The first thing my mom did with her first full-time, real-job paycheck was put a downpayment on a brown 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with orange racing stripes. It was a stupid idea. She had no money, no savings and she already had a car. But she bought it anyway with that initial dose of real cash. The first thing I did with my first full-time, real-job paycheck was commission a painting of a deer from an aspiring artist friend. It was a stupid idea. The painting was amateur. It cost me $500. It’s sitting in my closet at home under a decade of dust.
Over the years, I’ve learned. I see now that splurges should be on the things you’ll get the most experiences from. My mom knew it then. I know it now. So my most recent full-time, real-job paycheck splurge was on a custom, American-made bicycle. It’s taken me ten years, but I got my Firebird.
The perks of a custom, American-made bike will be articulated below in a semi-cerebral way. But that’s not the full story. The full story is that you’re getting a bike with a builder. You’re getting a person. You’re making a friend. You’re supporting small-scale business over globalized kingpins of sport. And so there’s an emotional part of this that comes only with human connection. I started this journey with a bit of gumption and conviction, and I ended it with a series of memories (brainstorming, seeing the frame for the first time, the reveal of the finished paint, the first ride) and a couple new friends. You get a really nice bicycle, but you also participate in the labor of love with highly skilled artist craftsmen.
“Dreams aren’t prefabricated,” one cycling publication noted, in their manifesto on the custom bike. If you’re one for a dream and fancy your favorite pastime to be spinning your legs in circles ad nauseum, then pop out of the world of prefab bicycles and enter into the playpen of the custom bike. Splurge a little, and leave all the generic frames in a cloud of zero-exhaust dust.
Perks of getting a custom frame include: sizing to your exact body shape and measurements, a layup/build to your riding style, lusty welds (if steel, aluminum or titanium) or a flawless layup (if carbon), and the satisfaction of watching a bicycle come to life in front of your very eyes. Thomas Callahan of Horse Cycles starts with an assessment — me sitting in a dusty chair in his shop, him with a clipboard and Charles, the cat, pouncing from lap to lap — to consider my preferred style of riding, account for any body irregularities or pain points, and study the geometry of my favorite preexisting bike (my 2014 Cannondale Evo 60mm). Then he measures, just like a tailor would, develops a CAD drawing of the bike, orders the parts and builds a bicycle — rather, my bicycle.
In a perfect world, all bicycles would have custom paint. It’s a shame to have the outward projection of your cycling personality dictated by just two paint options. Within the custom process, paint is also the most gratifying — some final revenge on a poorly executed commissioned painting from the late-aughts. Ben Falcon, Callahan’s man in the booth, assembled a design from a folder of designs I provided. He previewed the style. He added his own flavor. I initiated the style (Native American patterns, an “artifact” feel), then let him run wild. And he painted a bicycle in his vision of the style I’d dreamed. It was perfect, here, one need not settle for “close enough.”
All-American means, in this context, that the bike is built on American soil using all U-S-of-A companies. Yes, the bike has Columbus tubing. Yes, some parts are made overseas (SRAM). But the bike is made in Brooklyn from Portland, Utah, Marin and Seattle parts and was assembled by the pros down my street at Deluxe Cycles (Brooklyn’s finest bike shop). And this bike is a dream bike for good reason. These parts are the best in the business. You hear the term “OEM” (Original Equipment Manufacturer) thrown around, sometimes positively but mostly negatively. This is not an OEM spec list. This is pursuing the best stuff that America can build for a bicycle.
The ENVE components — made in a spotless new factory in Ogden, Utah — are some of the best wheels, forks, bars and seatposts you can strap to your double triangle. Chris King, from Portland, is what all great bicycles aspire to be paired with. And then the saddle, from the innovative folks at Selle Anatomica (despite the Italian-sounding name, they’re based in Poway, California, and use American leather), the tires (I included offerings from both Marin-based WTB and Seattle-based Compass), and the small accessories like the Silca pump (Italian heritage, but new ownership based in Indianapolis, Indiana) and the Lizard Skins bar tape (Utah-based and manufactured in America) all ring in the stars and stripes.
One savory part of this setup is that buying American supports domestic economies and that elusive, proverbial concept of Main Street. The other part is you’re getting some of the best equipment out there. And those two, succinctly combined, are a good mantra for the whole endeavor of a custom, all-American bicycle. You not only receive a lovingly made, super-craftsman bicycle and bicycle components. You also get one of the finest pedaling machines born of this country’s soil and toil.
The finished Topo Designs x Gear Patrol offers the same kind of versatility and utility for urban dwelling that technical packs offer for off-the-grid adventures. Available now at the Gear Patrol Store.
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