The Twin Cities High-Gear Bicycle Culture
Erik Noren is showing off his 5,000-square-foot shop in South Minneapolis. “I’ve got $100,000 worth of tools in here,” he says. He passes a welding torch and boxfuls of raw steel tubes, then gestures to the cluster of tiki torches in the corner, which resemble a grouping of lilies with long stems. (“Erik has a lot of parties,” notes one of his colleagues.)
A row of unpainted bicycle frames hangs like curing meat. Having traversed the entire workshop, Noren finally rests his palm against his shop’s most mysterious contraption: an army-green Hitachi Seko computer-numerical control (CNC) lathe from 1980.
Noren is a custom bike-frame builder, and he’s as colorful as his workspace. Tell him what Noren’s colleagues often told me—“You can make bikes. You make money. You can’t make both”—and you’ll get a roaring earful in reply.
“I’m sick of hearing ‘can’t, can’t, can’t,’” Noren barks. He has big dreams. Noren wants to put that CNC lathe to work making hubs, headsets, and other bike components. He’d also like to hire someone to craft the frames that he’s been making for hometown bicycle companies including Speedhound and F-Bom. That would give Noren more time and money to focus on his passion: the flashy custom bicycles he’s been building for the past 10 years under his personal label, Peacock Groove.
With an estimated 13 frame builders working in the Twin Cities, plus a growing contingent of other bicycle designers, Peacock Groove is hardly the only ambitious bike business in town. “There’s a lot of talent up in Minneapolis,” says Don Walker, president of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS), one of the industry’s highest-profile trade shows. “I’m not sure the rest of the country knows it.”
A Frame Builder’s Hub
Noren plays a central role in the growing orbit of professional bike-makers—he’s the loudmouth and the community organizer. “He flies the flag,” says Bjorn Christianson, administrator of bike-geek website Minneapolis Bike Love and a web developer at Bicycle Theory, a Northeast Minneapolis branding agency staffed by cycling aficionados.
Christianson sees Noren as a tireless advocate for the local bike industry, always touting local talent at events like the NAHBS. (He’s made some enemies along the way. Some attendees at the 2009 NAHBS show took offense at the track bike he brought, whose back disk wheel featured the frightening artwork from Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 album, Appetite for Destruction.) Possessing a sailor’s tongue and a puppy’s warm, watery eyes, Noren is an aggressive booster of the local bike-making scene, and was instrumental in organizing Minnecycle, an annual exhibition of craft bicycles featuring Curt Goodrich, Paul Wyganowski, and other local frame builders. (Look for the third annual show this September.) You also find Noren defending fellow frame builders on national sites such as velocipedesalon.com.
Noren recently swapped his 912-square-foot studio for the enormous space in the Ivy Arts Building, just off the Midtown Greenway cycling trail. In order to afford rent on the bigger place, Noren asked a few colleagues to sublet corners of the spacious shop. The upshot: Noren’s shop functions almost like a collective, where frame makers readily swap design ideas and construction techniques, not to mention sales leads.
One tenant is 10-year veteran Vincent DomÃnguez, a reserved fellow who specializes in customized steel bikes for randonneuring, or marathon cycling, with a base price of $2,800. (On the side, he writes customized business software.) “We don’t compete so much,” DomÃnguez says of Noren. “We serve different parts of the market.”
Another shop mate is Matt Appleman, one of the local bike industry’s freshest faces. An expert in composite materials engineering, the 25-year-old Appleman is the city’s only frame builder specializing in customized carbon-fiber frames for high-performance riding, with a base price of $4,000. Appleman finds Noren’s collaborative environment very helpful for a start-up like his. “Erik has every tool you could possibly need,” Appleman says. “He’s really generous about lending me things.”
Yet another tenant, Chris Cleveland, is a Minneapolis lawyer-turned-bike designer who founded Speedhound Bikes in 2009. “I designed a bike that’s a little more stable, a little less twitchy,” Cleveland says of his Speedhound frameset (a frameset typically includes both the main frame and the front fork). “It’s better suited to riding long distances without tiring you out.” Cleveland sells a standard steel frameset, in an array of eight colors and five frame sizes, for $1,450 a pop.
A big believer in American manufacturing, Cleveland says that he “looked all over the country for someone to do the fabrication. Minneapolis turned out to be a great place.” He ended up enlisting Noren to build Speedhound’s frames. For purely practical purposes, Cleveland now also rents space within Noren’s shop. (He continues to practice law on a part-time basis.)
With its modern furnishings in primary colors, Cleveland’s corner office clashes with Noren’s taste for busty pinups and secondhand easy chairs. But the arrangement enables close collaboration between businessmen and bike lovers. For example, when Cleveland sells a frame, he simply walks out of his office to notify Noren, who can quickly finalize the order. Speedhound bikes are deliverable in five to seven business days; custom frames can take as long as a year.
The Ivy Arts Building is home to yet another frame builder. Down the hall from Noren and the gang is a tidy workshop lined with vintage cycling posters. Meet Chris Kvale, who specializes in high-performance steel bikes, with a base price of $2,900. “I make a very classic bike,” he says. Kvale started building bikes in 1976, along with an earlier crop of Twin Cities fabricators. “This is the same bike I made 35 years ago,” Kvale says of his European-style road bikes.
None of these guys works with distributors. Their websites function as important sales tools. Kvale’s new site has “been really good for me,” he says. “I’m really busy this year.” Speedhound’s Cleveland plans to make a big online push this year, hoping for a big bump in business. He’s working with Bicycle Theory to make his site more appealing to customers and search engines, partly by adding stylish videos.
Word of mouth and referrals are still these frame builders’ biggest sources of business. Most of their customers are hardcore bike enthusiasts, so Noren’s parties are helpful in terms of sales contacts. It’s also worth noting that most of their customers are local.
Wheels of Industry
Why does the Twin Cities have so many frame builders? Sure, there are throngs of cyclists—lots of potential customers for these tiny bike businesses. Another, less obvious reason lies with the area’s booming corporate bike industry. The metro is home to many a large bike business—from Penn Cycle and Erik’s Bike Shops (two of the nation’s largest bicycle retailers) to Shoreview-based Hed Wheels (a top manufacturer of racing wheels).
The biggest player is Bloomington-based Quality Bicycle Products (QBP), the nation’s largest supplier of bicycles, parts, and accessories for bike shops and other dealers. QBP also owns several well-regarded bike brands, including Surly (no relation to the local brewer) and Salsa.
“People graduate from QBP. Then they go off and do their own thing,” observes Minneapolis Bike Love’s Christianson. This makes QBP an important incubator of talent, like a miniaturized version of Target, which fuels the regional fashion and design scenes. Noren logged 11 years at QBP, starting in the warehouse and eventually landing in the bike builder department. Another QBP alumnus named Shad Holland recently founded F-Bom, which specializes in American-made bikes and accessories. Other QBP alumni include Brian Rose, founder of Shockspital, a mail-in suspension and brake repair service; and Gene Oberpriller, owner of One on One Bicycle Studio, a Warehouse District shop that’s a retailer, repair shop, and coffee bar all in one.
As an industry leader, QBP works hard at keeping abreast of emerging bicycling trends. So the company constantly looks to the little guys, especially frame builders, for signs of innovation and splintering product categories. One of QBP’s most popular new products owes to a group of Alaskan frame builders who craved monster-size mountain bikes (complete with four-inch tires) for excursions through their snow-packed surroundings. QBP and Surly tweaked the concept with the Pugsley, launched in 2004, reputedly the world’s first factory-produced fatbike.
It took a few years, but fatbikes have finally gone gangbusters. QBP now manufactures three versions of fatbike—the Mukluk by Salsa along with the Pugsley and another Surly product, the Moonlander. QBP also has launched 45North, a specialty brand devoted to products for cold-weather riding, including fatbike tires, studded tires, and other parts.
In addition to 45North, QBP introduced two additional brands in 2011: Foundry Cycles, making carbon-fiber bikes; and Whisky Parts, producing carbon-fiber parts. In a way, the proliferation of these niche brands is equally inspired by the hyper-personalized approach that custom builders favor. “Even on a scale like QBP, we’re tapping into the idea of customization,” says QBP’s Jason Grantz, brand manager for both Foundry and Whisky. “We’re building a portfolio of products and smaller brands for specific people.”
As the cyclist matures, he’ll crave products that suit his individual tastes and body proportions. If he’s a new cyclist, he’ll probably stick with the complete bikes by QBP-owned brands Surly, Salsa, Civia, and All-City. A more style-conscious commuter might like the $640 frameset designed by Minneapolis-based Handsome Cycles. On a smaller scale, four-year-old Handsome Cycles caters to style-conscious commuters with classic contouring and vintage colors. One of Handsome Cycles’ coolest products is the Speedy Devil, featuring a frame bedecked in patriotic stars and stripes. It resulted from a partnership with another local business, Twin Six, which designs cycling apparel.
As he increases his mileage, the weekend warrior might go for a Speedhound. With its lower-cost designs, Speedhound addresses another significant gap in the market: serious riders who otherwise couldn’t afford, or couldn’t wait for, a lovely handmade frame. Speedhound also has a bona fide invention to its name: Its patent-pending dropout system allows bicyclists to swap greasy chains for lubricant-free drive belts.
Further up the price ladder: a custom Peacock Groove, whose framesets start at $2,400.
With their intricate metalwork and artistic paint jobs, frame builders push the envelope on aesthetics. St. Paul’s Curt Goodrich is admired nationally for his graceful European-style touring bikes. Another St. Paul builder, Dave Anderson, won top honors at NAHBS last year with his stainless steel bike. DomÃnguez insists Noren was one of the first frame builders in the country to use polished stainless steel, and to embellish his frames with flashy cutouts.
Changing tastes, habits, and needs propel constant innovation in bike design. QBP hopes to stay atop the constant splintering of subcultures and product categories—say, fatbikers in the American Southwest who want to cruise through desert sands. Handmade-frame builders are “the true trendsetters,” says Joe Meiser, QBP’s product development manager.
Shifting to a Higher Speed
The Twin Cities frame-building scene is by no means anomalous. “All over the country, we’re seeing outcroppings of these custom builders. It used to be a much more limited industry,” says Rich Kelly from Interbike, the U.S. industry’s largest trade show. “As the traditional bike brands have gravitated toward higher-end materials like carbon fiber and aluminum, we’ve seen this countertrend of buyers going back to the hand-builders, who usually work with steel.”
The NAHBS’s Don Walker estimates that “in the U.S., there are between 50 and 75 professional frame builders who do it for a living. There’s probably another 50 or 75 guys on the fringe trying to make it full-time.” Walker says the number of U.S. frame builders has edged slightly in recent years: “The guys who came into it in the last three or years, if they didn’t have anything special, they’re starting to fade out.”
A different market estimate comes from Elliot Gluskin, a Pennsylvania-based consultant and researcher who specializes in the bike industry. Gluskin started researching the custom fabrication industry in 2007. Based on his experience at the NAHBS and in the field, he estimates there are 250 custom frame builders working in the United States total, each averaging about 30 bikes per year. The average selling price is $3,000. That suggests a total industry worth about $22.5 million.
“It’s a market of regions, of niches,” Gluskin says. “So yes, it’s growing, but the rate of growth is different by region.” He feels that Minneapolis and Portland are two of the biggest pockets. Off-street trails and biking infrastructure also has something to do with the growth. “I consider bike-sharing a leading indicator,” Gluskin adds. “It’s an indicator of a city looking to accomplish a number of things, like making transportation more efficient and attracting more business by saying, ‘Come to my city—we have a healthy lifestyle.’ And Minneapolis’s [Nice Ride] bike-share is one of the leading examples in the country.”
The members of the local handmade bike industry do think that they have some special designs. There’s just one problem: “We’re not bringing in much money,” admits Noren, speaking for the custom-frame building community as a whole. Some frame builders cop to relying on well-employed wives. Noren, who’s 37, recently moved back home with his parents to save money.
Noren recalls Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak asking a group of local frame builders, “What do you need to succeed?” The answer came quick for Noren: money. Lots of it. He wants Peacock Groove to become a strapping small business, like Surly Brewing or (a more apt model) Boston-based Firefly Bicycles, which employs three full-time employees.
So Noren is eyeing Kickstarter, an online forum for crowdsourced funding of creative projects. “I'm going to ask for a quarter million,” he boasts. He'll use the funds for more machinery, making a wider array of parts, and perhaps add an employee or two. “If I get that Kickstarter money,” Noren says, “I guarantee—I'll set the world on fire.”