Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Civia's Scott Thayer on Bikes, Racks, Minneapolis and Bamboo

From a distance, Civia bicycles look like practical, sturdy products with full fenders, chain guards and internally geared hubs. Only when one looks more closely do the subtle touches become apparent - leather saddles, bamboo fenders and slight curves to some of the frame tubes which give these bikes graceful lines. When inspected closely, it becomes obvious that Civias are not cookey-cutter transportation units. They were designed and "spec'd" by people who love bicycles and appreciate both form and function.

I wanted to know more, so I contacted the company. Scott Thayer, Civia's general manager, was kind enough to grant me an interview. Note that Civia Cycles is one of the bicycle companies operated by Quality Bicycle Products in Bloomington, Minnesota, so this interview constitutes the second installment in Cycloculture's series on bicycle companies from the greater Minneapolis area.

Scott Thayer at the top of the Bootleg Canyon Downhill runs in Boulder City, NV
Photo by Scott Thayer

Q: Who came up with the idea for Civia?

A: The idea for a transportation focused brand came from the employees of Quality Bicycle Products. After coming back from Interbike 2006, a few employees were recounting trends they saw and commuting and transportation kept coming up. We realized that many brands were starting to offer more commuting options, but few were devoting design and engineering resources to it. They would simply repurpose existing products as their new commuter.

We wanted to bring the attention to detail and engineering to transportation that was being allocated to road and mountain products.

Bamboo fenders from the Civia Loring
Photo courtesy of Civia Cycles

Q: The Loring just screams practicality. It looks like a "world bike" with modern features such as disc brakes. Can you tell me a bit about the evolution of that design? How are those bamboo fenders working out?

A: Our product design process starts out with defining who the user is going to be and identifying their experience. With the Loring, we see the user being someone that is running shorter errands or just out and about enjoying the day. They want to be able to carry things with them and not necessarily have to have planned for it by bringing a bag in advance. This is also a bike that could serve as a family bike with multiple riders.

From this scenario, we developed a bike with a comfortable, upright riding position, a practical, well-balanced front basket, a two leg kickstand for loading stability and gave the frame plenty of standover height for easy on and off. We wanted to do something fun with the details, so we went with bamboo for the racks' decking as well as the bamboo fenders. The design of the bike and the bamboo have definitely caught people's attention, as it stopped them in their tracks at Interbike.

Civia Loring
Photo courtesty of Civia Cyles

Q: Gas prices are up! Gas prices are down! Do you see the sales numbers for your bicycles move with gas prices? If so, what is the relationship?

A: We've been selling Civia product for the last 10 months. It's hard to correlate our sales growth with gas prices going up, since we launched at the time prices were starting to spike and winter coincided with them dropping. Anecdotally, we definitely noticed more people riding and strong sales with gas prices up. It's hard to know if sales have slowed due to gas prices falling, it being the middle of winter, and the economy in the tank. It's likely a combo of all three. I'm anticipating sales to pick up once spring hits, as people got into the mindset of saving money on gas by riding their bikes when fuel spiked. I bet they will continue to look for ways to be frugal in this current economic state. Bike riding is a great way to do that.

Civia Hyland
Photo courtesy of Civia Cycles

Q: Tell us about the bicycle scene in the Minneapolis area, please. There are so many people running bicycle-related businesses there, it seems as though Minneapolis has become a magnet for bicycle folks. Any thoughts as to why Minneapolis has become such a center for the US bicycle industry? Is bicycle culture part of the overall urban culture in the Twin Cities, or is it limited to a smallish group of bicycle people?

A: The bicycle scene in Minneapolis is strong and it's growing. The success of our scene is a great mix of passionate riders, selfless advocates and friends in political office. One thing I've always appreciated about the Twin Cities is how active its residents are. Spring through fall, people are outside enjoying the great weather that we have and when winter rolls around, the outdoor activities simply change to skiing, ice skating, sledding and jogging. Because of this level of activity, we have great park systems and trail connections that allow people to easily bike throughout the city. We have a growing network of dedicated bike lanes and trails. Part of this comes from a federal grant we received, and part of it comes from the support of influential politicians, such as Minneapolis mayor, R.T. Rybak, himself an avid cyclist. We also have a strong bicycle industry comprised of a mix of retail, wholesale and manufacturers that is vocal about biking.

Q: Are there any new Civia models coming out soon? If so, could you tell us a bit about them?

A: Our two models are the Hyland (700c flat bar road bike) and the Loring (26" swept back upright). We're just starting to look ahead at what's next. We've got a couple ideas that we'll be flushing out. Right now, we're not at a place where we're ready to get into details. What I do have is that we'll be displaying our 2010 product at Interbike in September and are targeting a March 2010 availability.

Civia Loring rear rack
Photo courtesy of Civia Cycles

Q: Those Loring front and rear racks with the bamboo slats look "Mm-mm good!" That porteur-style front rack looks especially practical and beautiful. Tell us a bit about them, please. It appears as though these racks are currently available on the Loring bikes, but will not be available separately until June of 2009. Is that correct?

A: The Loring comes in 3 builds. A 9 speed internally geared version that has front and rear rack. A 3 speed internally geared version with both racks and a 3 speed version base model with no racks or fenders. The Lorings will be available for sale in late April and the racks, frame and fork will be available shortly afterwards. We're thinking early June is the soonest we'll have them ready for sale.

Q: What else does Civia have in store for the near future?

A: For the future, we continue to look towards improving the offerings in bicycle transportation. There's so much that can be done to improve on what's out there, our biggest problem is what area to tackle next.

Civia Loring front rack
Photo courtesy of Civia Cycles

Q: What other bicycles do you like?

A: My background in cycling started with road bikes, added mountain bikes, and integrated commuting bikes. My tastes run the gamut. Right now, I'm really enjoying my Litespeed Niota full suspension mountain bike. I'm also a big fan of the current hand built scene. I think it's quite telling that most of the bikes being displayed at NAHBS and being raved about in magazines are variations on transportation bikes. Ultimately, what Civia is trying to do is to bring the hand built passion and style to a larger audience.

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: My work day routine is toast with butter and jam accompanied by yogurt and fruit. On the weekend, I sometimes get lucky and my wife will cook eggs, pancakes and veggie sausages. It's fantastic!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bilenky Junk Yard Race

Cycloculture does not generally cover the competitive side of bicycling, but when Bilenky Cycle Works hosts a race, you know it is going to be special.

Welcome to the urban jungle
Photo courtesy of Bilenky Cycle Works

Words cannot do this event justice. Click here to see the video.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Capricorn Bicycles' Bradley Wilson

The dead of winter seems an appropriate time to write articles on that bicycle Mecca of the North - Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cycloculture has already published interviews with representatives of two greater Minneapolis operations, Kogswell and Surly, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Bicycle companies, from giants such as Quality Bicycle Products to smaller operations such as Handsome Cycles, are thriving in greater Minneapolis, as is the regional cycloculture. What does this area have that warmer, sunnier climes are missing? With luck, the answer to this question will appear as Cycloculture chats with various figures who are part of the bicycle picture in that part of the world.

My first interview in this series is with framebuilder Bradley Wilson, sole proprietor of Capricorn Bicycles. Wilson runs a smallish operation, but when I saw his work on his Flickr page, I was instantly impressed. His frames, forks and racks appear to be well made while maintaining a sense of fun. Two very large frames he built caught my eye. His description of an off-road touring rig he fabricated caught my imagination. His very short waiting list is an added bonus.

Bradley Wilson

Q: Your prices are quite reasonable, with frames staring at $1000. How do you keep prices down?

A: My goal in starting Capricorn was to bridge the gap, so to speak, between cookie-cutter import frames and the high-end show-stoppers coming out of Portland (or thereabouts). My shop and my tools are pretty modest by industry standards and as a result I do most of the work by hand and eye, but that's how I like to work: it's the difference between manufacturing and craft. It takes a little longer, but not much; and some measurements might be off a millimeter here and there, but it's nothing I can't rectify with a couple whifs of a handfile. Paint and powdercoating are outsourced and that helps too. I couldn't even begin to imagine the costs associated with setting up my own paint shop.

Q: How is business? Are the economic woes felt by so many people effecting your business? Or do people see your bicycles, especially your utility bikes, as cheaper alternatives to SUVs?

A: Business is slow right now. I don't know if it's the threat of worldwide economic meltdown or just because it's winter, but people just don't seem to be thinking about throwing around $1000-1500 like they used to. Bicycles are definitely a cost-effective mode of transportation, but I think a lot of people looking into frames are finding much more cost-effective options like Surly, Salsa, Rawland, and Handsome. They're also Minnesota companies but the frames are made overseas, and folks won't feel bad about beating the crap out of them in winter.

Mustachioed fixie

Q: How long have you been building bikes? What have you learned about the craft over time?

A: I started building frames at Waterford Precision Cycles in the late 90's and worked there for a couple years before moving up to Minneapolis to go to school. In 2006 I had a lot of free time so I started making frames again on rough plywood and angle iron fixtures, basically relearning the whole process a step at a time. Now my shop's a little more sophisticated, and the process has evolved too and keeps evolving with each new project. Working at Waterford taught me a lot about the tools and the process, but it's a factory more or less, and it wasn't a "fun" place to work. Working on my own has been a real challenge. To know that Capricorn lives or dies by my talents or lack thereof is daunting. The craft of framebuilding is so much more than just making frames. There's cash flow to manage, inventory to stock, tools to maintain, decals to design, blogs to write... and it's more a matter of staying on top of it all.

The Capricorn "Errand Rack," designed to hold one standard paper grocery bag (or anything else you can fit)

Q: What are your favorite frames to build? What was your favorite build of all time?

A: Most of the frames that I build are single speeds or fixed gears. I like the simplicity of these and customers can build them up for significantly less than they could build up a bike with gears and shifters and what not. I love bicycles when they are simple and practical and used everyday. There's not a whole lot of sense in having a bicycle that's so expensive that you can't lock it up when you go somewhere, in my opinion. Having said that my favorite build was probably the most expensive one that I did: an off-road touring frame, with 29" wheels and custom front and rear racks for a guy that wants to do the Continental Divide Trail. Spectrum Powder Works did the paint and it's truly impressive. The build process ended up sprawling over two or three months, then it was in Colorado Springs for another two months getting paint. But it's totally unique compared to my other creations, everything about it is spot on, and the customer loves it.

Pacenti fork crown gives LOTS of clearance and note the Schmidt hub wire guides

Q: Do you travel more by bicycle or by automobile?

A: I commute by bicycle from year-round. My operating range is -15 to 110. I used to deliver coffee beans by bicycle and trailer 51 weeks a year when I worked at Peace Coffee. As far as "travel" I rode from Minneapolis to Seattle a couple years ago on an old Breezer mountain bike. I'd love to travel more by bicycle and just built myself a frame with touring in mind. But it's nice to just drive somewhere too, get there, and go out for enjoyable rides everyday. Moab's one of my favorite places to travel to. I try to get there at least once every couple years.

Q: There is so much bike stuff going on in Minneapolis. We hear all about Portland's bicycle culture, but Minneapolis seems to have an incredible number of bike companies as well. What's it like to be part of all that? Do people ride their bikes in the middle of Minnesota winters?

A: Minneapolis is a pretty decent place for a cyclist, and for a prairie/taiga town it does have a vibrant bike culture. Folks here know how to have a good time, but there's usually moderate to heavy drinking involved and I'm not sure it always works in their favor. But who am I to say? Winters here can be brutal, but there's nothing we can do about that so we ride year round. The "Stupor Bowl," the annual alleycat race is held every February. Last year something like 300 people turned out to compete, four of them riding Capricorns. It's cool to be part of something much bigger than yourself, and I forget how many people around here that I've never met know who I am or know what I do just by reputation and word-of-mouth. It's humbling. Minneapolis is unique and anomalous and shouldn't be compared to Portland, even though it always is. It seems like God's own light is shining on Portland lately and that's good. If I lived under the daily threat of volcanic cataclysm I'd probably make more of life too. But as it is, we Midwesterners are just too sensible to try to keep up.

Fork fun

Q: Do you want to grow your business? Or would that interfere with your ability to build bikes that make you happy? If you do want to grow it, what do you envision it looking like a few years down the road?

A: The bicycle industry is not one that smart people get into to make money. I've purposely kept my endeavor modest and honest because I don't want to work under the pressures of supporting employees and the schedules and expenses of a factory setting. For now I'd be satisfied with having a steady demand and always something on the cue for a few months at a time. I'd like to get to a point where expanding the operations can be an option, maybe by focusing more on a specific style of bicycle, or finding a like-minded individual to co-own Capricorn and tackle some of the business aspects that I'd consider my weaknesses. It's really hard to commit to expansion as a policy because, from my experience and observations, it invariably leads to a decrease in hands-on craftsmanship, which is the part that I really enjoy.

Q: I'm 6'6 and my weight is down to a svelte 240 lb. Do you have any special design philosophies for building bikes for large folks such as myself?

A: I've built a couple big frames: a 68cm fixed-gear commuter and a 66cm touring rig. When thinking about the design of these frames I went into it thinking about proportions. What can make this bike look "normal" instead of just big? On the fixie I used over-over-sized tubes wherever possible and gave it clearance for bigger (700x32) tires. This made for not only a stronger, stiffer bicycle, but it diminishes the "gangliness." On the touring bike I didn't have the over-over-sized option since he wanted lugs. Instead I went with the heaviest tubes available, including thick chainstays. Again it has plenty of tire clearance and a Pacenti MTB crown which is bigger than the average, plus four water bottle cages. Now that it's all built up with racks and 48cm-wide handlebars I'd say proportionally it looks like it's supposed to.

A fixie after my own heart

Q: How should we go about getting people out of their cars and onto bicycles?

A: Unfortunately I don't think people are going to abandon their cars unless it hits them economically. Commutes are too long, there's just too much stuff to buy and carry home, kids hate to exercise: the excuses go on and on. The streets are too dangerous, and I think that's the biggest problem that city planners and bicycle advocates need to address. Until driving becomes less convenient and more impeded; until cities stop sprawling and focus more on developing core communities, with distinct cultures, parks, shopping and entertainment venues; until we abandon wanton polluting as a national policy... but these are huge issues. I know a lot of people who rediscovered their bicycles this past summer, when gas prices were four dollars a gallon and I hope that trend continues. Last winter I made a frame for my girlfriend and she kept the car parked most of the summer, even riding into work at 5:30 in the morning. This winter I'm making a frame for my dad and my sister, not because I want them to ride, but because they want to. I think people are finally coming to terms with car culture here in America, symbolized perhaps by the financial problems currently experienced in Detroit.

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: Hmm... be good to each other. Expect better for and from yourself and others. Be surprising. Keep learning. Don't forget to call home once in awhile. The North American Buffalo population is on the rise and we need wild places though not necessarily to visit them. Freedom means never being in a hurry. Get more fiber, drink lots of water, and don't eat when you're not hungry.

Wilson's own "Sorta Tourer"

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Usually an appetite suppressing dose of coffee, maybe a peanut butter and jelly sammy. I usually skip breakfast and get a big lunch instead.