NPR logo Handmade Bikes Let Commuters Ride In Style

Around the Nation

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.

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.