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In a growth cycle

A small but increasing number of California craftspeople custom build bike frames and parts

December 08, 2008|Jerry Hirsch | Hirsch is a Times staff writer.

In an era of global sourcing and computer-aided design, Gregory Townsend builds custom steel bicycle frames in his Monrovia garage.

The 50-year-old British expatriate, who learned metal crafting in a high school shop class, is part of a small but growing number of craftspeople in California catering to bicycle enthusiasts who eschew the super-light carbon fiber cycles of the Tour de France for hand-built frames with meticulous fittings and elaborate paint jobs.

Although most of the bicycle manufacturing business fled to low-cost production centers in Taiwan and China years ago, a small high-end industry continues to percolate in California. It's characterized by small companies, typically with just a handful of employees, making handcrafted bicycle frames and specialized hubs, brakes and other components used for touring, fitness and recreational cycling.

Townsend's creations sell for $2,300 to more than $4,000, depending on how loaded the frames are with highly polished stainless steel detailing, paint colors and other fancy features.

"People come because they want the personal fitting and the communication on their riding style directly with the builder," Townsend said.

He's selling to hobbyists such as Roy Kohl, a vascular surgeon from Monrovia who rides several thousand miles a year.

"I just liked the concept of having a steel frame that was custom built and fit for me," Kohl said.

"My other bikes were aluminum and carbon fiber, but there is nothing that rides as nice as a good steel frame."

Townsend typically takes prospective clients on a bike ride. He wants to see how they fit their existing bicycle and find out about their riding preferences.

Like Townsend, other tiny operators in this niche typically work out of homes and small workshops.

Henry Folson, a former office furniture designer, operates perhaps the last business to domestically manufacture bicycle lugs. He works out of his house in Redondo Beach.

Lugs are sleeves of metal used to connect the eight tubes that make up the classic diamond-shaped bike frame. They were used for nearly a century but faded in importance in the 1990s as bicycle design shifted to welded aluminum and then woven carbon fiber.

His market is the roughly 100 to 200 professional steel-frame bicycle builders in the United States and legions of handy enthusiasts.

"Part of our market has always been people who have a 9-to-5 job but want to build a bike on the weekends as a hobby," Folson said.

Through the years, he has stuck to a made-in-America philosophy. Although Folson could have his lugs cast for less money in Taiwan, he contracts production at Southern California machine shops. And that's why he distributes the American-forged True Temper brand of frame tubing instead of brands from Europe and Japan.

"Between what we make and True Temper, you have what you need to make a great custom bicycle," Folson said.

He said he was able to keep the business he founded 31 years ago profitable by working out of his home and maintaining a limited payroll of two other family members.

Townsend uses Henry James lugs and other Folson-designed fittings to build his frames, which take about 40 hours to construct. He started selling bicycles two years ago and builds only about a dozen a year. That's not enough to allow him to quit his position in the information technology department of Kaiser Permanente, the state's largest health maintenance organization.

But business is growing, in part because of the popularity of cycling as an easy-on-the-knees source of exercise for aging baby boomers and the ease and low cost of maintaining a website: www.townsendcycles

The Internet, which can be used to display photos of completed frames and highlight intricate details, such as the shape of the fancy curlicue-and-arrow-tipped lugs used in construction, allows Townsend and other frame builders to market their craft inexpensively.

"With the Internet, clients come to me," Townsend said.

Although no one keeps statistics, many in the industry believe the custom bicycle business has grown steadily in recent years, said Don Walker, founder of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. His first show four years ago in Houston attracted 15 builders and about 700 visitors. This year's show in Portland, Ore., featured more than 90 frame constructors and more than 7,000 visitors. According to some industry estimates, Americans purchase about 20,000 custom-built frames annually.

Townsend is hoping he can cash in on that growth to turn frame building into a full-time vocation.

Custom bicycle builders need about 25 orders a year to break even and about 50 to start to make a healthy living, said Curt Goodrich, a successful Minneapolis builder who put together Schwinn Paramounts and custom frames for Rivendell Bicycle Works and now produces under his own label. Goodrich has a two-year backlog of orders.

Kohl, the surgeon, said that the cost of a custom frame from craftsmen such as Townsend and Goodrich "isn't out of line for what you would pay for a top-line carbon fiber bicycle at a cycling shop" but that a classic and often ornate steel frame was much more of a head-turner on 100-mile "centuries" and big group rides.

"My biggest problem was making myself pick out a color scheme," he said.

Kohl settled on yellow with maroon and gray accents.

"I am really happy with the bike and the way it rides," he said, "and have loaned out my other two bikes to a couple of guys who are just getting into riding."


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