SACRAMENTO, California — A factory worker can turn a handful of tubes into a bicycle. An excellent bicycle, even. But only a craftsman can turn those same tubes into a work of art.
This craftsmanship elevates a bicycle from a commodity to something … more. Something made just for you, by someone who gave you exactly what you want. Something born of a passion for riding and an abiding respect for framebuilding. This much was obvious at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where more than six dozen framebuilders gathered earlier this month to celebrate their craft and show off their latest creations.
Here are 12 of WIRED’s favorites from the show.
Black Cat Bicycles
Todd Ingermanson built his first bicycle 10 years ago, for one simple reason.
“I couldn’t afford a hand-built bicycle,” he said. “So I thought I’d build my own.”
Here’s the thing, though: Building your own bike isn’t much cheaper than paying someone else to build it, once you pay for tools. And jigs. And painting. And … By the time Ingermanson was done, he’d invested so much time and money in the project that he figured he’d build another bike. Black Cat Bicycles was born.
It hasn’t grown much in the decade since. It’s still just Ingermanson working in a 400-square-foot shop in Santa Cruz, California, doing everything from welding the frames to printing the T-shirts to sweeping the floors. He likes it that way.
Ingermanson builds “35ish” frames a year. Each takes 35 to 40 hours. He works almost exclusively with steel, though you’ll see him use carbon from time to time. He’ll build just about anything, but says his 29er single speed (shown) is his most popular bike. The frame will set you back around $2,500, which seems like a bargain when you consider the quality of his workmanship. The only thing more beautiful than the lugs are the paint jobs covering them. Ingermanson paints everything himself.
“I get to geek out with masking tape and paint,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like doing an art project every few weeks.”
Dave Kelley spent much of his career as a cabinetmaker, which might explain the material he used to build Sleigh Ride, his fat-tired snow bike: Bamboo.
Bamboo was for a time the hot new material. Kelley got wise to it three years ago after Craig Calfee rolled into Interbike with a bamboo 29er that got a lot of attention. “Well,” Kelley thought, “I can do that.”
He can, and did. Kelley and his wife, Christi, spent most of the past three years developing, refining and testing their 29er on the roads and trails around Boise, Idaho. The bike, with bamboo tubes, carbon lugs and big cushy tires, has been bulletproof.
“We’ve been trying without success for three years to break it,” Christi Kelley said. “We didn’t want to sell it if we could break it.”
Sleigh Ride was one of a handful of bamboo bikes at the Handmade Bicycle Show. Kelley says the material has a lot to offer. It soaks up vibrations, she says, and it doesn’t break. Still, bamboo is a niche material, which might explain why Vibe Cycles is developing aluminum and titanium frames.
A Sleigh Ride with straight tubes will set you back $2,295. Go for the more elaborate curved tubes and you’re looking at $3,495. The red and black color scheme looks great, and we especially like the flask holder. It’s a must for riding in snow.
This bright pink beauty was among the show’s head-turners. It sums up Rody Walter’s entire approach to framebuilding: design the bike the rider wants, involve the rider in its construction and ensure it makes people smile.
Mission accomplished. Seriously, now — how can you look at a bright pink cheetah-print bike and notsmile? So what’s the story with that?
“The customer wanted it for his 40th birthday, but as a condition, he told himself he’d let his 8-year-old daughter choose the color,” Walter said of the $7,500 bicycle. “She chose a pink cheetah-print pattern. He said OK.”
Walter launched Groovy Cycleworks in 1994. It’s a one-man operation, which Walter says “allows me to have a more holistic approach to building.” In addition to road, cyclocross and mountain bikes, Walter also makes gorgeous handlebars and cranks, too. He’ll build a bike out of anything but carbon, because carbon isn’t recyclable.
“Ethically, I can’t be a part of that,” he said.
It takes Walter about 40 hours to build a bike. Want one? It’ll be awhile. He’s got a 56 month backlog. But on the upside, he only requires a $20 deposit.
“I used to be like other builders and require 50 percent,” he said. “But I realized I was holding their money for almost five years. I’d rather they put that in a CD or something and use the interest to buy better components.”
Rob English is so skilled that he can build half a bicycle.
Project Right is a single-sided, single-speed belt-driven road bike commissioned by Fairwheel bikes in Tuscon, Arizona. It’s an intriguing ride, full of amazing details that showcase the Eugene, Oregon, builder’s engineering skills.
Take, for example, the rear hub. English designed and machined it himself. A one-piece shell rides on bearings pressed onto an axle tube welded to the chainstay. An an eccentric bottom bracket allows tensioning the drive belt. And the cog is mounted outside the frame, making belt installation a breeze. It’s brilliant. Largely pointless, but brilliant.
“There’s no engineering reason for it,” English said of the single-sided system. “I just did it because I could. There is one advantage to it, however. If you get a flat, you don’t have to remove the wheel.”
The front fork is a riff on the Cannondale Lefty, and the frame is a mix of Columbus and True Temper tubing. It’s all flawlessly fillet brazed and covered in a paint job designed by artist Geoff McFetridge.
Project Right as a Herculean effort, with a Herculean price of about $10,000 ready to ride. A more conventional frame built to your specs starts at $1,950.
Bruce Gordon Cycles
Bruce Gordon has been building bicycles since 1974 and is therefore entitled to the occasional extravagant project. Like, say, a carbon-tubed, titanium-lugged bike that perfectly combines old-school aesthetics with modern materials.
No, extravagant is not too strong a term for a bike worth more than your car. And quite possibly the two parked next to it.
The bike is one of two Gordon made with Mike Lopez of Serotta Composites for the 2010 San Diego Bicycle Show. The project started, as these things often do, with a few drinks and the question, “What if…?” and the answer, “Just because.” The bike has been making the rounds ever since, and never fails to draw a crowd. With good reason — it’s stunning.
The carbon was hand-laid, including the fenders, and shines like a mirror. The titanium lugs, fork crown and other components were milled from 15 pounds of solid stock. Time, and money, was of no concern.
“I spent two months, working six days a week for six hours a day, just making the lugs,” Gordon said.
He isn’t boasting, just stating a fact. The lug joining the top tube, seat tube and seat stays was assembled from nine pieces. It’s absurd but inspiring, as it speaks to the level of craftsmanship that permeates this bicycle. This isn’t a show queen, though. Gordon actually puts miles on it.
“It’s the nicest road bike I’ve ever ridden,” he said.
If Bruce Gordon is an elder statesman of framebuilding, David Hill is the new breed. He launched Victoria Cycles just five years ago. Before that, he was a mailman.
Yes. A mailman. But that was what he did. It wasn’t who he is. What he is, and always was, is a bicycle fanatic. So after 20 years in the same job, he decided to follow his heart.
“I’ve always had a passion for cycling,” Hill said. “My first job was working in a bike shop. I loved it.”
That love is reflected in his bicycles, like this 29er commuter bike. Like all the bikes he builds one by one in his workshop in Salida, Colorado, it’s steel. And, as is his preference, it features attractive lugs. He’ll do fillet brazing, but prefers lugs for his frames because they’re stronger and, frankly, prettier.
“I love lugs,” he said. “It’s what I grew up riding.”
Hill will build anything, from road to mountain to track. Don’t let his preference for pretty suggest his frames, which start at $1,550, aren’t meant to take some abuse.
“I’m an artisan, not an artist,” he said. “I want my bikes to be pretty, but ridden. I don’t want to build bikes that are hung on a wall and just looked at.”
Jason Montano builds one kind of bike, and only one kind of bike, for one reason.
“I only build track bikes,” he said. “I’ve been riding track bikes since I was a kid. Build what you know.”
This is their latest model, the S3. As the name suggests, it features a True Temper S3 tubeset and flawless welding by Jason Grove. It isn’t cheap — $3,500 with a Wound Up fork — but it is gorgeous.
The frame weighs less than three pounds. Build it up with vintage parts and you’re just a hair over 15. Use modern parts and you’ll come in at a hair less. As for the paint, well, that’s a story unto itself.
“I was surfing the Internet and came across a photo of a crazy mid-80s French ski-jumping suit,” Montano said. “I sent it to my painter and said, ‘Match that.’”
He did. Perfectly.
Six-Eleven Bicycle Co.
This cross bike has all the parts to make us drool: Dura Ace components, Wound Up fork, White Industries cranks, the works. But what caught our attention was the paint job. It literally stopped us in our tracks.
The base color is khaki, so flawlessly applied that it looks wet. Laid over that are dots. Hundreds of dots, each painted with the head of a spoke in four shades of brown that resemble flecks of mud.
“It took about three weeks,” builder Aaron Dykstra said of the ornate design.
The bike is, like all of Six-Eleven’s frames, steel. Dykstra loves the stuff because “it’s such a dynamic metal. It can do anything.” He’ll build anything, from track bikes to townies. Six-Eleven frames start at $2,075.
And that name? The Great 611 was a J-Class train built in 1950 by Norfolk & Western’s shop Roanoke, Virgina, where Dykstra’s shop is located.
“It’s always been an icon of my hometown,” he said.
Dykstra took home an award for best cyclocross bike, following up on the best track bike award he won in 2011 and the rookie of the year award he snagged in 2010.
Don Walker Cycles
Don Walker is the reason all these guys get together each year. In 2005, he and four other guys organized the first North American Handmade Bicycle Show. It’s a family reunion of sorts, a bunch of passionate bike nuts getting together to show off their skills, welcome new builders and educate the public about their craft.
Walker was holding forth this year from his booth at the center of the hall, a broken ankle elevated on a stool and a bottle of scotch not far from reach. He was in his element, surrounded by friends and by bicycles, including this single-speed cyclocross rig built for his friend J.C. Breslin.
It’s gorgeous, with a mix of Columbus and Reynolds tubes, Surly dropouts, a Ritchey fork and flawless fillet brazing. But what we really like is the head tube badge. Breslin wanted a totally custom bike, so Walker designed a one-off badge. It features Walker with a stogie in his mouth, a glass of scotch his hand and a mischievous look in his eye.
“It was the only thing I could think of that was completely silly,” Walker said.
Alchemy Bicycle Co.
Dave Ryther has one thing to say about his company: “We make the best damn bikes in the world.” You may disagree, but one thing is sure — Alchemy Bicycle Co. made the best damn carbon fiber bike at the show.
The Aero Road is a wisp of a machine, more of a blade than a bike. It was custom built using Enve tubes made on the company’s own molds, and it sports top-shelf parts from SRAM and Enve Smart wheels. It’s striking. Ready to ride, this bike costs a bit more than $11,000 and weighs a bit more than 14 pounds, a figure Ryther lamented is “a bit heavy.”
Alchemy got started in Austin just four years ago. Ryther is one of seven employees, and they hope to build 200 bikes this year. Everything they do is custom, and they build with carbon, titanium and stainless steel.
“Stainless is the new thing,” Ryther said. “It’s the poor man’s titanium. It has the electric feel of steel without the weight penalty.”
This was the one we wanted to take home.
It’s designed for dual slalom, downhill and trail riding, but all we could think about was all the trouble we could get into. What else are you going to do with a bike called Pocket Rocket?
Bicycle Fabrications has built just about everything over the years, but it specializes in full suspension mountain bikes that can take heaps of abuse. Pocket Rocket is the San Francisco company’s latest creation. It sports 4130 chrome-moly tubes, a Fox shock and attitude to spare. The frame will set you back $1,600.
This is the city bike Tim O’Donnell would build if he were the customer. It is stylish, it is functional and it is, in a word, gorgeous.
“It is designed to be somewhat over the top,” he said. “I operate in a world of want, not need. To do that, I have to offer form and function.”
Ginny is a brilliant meeting of the two, a showpiece to highlight O’Donnell’s vision and skills. It’s chock-full of beautiful details. Brake lines and wiring for the rear light run through the Columbus tubes for a tidy look. Integrated racks and fenders with flowing stays. Carbon belt drive with an internally geared hub. And the racks. Oh, those racks. They feature a mix of birdseye maple, spalted maple, quilted maple, chestnut and walnut. Is it any wonder O’Donnell walked away with an award for best city bike?
If Ginny’s got a downside, it’s her weight. At 36 pounds, she’s a brick and a half. But no one rides a bike like this to haul ass.
“It is designed to get you there in style, in comfort and in silence,” O’Donnell said. “And it does so in spades.”