Handmade Bikes Let Commuters Ride In Style

Thousands of bicyclists will hit the road Friday, as part of National Bike to Work Day. But not all "commuter" bikes are equal. In fact, some are hand-built — and with a rider's particular route to work in mind.

  • The shape of Renold Yip's custom-made front rack was inspired by a sunflower, as was the bike's color.
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    The shape of Renold Yip's custom-made front rack was inspired by a sunflower, as was the bike's color.
    All photos by May-Ying Lam/NPR
  • This versatile road bike won Best of Show for Dave Wages of Ellis Cycles in Waterford, Wis. The steel bike was built to help a rider tackle San Francisco's hills.
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    This versatile road bike won Best of Show for Dave Wages of Ellis Cycles in Waterford, Wis. The steel bike was built to help a rider tackle San Francisco's hills.
  • Sacha White's booth at the show included a chunk of his workshop:  a near-finished frame, files and saws for working steel, and a coffeemaker.
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    Sacha White's booth at the show included a chunk of his workshop: a near-finished frame, files and saws for working steel, and a coffeemaker.
  • This bike's hammered-steel fenders were painted to match the overall frame. Builder Dan Polito says the style is based on a British club racing bike of the 1950s.
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    This bike's hammered-steel fenders were painted to match the overall frame. Builder Dan Polito says the style is based on a British club racing bike of the 1950s.
  • This bamboo bike is something of a celebrity in its own right. Built by Calfee Cycles for three monks to ride in a charity tour, it presented a unique challenge after the show ended: fitting it into the back of a pickup.
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    This bamboo bike is something of a celebrity in its own right. Built by Calfee Cycles for three monks to ride in a charity tour, it presented a unique challenge after the show ended: fitting it into the back of a pickup.
  • Aaron Dykstra won Newcomer of the Year for this track bike, an homage to the Six Eleven locomotive that's a legend in his hometown of Roanoke, Va. The drop tube is tapered, "like a raindrop," Dykstra said. And the rear wheel is dimpled, like a golf ball.
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    Aaron Dykstra won Newcomer of the Year for this track bike, an homage to the Six Eleven locomotive that's a legend in his hometown of Roanoke, Va. The drop tube is tapered, "like a raindrop," Dykstra said. And the rear wheel is dimpled, like a golf ball.
  • This bicycle's pencil-like tubes are hollow veneers of ash, maple and other woods, harvested from the region around Sylvan Bikes, based in Amherst, Mass. Co-founder John Fabel says the tubes have a better stiffness-to-weight ratio than similar steel tubes.
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    This bicycle's pencil-like tubes are hollow veneers of ash, maple and other woods, harvested from the region around Sylvan Bikes, based in Amherst, Mass. Co-founder John Fabel says the tubes have a better stiffness-to-weight ratio than similar steel tubes.
  • The frame of this city cruiser is fillet-brazed (note the smooth joint where the tubes meet the stem), while the fork from the front wheel is joined by a sturdy lug (the C-shaped metal housing).
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    The frame of this city cruiser is fillet-brazed (note the smooth joint where the tubes meet the stem), while the fork from the front wheel is joined by a sturdy lug (the C-shaped metal housing).
  • Anyone wanting an entirely handmade commuting kit may want to consider splurging for some Italian riding shoes. This pair, made by Dromarti, runs around $230.
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    Anyone wanting an entirely handmade commuting kit may want to consider splurging for some Italian riding shoes. This pair, made by Dromarti, runs around $230.
  • Legendary builder Richard Sachs brought these mud-spattered bikes from his own team to remind people why he builds bikes. Sachs rides with the cyclocross team he sponsors.
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    Legendary builder Richard Sachs brought these mud-spattered bikes from his own team to remind people why he builds bikes. Sachs rides with the cyclocross team he sponsors.
  • This track bike goes for "an old-school '30s kind of look," said builder David Mills. That's true even in the color, he said: "The dark red — they didn't have bright pigments." The rims are metal — and painted by a factory in Taiwan that uses a technique to simulate wood grain.
    Hide caption
    This track bike goes for "an old-school '30s kind of look," said builder David Mills. That's true even in the color, he said: "The dark red — they didn't have bright pigments." The rims are metal — and painted by a factory in Taiwan that uses a technique to simulate wood grain.

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Consider the high-school teacher who ordered a bike from custom builder Dan Polito in Cleveland, Ohio.

His client "wanted a comfortable, upright-position cruiser for their crushed-limestone commute," Polito says. Most of the teacher's route to school is on a bike trail.

So Polito designed a bike based on a 1950s British club racer. The bike is sturdy and lean, a good match for a daily commute.

The 'Bespoke Bike' Movement

Polito and other master bike builders were at the North American Handmade Bike Show in Richmond, Va., earlier this year. Currently, some of the same craftsmen are displaying their work in New York City, at the Museum of Arts and Design's show titled Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle.

The exhibit was partly organized by Sacha White, a builder from Portland, Ore., who has attracted a huge following by making bikes that are both useful and beautiful.

The waitlist for White's bicycles, sold under the Vanilla brand, is among the longest in the custom-bike business. "It was five years at one point," he says.

But White has another, far smaller group of customers for whom he's built bicycles — and even a tricycle: his daughters, Delilah and Zelda.

For them, White built bikes with frames that can be adjusted as the girls grow. The design includes a rack and saddlebags — for their schoolwork, he says.

That's because for White and his family, Bike to Work Day is a year-round affair. "My family gets around by bike," he says. "We don't have a car."

A Daisy In Yellow Steel

Faced with a request for a commuter bike with a feminine feel, builder Renold Yip crafted a canary-yellow bicycle inspired by daisies and sunflowers.

But that doesn't mean the bike is, too … well, flowery — for a hard commute. For starters, it's made of steel, a favorite material for many custom builders. And its central triangle is stretched out, to help soften bumpy roads.

The positioning of the seat and handlebars ensures that the rider can sit upright and keep an eye on traffic.

And because the bike's owner wanted a cargo rack, Yip built her one — from scratch. Designed to look like an off-center daisy, its supporting arms are white, with sculpted accents.

With a business based in Fort Collins, Colo., Yip prides himself in giving customers what they want — and then some.

"Sometimes, after a couple of years, they finally realize there's some little feature that they never saw initially," he says.

As a special treat for its owner, Yip adorned the bike's brake levers with snug hand-knitted covers — what he calls a "lever sock."

"It's something a little extra, that they didn't expect — but that makes them happy," he says.

In the world of custom bike-building, it doesn't get a lot more elaborate than that. As Yip's customer rides to work each day, the care that he put into her bike is likely turning heads — and making her daily commute a pleasure.

Maybe Next Year?

If you'd like to have your own handbuilt bike in time the time for the 2011 Bike to Work Day, you may want to get started on it soon. Most custom builders take 3.5 to 4 weeks to build up a full bike — which often include custom racks and matched components. But with popular established brands, like Sacha White's Vanilla Cycles, the wait list for a bike can be months- or years-long.

It's hard to generalize about the final cost, but many builders charge $1,500 and up for the frame only, and $3,000 and up for a full bike and accessories. And to start the process, many builders require a deposit of $500 to $800 upfront.

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