are back, and so are the people who make them
By Tomas Dinges,
Columbia News Service, May 22, 2008
String music played recently in the brick garage where soft-spoken
Johnny Coast, founder of Coast Cycles, hand-builds bicycle frames.
A few unpainted projects hung on the wall, and a row of metal files,
the tools of his trade, were lined up neatly near a 5-foot-high metal
Momentarily, the gravelly whine of an electric drill shattered the
serene atmosphere as it filed away burrs inside a thin tube of steel
“I come from a long line of craftsmen,” said Coast, 32, who began to
weld when he was 12 years old. “Basically I looked around to build
things and wanted to continue that tradition in my family as I grew
He was deep into the 40-hour process of building a steel, lugged
bicycle — one of three that month for customers who paid $1,000 or more
for a custom-size and, later, custom-painted, frame.
Coast works alone in his studio on the edge of New York City, but he’s
part of a growing number of craftsmen at the heart of a surging
interest in handmade bikes generated partly by the mystique associated
with urban bicycle messengers and effectively revitalizing a
Coast launched his business in 2005, and he’s managing a two-year
waiting list for new customers responsible for what he calls an
“explosion of orders.”
Half of what he builds is track frames, the brakeless, one-gear
bicycles designed for races in a curved and banked velodrome. The first
Madison Square Garden in New York City was a site for track bike racing
as early as 1879.
Recently, the track bikes used by bicycle messengers in New York and
other urban centers have seeped into the public consciousness and
spawned a new fashion trend.
“The messenger crowd, more than any single demographic, is responsible
for this resurgence in the handmade bike,” said veteran frame-builder
Since the 1980s, many bicycle messengers have used one-speed,
fixed-gear track bikes to do their jobs. With no brakes, these bikes
have nothing on them to steal and are simple to maintain.
Sachs, 55, who works in Connecticut, has built more than 4,000 frames
in his 30-plus-year career.
He said the rise of the Internet made it easier for people to be
infatuated with the equipment, and eventually messengers began to buy
and sell parts and frames. Online forums and chat groups provided a way
for cycling enthusiasts outside of the messenger scene to take interest
in older, handmade frames — specifically, track bikes.
“A cult arises,” said Sachs. “If you look at the way things have gone,
the messengers got in early, and then the society or fashion or culture
began to co-opt what the messenger likes.”
Street races, known as “alley cats,” attract messengers and
nonmessengers to compete on track bikes. These races have popped up on
college campuses and in towns where messenger companies don’t even
In February, more than 7,000 people filed into the fourth annual North
American Handmade Bicycle Show in Portland, Ore. That was double the
number of attendees from last year. The first show, in 2005, had fewer
than 20 frame builders. This year, it had 100.
Of those, 10 percent and two prizewinners were graduates of the United
Bicycle Institute, a trade school in Oregon that has offered
frame-building courses for more than 20 years, now at a cost of $2,150.
John Baxter, an administrator at the school, said the demand for
classes has risen sharply in the last two years.
Waiting lists have lengthened despite the addition of new courses to
the curriculum, and the institute already is accepting applications for
its January 2009 course in steel-brazing frame-building.
Students, mostly in their 20s, come to build a frame for personal use.
However, Baxter said at least one or two members of each class of eight
thinks seriously about hand-building bicycle frames as a career.
He attributes the interest in his classes to a variety of things,
including a resistance to the factory building methods of large bicycle
manufacturers, a growing do-it-yourself approach to frame building and
nostalgia for frame designs of what Baxter calls the golden age of
cycling of the 1910s and 1920s.
Back in Connecticut, Sachs said a growing backlash against industrial,
mass-produced goods may be partly responsible for the increase in
orders he’s received in the last 10 years.
“People were going back to find things made by a person that had
invested something in the making of the product,” he said. “It’s not
just ‘here’s the money and here is my bike.’”
He sees the wave of interest caused by the messengers’ interest as
“It raises the tide for other manufacturers with less experience and
helps them live a bit easier knowing the current bubble that messengers
have helped create,” said Sachs.
He also claims the handmade frames are better quality than those made
during in the 70s and 80s.
“We are not here to recreate the past,” he said. “We are making bikes
much better than 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I’d like to think that the
folks making frames now are doing cutting-edge work.”
In New York, Coast says it’s about the special attention craftsmen can
“I take my time to build each frame,” said Coast. “A lot of care goes
into each one.”