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Boom for U.S. builders

Published June 7, 2012

Editor's note: The following article originally appeared in the May 15 issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News

PORTLAND, OR (BRAIN) Thursday June 7 2012 3:40 PM MT—Zen Bicycle Fabrication greatly underestimated interest in its framebuilding business when it opened its doors scarcely six months ago. Today the young company is struggling to keep up with demand.

The Lynskey family, no newbies to framebuilding, re-entered the frame business in 2006. They are quickly finishing a new facility triple its present size to keep up with demand.

And after a 100-year history of building bikes for themselves and others at its New York factory, even Worksman was caught flat-footed by the sudden growth of its contract-building program.

“I’ve been pushing our dealer business so long I was caught by surprise at the growth in our private-label business,” said Wayne Sosin, Worksman’s sales manager.

“Our two new programs with Pendleton Mills and building bicycles that benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, as well as our other customers, are keeping us busier than we’ve been in years,” he said.

Despite production costs climbing in China, and lengthening lead times for suppliers manufacturing in Asia, the growth for domestic framebuilders is coming from small startups—people starting new brands and shops making a run of bikes.

One of the largest U.S. makers, Portland, Oregon-based Sapa, closed its framebuilding business late last year. That increased business for some builders, but doesn't account for all of the boom.

“The sheer volume of people coming our way is not related to Sapa closing. They are mostly small companies just getting into the business for the first time,” said David Woronets, founder of Zen Bicycle Fabrication.

“Sure, a few are bringing business back from Asia, but given the small-volume runs we are talking about, it’s not something that could be easily done in Asia anyway,” he added.

Other builders agree. Richard DeFrancisco has years of framebuilding under his belt, yet he founded Cantabrigian Mechanics as a machining and fabrication shop.

“I only started framebuilding a few years ago, but it has already grown to about 40 percent of our business,” DeFrancisco said.

Young customers buy American

There is a generational and economic aspect to the growth of domestic production. A lot of these builders are in their 20s or early 30s, and their customers can be even younger.

“Supporting American-made BMX is putting money in the pocket of a person just like me—someone working hard to make it just like I am,” said James Covington, owner of Native BMX. Native BMX frames are built by Solid Bikes.

The BMX business is notoriously price sensitive, not surprising given its teenage consumers. Yet an increasing number of teenagers are willing to scrape up an additional $30 or $40 to buy an American-made BMX frame over an Asian import.

Covington, 24, says that for others his age it’s important to make a direct connection with who you’re doing business with, because you are helping them with your purchase. If this means paying the little bit more for Made in USA, it’s worth it.

Zen’s Woronets responds to the same cultural trend by posting photos and short bios of all his employees online.

“Those kids saving lunch money today will be buying other types of bikes in a few years, and it will still be important that they are made here,” Woronets added.

Also significant for BMX builders is the growth in their custom builds. The same young demographic is back with their hard-earned cash wanting an even more personalized American bike.

“I expect in the last few years I’ve built 1,000 custom orders,” said Rick Moliterno, owner of Standard Bykes.

Waterford Precision Cycles built Moliterno’s frames for years, but as the brand kept growing he decided to build his own production facility. He jokes about it now, but admits the transition from pro BMX rider to machinist and welder was not entirely smooth.

“The variety of what people want from our custom program really expanded our skills. You can imagine how orders for 29ers were a bit beyond a BMX frame jig,” he said.

Standard, like other builders known for BMX frames in the past, offers much more than BMX frames to its customers today.

Assembly issues check growth

While demand for American frames is up, it is not frames that customers want—they want complete bikes.

Part of the reason Lynskey Performance Products expanded was to get out in front of its assembly business.

“We are pretty excited about the new building because it has been designed with no purpose other than getting titanium tubing in at one end and sending out complete bikes at the other,” said Don Erwin, sales manager for Lynskey.

Zen’s Woronets says the lack of a nearby assembler is seriously hindering his company’s growth. There is movement on the horizon, however, that gives him hope someone in the Portland area will start an assembly business, he added.

But Richard Schwinn, Waterford Precision Cycles’ president, says changes in OEM component pricing made years ago by Shimano are still hampering domestic production.

“Back in the ’90s we could deliver a complete bike within 10 to 15 percent of a Chinese-sourced bike, but that is no longer possible,” Schwinn said. Waterford has its frames assembled at Quality Bicycle Products.

“Asia is not as eager as they once were to build smaller orders, so there is real potential for domestic production. But the good and the bad news is all to do with parts distribution,” Schwinn added.

— By Matt Wiebe

Topics associated with this article: From the Magazine

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