Friday, October 30, 2009

Made in Somerville: The Joys of a Locally Built Bicycle

I tried to hint at this subtly in previous posts, but judging by some recent conversations I was a too subtle. So it is time to announce this formally: I am getting a custom bicycle from Royal H. Cycles.

[Customer's bike, detail. Image from Royal H. Cycles]

No, please relax - it is not the track bike mentioned earlier! My Royal H. will be a classic Randonneur-style mixte, inspired by the early French constructeurs: fully lugged, with twin lateral stays and a touring geometry. Even as I write it, I do not really believe it. Yes, it will be utterly glorious, and no, I cannot afford it. But I've been finding some creative ways to scrimp, save, and earn extra cash, and it's all coming together nicely (the deposit system really helps as well!). The frame will be ready in November, and then I will spend the winter fitting it with components. In the springtime, the complete bicycle shall emerge just as the crocuses come into bloom and the swallows sing their song.

However, what I really want to talk about is not the bicycle itself, but the experience of having it custom made by a local framebuilder. As far as "local" goes, you can't really get more local than this: The Royal H. studio (pictured above) is a 5-minute bike ride from my house, so my bicycle is being built in my own neighborhood. There is nothing quite like this.

I met the framebuilder Bryan Hollingsworth through Open Bicycle, after I saw a purple Royal H. bike belonging to one of their customers and was taken with its elegant styling. "Who made that?" I asked. And the rest was history. I met Bryan in person, discussed my ideas with him, and it was immediately clear that he understood exactly what I was talking about and would enjoy making it. It was an exciting, high-energy first meeting and in the end I had no doubt that this person was the right framebuilder for me. This might seem trite, but it can be very helpful for the framebuilder to get a good sense of the customer's individual style by interacting with them. And getting a sense of your individual style will enable them to use their creativity to make a truly personalised bicycle.

The proximity of Royal H. has also allowed me the unique opportunity to visit my frame at various stages of completion, watch it develop, and give Bryan feedback to any questions or new ideas that came up. I have held the different parts of my frame in my hands before it was a frame - the lugs, the tubes, the dropouts, the little braze-ons! - and I watched Bryan arrange them on his drawing-board. This was a thrilling experience, and it has deepened my sense of connectedness to this bicycle. It is definitely my frame, I was there as it evolved! Thanks to Bryan's generous narration about his process, I have also learned a bit about how bicycles are built in the meantime.

To add a few words about Bryan Hollingsworth himself: For the past three years, he has been a framebuilder for Seven Cycles, where, interestingly enough, he specialises in carbon fiber frames. Recently Bryan has branched out into a private frame building practice and started Royal H., with a focus on classic lugged steel bicycles. The art nouveau aesthetic of his work appeals to me very much, and I often find myself admiring his frames even when the bicycle is completely inappropriate for me - like the cream track bike I mentioned earlier.

[Track bike detail. Image from Royal H. Cycles]

And notice how simple everything here is: No over-the-top lugwork, no eccentric curvature, just a classic, minimalist track frame. But to me, it stands out from other track frames.

Of course my mixte will look very different from the cream track bike, but it will have a similar art nouveau aesthetic and, hopefully, the same feel of understated elegance.

My frame is a fairly complicated one, and there are many special things about it that you will not see on any other bicycle (like these custom dropouts!). Bryan has impressed me on more than one occasion with his ability to combine innovative solutions with classic looks, and I will no doubt dedicate several future posts to boring you with the technical details and pornographic close-ups of my bicycle. But not to worry, that won't be for another couple of months.

[Customer's bike, detail. Image from Royal H. Cycles]

In the meanwhile, I encourage you to get to know your local framebuilders, or to find independent framebuilders in an area of the country that has personal meaning for you. Boston, Massachusetts holds a special place in the history of bicycle manufacturing since the late 1800's, and Somerville in particular was home to several legendary builders, including Fat City Cycles and Merlin Metal Works in the 1980s and '90s. In fact, the Union Square neighborhood where Open Bicycle and Royal H. are located was the former home of these manufacturers. Today, the Boston area boasts famed artisanal framebuilders such as Peter Mooney and Mike Flanigan, the internationally renown Seven Cycles and Independent Fabrications, the innovative Geekhouse, and attention-worthy young builders including Icarus and Royal H. When the context and history of your bicycle's production are meaningful to you, owning it will feel truly special. I plan to have future posts dedicated to local framebuilders, to the framebuilding process, and to the history of bicycle manufacturing in Boston, and I hope that these will be of interest.

42 comments:

  1. Fantastic post! and so exciting about the new frame. what a perfect winter project!

    I just got this book and have been figuring out if this is how I want to spend to cold dark winter: Lugged Bicycle Frame Construction

    Can I ask how much the frame costs, as there is no information on his site. I love that he's so local!

    geoff
    JP, MA
    jpbikeresearch.com

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  2. geoff - Thanks for the link, I will consider getting this book!

    I hope no offense is taken, but I do not feel comfortable discussing the cost of my frame online. I will say that Bryan's prices are reasonable. And as with all builders, the frame price depends on what type of bicycle it is. A touring bike will cost more than a track bike; braze-ons will cost more than no braze-ons, and so on. (In fact I've really found base prices on builders' websites to be not very informative, because by the time your specs are taken into consideration that number becomes radically different.) I do not know what Bryan's base price is, but I will invite him to chime in on this discussion.

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  3. "My Royal H. will be a classic Randonneur-style mixte"

    Never would have guessed. :)

    "I will spend the winter fitting it with components."

    Electra says that all the retro parts they've had made for their Ticino bikes will be available individually. I suggest that you might want to look very hard at their "star" hubs and "TA" cranks. They're exactly what that bike needs (IMHO, of course).

    JPT: ". . . been figuring out if this is how I want to spend to cold dark winter . . ."

    Yes, yes it most definitely is. Although you can do it with that book no problem (seems to be a modern alternative to the old Proteus book, now out of print), you might also want to have a look at the Paterek Manual (at the price of a Nitto Pearl stem). Poke around the frame builder's forum as well.

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  4. Filigree - no offense taken! That thought occured to me as I was asking, but I'm so used to non-custom frames where you just point me to the link with the price.

    I'm glad that you're getting such a personal connection and can specify pretty much anything while also being able to say "do what you think is right, you're the builder"

    kfg: not to dwell on money, but it all comes down to the cost. while much cheaper than a custom frame, buying all the tubes and lugs and parts and tools adds up. then again, i can see myself getting into brazing frenzies and learning how to properly make racks and such. the advantage of this book over the Paterek manual is that it is very straightforward and minimalizes the amount of choices you have to (and get to) make. for a first time builder, this makes it seem less daunting.

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  5. @filigree:

    are you going to source new components or vintage for your mixte? are you going to build it as a true randonneur (e.g., triple chain ring, front and rear derailleurs) or more as a city bike with light touring capability (single chain ring, rear derailleur or IGH)?

    great post, and good info about the local frame building scene.

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  6. Wow, this is exciting news! So, start to finish, is this process going to take 9 months? What a symbol!

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  7. I'm so excited for you! His bikes are beautiful. Bespoke is rad. I do really look forward to the posts about the history of bike manufacturing.

    Kristen

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  8. JPT: ". . . it all comes down to the cost."

    Been there, done that. I built my first frame as a starving college student. I had to do a couple of joints, then save up for more oxy tabs (map gas torches weren't around yet). Took me the better part of the year just on the issue of costs. It's worth it.

    I've still got that frame, the ONLY one I've built that I still have, but it's a wall hanging in Rustoleum at the moment. There's really nothing like riding a frame you've built yourself (gazing into my crystal ball I see this in Filigree's future), but I'd have to retool at this point and, well, the costs add up.

    ". . . the advantage of this book over the Paterek manual is . . . "

    I built my first just using general knowledge and the Proteus book (it was the ONLY one at the time). It's really all you need. I suggested you might like to LOOK at the Paterek Manual, not that you should follow it; it is clearly a manual for the aspiring professional full custom builder and well beyond what's needed to make a damned fine frame.

    Protip: You can make fillet brazed straight gauge tubing bikes dirt cheap if you buy the tubing in 10' lengths from your local industrial supplier.

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  9. The photo of the bare mixte frame shows vertical dropouts. You may want to consider horizontal dropouts (if that's an option) if you want to go singlespeed/fixed gear/or internal gear hub on the rear wheel.

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  10. somervillain - Derailleur, 2 in the front and 8 in the rear, with Sheldon Brown's special touring cassette. I will use modern components, while trying to maintain a classic look: Nitto, Paul, Shimano, Sugino, Schmidt dyno hub, lots of stuff from VO, things like that. I already have the whole thing spec-ed out in a long tedious list : )

    Anon - I definitely do not want to go single/fixed on this; the vertical dropouts were an intentional choice.

    kfg - I am surprised that you recommend Electra for components. Based on all I have heard, I do not have a great deal of faith in the quality of their products. I plan to actually tour on this bike, it won't be merely decorative.

    Charlotte - I haven't thought of that! It will be 7 months total I think, so the velo gestation period must be a bit shorter than for humans.

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  11. Filigree: "I am surprised that you recommend Electra for components."

    I didn't intend to. I can see, looking back, how it would appear that way though. I intend to give them a good, hard look myself when they become available. A good HARD look. I don't mean to insult anyone here who owns an Amsterdam, but I have not been impressed.

    Still, they seem to have gone to a great deal of trouble on this one to make it their bid for the quality market and would expect these parts are actually made by the usual good quality, reasonable price suspects that VO and Rivendell use. Hunt around the VO forums and you might find an interesting thread or two ("an unnamed market player has been asking us . . .")

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  12. I will curb my envy enough to say this ;)

    I was truly surprised and pleased to learn just how many reputable bicycle builders there are in the Boston area (Seven, Royal H, Independent, Peter Mooney, etc...)

    I hope one day I buckle down and actually get a custom road frame... not now, though!

    Looks lovely, congratulations!

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  13. kfg - I see now what you were saying. I am open to the possibility of this new line being good quality, but I think Electra will have a hard time shaking the "fail!" image that they created with the "Amsterdam" line. Nearly everyone I know who has owned one of those bikes has had something fall off or break on it within the first months of ownership. Not to mention the recalls...

    But anyhow, in terms of my mixte all that is a moot point, as it will not be IGH (I am surprised that people assumed it would be - a classic Rene Herse inspired touring bike?... Plus I am a wimp on hills! Plus now that I've learned to use friction shifters AND adjust a derailleur, surely I need to show off those mad skillz.)

    Astroluc - Woops, I had left out IF; thanks for that!

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  14. Oh Wow! What a treasure you are creating with your frame building team! I had a hunch that this is what you something you might be working on, but you were very subtle. The idea of this is really exciting and makes me wonder if there are local to LA custom frame builders. It seems like everyone I know here that has a custom has it from Colorado or Oregon. I should do some research. Congrats on the bike in the works!

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  15. dukiebiddle said:

    I didn't think you were too subtle. ;-) Hey, in my bike news, I just bought a bike on craigslist for $65, so you and me: exactly alike.

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  16. Thanks Cosmo! Would be interesting to know who is out there in LA.

    dukiebiddle - Well, my vintage bicycle acquisitions have been free or in the $100 range, so we are alike in that respect : ) Now go ahead and sell a few of them after fixing them up and voila - custom frame for you!

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  17. Filigree: "I've learned to use friction shifters . . ."

    OK, I know you've picked out your stuff already, but if you just HAPPEN to run across second gen Suntour GTs in decent condition you might want to snap them up. Best damned touring derailers ever made and vaguely elegant as well.

    Cosmo: http://www.townsendcyclesltd.com/index.html

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  18. Oops; somehow the word "Cyclone" left my brain, but never made it to my fingertips. I hate when that happens.

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  19. kfg - Thanks for the advice. I was planning to get the Shimano LX, becase I understand it is the nicest modern derailleur for my purposes, but it is fugly and I would love to find an alternative. Ditto on the Sugino crankset. Those thick crank-arms are a little offensive, what to do!

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  20. Filigree, this is the most exciting bike news I can imagine. I've come to realize how connected I am to bikes that I've "built," by which I mean added components to... I can only imagine the connection you'll feel to a bike you held before it was a bike!

    That fork crown is breathtaking. I can't wait to see the bike!

    Congratulations!!

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  21. and IF is in Somerville, too! tsk tsk.

    (j/k, I forget things all the time!)

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  22. Filigree, that's fantastic! I love the details your bike will have, just on the frame alone. The lugs and braze-ons will be just beautiful. Is the geometry worked out to suit you personally, your height, weight and riding style?

    Hmm... I'm wondering what colour you've chosen... I have an idea but not going to say anything in case I'm wrong :-).

    You have obviously done an absolute ton of research about components in the last few months - you are going to have a truly special bike come spring. How wonderful!

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  23. heard some people were interested in pricing. it's true- pricing a custom bike is a real challenge. small things like rack mounts or stainless accents take much longer than you would think to do properly and tastefully. i would say, if you want a royal h, expect to pay in the order of $1600-2000. this will include a frame and fork. $1600 builds will be single color with minimal 'extras'. on the other end of the spectrum, there are options like lug lining, multiple colors, custom graphics, exotic lugsets, superlight tubing, s&s couplers, integrated racks, stainless lugs, chroming, etc. etc. etc. i say, if you're interested, let's talk. there are plenty of creative ways to get to the bike of your dreams! i believe these costs to be reasonable, in the realm of custom frames. i do all the work myself, and all of it is done by hand with files and a torch. kind of an evasive answer, but that's the nature of the business.

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  24. Thank you all for the nice comments : )

    Carinthia - If you can imagine an even mix of light blue, light green and light gray, that will be the colour. It will be powder coat, glossy but not "pearlescent". Then I'll do the gold pinstriping around the lugwork with enamel paint by hand.

    Bryan - Thanks for your honest reply. So glad I am not into super light tubing or chroming. I am just a simple girl with simple tastes really.

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  25. Bryan, when it comes time for me to get a custom frame, I'll make sure to talk to you!

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  26. The colour sounds very French... rather like that indefinable colour you see on interior walls in country houses in France. Not quite grey, not quite green, not quite blue but a gentle blend of all three. Almost like seafoam, perhaps? It will be truly beautiful on that frame. Are you getting any contrasting colours on the lug areas apart from your pinstriping?

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  27. And Bryan.
    For those that ask about weight, tell them what they say at Southwest Frameworks "My frames will weigh just about the same as any other frame of similar construction from most other builders."

    I'd have said "the price by the time the finished bike rolls out the door will make you suck your breath in a bit." Unlike that lousy little used car, however, you will still love it on the day you die as much as the day you take it home. Actually, maybe you'll love it even more...

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  28. I've decided. When I have an extra couple thousand or so I'll take ONE of those.
    Beautiful!
    Maybe you and Bryan should 'brand' it and come up with a name... then people could read your blog and just order a duplicate made if they fall madly in love with it ...smile, smile ;)

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  29. Steve A said...
    > the price by the time the finished bike
    > rolls out the door will make you suck your
    > breath in a bit.


    I think that needs to happen in order for you to appreciate what you are getting : ) A dream bike is by definition an unaffordable, improbable objet du désir - that somehow we are getting anyway. So it is the artisan's responsibility really to keep prices in the realm where they provide that experience.

    Riding Pretty - Just one? : )
    Unfortunately it is not possible to replicate my bicycle, because the lugs necessary to make a classic mixte like this (with twin top tubes rather than a single one) no longer exist. I lucked out, because Bryan had 1 set left from a secret cache, but no more. (If anyone has any leads on NOS mixte lugs please drop me a line.)

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  30. Do you know what color you'll have it painted?

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  31. Giffen - See reply to Carinthia earlier. If you are familiar with the RAL colour system, it will be either RAL 6034 or RAL 6021.

    Carinthia - I am conflicted about contrasting colours. On the one hand it is tempting to paint the lug cutouts red. On the other hand, when I look at the classic Randonneurs, they have a quiet shimmery elegance that might be undermined by the contrast. Maybe I will outline the lugs in cream and fill in the cutouts with gold...

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  32. Hi Filigree, looking at the RAL colours it could also work the other way around - outlined in gold with cream cutouts, similar to the contrast in your final pic above. Experimenting in Photoshop first might be advisable :-))

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  33. (fm 'lemony')

    I.m.h.o. to keep the 'finesse' of the 'art' of a piece like yours I would avoid too 'contrasting' color-scheme/combination? Again i.m.h.o. I would go for the 'mellow' to keep it 'classic'.

    Lemony.

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  34. Lemony - I agree, and this is why I also decided against a constrasting head-tube. Regarding your PM, I cannot remember who this is! Do remind me!

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  35. (From 'lemony')

    He's 'cyclemaniac'(Some thought he's a female - he told me so - he is gentle & 'genteel' even in cyberspace.:D heeheee. I was at his home watching (over his shoulder) him read your 'first' post on the lugs - the one with picture of the lugs on a ' - drawing board' - he turned around and said 'This lady is probably the owner of these - she would have a custom make bike soon!' I was 'skeptical' and asked him to ask you if what he had said to me were true. He declined .. instead he posted something abt lugs .. and said you would know he 'suspected'.

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  36. Gorgeous lug work. Inspiring even. If I talk my children into not eating and possibly give up their education I might have one built for myself one day :-) Maybe I'll just save my spare change for a couple years.

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  37. Aw tell your children to buck up and get full scholarships. That's what I had to do in my day. Builds character! : )

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  38. I can't wait to see it when it's painted. It's beautiful even in its raw state.

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  39. well constructed it will produce good

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  40. Hi LB,

    Are you planning on doing any reviews of Icarus frames? I think they are also in Somerville,MA and was drooling over the pics. on their site.
    Love your site.

    Cheers

    GM

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  41. Great blog.

    What RAL colour did you end up going for? Its hard to tell from the pictures?

    Bec

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  42. I am having great time reading your blog from Gisborne New Zealand. I thought you might be interested in thye bamboo bikes that are being produced by Freddy from our local bike shop.
    http://www.bikeys.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=86&Itemid=164
    They look great and are really strong

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