Monday, March 7, 2011

The Hands That Steer Are Building the Bikes by Sean Patrick Farrell -

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Like thousands of other New Yorkers, Jason Henkle throws a leg over a bicycle every day and pedals to work. Unlike most of his fellow riders, Mr. Henkle built his understated single-speed bike by hand.

Mr. Henkle is among a small group of dedicated New York cyclists who have begun building their own bicycle frames. Their hand-constructed cycles are often custom made for a tailored fit and sometimes include personal touches like the small metal pi symbol Mr. Henkle affixes to his machines.

“They’re pi-cycles,” said Mr. Henkle, making the kind of pun befitting his job as a high school math teacher. He keeps two of his bikes in his living room and often spends his evenings and weekends in a tight storage room he has converted into a frame building shop in his apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

A recent Saturday afternoon found him methodically filing steel tubes for a precise fit on a road frame that’s half-finished. “It’s a nice combination of an athletic activity, craft, science and engineering all balled up into one,” said Mr. Henkle, 30, who figures it takes him about 80 hours to complete a frame.

Some people, like Mr. Henkle, treat the craft as a hobby, building bikes for themselves and a few friends. But a growing number of shops are building made-to-measure frames for customers.

“I got to chat with some of the pros,” he said. “I was definitely able to walk away with some good info.”Many other cyclists in New York and the rest of the country have taken up files, torches and even bamboo and glue to build their own bikes. The North American Handmade Bicycle Show, which started in 2005 with 23 frame builders exhibiting their wares, has grown into a Concours d’Elegance for two-wheelers, featuring more than 160 microbike exhibitors. Mr. Henkle attended the 2011 show last week in Austin, Tex., to learn the latest techniques.

Anchoring the scene is Johnny Coast, a 35-year-old with seven years of frame building and, by his count, 200 to 300 frames under his belt. Mr. Coast’s frames, which are highly regarded for their classic lines and elegant lugs — the often-decorative joints that join tubes — start at $2,250.

Mr. Coast and many builders embrace the small imperfections that are less likely to be spotted in mass-produced machine-built bikes.

“I think people like seeing the hand of the builder,” he said. “You see a little file mark, you see a human made this.”

Like many hobby builders, Lance Mercado, 35, began by making bicycle frames for himself and friends. He has been building custom steel frames professionally since 2007, after taking a popular course in Oregon, and is the owner of SquareBuilt, a shop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, that specializes in single-speed and track bikes.

“I basically was going to buy a bike one day and saw the ad to learn to build a bike,” he said. “So I went, and people started asking me to build them one, too.” He eventually dropped his job as a waiter to pursue the business.

Krista Ciminera learning the craft with help from Lance Mercado.
Krista Ciminera learning the craft with help from Lance Mercado. Chang W. Lee/The New York Times 

Mr. Mercado’s shop has become a nexus of the frame-building community. Krista Ciminera, 27, a messenger, is building a frame for herself and learning the craft at SquareBuilt.

“I really like making stuff with my hands,” Ms. Ciminera said, “and it feels good to be at these machines with sparks flying.”

Recently, Mr. Henkle stopped into SquareBuilt for help on a problem with a lug on his current project. Mr. Mercado welcomes the growing interest.

“The more builders there are in New York, the better for everyone to learn off each other,” Mr. Mercado said.

The city has long been a bike-building center. For more than a century Worksman Cycles in Queens has been making durable utility bicycles and tricycles, and Brooklyn Machine Works has been creating BMX and downhill bikes for more than 15 years. But the community of smaller shops, especially in Brooklyn, continues to broaden. Horse Cycles is a one-man custom-steel shop in Williamsburg, and Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook offers a two-day frame-building course using bamboo.

“You can make a bike and make it just as good as any other bike,” said Marty Odlin, 29, who started Bamboo Bike Studio in 2009 and has since expanded to San Francisco. A basic frame-building class costs $632, and proceeds go toward projects to supply bicycles to people in the developing world.

The studio has taught more than 250 people — from 12-year-olds to riders in their 70s — to make the distinctive frames. “They’re beautiful, and they’re really beautiful to the people who build them,” Mr. Odlin said, referring to the bamboo bikes but echoing the thoughts of many hand builders. “There’s a pride thing.”