The decision to become a custom bike builder is definitely not an easy one. You have to be tough and unrelenting to make a name for yourself in the world dominated by corporate companies with armies of engineers and designers, and even larger teams of sales & marketing specialists. Yet there are those who succeed nonetheless and who are sought out by cycling enthusiasts from all around the world. We talked to three of them to explain why so many believe a custom-made bicycle will always beat one from the production line.
Mass Market vs. Custom-Made (Part 1/3)
When looking to spend top dollars for a high-quality road bike, adjectives such as “stiffer”, “lighter”, “faster” and “way-more-aero” come around the minute you check the promo materials from well-known bike manufacturers. After all, those are the arguments we expect to hear when paying well over 10,000 euros. Carbon is the name of this game, with each brand creating fancier designs on a regular basis. Then, using their Taiwan/China-based manufacturing partners, they make bikes for the masses.
However, if you start to dig a bit deeper into what is available at such price point, you will hear rather familiar words such as steel, aluminium, and titanium. Three materials currently widely used by custom-made bike boutiques, the other side of the industry. A world filled with quality, craftsmanship and bicycles that usually last for decades. This is the kind of products Doriano De Rosa, Richard Sachs and Julie Ann Pedalino produce.
Doriano De Rosa represents the true European bicycle-building tradition. At 14, he was already working in his father’s workshop building bikes for cyclists like Eddy Merckx. Frequent debates with many notable pros over the years gave him an in-depth understanding of what a performance-based bike should be. After leaving the family business in 2015, he and his daughter Martina started their own brand: Bixxis. An acronym which means “Biciclette Italiane per il XXI Secolo”, in English: Italian Bicycles for the twenty-first century.
“I’ve always loved working with steel. It’s a live material, it’s got a soul: steel gives substance to any design idea and breathes life into the product. Bixxis makes bicycles built with the metals I love: steel and titanium.”
For anyone remotely in-tune with custom bike building, the name Richard Sachs needs no introduction as he is by far one of the most respected builders/designers around. For those less aware, Mr. Sachs is an American producing a very limited number of units each year and specializing in designing road and cyclocross bikes. In this sense, his work resembles more that of an artist rather than a businessman.
“I don’t believe in… all the tech one expects. I’m not making or selling appliances or a This Year’s Model bicycle. That’s the difference between what I do (and people like me) and (the rest of) the industry.”
Julie Ann Pedalino may not be the biggest custom bike builder (yet), but she represents the new breed of bike artists. With her special touch to each of the bikes, from the welding techniques to the paint work, her designs clearly include art as part of the build. Furthermore, Julie Ann Pedalino is not confined to road bikes. She is totally comfortable designing a fat bike, a cyclocross or any other model. As a custom bike builder, she specializes in taking the extra step to add art to her frames, which in turn gives her customers a totally unique bike design.
“Fit and function with a splash of Panache!” is the Pedalino’s motto.
So what are the biggest challenges and hurdles these custom bike builders face today? Is it a question of access to market, marketing budgets spent by the large manufacturers? How could the custom bike market grow better?
Doriano De Rosa: Certainly having a big budget for marketing could help any small company to expand its philosophy. Personally, I think it is more of a cultural matter. Not many people know the potential of a custom-built bike.
People are attracted by what big brands launch with aggressive communications, and it is very difficult to oppose (market our products) with our limited communication tools.
It was not easy to start a new artisanal bike company, especially in the era of mass production. Also, in Italy it is not so simple to start a new brand because the economy is slow. The beginning was not easy, but we are aware that custom products have their market. We are growing a little each day. It is, however, a great challenge.
If we look back at our first steps, Martina and I should be proud of ourselves. Anyway, to make Bixxis well-known to people, we (still) have a lot to do.
Richard Sachs: In 2017, there are no hurdles (for me) facing any of these brands because my work and brand are firmly planted and predate all of these new labels. In essence, it’s part of my calling card, the experience thing, the history. I’m not fighting for a seat at the table.
On a related note – and this is part of the theme – I come from the sport, the racing side of the ledger. There was a time when all of frame building had a similar tether. Funny. All my life I assumed that Enzo Ferrari said “Racing improves the breed” but only recently I came to find that it was Soichiro Honda. Either way, I believe it to be the case.
The sport legitimizes design and the correct choices no matter what the ultimate use of a bicycle is. When I started in the industry, all maker’s shops were labs. And whatever worked for the teams they each supported became part of the fabric their finished bicycles were made from. I came in as an 18-year-old and drank all of this up.
Moving the reply forward to the present, the average Y2K frame builder is at a loss because he/she doesn’t recognize sport for the proving ground that it is. If nothing else, if NOTHING else, a liaison with bicycle racing on just about any level is a fast(er) track to earning the confidence of a wider public.
Despite that, it’s 2017 and the “large bike brands”, as you call them, own the sport, that world didn’t exist when I started. To that end, I think it’d be a tough row to hoe for a contemporary bicycle maker to compete with Big Box Brand based on abstract features such as craftsmanship, or individuality, or one-of-a-kind, or bespoke, or any of the qualifiers people use to differentiate.
Julie Ann Pedalino: Let’s face it, there’s no way for me as a small builder working alone to replicate what the large brands are doing with their teams of engineers and access to tooling. For me, I’ve decided that it’s best if I put competing with popular production bicycle brands out of my mind. After all, they’ve already become the best version of that type of thing… it would be silly of me to try and duplicate them.
The point of differentiation between boutique frame builders and large manufacturers is the personal connection and customization. It may sound trite, but I truly believe that the labour and love that goes into a custom bicycle adds a special, intangible quality to the end product. We cyclists spend so much time and energy on our bicycles, why should they not be special?
The cycling industry keeps on developing new products day in day out. But does this necessarily mean that us amateurs should jump at each and every product’s latest innovation? This is what we will be looking at in part 2 of this interview next week.