Step into any bike shop, and you’ll see mountain bikes from the biggest names in the business: Trek, Giant, Felt, Specialized, Cannondale, GT. They’re everywhere. Spend a few years in the trail riding scene and you’ll discover a second group of smaller specialty builders: Yeti, Salsa, Ibis, Kona, Rocky Mountain, Santa Cruz.
Even if you’ve been riding mountain bikes for decades, you might not be familiar with the third tier of builders—companies that make 100, 150, maybe 250 frames a year, where the owner of the company will walk you through the process of picking out your build kit, and might even weld your frame himself. This is the realm of American-made, hand-built bikes—bikes that have soul.
But why does a handmade bike have more character than a Trek or a Specialized? What is it about these builders that imbues their rigs with an intangible, ethereal factor that earns them lifelong customers who would never go back to a major brand? What gives a bike that elusive quality we call soul?
Colorado is ground-zero for the American-made hand-built mountain bike world, so I thought I’d find out.
Colorado Custom Bike Builders
The Guerrilla Gravity (ridegg.com) shop is hidden away in the shadow of Mile High Stadium, surrounded by boutique apartments with names like “Turntable Studios” and “Element 47.” The streets are calm. Other than I-25 racing by, it’s quiet. The only sign that one of Colorado’s most up-and-coming mountain bike manufacturers is located here is the Crush Bus, a full-size school bus parked outside the shop. It’s painted black and emblazoned with the slogan “Badass Mountain Bikes.”
When I go into the shop, Will Montague, one of three founders of the company, is on the phone answering questions from a new customer. Looking around the shop, I see a handful of bikes in various configurations. Mounted on the back wall is a GG DH, a beast of a downhill machine. Also in the shop is possibly the hottest bike of the year: the Megatrail.
Montague started mountain biking when he was thirteen years old. “It was an adventure tool,” he said of his first mountain bike, a fully rigid Trek. He rode the trails surrounding his home town of Atlanta before moving to Colorado after college. He immediately got hooked on downhill, and rode nothing but DH until recently, with the release of GG’s all-mountain Megatrail.
Interestingly, Montague doesn’t come from a manufacturing or bike-industry background, as you might expect the president of a company like GG would. Instead, his experience lies in marketing and sales, especially for startups. He started his first business in college. He’s worked as a marketing coordinator for a cloud computing company, a social media coordinator for a startup that helps other startups get up and running, and as an outside sales rep.
All this experience in the startup world has prepared him for the difficulties in starting a small business: “Starting a business is a slog. It takes a tremendous amount of perseverance and staying power; that’s just something you sort of have to know and be aware of as you march forward.” And GG is indeed marching forward.
Next February, GG will be celebrating its fifth birthday. In 2011, Montague partnered with engineer Matt Giaraffa on a simple mission: build better bikes. Shortly after, they were joined by marketer Kristy Anderson, and Guerrilla Gravity was born. After two years of prototyping in a garage, and another year of further development and testing, GG’s first bike was completed and their journey began.
2015 has been a great year for Guerrilla Gravity. In addition to getting a huge amount of praise for the Megatrail, their 26”/27.5”-capable, adjustable-suspension, all-mountain machine, they also received a $100,000 Mission Main Street grant from Chase Bank. Montague says that this influx of capital will let them pursue more projects—GG has both a hardtail and a short-travel full-suspension bike in the works (though no fat bike; “we build bikes for goin’ fast, and fat bikes don’t go fast,” Montague says), and they’ll soon be moving to a bigger shop.
The press helps a lot with getting the word out about their bikes, too. “[It’s challenging] being the new guy on the block, when it comes to customer perception. You just have to go through the product adoption curve, when you have those that are willing to adopt something that’s new on the market, which is a much smaller percentage than the bulk of the market, which relies on those first few adopters to test it out and make sure that everything’s good to go.”
This might explain Guerrilla Gravity’s focus on community-based marketing. Instead of spending loads of money on expensive ads, GG dedicates more time to getting the word out through social media, demo tours in the Crush Bus, and getting their bikes reviewed in magazines. They’ve been featured in non-industry publications as well, including the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
GG is riding high in 2015, and with new offerings on the way and a strong community, they look to be a solid force in Colorado mountain biking for many years to come. It’s not always easy, but Montague, Giaraffa, and Anderson draw on their ambitions to get through the tough times: “The dream of what we can accomplish by seeing our ideas through is what keeps us going. We feel that our approach to the industry and the market really brings something unique, so when the going gets tough, we just have to power through.”
In contrast to GG’s take-on-the-world attitude, Boulder’s Dean Bicycles (deanbikes.com) is content to stay small. When I’m shown into the factory behind their tiny showroom, owner Ari Leon is behind a welding mask, working on a titanium frame. As he goes to wash his hands, I look around the factory and marvel at gorgeous titanium bikes in various states, from raw tubing all the way to finished and ready-to-ship frames.
The frames themselves are stunning—whereas GG’s frames are clearly built to survive a nuclear war (or at least the gnarliest enduro race out there), Dean’s bikes have an artistic, sculptural quality to them. The tubes are perfectly shaped, arcing gracefully from one end of the bike to the other, and ending in welds that are low-profile and just as perfect as the tubes themselves. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.
Frames are Dean’s specialty: while they will occasionally build up a full bike for a customer, frame-building is what they excel at. And it’s easy to see why. Leon could talk for hours about grades of titanium—the differences between 3-2.5, 6-4, and CP titanium, the exact requirements of welding titanium, how the titanium on Dean’s bikes is better than that on competitors’s rigs, and the properties of titanium that make for phenomenal bikes. “My passion is the welding,” he says, and it’s obvious that he takes an extreme amount of care in each weld.
After spending a few years welding titanium frames with Dean, Leon bought the company last October when founder John Siegrist determined it was time to sell—instead of starting his own hand-built shop in an already crowded market, he decided to carry on an already well-known name.
And Dean is a very well-known name. Siegrist has built bikes for Kristin Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Nicole Freeman. He even built one for Eddie Van Halen. Dean’s customers range from world-class pros to amateur cycling enthusiasts who love titanium, and they all get custom bikes that are built to fit their bodies perfectly. Leon shows me a custom sizing rig that they built in the shop to get the fit of each bike dialed in.
This custom fit and the week-long process of taking titanium from raw tubing to testing-ready frame mean that customers can currently expect a two- to three-month lead time. For what you’re getting, which is a beautifully crafted custom titanium speed machine that will last 20 years, that’s more than worth it.
But not everyone is happy waiting that long, which is why Dean has now introduced a second line of stock bikes built by their partners in China. In contrast to the American-made, hand-built mainstays of the Dean line, these bikes are built to stock specs overseas, then shipped over. Of course, they still have to get Leon’s stamp of approval before they get shipped out to customers under the storied Dean name.
Leon gives me two headtubes to compare, one that would be used on a Boulder-built bike, and one that would come stock on a bike from China. The difference is remarkable. They’re both impressively light, being made from titanium, but the American-made one has a nicer finish, is thinnner, lighter, and more precisely machined. Choosing a Chinese-made titanium frame from Dean, however, could save you $1,300 on a hardtail—a huge difference when you’re talking about that much money (a custom hardtail frame will run you about $2,500). While this new line hasn’t yet hit it big with customers, it seems likely that the strategy to appeal to a wider range of buyers will be a successful one. They’re still beautiful, light, strong bikes, and they can be had for very reasonable prices.
Interestingly, Leon’s near-future plans for the company include a foray into carbon bikes, the current de-facto standard for high-end race machines and long-distance rigs. “Great carbon will ride amazing, and there’s no myth about it,” he told me when I asked about the ride quality differences between titanium and carbon, “but it will still have the durability issue.”
By combining the best of both worlds in a carbon-front-triangle, titanium-rear-triangle bike, he hopes to create a bike that is ultra light, but still strong, durable, and flex-resistant. The carbon used in these bikes will be made by the former production manager for Calfee, so the American-sourced and -made tradition will continue.
Although Leon is looking to push the industry forward, he’s not concerned with building bikes that are trendy for the sake of being trendy. “This is the hand-built world,” he says. And being part of the hand-built world comes with some unique challenges. “Customers that think we’re bigger than we are,” he says, is the biggest problem that he faces. But, “It’s actually kind of a breeze; I enjoy it, so it’s kind of a breeze.”
Outside the cycling meccas of Denver and Boulder lies Longmont, home of REEB cycles (reebcycles.com). Unlike most bike makers, REEB wasn’t born in the cycling world—it arose from the Oskar Blues brewery, the guys behind the ever-popular Dale’s Pale Ale. REEB’s website puts their creation story best: “Dale’s bike was stolen four years ago, and REEB was born as a middle finger to bike thieves and bikes built overseas.”
It’s this irreverence that strikes you first when you first learn about REEB. Instead of names like Felt’s “Decree,” Giant’s “Anthem,” Trek’s “Fuel,” or Cannondale’s “Scalpel,” their bikes have names that make you smile: the REEBdikyelous, the REEBdonkadonk, the Dirt Diggler, and the Sam’s Pants stand out among other offroad rigs, and REEB’s signature decal speaks for itself:
REEB and Oskar Blues have always deeply connected, says Tim Moore, who manages REEB’s bike shop and does a little bit of everything else to keep the company running and moving forward on the right track. “Dale buys every brewery employee a bike after two years,” and a good portion of the people who work at the brewery are mountain bikers.
Oskar Blues has always been a part of the local bike scene, and off-road riding is in the company’s DNA. It might seem strange that a brewery would start a bike company, but “it made sense to have a company—people always think it’s weird, but it didn’t seem so weird. It was like ‘oh yeah, of course we’ll have a bike company.’”
These bikes aren’t just a side-project for Oskar Blues, though. Chris Sulfrain, the designer and welder behind REEB’s machines, has over twelve years experience building bikes, including with his own custom outfit, Generic Cycles. Since joining REEB, he’s produced some fantastic frames. Most of them are steel, crafted from high-end True Temper OX Platinum tubing, while a few models come in titanium as well. Why go with steel? Moore puts it simply: “Steel rides great. Especially high-end steel.”
Sulfrain worked with True Temper to create a custom tubeset, called the ABT Tubeset, for REEB’s bikes. The seat tube is wide enough for a 31.6mm dropper post, the downtube is bigger for increased stiffness, and the chainstays have more bend than standard stays to increase clearance for bigger tires. And REEB is all about bigger tires. The Donkadonk can run 4.8” tires, and an upcoming model with 190mm spacing will be able to handle even bigger ones without having chain-rub issues.
All of REEB’s frames are also belt drive-compatible, and they sell a lot of Gates’ carbon drive systems. In fact, they almost never sell single speeds with chains anymore. The fact that Gates is based in Denver and manufactures their belts in Louisville is a bonus, keeping even more of the bike components American-made to complement the domestic steel and titanium. Even the dropouts are sourced from Paragon Machine Works, a California company “Whatever we did, we’d never outsource it; that’s pretty much the only thing we wouldn’t do,” says Moore.
The emphasis on American-made bikes is an important part of REEB’s ethos. But there’s more to it than that—Oskar Blues as a whole is very much like a family, from Friday-afternoon lunch gatherings to velodrome outings and group rides. This focus on social connection—and beer—is important to REEB as a company, too. “For bike shops that are gonna be dealers, a lot of times it’s a bike shop that’s already got a ride going and maybe they end it at [a pub] that sells Oskar Blues, and then they call and wanna be a dealer. That’s what we look for, especially bike shops that do rides and events that pair well with beer. That’s what we like,” says Moore.
Sulfrain agrees: “Most of all we just build bikes we want to ride.” And the kinds of bikes that the guys at REEB want to ride have one thing in common: fun. It’s clear that fun is at the center of what makes a REEB a REEB. That and beer. Every REEB has the slogan “Ride bikes, drink beer, go fuck you.” printed on the inside of the chainstay. It’s this sort of mentality that’s helped REEB’s bike shop at CyclHops, an Oskar-Blues-owned Mexican cantina, thrive.
“There was no bike shop on this side of town,” Moore explains. So when REEB was ready to move out of his garage, they moved into their Longmont location and started demoing bikes and doing repairs. Now they’re doing almost more repair and services than they can handle—it’s clear that Longmont and the surrounding area appreciate not only their attitude, but their expertise as well.
Oskar Blues’ non-profit Can’d Aid program has certainly attracted a lot of attention and brought new customers to the company, as well. Beginning as a response to the 2013 floods (and raising over $700,000), Can’d Aid supports trail advocacy, local music, and environmental causes. They call it “an irreverent nonprofit focused on nation-wide ‘do-goodery.’” And this irreverent do-goodery is also at the heart of REEB’s brand.
As a company currently going through one of the more difficult phases of business development—“growing pains,” as Moore calls it—REEB has a lot of things going for it. Great bikes, great people, great beer, philanthropy . . . it’s clear that Dale has built this company around what he loves, and chosen people who reflect that to run the company.
With consistently great reviews and steadily increasing sales, it’s clear REEB is onto something. More important than magazine reviews and sales numbers, though, are the customers. “A lot of our customers reach out afterwards to tell us how much they love their bikes, and that’s pretty cool.”
The world of hand-built mountain bikes is a small one, but it’s filled with an immense amount of diversity—from the raw materials used for the bikes, to the designs of the frames, to the riding styles catered for. No matter what kind of riding you do, there’s a small builder out there that can get you on the bike of your dreams.
In part, it’s this variety that contributes to these bikes having soul. Sure, you can get a Santa Cruz or a GT and have it fit perfectly and perform exactly how you want it to, but that company will always remain faceless, gigantic and aloof in its worldwide endeavors. What really gives these bikes soul is the people behind them.
It’s calling up GG and having Will Montague, the founder of the company, talk you through putting together a custom build kit for your Megatrail. It’s knowing that the artistic titanium frame that you’re rocking down the mountain was personally welded by Ari Leon, the owner of Dean. It’s the smile on your face when you read “Ride bikes, drink beer, go fuck you.” on the chainstay of your REEB and thinking about how much fun it was to hang out with Tim at CyclHops and check out Chris’s welding shop down the road.
These are the things that give a bike soul; it’s not the bike itself, but the people behind it, and the echoes of those people that are evident in the construction, the ride, and the look of the bike. That’s what makes a bike more than a piece of metal.
Spending time with these guys and seeing how passionate they are about their bikes and their companies has changed the way that I look at bikes. No more are they just machines, created by other machines, that get us down the mountain.
No, they’re more than that. They’re living things, embodiments of the hard work and careful thought that went into them. Whether it’s an enduro-destroying all-mountain crusher, a blazing-fast piece of art on wheels, or a fun-focused ripping hardtail, it’s been brought alive by the love, passion, and effort that went into it.
And that’s what gives a bike soul.