You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a bike. And any enthusiastic cyclist will tell you that that’s pretty close. Yet for a handful of those cyclists, bicycle-induced happiness is merely the end result of pursuing a lifelong, two-wheeled philosophy.
Thanks to the state’s evolving bicycle sub-culture, Utah has become a source of inspiration for artisan bike frame builders. Specializing in classic traditions, artisan frame builders set out to create bikes that are brazed in simplicity, character and hard labor — much different than the sleek, high-tech bikes assembled in a mass-production factory overseas. And it’s not just frame builders who lust after a bicycle with personality and soul: their clients, who often wait 8-14 months to own a custom bike, acknowledge a philosophic connection between the pedal and mind. Here, four artisan frame builders explain their ideology and curiosity behind a time-honored craft.
Blaze Bicycles, Moab
Pierre Chastain recently moved from Los Angeles to Moab, bringing him closer to a community steeped in bike culture. Chastain, who was born and raised in Germany, began making bikes in 2008, influenced by European bike designs from his childhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The self-taught frame builder combined his interest in old-school methods with his experience in motion graphics, allowing him to specialize in timeless construction that’s specifically fitted for each individual customer.
Is it difficult to position yourself against mass-production factories?
Taking on the task of being a manufacturer in America and making my living off of it is unbelievably challenging. It’s a little romantic the way I look at it. Having been involved in the high-tech industry [before making bikes], I started having analog backlash. After 10 to 20 years of working the high-tech industry, it wasn’t really satisfying. From a corporate culture, I thought, “This is insane. No one’s getting what they want.” Even the bike industry is becoming corporate. I was fed up with it all, and I bet you that other people feel the same way I do. I wanted to position myself for this new economy and create a new alternative: American-made and small quantity.
Do you see yourself as a craftsman or a businessman?
Few people see this industry as a manufacturing business, but there are grants for people in manufacturing. People say, “Oh, you run your business like a manufacturer.” Well, yeah. I’m not gonna sit around and whine about not having money. When I go into the shop and make a beautiful frame, that’s great, but it’s not the only thing that matters. I love this romantic vision, but I’m also an entrepreneur. I’d like to see my company employ five to ten people down the road and still produce quality products. I don’t want to be just a custom builder. Customers don’t want that. Customers want to walk out of a shop with a bike in hand, and I have to make that available.
Is there sense of pressure working one-on-one with your customers?
It’s a lot of responsibility and frustrating on some level. Every single customer has to be satisfied. People hold me to a much higher level than they do with a big company like Trek. You’ve gotta make it right. It’s tough. There’s a romantic vision about this job and how it works, but in the end, it’s a nuts and bolts process.
How would you describe the actual work?
Gruelingly hard labor. It’s painful. I look at a bike frame, and I have to make it really cool. It’s tough. At the end of the day, I have to wash that grease off. But I produced this really cool bike.
Describe your perfect bike.
The perfect bike should embody freedom. One where you can go anywhere and you can do anything.
Chris “Doc” Boudreaux
SuperCo, Salt Lake City
Chris “Doc” Boudreaux had no intention of working in the bike industry. But when Doc happened upon a business investor in New York in 1996, where he was going to medical school, he couldn’t resist combining his passion with his hobby. Doc, who raced BMX bikes in the ‘80s, soon began outlining design ideas for his own BMX frames and, eventually, mountain bikes. Now, as owner of SuperCo in Salt Lake, Doc’s specialty is rooted in the small market of hand-built, hard-tail dirt jumpers.
What challenges have you faced, being a niche bike company?
It’s a little difficult because, as opposed to cross-country, the dirt jump scene is extremely youthful. And [hand-built dirt jumpers] are not in a 17-year-old’s realm. Ever since the economy took a dive, that was the first time I actually had to get a job [as an industrial welder]. A consistent check makes a big difference. It’s a reality check.
You emphasize hand-built bikes, not necessarily custom bikes. What’s the difference?
We produce 50-100 frames a year, so Superco is somewhat production oriented. Well, we’re halfway there. We’re small. We do everything in house. But we’re trapped between the custom builder and the production setting.
Being on the verge of a production company, do you feel that some degree of creativity is lost?
It’s all a creative process. We have four colors, so the look isn’t necessarily so artsy and customized, but the manufacturing of the frame very much is. It becomes art when it’s make for a specific customer. We take a lot of pride in all the little steps that go into making the frame. It still feels the same way. It’s cathartic in terms of creativity and pride. But I’ve learned that I’m definitely not the businessperson. Keep me in the shop and I’ll do my thing.
So production doesn’t necessarily mean mass-production. You still put a lot of time into each bike, yes?
I try to have attention to detail as far as the performance of the bike goes. I want to impress the rider, so I try to keep things tight, aesthetically pleasing and incredibly functional. People just love the ride. When I first started making them, I had this sixth sense that it’d be great. With this current line of dirt jumpers, I think I hit it on the head.
You offer a very unique clear coat finish. Why don’t we see clear coats on more bike frames?
The clear coat is a difficult thing to produce. The color is a result of the heat as the welding cools. The oxygen does a crazy thing with the surface and gives it a rainbow look. It takes time to make sure everything is perfect throughout the entire fabrication process. The welding can’t be sloppy. I was resistant to that color process for a while [because of the time commitment], but we got so much demand for it.
Pereira Cycles, Portland, Oregon
Tony Pereira’s custom business has flourished since moving to Portland, Oregon, but he credits his success to the Salt Lake bike community. During his spare time as a mechanic at Salt Lake’s Wild Rose bike shop in the ‘90s, Pereira would tinker with a welding torch and produce a few bikes for his willing friends to ride. Before leaving Utah in 2005, Pereira had completed upwards of 20 bikes and built up a solid foundation to help him launch his business in the Northwest.
How has custom bike building changed since you first started?
It’s changed a lot. When I started, it was only starting to become cool. There were just a few builders making it sexy, and I think it’s gone in that direction. It’s blown up into this new world of craft and artisan bicycles. I don’t think that was necessarily the focus of most builders prior to this latest movement of bicycle building. People were obviously doing amazing work, but it’s become much more refined. Today, the consumers know what a well-constructed bike looks like.
Why do you think it’s blown up?
There’s a new modern movement of artisan builders who are able to sell their craft all over the world because of the Internet. If we didn’t have the Internet, then this wouldn’t
be happening. In 1989, there were just a handful of people around the country doing this…
How do you keep the creativity fresh?
When I first started out, I couldn’t get enough of it. I still get to build these bikes one at a time and take great pride in doing the best possible job. But I’m afforded the opportunity to do things a little differently. There are specific challenges that people throw at me, so I get to meet those needs as best as I can. I have my own style, but I’m still trying to tailor each bike to customer’s specific needs. They’re all a little different.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve dealt with?
The real challenge is, and continues to be, running a business. I didn’t get into this to run a business. It’s so easy to leave that out of the equation when you’re in the pursuit of a craft. Business doesn’t come naturally to me.
What’s your definition of a perfect bike?
One that you take joy in riding every time you get on it. If you’re happy riding it, then something’s right.
Lucid Cycles, Park City
With his home workshop located just a few feet from some of Park City’s notorious singletrack, Kris Gray has a backyard full of inspiration. Gray’s interest in custom frame building began when fellow frame builder Tony Pereira started making bikes in Salt Lake. By 2008, Gray had completed a course in one of the industry’s top frame building schools at United Bicycle Institute in Oregon and embarked on his own adventures in building custom steel-frame mountain bikes.
What excites you the most about building bikes?
There’s something to be said about making a bike that I made. For me, it’s therapy. People chase money and materialism, but I’m giving life to a bicycle. Bicycles are me. We’re intertwined. Whether it’s building bikes, maintaining bikes, riding bikes, building bike trails… There’s a satisfaction of creating. It’s the process and journey that excites me.
Explain the benefits of keeping your custom business small.
I get to work out of my house and have a better relationship with my clients. The bigger you get, the more you’re competing with the big bike guys. That’s not something I set out to do. I want to keep it more boutique-y…a blend of art and function.
Is there ever a moment when you see your clients get excited?
When the client truly realizes what a custom bike is about. We can do whatever you want. It’s a custom bike! Let’s not be held back by the industry standards. We’re going to build the bike you’ve already wanted.
Why do you think custom bikes are so appealing?
Cyclists are egomaniacs. There’s a “bragging rights” component to biking. Everyone wants something cool. When you’re riding a custom bike, you can be sure you’re on the coolest bike out there.
What is the most significant aspect about owning a custom bike?
The fit is a big deal. When you ride a custom bike that’s built for you, your body and your riding type, you feel it. It’s not like any other bike you’ve ridden. And it’s the idea that your bike is one-of-a-kind. The customer is involved in every aspect of the bike build, from the first conversation to the inception of the idea and every step of the way. When the frame is done, it’s the exact frame that the customer wants…it’s truly their own bike.
As a frame builder, does it benefit you to focus on one particular type of bike instead of diversifying?
I am a mountain biker. Bicycles are definitely my passion, but mountain bikes specifically. They’re what I live and breathe for. I got my first mountain bike in ’85, and I’ve grown with the sport. That’s where my expertise lies. I put depth and knowledge into the bikes I build because of my past.