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Friday, December 19, 2014

Small-Batch Builders Offer An Alternative to Big-Box Bikes

Posted By on Fri, Dec 19, 2014 at 2:20 PM

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I’ve always had a hard time separating my love for riding bicycles from my love of bicycles themselves. It's that passion that's created my obsessive interest in the production of bicycles, and an extensive knowledge of small companies, custom frame-builders, and other craftspeople that populate the specialty cycling marketplace.

One thing that I have noticed lately is that there’s a new category of bike company that's not like the big companies, like Trek, Specialized, and Giant, or tiny boutique frame-builders that make everything custom to order. These small companies make batches of bikes, usually in stock sizes and models, but they usually make them here in the USA by hand, and they don’t make a whole lot of them.

And these companies are growing.

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Ocean Air Cycles

Rob Parks, who owns and runs Ocean Air Cycles, which happens to be based in Ventura, told me that the business started as a photo blog. The company then started commission short runs of custom bicycle luggage, and finally, started making bikes.

The company produces one bike: the Rambler. It comes in seven different sizes, and a few colors. It’s made by fabricators based in the United States in batches of six to 50. In the past, the frames were made by Zen Fabrications in Portland, OR, but in the future, they will be made by someone else in that city (he wouldn't say who).  Parks describes the Rambler as “a lightweight sport touring frame, based on the traditional French cyclo-touring designs.” He calls it a “sport bike at heart, with some geometry details that allow it to handle well with a modest front load.”

According to Parks, the goal is to make biking with stuff, not racing, fun again, like when you were a kid. "We provide the framework and accessories to help that happen," he tells me. To get you out of your car and make your daily travel and weekend recreation back into a bunch of micro adventures and outdoor experiences."

Right now the Rambler is mostly sold direct through Ocean Air Cycles as a frameset – it’s expensive for most people who aren’t into bikes, running $1,799. 

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If you’d rather brew coffee on the beach than set a Strava personal record, the Ocean Air Rambler might be worth the price tag. 

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Full disclosure: I bought a frame from Endpoint, because I happen to be exactly their niche customer, and I had to spend a fair bit of money on bikes to claim insurance replacement costs after my bikes were stolen earlier this year. Much like the Ocean Air Cycles, Endpoint is making one bike right now: the Coffee Grinder. It’s kind of a play on the “gravel grinder” bandwagon on which every big company is jumping.

“Our goal is to make high-quality, USA-made bikes that are affordable enough that riders of a broader demographic can ride them,” says Braden Govoni, one of the owners of Endpoint. “Endpoint started simply because I always found I was looking to custom builders to make the kind of bikes I wanted to ride.”

When I asked Braden about the Coffee Grinder, and what it’s really supposed to be or do, he says “We wanted to make a road bike our way and make it in the USA."

Eventually, the company plans on being able to have stock frames on hand so when someone wants a bike they don't have to wait for a production run.

The Coffee Grinder is effectively a road bike. It’s not a touring bike, it’s not a cyclocross bike, and it’s not a mountain bike. It’s a road bike with road bike geometry that just happens to be able to clear 38 mm tires, with pretty short chainstays. For elaborate reasons I wont’ go into, that’s kind of an engineering feat. It’s definitely a little bit more industrial and go-fast oriented than the Ocean Air Rambler. It comes in one color: none more black. It costs $1,350 with steel fork, or $1,500 with carbon fork. The Rambler and the Coffee Grinder are both “all-arounders” but they do everything in different ways. It’s easier to see somebody riding the former in street clothes, while the Grinder looks more like something you’d want to don some on-trend kit before you saddle up.

Govoni runs a bike shop called Carytown Bicycle Company over in Vermont, and he and his partner Andy Stiles, run Endpoint as a “labor of love.” He says they don’t want to take on investors or cut corners, and while that’s a noble goal, he knows that it’s not a great way to get rich.

“We're on a first-name basis with almost every Endpoint rider and I wouldn't mind keeping it that way, “ Govoni says.

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Broakland is the bicycle company run by Jason Montano, owner of the eponymous bike shop MontanoVelo which is on Piedmont in Oakland.  Broakland has been quietly cranking out bikes for the last nine years.

“I started Broakland because I saw a window in the industry where a small-batch builder could slot in and bring some down-to-earth design, form and function to an industry that is wavering in both standards and direction,” says Montano. “It was also a chance to flex some design and geometry ideas while developing a local brand within a bicycle shop."

Broakland specializes in track and road bikes. The bikes aren’t necessarily custom-made, but they are made-to-order, and they do make the bikes “in house” unlike the previous two companies. Unlike many smaller boutique custom frame-builders, Broakland has a division of labor among designer, engineer, frame builder, and marketing.

Montano tells me that the company hasn’t grown all that much in the last nine years for a couple reasons. First, they don’t really want to become a big company. “No one is going to line their pockets with this business model, but so what? If I wanted to make money I wouldn't be working in the bike industry that's for sure," he says. "So, I'll settle for making a living and great bikes one at a time for customers. “

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Montano emphasizes that while Broakland makes and sells “expensive, high-end bicycle frames” that “you can't buy experience. Just ride, enjoy what that means for you, and purchase things that help you enjoy that more.

"It's not equipment, it's attitude and you that goes faster, jumps higher, rides longer, feels free, saves the environment and enjoys the beautiful experience of cycling,” he says. 

Perhaps it's time to check out your local niche bike company, rather than shelling out $5,000 for a bike that comes from seven different countries made to bolster big companies. 

There's something funny about buying a bike or frame from a little known builder: you're putting your trust in something and somebody that you can actually talk to. The downside is that you have to love that bike — it won't be worth much half as much to anybody else if you decide to sell it later on. For somebody like me that likes to tinker, buy low sell high, and try everything under the sun, this ends up being a pleasant reminder to just get on my bike and go for a ride, because I can't do anything else with it. 

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About The Author

Leif Haven

Leif Haven

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill — literally and metaphorically.


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