The art of handmade bicycles

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An ode to the bicycle - the art behind the everyday machine.

Bicycles mean many different things to many people across the world. For some it’s a vehicle to enable them to commute to work, for other it's a route to stepping out of poverty, a means of taking goods to market and breaking the subsistence cycle. However, for a third group, bicycles are a lifestyle. Whether that is the artisan frame-builder, component manufacturer or the enthusiastic rider, they all live and breathe bike.

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The culture of handmade bicycle building is most strongly present on the West Coast of the USA, where there are countless hand-builders who call that part of the world home. Brands like Stinner of California, Breadwinner of Oregon and Erickson of Washington epitomise the hand-built culture along the length of the coast.

'they all live and breathe bike'

Having visited numerous workshops on the West Coast it quickly became clear to me how much work goes into a single bicycle. The process starts with a rider consultation, as most handmade bikes will be made for individual customers. There are a myriad of things to take into account during the process, which is far-removed from the classic bike shop inseam measurement.

When someone like Sacha White of the Vanilla Workshop in Portland makes one of his famous Speedvagen bikes, he analyses contact points with the bike and considers weight distribution, riding style, intended use and flexibility. Only after having exact measurements dialled in on a jig can any sort of fabrication begin.

'from pure utility, to racing machines, bicycles are bringing a lot of unbridled happiness to people around the globe'

Tubes are then cut to length, usually from steel but sometimes even titanium. They’re often double-butted for strength and once cut, put in a vice ready for welding. The glory of handmade bikes is that no two will be exactly the same. Despite makers such as Demon Frameworks of Southampton and Firefly Bicycles of Boston, MA having the most incredible finishes on their brazing and welding respectively, there will often be a discriminating factor between every single bike they produce. Many hand-builders have a signature flourish that instantly earmarks a bicycle as their own work, like Rick Hunter’s iconic wishbone seat stays that have the most incredible and delicate curvature.

Hooping for @porcelainrocket and extreme cycletouring in general .

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Once a frame has been created to specifications it is time to build the bicycle into something recognisable. It’s not just frames which can be hand built, but components too. Many riders value quality componentry over a quality frame, as they lust over groupsets, wheels, handlebars and seat-posts; the marriage of a hand-made frame with hand-made componentry is something quite spectacular, even glorious.

'any hand-builders have a signature flourish that instantly earmarks a bicycle as their own work'

Paul Component Engineering of Chico, CA are one of the finest examples of hand-machined parts that money can buy. Their anodising techniques bring an array of colour options to your bike, so you can really ‘pimp your ride’ and go for an extremely custom and individual look. Or you can just keep it low-key on the colours, and enjoy the functionality and longevity of their products.

Another company – White Industries, also of California - makes some of the most incredible cranks and hubs in the world. However, in the UK they’re rarer than a strand of unicorn’s tail hair, so one can imagine my excitement when I found a set of their cranks from the mid-90s on a discarded frame in my godfather’s shed. Not only was it a set of White Industries cranks, but a set from a one-off run that they commissioned to have forged by Sugino of track cycling fame in Japan. My celebrations were illustrative of the jubilant effect that these types of products can have.

'the marriage of a hand-made frame with hand-made componentry is something quite spectacular, even glorious'

Visiting Chris King Precision Components in Portland demonstrated to me how much research, design and thought goes into optimising something that is as basic and necessary as a headset, a set of components that allow the bike to steer. The piece is designed for life and not to be discarded or replaced -it can be serviced, and performs better than any other headset available.

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One of the beauties of this sort of product, as alluded to by Robert Penn in his book All About The Bike, is the fact that they could be perceived as goods that stand for utopian consumerism. One is buying it with the intention not to replace, break or wear it out. If more companies and industries took an attitude like this we’d see wastage going down, and quality of goods going up – a win-win situation.

'there is a different joy that cycling brings that transcends the material realm'

A bike cannot be a bike without wheels. Wheels are, in fact, always far better when made by hand than by a machine. Certain builders such as Steve "Gravy" Gravenites of Gravy Wheels in Marin, CA have built a global reputation as the best in the business. Steve was part of the crew that supposedly pioneered the sport of mountain-biking in the 1970s alongside the likes of Joe Breeze, and he still builds wheels today. When an experienced wheel-builder laces the spokes and then adjusts the tension until the wheel is perfectly round, it is poetry in motion. By the time it is complete over a ton of force will be held within the spokes, and it should hold true for many years.

Although it may seem shallow and materialistic to take such joy in physical items - for which, I might add, one has to pay through the nose - there is a different joy that cycling brings that transcends the material realm. From those who love to ride and extract pure atavistic pleasure from the act, to those who love to clamber into the pain cave by cycling up and over mountain ranges, most will agree they have an intrinsic bond with the machine with which they share all those special experiences. That bond only goes further when many craftsmen have each left their individual mark on your bicycle and componentry, each pouring a little bit of their love and soul into each item they create.

'they lust over groupsets, wheels, handlebars and seat-posts'

The cycling community is one where enthusiasm is rife. I experienced an incredible manifestation of this when I borrowed from a friend some Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n’ Road tyres for a gravel race on a Scottish island, and many people would run up to me with a twinkle in their eye, demanding to know how on Earth I got my hands on them. This enthusiasm tends to result in lengthy conversations and in turn a tightening of relationships within the community.

A post shared by White Industries (@whiteind) on

Although this article has focused on the artistic side of bicycle making in the USA, building is prolific and steeped in history in the UK too, with brands from Rourke to Shand bearing the standard for Britain. I haven’t even been able to touch on the environmental benefits of cycling that are seen in cities such as Portland and Copenhagen, as well as the proven positive effects of riding on mental wellbeing. From pure utility, to racing machines, bicycles are bringing a lot of unbridled happiness to people around the globe.

(Featured image: Unsplash / Sagar Rana)


What are your thoughts on bicycles- can they be art? Or are they simply functional? Let us know in the comments below or on social media.

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