Talking shop with handmade bike builder Chris Bishop
The piece of metal looks like something you'd find in any hardware store. It's a modest L-shape, like a plumbing pipe connection, only not as thick and clunky, its curves more sensuous. But it's still just a piece of metal--a steel lug, used to join two tubes together when building a bicycle frame.
Right next to it, though, rests something that used to look just like it, but now has come to life as an intricately cut object. Its curves are more dramatic and end in sharper points. Lines have been cut into it, creating an eye-grabbing detail. It still serves its purpose, only now it has a visual personality. It's structural material that's been transformed into a piece of functional art through the skilled hands and eye of a craftsman.
"I've been really into lugs lately," says Chris Bishop, the Baltimore-based handmade bicycle builder who hand-lathed the custom part. "Cutting them all out and what not."
It's one of many moments of understating competence from the cyclist and artisan who started Bishop Bikes in 2007. Standing in the basement workshop of his Charles Village home, the 35-year-old Baltimore native shows a reporter and a photographer the many, many, many steps involved in making a bike by hand. Soft-spoken, direct, and instantly affable, Bishop appears to guide himself through his shop by muscle memory. Over there is the fully adjustable sizing cycle, where a rider gets measured for determining the details of a frame and its components that get fed into a bike CAD program. Over there is the welding fixture where, after tubes get hand mitered, the frame angles are dialed in and the actual joints get welded with silver. Over there is the large lathe used for fabricating metal pieces used for fork crowns, custom lugs, etc. Bishop, clad in black jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, dark plastic glasses, and a Natty Boh hat, runs through how and what everything is used for with informal expertise.
Bishop estimates he's made about 50 bikes since he started, with the average build time around 60 hours. (He's a bike courier and legal researcher by day.) "A custom frame is basically a bicycle that's completely wrapped around an individual," Bishop says. Each bike is built to the physical dimensions of the rider, the type of riding the cyclist plans, and certain details, such as drop handlebars or a flat bar. The fit is designed to offer the optimal posture for interacting with the human-powered machine. When riding, "your knees should be bent between 25 and 35 degrees," he continues. "Your elbows should be bent between 15 and 25 [degrees], and when you plumb-bob off [the rider's] tibia in the front, it should cross within a centimeter of the spindle. It's really specialized, like a custom-tailored suit."
Bishop--who grew up working on bikes and racing BMX bikes, and in the 1990s was part of Marathon Express couriers, which had a bike shop attached to it--says he started considering frame-building after a former co-worker built a bike. "He and his girlfriend had a bike that he built, and he had his name on it," Bishop says. "And I was, like, I need to do that."
Bishop started by taking classes--first the week-long frame-building class at BREW Bikes in North Carolina in 2006, where Bishop learned about "metal fabrication and metal education and molecular structures and strengths and weaknesses of steel" before attending the Yamaguchi Bikes frame-building school in Rifle, Colo., an intensive two-week education in fabrication and fillet brazing where students build a bike in two weeks. He later attended the Serotta SICI personal fit course to learn how to size riders.
At first, Bishop says he was making a number of forks, perfecting his technique. "I've been working with my hands my whole life," he says. "I did carpentry work for years and my dad builds model toy trains at the highest level. Like, if you look at Model Toy Train Whatever, they have articles about him and stuff. So I grew up just building models for his trains. It's kind of all the same to me. It's hand-eye coordination, different materials, different scales, and just having a good eye. Then, there's just doing it and doing it and doing it and getting it exactly where you want it."
You don't have to be a bike nerd or snob to appreciate Bishop's creative labor as design porn. Bishop's track bikes possess an incredibly tight geometry--the clearance of, say, the rear wheel or the crank along the curved chainstays is centimeters close--and the subtle details are impressive. Fillet brazes on a recent build are invisibly smooth, and during this interview, he showed a frame in which the seat-post bolt stay had been incorporated into the seat tube, making it almost invisible.
Such touches are the markings of maturing as a builder. Over time "I think you also start getting more into the nuances of frame building," Bishop says. "And I get obsessive compulsive about things and start looking at what other builders have done in the past and just immerse yourself and be, like, this a cool technique, I want to try it out. And you just put your spin on it."
A custom bike can be expensive--frames typically start around $2,000--but remember what you're investing in. You're commissioning a piece of functional art that's made for you and you only. "That's the thing--when it's custom, it's like making a prototype every time," Bishop says. "That's one of the major expenses of the whole thing. You can build, probably, two or three bikes almost in the time you can build one custom frame--because it's all the same for every one. Every angle and every tube length is different for every person, so that takes time. So it's a lot of work, but you go in and every single tube and part is handpicked for the application of the rider."
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Baltimore, MD 21201