We kick off our coverage of this year's North American Handmade Bicycle Show with a snapshot of two local one-man marques – and a sampling of their show bikes for this year – that are each celebrating their 20th year making customers' dreams come true: Sycip Bikes and Retrotec Cycles.
Retrotec principal Curtis Inglis admittedly hasn't been with the company for all of its 20 years, but it's been awfully close: Inglis joined the company just one year after being founded by Bob Seals in 1992 and he hasn't looked back since taking over the company in its entirety a few years later.
These days Inglis builds his beach cruiser-inspired Retrotecs in six different styles, each of which will be on display at this year's NAHBS. While they all differ subtly – be in twin top tubes or single, road, mountain, or everything in between – the common theme is the distinctive curved tubing. Inglis also offers straight-tubed frames under the eponymous 'Inglis' brand name and in total, builds a steady "thirty to forty" bikes and frames each year.
The 44mm-diameter head tube on this Retrotec can handle either straight or tapered steerer tubes
Jeremy Sycip's operation is quite a bit more productive, churning out around a hundred bikes and frames annually – and that's a decrease from the days when he and his brother, Jay, were operating a full shop with multiple employees and a full-time paint booth on site. Still, Sycip's machines don't seem to suffer in terms of artistry or creativity as a result and his NAHBS bikes are consistently some of the most wildly imaginative at the show each year.
Jeremy Sycip's cargo bike
Given what is sometimes a sizeable disparity in terms of pure performance, why do some buyers even bother with a handmade bike that is oftentimes not only heavier but more expensive than off-the-shelf models?
Sycip and Inglis both agree that the relationship built between the buyer and builder is a major component of the story as well as the ability to get a truly bespoke machine built just for you.
"The ability to customize the bikes is a big part of it, whether you have a special need or you have a desire for a certain top tube length or certain angles or something like that," Inglis told BikeRadar during a visit to his workshop, housed wholly inside a freestanding garage behind his house in Napa.
"The other part is the aesthetics – being able to pick what kind of style of bike you want to go with and being able to have a nice classic bike that doesn't look like the company threw itself up on it with fifteen different logos and acronyms on chain stay flex-o-rama. And being able to meet the person who's building your bike and to have some conversations with them and pick the tubeset – it all plays into it."
"They're getting a relationship – it's made for that person," said Sycip when we visited his operation in nearby Santa Rosa. "It's a lot more special and they get to meet the person building it, too. They get better service and they get taken care of better. There are a lot of handmade bikes and they're all really good. What I've come to find out is that when people buy one of your bikes, they're buying 'you'."
Jeremy Sycip's workshop in Santa Rosa
20 years in, both Sycip and Inglis can proudly look back on successful careers that are now stable and healthy. Whereas they were both once the new kids on the block, these days they're almost considered the old guard.
"Man, I thought I'd be huge! Like mass produced, just sitting back, not getting my hands dirty – but I'm actually still just doing the same exact thing," said Sycip. "Just like anyone else when you first start a business one of the main goals is to make a living. I can't retire off of it just yet but I am enjoying what I do and that's something I didn't really think about back then. I enjoy building bikes for people so it's been fun."
"I wonder why I'm in business in every genre – why do I still make mountain bikes when no one rides hardtails anymore? – and yet I still have plenty of orders for hardtails," added Inglis. "People want a really classic bike that they can ride, that if it breaks you can get it worked on and doesn't end up being landfill. At the end of the day, [people] just want something really stylish and I think that's a big part of being able to have a nice bike that rides really well and isn't cutting-edge light but is nice and rides nicely."
Certainly part of the secret to Sycip's and Inglis's successes has been utter skill and mastery in their crafts. Their bikes not only look good but they also perform well as machines and satisfy the requirements set out by their buyers. That being said, there are plenty of other builders that might be equally talented but still just can't make it.
"Have integrity behind what you do and basically just believe in what you do," Sycip advises. "Be honest with your customer and produce what you say you're going to make."
Check back for ongoing coverage from the 2012 North American Handmade Bicycle Show, including massive daily galleries from some of the world's finest builders – don't plan on getting much done over the next few days.