Like many people who take up bicycle building, Tony Pereira and Ira Ryan are avid cyclists who began experimenting in their home garages, welding together bike frames.
Several years after founding separate bike-building operations in Portland, Oregon, in 2005, both came to a similar realization—that building bikes needed to be about more than passion if it was going to sustain them: It had to be about business too.
“I was only able to build, on my best year, 30 bikes, and that was never going to change," Pereira says. "I'd been so excited about the actual making of the bikes that I didn't realize what I was getting myself into, which was owning a business."
Last year, after years of playing catch-up, the two long-time frame builders teamed up to launch a new venture called Breadwinner Cycles. Rather than designing a brand new bicycle for each customer like they had before, the duo developed six (now eight) basic models, priced from $4,000 to $8,000, that customers can tweak to their specifications and size. While they still build the bikes by hand, they're able to turn them around in eight to 12 weeks, rather than one to two years.
"It's been fun to change it up and start over," Pereira says. "We have a really well developed business plan and a very clear vision of what we want Breadwinner to look like."
Breadwinner's latest designs—a mountain bike called Bad Otis and a gravel-road bike called B-Road—were among the hundreds of bicycles on display at the 10th-annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Charlotte, North Carolina, this March.
The hand-built bicycle industry has flourished since the early 2000s, according to NAHBS chief judge Patrick Brady, publisher of the cycling website RedKitePrayer.com, who has written about custom builders for the last 22 years.
"Right now is the Golden Age in custom frame building," says Brady before stepping onto the NAHBS stage to announce the winners of the show’s awards, which included Breadwinner's Bad Otis for 'Best Mountain Bike." "There have never been more builders producing, and the quality has never been higher."
Though thriving, the 100 or so builders in the hand-built bicycle scene make up about 3.3 percent of the overall U.S. bike industry, which was valued at $6.1 billion in 2012 and is sourced almost completely overseas, according to bicycle industry expert Jay Townley with the Gluskin-Townley market research firm and a report by the National Bicycle Dealers Association. In 2011, 99 percent of bicycles sold in the U.S. were assembled in Asia—93 percent in China and six percent in Taiwan.
Additionally, just four companies—Dorel Industries, Accell Group, Trek Bicycle Corporation, and Specialized Bicycle Components—own about half of the 140 bicycle brands available in this country, including Schwinn, Cannondale, Raleigh, Gary Fisher, Trek, and Specialized, Townley says.
Yet although custom-bike builders make up a minuscule segment of the market share, they have an out-sized influence in the industry more generally.
"Because everybody who works for a big bike company is ultimately a bike geek, and the guys who work for the biggest players still love to be here," Brady says. "You'll see touches, custom little things that builders have done that may ultimately show up in what the big guys do; it may be a better way to route the cables, a neat way to consider finishing a bike, or exciting new ideas about paint."
"Technology is so accessible to a one-person or two-person shop or frame builder," Ryan said on the NAHBS floor. “"A lot of that innovation and creativity comes from a place like this. What you see here is way more forward thinking than what bigger companies can produce."
"They have to do focus groups and have marketing meetings," Pereira adds. "I'm like, 'I think I'm going to build a long-travel hard tail [mountain bike]—today!'"
Unlike production bicycles that come off the rack in standard shapes and sizes, custom bikes are designed specifically for their owners' bodies, riding styles, and aesthetic preferences. In determining the angles, rigidity, and flex of the frames they construct, hand builders take into account dozens of measurements and factors—everything from customers' inseams, arm length and hip flexibility to whether they prefer a stiff ride for efficiency or a softer ride for comfort. The customer also has a say in the bike’s finish, color scheme and design.
People opt for custom because they like having something designed just for them, something no one else has, says Kentucky builder Don Walker, who founded NAHBS in 2005. They also choose custom because of the personal relationship involved.
"Handmade bikes are not an off-the-shelf commodity: You know the person that’s making your bike," Walker says. "There’s time invested in the process, and it really does form a relationship."
Across the NAHBS floor, more than 60 builders displayed their finest work. Builder Ben Farver of Argonaut Cycles out of Portland, Oregon, won the prestigious “Best in Show” award with a carbon-fiber gravel racer he engineered with proprietary technology to suit the particular needs of its owner, a 120-pound racer named Amy (who, incidentally, puts out 400 watts of power over three minutes of pedaling, a stat Farver accounted for in his design).
Co-Motion Cycles out of Eugene, Oregon, presented a sky-blue tandem that electric-assists its riders with a Gates belt drive and Bosch motor (“Best Tandem Bike”), and Jeremy SyCip of SyCip Designs in Santa Rosa, California, displayed a steel-framed BBQ bicycle with a built-in knife holder and bottle opener and racks containing a grill, panniers, and cutting board ("Best Theme Bike").
Ranging in price from $3,000 to more than $15,000, the primary market for custom bikes is affluent people in their 40s or 50s—more men than women—who are steeped in the cycling lifestyle and already own one bike, if not 10. In other words, not Stephanie Bush, a 30-year-old who works in sales and maintenance at Queen City Bicycles, a small shop in Charlotte.
The high price point "is a double-edge sword," Bush says as she wandered the NAHBS floor daydreaming about the type of bike she’d buy if she ever has the money. While she wishes the bikes were accessible to people in her income bracket, "the builders need to make a living," she says, "and it isn't just a bike; it’s art."
While the average price of a bike sold at a specialty bicycle retailer is $673, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association report, many builders noted that top-of-the-line bikes produced by mass-market companies like Specialized and Trek can run between $12,000 and $18,000 with all the options. In recent years, they say, this fact that has made buyers’ more receptive to custom bike prices.
But even if a full-on custom bike is not attainable, Pereira pointed out, customization falls on a spectrum.
"There is a long tradition of taking whatever bike you have and making it your own," he says. "Everybody does that to some degree, whether it's different grips or handlebar tape, to fancy wheels or upgrading your components as you go. This [the fully handmade custom bike] is the ultimate extension of that culture and tradition."
Plus, most people start out riding less-expensive stock bikes and over the years, move up the line, Ryan says.
"It's like coffee or beer or food," he says. "You start off drinking your parents’ Folgers, and then you move up to Starbucks and before you know it, you’re seeking out some boutique coffee shop in some corner of the city, and you need the latte that’s just perfect. It’s all about the evolution of people’s understanding."
In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 1981, Kent Eriksen founded Moots Cycles, one of the first companies to produce mountain bikes in the United States. After the company grew to more than 20 employees producing more than 1,000 bikes per year, Eriksen decided to leave, wanting more direct contact with customers.
In 2007, he founded Kent Eriksen Cycles right down the road from Moots. Now he and the two other builders make about 150 titanium bikes a year, including the "Best Road Bike" and "Best TIG-Welded Bike" at this year’s NAHBS.
Though a few, like Eriksen, have been mitering tubes and filing dropouts since the ’80s, the biggest wave of new builders entered the scene in the early to mid 2000s.
"It's a tough business to be in, but it's still growing," Eriksen says. "It’s kind of a hip thing."
Many credit the Internet with the industry’s rise. While before, frame builders advertised their wares by taking out postage-stamp-sized ads in the back of cycling magazines, now, with the web, they have access to the global marketplace.
"The website is the modern storefront," Ryan says, explaining that while Breadwinner sponsors a cyclocross team and participates in a number of races throughout the year, its website and social media accounts are its main advertising tools. “It's what’s made all this possible," Pereira agrees.
Many say NAHBS, first held in Houston in 2005, has also helped encourage the custom-bicycle scene's growth.
"The fundamental truth about this show is it elevated the level of craft because of the cross-pollination," Brady says. "It made people more aware of what was possible, what the bar was for greatness, and what they should expect from themselves. It also taught customers what they could reasonably expect from a builder."
The Oregon-based United Bicycle Institute, a school offering classes in bicycle mechanics and frame building, has also played a role in the growth of the subculture by harnessing the knowledge of the nation’s best frame builders and shaping it into a curriculum that can be passed to the next generation.
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Still, because craft trumps efficiency in the business of building bikes, figuring out a way to turn a large enough profit can be difficult.
"To make it big these days, you have to sell out and have things made in China," Eriksen says, "but many of us have ethics. I’m just not comfortable with that; I’d rather toil and be an inspiration to these poor souls getting into frame building."
Figuring out matters of scale is crucial, builders say. A few companies, like Moots, employ a couple dozen people and produce 1,500 bikes a year. Other companies, like Mosaic Cycles out of Boulder, Colorado, consist of three builders who construct up to 200 bikes per year, while still others, like SyCip Bikes, are one-man operations that make fewer than 100. While some custom companies partner with dealers to sell their products, many others coordinate directly with their customers.
"As you're coming up as a small business, scalability is a thing that makes or breaks the business — usually breaks," says Aaron Barcheck, who founded Mosaic five years ago.
Ryan said he and Pereira ramped up production last year in hopes of scaling their business to sustain the lives they want to live—which, for Pereira, involves putting his son through college, and for Ryan, involves taking off 10 days each year to ride bikes with his wife.
Though the pair is currently building in Pereira’s garage and assembling and shipping in Ryan’s, they hope to obtain a separate facility within the year and hire more people, including a frame painter and someone to oversee shipping and related tasks.
Ultimately, they’d like to set up a factory, hire welders and put out up to 1,000 hand-built bikes a year.
"As we take ourselves more seriously as businesses," Ryan says, "I think that shows we’re evolving and growing.”
Most custom builders say they want to see the hand-built industry continue to develop, to the point where average people walking into a bike shop would actually consider buying custom.
While builders are competitive, Barcheck says, most hold respect for one another because they realize they’re fighting the same fight.
"When one of us wins, we all win," he says. "It's such a small slice of the big pie that any strides that one of makes brings us all up. We all legitimize our craft together."
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.