FRAMING THE CONVERSATION: Rhode Island has been home to a resurgence in the custom-bicycle-building industry. Above, Brian Chapman, a builder with Circle A Cycles who has also started his own line of custom frames called Chapman Cycles.
PBN PHOTO/NATALJA KENT
CUSTOM WORK: The New England Bike Builders Ball attracted 13 exhibitors, including Vermont’s Mickey Denoncourt, above, to the Providence Biltmore recently.
The custom bicycle frames being built by hand at Circle A Cycles in Providence combine the old and the new.
Old in that the idea of manufacturing bicycles to order using traditional techniques like torch welding dates back to at least the first half of the 20th century. New because the road, mountain and single-speed frames coming out of the Charles Street shop feature light, modern steel and an aesthetic that often departs from the two-wheelers of the 1930s.
And because until recently, when a resurgence in custom-bicycle building began gaining momentum across the country, finding someone manufacturing bicycles professionally this way was nearly impossible in most cities.
“The concept of bespoke bicycles is not new, but there are a lot more now than there were 20 or 30 years ago,” said Brian Chapman, a builder at Circle A who has also started his own line of custom frames called Chapman Cycles. “When I first moved here I didn’t know there were any custom-frame makers around. There are now legit businesses almost everywhere.”
Although unlikely to put much of a dent in Rhode Island’s unemployment rate, custom-bicycle making is become another strong point in the state’s design-centered boutique manufacturing sector.
There are at least four commercial bicycle-frame makers in Providence and close to a dozen across New England. There are also at least two paint shops that specialize in bike finishing and a local apparel maker that has designed hooded rain capes for cycling.
At the New England Bike Builders Ball this fall at the Providence Biltmore, there were 13 exhibitors displaying frames and other goods, along with 400 attendees.
In many ways, the popularity of custom bicycle frames mirrors the evolution of other high-end, niche products from craft beer to clothes and home furnishings.
But one aspect of custom-bicycle building that distinguishes it from other high-end goods is the degree to which, even more than clothes, it is tailored to each customer.