Interview: Sam Whittingham

Naked world record holder

Naked Bicycles owner Sam Whittingham is not only one of the world’s premier custom frame builders, he is also the fastest self-propelled man on the planet.

In September 2008 he broke his own world record by reaching a new top speed of 82.33mph on a flat road. And when he's not pushing the limits in his speed bikes, he's pushing the limits of frame design at his workshop on Quandra Island in British Columbia, Canada.

Sam's Baba Ganoush fixie won best in show at the 2008 North American Handmade Bicycle show and was snapped up by Lance Armstrong. It now takes pride of place in Mellow Johnny’s Austin, Texas store.

The naked truth

So how did he prepare himself for this life of high-speed thrills and hob-nobbing with the stars of the cycling world? He trained as a set designer. In the process, Sam became fascinated with mechanics, and in particular with the efficient movement of objects. This helped inspire his hobby of making bicycle frames.

“Although I never thought it strange, people used to be confused that I would do two seemingly dissimilar crafts as on first glance they don’t seem to be related fields," he says. Eventually though, bicycle design won out and became his only profession, as Sam felt he had more control over the creative process and theatre involved too much time away from home.

Sam is mostly self-taught but draws inspiration from his friend George Georgiev, who makes hand cycles for disabled athletes and designs Sam’s world record-breaking self-propelled speed bikes. “George inspires me by always thinking out of the box and pushing the limits," says Sam.

George has also helped inspire Sam's basic philosophy on bicycle engineering and design, that less is more - hence the name of his bike company. He says, “To me, the bicycle is naked. I love that you can see the entire mechanism and immediately understand and relate to it.”

For Sam, it is also about minimalist design and artistry. As he says, "A desire in all things to strip them back to what is essential, throughout the design, production and painting.”

Sam recently moved back to his roots on Quandra Island after 15 years living in Victoria on the much larger Vancouver Island. It has allowed him the space to run his frame and bike shop as well as being a great place for his children to grow up.

 “One thing I didn’t expect in such a small community is a real local market for my bikes that is springing up. I am very excited about this as it gives something back to the community.” Sam tries to run his business as efficiently as possible for environmental as well as economic reasons, and is looking into harnessing the power of a waterfall next to his house.

Stripped down philosophy

His stripped down philosophy also extends to the setup of the business. All frame design and work is carried out by Sam himself, with one part-time assistant, while Sam’s wife, Andrea Blaseckie, runs the day-to-day business. As a result, they are able to deal directly with customers.

Sam is fed up with "cookie cutter" bikes that are virtually identical apart from the head tube badges. “Mass-produced manufacturing by its very nature can never be custom. They can only hope to make an excellent product that works reasonably well for most customers."

His philosophy is to get away from the “one size fits nobody” production mentality and respond to the needs of those who are rediscovering the desire for beautifully crafted handmade objects. For him, “only by building one bicycle for one person can the product be truly unique.”

Sam finds that his most popular bikes are what he calls “adventure bikes”, designed to combine the feel and responsiveness of a pure road machine with the versatility and comfort of a touring bike. But he is keen to point out that, “Most of my bikes defy pure classification - they are simply Dave’s bike or Susan’s bike. Because every bike is built one at a time, the end product becomes highly personal.”

The Baba Ganoush fixie designed for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show was not built for a customer but was put together while Sam was grieving for a friend who had died of cancer.

"I had no idea whatsoever that it would get any attention, nor that it would find its way to such an appropriate home with Lance Armstrong. To say that I was pleased would be underestimating things a bit, considering Lance’s efforts to raise cancer awareness.”

World's fastest man

Sam has been racing speed bicycles with George Georgiev for nearly 18 years. George builds their record-breaking Varna Diablo enclosed full-recumbent bikes and Sam helps to refine them. 

He first broke the self-propelled record in 2000 and has held it ever since. Sam cites his speed heroes as “Fast Freddy Markham, Curt Harnett, Eddie Merckx and Superman” but “reserves special status for Beryl Burton”.    

Inside the speed bike, he wears only standard cycling clothes and a cross-country helmet. This fits in with his stripped down approach but is also practical - as Sam says: “Nothing else fits in the speed bike.”  

This is not without its risks, as he had a lucky escape in 2004 when he lost control, took off at 80mph and flew 300m before hitting the ground hard.

In September, he broke his own world record once more with a top speed of 82.33mph. “This is on a perfectly flat road. I have no assistance from gravity, wind or drafting.”

So what drives him to do this? He’s not in it for the money, the fame or the glory. It is about that same desire that drives him to run a small, independent custom frame shop.

“Many people think I must be some sort of speed junkie, but that doesn’t really explain it," he said. 

"It is the attempt to answer a very simple problem that I love - how fast can a human being propel himself?”

So can he go even faster?  “That’s the plan!” And we have every confidence that he will.

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