Wheel Drive bicycle: I got interested in their all-wheel drive system for use on my off-road wheelchairs. Then I rode one, and was impressed with the traction and handling. We built some high performance race units, and nearly got banned from the dual slalom at Laguna Seca. You should have seen the chunks of grass flying off the front tire. I guess the world wasn’t ready for it, but it really works.

Tire design: I would say bicycle tire design still has a long way to go. The scientific method is just starting to be applied to bicycle tires. With the computer programs available now and in the future, we’re going to continue to see a lot of advances here. For example, you shouldn’t have to give up the traction of a knobby to get the low rolling resistance of a slick. I’ve used FEA--finite element analysis - in the design of the new GEAX Beaumont Tires. This allowed me to test experimental tread block shapes on the computer and design full-height blocks which are stiff and light. The Beaumonts give you the triple benefit of maximum traction, minimum weight, and very low rolling resistance under power.

Stay tuned for more about JC superstar.

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