Bespoked: A Tale of Two Bike Companies
By Everett Potter
When Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, cycles in Central Park or near his vacation home in Quebec, he rides a handmade bike made by Seven Cycles in Watertown, Massachusetts. To Lowry, who takes 70- to 100-mile rides two or three times a week during the summer, the bike is not a status symbol, not an objet d’art (beautiful though it is), but a performance enhancer.
“I don’t notice the bike,” says Lowry of his carbon and titanium steed. “It’s just you, your legs and your heart.”
That’s the highest praise a serious rider can bestow.
Seven Cycles (www.sevencycles.com) has turned the world of handmade bikes on its head by managing to lightly industrialize the production process—it produces several hundred road, competition and mountain bikes yearly and takes orders through a network of about 150 U.S. retailers and distributors in 30 other countries—without losing the essence of the product: one worker makes one bike at a time tailored to the client’s body and riding habits. It’s a custom-made suit with wheels. And like the suit, there’s a wait (four to eight weeks) and a cost. The entry-level Resolute SLX is steel and costs $3,699; other models, of carbon fiber and titanium, cost four times as much.
“A handmade bike,” says Seven Cycles founder Rob Vandermark, “is not just about the look and feel of the bike. It’s about how it handles, how it fits the rider and how it performs. We focus on the rider experience rather than only artistry.”
Those three reasons—fit, performance and quality—are why you go bespoke. “My Seven Cycles machine is more comfortable over longer distances,” Lowry says. “I don’t get tired after four or five hours because the quality of the ride is so superior to a factory bike. I’m not sore at the end of a ride either, and I’m not sore the next day.”
Vandermark brings an unusual back- ground to his passion. He worked in a bike shop while studying sculpture at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Then he spent a decade at Merlin Metalworks, a high-end frame builder, eventually heading the research and development department. In 1997, he founded Seven Cycles.
“We start with the client’s ideal riding position and design the bike underneath them from scratch,” says Vandermark. Seven Cycles does a staggering amount of research for each bike. Its retailers spend an average of two to three hours with a prospective buyer and go through a checklist of more than 100 questions. They take the measurements of your body and your current bike and delve into your riding style—do you like hills more than flats or vice versa?—and into what you like and dislike about your current bike. Every element of the bike is tailored to suit the buyer’s weight, riding style, intended use, age and favored terrain.
“Say we had a taller-than-average rider who has shorter-than- average arms and rides in New England,” says Vandermark. “We’d bring the front end up and in a bit, and we would readjust the handling to rebalance the rider’s weight, placing it squarely between the wheels. We’d also include slightly longer chain stays for better weight distribution and to improve rear wheel tracking, and bring the bars up a bit so that the rider’s torso would be in the correct position. Since the client rides in hilly New England, we’d tend to design the position slightly more upright because wind is less of a factor. The slightly more upright and open position also facilitates breathing and overall comfort, helping reduce fatigue.”
For every North Pole, there’s a South. The bespoke bicycle antithesis to Seven Cycles is an Amsterdam-based company that caters to design-conscious riders with a utilitarian bent—people who may ride three miles a day to the office or greenmarket. WorkCycles (www.workcycles.com) makes the gold standard of urban cycling under the direction of an American named Henry Cutler.
“We build bikes that are beautiful, practical, durable and that make cycling a more attractive means of transport,” he says.
Rather than titanium and carbon fibre, the basic proteins of high-performance bikes, a WorkCycle is made of steel, weighing in at 50 pounds plus. It’s an urban tank, designed for all of the abuse that city streets could throw at it. The ride is upright, and the bikes are equipped with mud flaps and a chain case to keep the rider’s clothes clean and dry. (Amsterdammers bicycle to work daily, weather be damned.) WorkCycles have eight-speed Shimano internal gear hubs and front and rear Shimano roller brakes, and they sport ultra-comfortable Brooks B67 leather saddles, a rear carrier of heavy-duty steel, an integrated wheel lock, and a hub dynamo generator that powers the front light and rear light. It’s all very retro stylish—in fact, the styling of models such as the Oma or Opa (grandmother and grandfather in Dutch) isn’t that different from bikes of the early 20th century. Except the price: they start at $1,699.95.
“People like WorkCycles because they appeal to them aesthetically,” says David Schmidt, who was one of the first retailers to bring WorkCycles to the U.S. as a featured brand. His Dutch Bike Shop opened in Seattle in 2007 (www.dutchbikeseattle.com/). “They like that they’re not made by robots, that the metal is braised by humans.” Schmidt claims that American bikes “went the way of sporting goods, leaving a niche for city bikes. There’s nothing like these bikes made in the U.S. The demand is so great in Europe that they’re able to make a lot of them.”
A more extreme—and arguably more beautiful—WorkCycle model is the Bakfiets Cargobike. It has a polished triangular wooden box between the driver and the front wheel that’s designed to hold groceries or up to two small children. The bike can also be adapted to hold multiple kids on separate seats.
Schmidt says his buyers range from 25-year-old hipsters to young families to 40-plus-year-old riders. “Many of my customers have never even been in a bike shop before this. And we’ve taught people to ride who haven’t ridden a bike since they were kids,” he says. “I see my customers awakening to what was lost.”