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Artisanal bike culture is wheeling its way all over the world

High-end, hand crafted bicycles are back in trend.

In Paris, a man dressed in a Givenchy cotton poplin white shirt with musketeer cuffs and designer black trousers peddles down the cobblestone streets of the French capital. Surprisingly, one is not lost in the ocean-blue eyes of this well-groomed male, who just happens to be Aussie actor Simon Baker being filmed for a commercial video.

Instead, your eyes are locked in a trance as they follow the mesmerising orange wheels of the metallic silver bespoke bike with a stainless steel frame that rotate effortlessly, carrying Baker and a model to their destination in a suave Parisian style we mortals can only dream about.

For bike enthusiasts, this commercial is completely trivial. Is the Givenchy Gentleman Only fragrance Baker wears the ultimate bait to lure a Parisian model? Surely, it is the custom-made bike that entices and saves the modern-day damsel in distress, taking her safely across the street without Baker breaking a sweat?

For any small business owner, the association with luxury brand Givenchy would have been monumental for sales but – as much as the exposure was beneficial for modest French brand Victoire Cycles – business was booming well before Baker jumped on its bike.

Artisanal bikes Victoire

A Victoire bike.

The stereotypical image of a Parisian effortlessly tearing through the streets, however, hasn’t been as common for some time, but things are starting to change. As the city reinvents itself with Mayor Anne Hidalgo leading the charge in her anti-pollution and anti-car commitments to see Paris greener, more sustainable and planet-friendly with additional public spaces and pedestrianised streets, the biking culture is slowly wheeling back into fashion with enthusiasts shunning cookie-cutter framesets for the new trend of artisan bike manufacturing by independent brands.

A couple of hours away in Milan, a blue fire shoots out of a welding torch as a frame builder puts finishing touches to his new project. The Italian is distracted by heavy pounding on his garage door that’s followed by an American accent begging the artisan to agree to make him a bike with a titanium frameset – regarded by the biking world as rare and expensive because of its unique and clean aesthetic finish, good longevity and ride quality.

For the design-conscious, the custom bike market has many horror stories. Wealthy customers are known to cross oceans and turn up unexpectedly to check on personalised items. When custom bikes are objects of desire – some collectors value them as highly as rare vinyl records – no price is too high for the perfect fit.

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A long history

Most Europeans have long been in love with their bikes. Almost every other childhood memory consists of kids taking time off from school and packing picnic baskets filled with handmade terrine and cheese from local dairy farms to wait roadside for the Tour de France to pass by. Dating back to 1909, the global sporting event is responsible for France’s biking culture.

History buffs even suggest that the first bicycle was made by Frenchman Comte de Sivrac in 1791, who rode a two- wheeled celerifere – a wooden, scooter-like device without pedals or steering he used his feet to propel – around the gardens of the Palais-Royal. Of course, Germans and Italians would argue otherwise. It’s a debate best left between them.

Historically, a lot of romanticism is also associated with the humble two-wheeler. Emotionally, the bicycle evokes more than just a simple commute to work and is portrayed cinematically as representing more than mere transport. It stood for freedom in the coming-of-age movie Stand by Me, for romance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – where Paul Newman and Katharine Ross rode romantically to Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head – and for fantasy in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.

Even now, thanks to commercials by fashion houses such as Givenchy as well as Sofia Coppola’s commercial for Miss Dior Cherie, bikes play a major role in the cliched but craved image of Parisian chic. Clearly, in a world where the hipster movement is still desired, bespoke bikes are having a renaissance.

The transportation industry has seen the future – and the future is in bikes. It should come as no surprise that artisan bikes would have a resurgence in the 21st century. As we continue to live in a world where personalisation is king – boutique shopping, bespoke fashion and on-demand TV streaming – personalised and exclusive experiences are powered by e-commerce giants like Etsy.

Ho-hum shopping is no longer pleasurable for new-age shoppers as both wealthy and bonafide hipsters appear to be embarrassed by old-fashioned sterile commercialism. Now, it’s all about the hundred-dollar chocolate bar made with cocoa beans from socially-conscious brands. And, yes, hand-welded custom bikes fall into this category. Rough luxury is well and truly here to stay as we now live in an age of curated content and the bike industry is not breaking the mould.

Artisanal bikes Victoire

Victoire bike detailing.

For Carl Strong, the biking artisan culture is not something that has risen overnight and is certainly not a hobby he picked up to keep up with trends. He says, “I started building frames when I was in college and couldn’t afford a high-end frame at the time. I had all the basic skills needed to build a frame so I put them together and built myself one. As a racer, I had a large network of cycling friends and all wanted me to build them a bike. Soon, I was building full-time.”

A much different bike scene existed when Strong started his business in 1993. A lifelong cyclist and racer, who started playing with bikes while in high school, the self-professed “technical fabricator” has seen the custom bike industry sprawl in the last decade. As the industry grew, so did Strong’s business. Before he knew it, he was making more than 1,000 bikes a year as well as manufacturing frames for bigger commercial brands.

Then, with all the success, Strong and wife Loretta realised they were “losing focus”, so they decided to scale down their work (and lifestyle) and return to their original business plan and philosophy: keep it simple and focus on the customer. Now, they make just 50 bikes a year in their garage, spending an average of 40 hours on each one. “I am pretty strict about what I’ll do. If somebody wants something outside of that, I won’t do it,” says Strong.

But what exactly is custom-made and does it warrant a multiple digit price tag?

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The bike capital

In Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes, where luxury ski resort Megeve and Lyon are located, there is also a booming bike industry. According to the region’s tourism board, the area remains one of the top producing spots for bicycles in the country with more than 40 companies devoted entirely to the art of cycling. With 4,341 cycle routes, 2,454 mountain biking trails and 46 long- distance mountain biking trails, the region is one of the top destinations for bikers.

One of those businesses is Victoire Cycles, the brand responsible for the Givenchy perfume commercial with Baker. Started in 2011 by active BMX rider and engineer Julien Leyreloup, the company has grown from a one-man shop to having nine employees. It is also one of the most sought-after artisan bike manufacturers in the country, and was the first in the region before other brands came in to set up shop.

With a wait list of up to 12 months, Victoire bikes start at 8,000 Euros (S$12,800) for one that’s customised. “Victoire’s philosophy is to craft bikes of great quality,” says Victoire Cycles team member Pierre Stachowicz.

The team meets more than 90 per cent of their customers in the Beaumont workshop where they custom-fit a bike to the biker. “We look at every detail, from modelling and designing it to taking in the geometry and, of course, how the bike will be used – all to fit perfectly with the rider. We want the bike to last,” confides Stachowicz. “We are making bespoke bikes. When we started, there were very few people making artisanal bikes and absolutely none in our geographic area of the Auvergne. There are only about 10 serious bike makers in the country. We take ours very seriously. They are made by humans, not machines. We want to stick to the term artisans so that we can be proud of it.”

Victoire

Victoire bike workshop.

The burgeoning interest in bicycles is also driven by the desire to become more environmentally friendly. “More people, particularly in France, are interested in buying local. By reducing our carbon footprint, we hope we can help support our planet in more ways by encouraging a riding culture and using initiatives like green energy in our processes,” says Stachowicz.

“We specialise in using steel to craft our bikes. It’s an upcycle material, lasts longer over time and can be repaired time and time again. We work with local artisans who supply us with the steel and tubes for the framework to ensure our bikes last for a lifetime. Our bikes never go in the trash!”

Sustainability and climate change are fuelling the world’s lust for artisan bikes in countries outside of France, too.

As cities around the world move to more sustainable measures, bike culture is on everyone’s lips. In Berlin, cycling pop-up lanes have recently surfaced around the city to compete with other green cities like Heidelberg and Freiburg that are working on being carbon neutral by 2030.

Mexico City piloted a climate-adaptive cycle path built entirely from plastic waste in the Chapultepec Forest while Paris has been actively promoting even greener initiatives for its 2024 Summer Olympics that include parks and designer gardens around the city’s icons – Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe – as well as adding more cycle lanes to extend the Parisian cycle network to 1,400km. Excitingly and much to the delight of big and small bike manufacturers, cities are even competing to set a new precedent in green initiatives.

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Voom voom

Giuseppe Sala, the current Mayor of Milan, has big plans. Together with the Mayor of Los Angeles, a C40 Global Mayors Covid-19 Recovery Task Force has been put into action to cut 90 per cent of emissions and create more than 87 million jobs by 2030. In what will be a “strong, swift and green recovery” plan, Sala and his city of Milan are introducing one of Europe’s most ambitious models that’s fuelled by the coronavirus crisis.

In an open letter posted to the World Economic Forum website, Sala emotionally noted how the region of Lombardy will limit cars in the city, improve infrastructure with green initiatives with more parks and offer more roads for cyclists. “Reclaiming our streets and guaranteeing clean air, our cities will become better, healthier and more sustainable places to live in,” writes Sala.

This includes more than 35km of new bike lanes to encourage its 1.4 million inhabitants to jump on a bike instead of driving a car. While Milan is big in reputation, it is a small, densely packed city of just 15km from one city corner to the other. This makes the average commute less than 4km, suggesting that it is indeed possible for Milan to achieve these ambitious goals.

Artisanal bikes Victoire

Victoire bike showroom.

A piece of the pie

The newly rejuvenated bike culture has also spread to automobile manufacturers wanting to leverage on the e-bike revival. Harley Davidson launched the Serial 1 late last year, BMW is making electric bikes and motorcycles, and Jeep recently revealed a high-powered electric mountain bike. The latest and possibly most controversial is Porsche’s recent e-bike, whose launch conveniently coincided with the unveiling of the Taycan Cross, its all-electric, four- door coupe.

Many professional cyclists and enthusiasts are not charmed by these carmakers riding the e-bike wave. The hefty price tags are also causing some uproar among true cycle monomaniacs.

Most brands want to associate themselves with celebrities and, more importantly, align themselves with lifestyles. The car industry is no different. Surprisingly, even with all the expertise and know-how luxury car brands profess to have in manufacturing the best automobiles, it might be worth noting that most do not make their own bikes and rely on smaller, already established brands for their craft in frame building.

Lamborghini worked with Canadian brand Cervelo Cycles, Audi only sells e-bikes through its subsidiary Ducati and it was Germany’s ROTWILD that designed the Cross e-bike for Porsche. The very brands that started the industry are also racing to the finish line in this much-desired bespoke bike boom, with the whole world pedalling fast (albeit behind) for a piece of the action.

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