America's Rebel Band of Custom-Bike Builders

Nearly all of the bikes sold in the U.S. are manufactured abroad, but these guys are welding and tinkering in shops and garages across the country.
Low Bicycles in San Francisco (Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg)

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 said. “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 said. “We have a really well developed business plan and a very clear vision of what we want Breadwinner to look like.”

Tony Pereira and Ira Ryan at the 2014 North American Handmade Bicycle Show (Christina Cooke)

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 (NAHBS) 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,” said 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.”

Breadwinner’s Bad Otis, winner of “Best Mountain Bike,” is a hard-tail mountain bike (as opposed to a full suspension) designed for the new “flow” style of mountain bike trails, which have a smoother rhythm and deliver a more roller-coaster-type experience than many of the older trails. (© 2014 Weldon Weaver)

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 said.

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 said, “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 added. “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. 

Czech Republic bicycle company Festka teamed up with Czech illustrators Lukáš Tomek and Ilona Polanská to present a bicycle decorated by hand with acrylic markers. (Christina Cooke)

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 said. “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). 

Ben Farver of Argonaut Cycles won “Best in Show” for his carbon-fiber gravel racer. “The hand-built side has often been a leader of what’s coming next,” Farver said. “It can be looked at as a trendsetter in a lot of ways.” (Christina Cooke)

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”).

Jeremy SyCip of Santa Rosa has built delivery bicycles for a deli and gelato shop in California, in addition to the BBQ Bike that won “Best Theme Bike” at NAHBS. He averages two to three bikes per week and has a waiting list of four to five months. (Christina Cooke)

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. 

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Christina Cooke is a writer based in North Carolina.

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