The AtlanticAmerica'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.
CHRISTINA COOKEAPR 3 2014, 9:25 AM ET
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.”
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.”
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.
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