The bicycle has undergone a kind of renaissance in recent years.
It still has two wheels. Those inscrutably narrow seats still kinda sorta make your netherlies sore. The chain still comes maddeningly undone at the most inopportune times.
But never before has the bicycle been so beautiful, as demonstrated by the explosion of the custom frame industry — an industry whose light shines brightest in America.
“Right now is the Golden Age in custom frame building,” North American Handmade Bicycle Show chief judge Patrick Brady told The Atlantic in 2014. And while 99% of the bikes sold in America are still manufactured overseas, the 1% that we do make here are also the proverbial 1%: they’re prettier, higher-performing and a good spot more expensive that anything you’ll find at your local sporting goods store.
Featured below: a few of the best American framebuilders working today, and what sets them apart from the peloton.
Firefly | Boston, MA
Founded in 2010, Firefly is already at the forefront of titanium frame construction. Their approach is totally integrative: not only do they design custom stems and seatposts to go with their frames, they also invite the customer into the design process itself (“every bike we make is custom,” they say). From roadies to gravel bikes, MTBs to randonneurs, Firefly has applied their expertise to a dizzying array of projects. The above bike is also a future-present exemplar of the road bike in 2016, utilizing Shimano's top-of-the-line hydraulic disc brake-equipped Dura-Ace Di2 electronic groupset, with clearance for fatter tires to shred dirt and gravel.
The Vanilla Workshop | Portland, OR
Sacha White, the creative force behind Portland's Vanilla Workshop, not only builds some of the world's most beautiful bikes, but he's also a kind of impresario, traveling the country and the world (oftentimes in his armored car) to spread the gospel of cycling culture. Vanilla very much reflects this — whether it’s the vibrant community that exists around the Workshop, or its race-oriented off-shoot Speedvagen, White's company is not just about top-shelf craftsmanship, but the joie de vivre that only a bike can deliver.
Argonaut Cycles | Portland, OR
The advantage of carbon fiber over other frame materials is its virtually limitless pliability, which is also precisely why Argonaut Cycles has been so exciting to watch the past few years. Ben Farver and his team work with each client to create a bike that is as closely tuned to their body and riding style as is technologically possible. And while they are not the only U.S.-based company to offer bespoke carbon, their proprietary in-house layup techniques (as well as their use of domestically produced carbon) have been pushing the envelope of what can be done with a material that has become the universal standard for modern racebikes.
Bishop Bikes | Baltimore, MD
Chris Bishop's journey as a framebuilder is uniquely American and steeped in our national cycling culture, from his beginnings as a carpenter and bike messenger to his tutelage under legendary framebuilder Koichi Yamaguchi. Not only are Bishop's bikes pinnacles of traditionalist steel craftsmanship (harkening back to Italian and French bikes of yore), they're also built to withstand whatever abuse you're capable of dishing out. His attention to detail has already won him several awards, and each bike Chris delivers is, in and of itself, a work of art.
Stoemper | Springfield, OR
Part of the ongoing Pacific-Northwestern cycling renaissance, Stoemper aims at being "nothing short of the fastest and sexiest made-in-USA brand.” Accordingly, these are steel or aluminum frames that are meant to be ridden into the ground and raced with absolute abandon. Another key factor in Stoemper's appeal to the everyman racers is their price point, which won’t — when compared with other high-end framebuilders — break the proverbial bank.
Main image via The Vanilla Workshop