A few weeks back I was in Newport Beach visiting a good friend of mine when I got a Facebook message on my phone from Blackswift Bicycles. The writer of the message said he liked reading what I write here at Demonfeet and he was wondering if I’d be interested in coming by to see his bikes, ride one around a little, and write something up about him and his company.
Up to this point Demonfeet for me was just where I would go to share my love for sport, more of a just for fun thing. The idead of taking it farther than that and seeing what else I can do with it was something that I barely started toying with just recently so I jumped on this chance.
After chatting a bit and exchanging info I came to learn that Blackswift Bicycles is in Altadena, just north of where I live in Pasadena. I had no idea that there was a certified frame builder this close to me, this just fueled my excitement.
As I got to spend the afternoon with James, the owner of Blackswift Bicycles, I realized that this was a company and a guy that I needed to let people know about. He’s a super nice guy working out of his house, his wife does all the official photography, and he has an amazing husky. He’s pretty much just a really rad dude that gets to do what he loves and it shows through his humility, friendliness, and the quality of what he produces. He showed me all his bike goodies, I included some photos of some pretty unreal vintage stuff, and we sat around on some couches in his garage talking bike nerd stuff as I got to interview him. My first interview! It was so much fun. After the interview he took me on a tour of his house showing off all the super cool mid-century goodies he’s managed to get a hold of, pretty much all still in working order. In the kitchen he showed me his photo album in which he keeps a collection of all the coffees he and his wife drink, I always feel more comfortable around another coffee geek.
Before I left he let me try out one of his bikes. The one I rode is the camo-bike. I don’t know much about frame building so as to not do the bike an injustice, get a hold of him up via Blackswift Bicycles facebook, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at (626)806-2649 and ask him about it. Seriously do, it was insane. From what I could gather from looking at it and riding it, he made a super compact road bike. He pulled in the rear fork so much that the tire is about 1 mm away from rubbing the seat post and the front forks are straight, not curved. From what he was explaining to me it is basically a hill climbing machine, super compact, and crazy responsive. It felt like my ideal bike. I ride track bikes more than any other kind so I’m used to a more compact geometry. I ride my track bike a tad big and I ride my road bikes a tad small so I basically have found a great middle ground between the two which works for me. What James built though is a whole different animal, it’s the bike that is specifically built to live and perform best within the middle gound. I want one. I need one. One day you’ll see me on one. They you wont. That’s how fast bikes work.
All in all it was a beautiful day in which I got to meet a super nice dude, got to see his house, meet his wife, play with his dog, and see his crazy awesome bikes, that he built. It was a day I won’t forget and I hope the interview and pics do it justice.
Below I have first posted the interview and below that I have posted the pics. Enjoy.
Blackswift Bicycles Interview
DF – How did you learn to weld bikes, did you learn from another welder, did you go to a school if so what was the school?
BSB – I went to UBI up in Ashland, Oregon but I already knew how to weld from growing up. My dad welded and I was also into construction when I was a teenager. I pretty much knew how to do most things and going to bike school was just about refining it and figuring out exactly what I wanted to do because I already knew fitting from working at bike shops. I knew general geometry and I took graphic design when I was in high school. I actually took a college course when I was in high school and got my AA for graphic design so it was really easy to try to pull all those sticks together and make them all stand.
DF – Up until recently when you found me on Facebook, I had a misconception that there were no local frame builders or anything like that, am I correct in thinking that you are one of the only ones?
BSB – I am one of three that I know of supposedly there is a fourth but it was told to me that he just barely does it anymore. You have me, you have Megan Dean over at Moth Attack, you have Greg Townsend at Townsend Cycles over here in Monrovia and he’s been doing it for quite a number of years.
DF – For people that are interested in making bikes the way that you do, actually welding the bike frames, would you recommend just doing it or do you think that there should be a process kind of like the one that you went through like go to the bike shop, work at the bike shop, on and on?
BSB – I would say it all depends on what you really want to do, if you really want to work on bikes, that’s fine to work at a bike shop. As far as frame building, if you just want to learn how to build a frame then I would go to a bike school for frame building. It doesn’t teach you the passion of it though. It’s going to be harder to read who your customers are when you’re trying to do it for a business if you don’t already know the business so it’s better to talk to people, it’s better to know people. You’ll have something in common instead of just being a cyclist who built a bike trying to start a company.
DF – Where do you do all your welding and you were explaining that you outsource for painting, where do you get that done?
BSB – I do all my welding here, I do all me mitering here, I do all my “hand machining” here because at best I use no actual machine work tools except for a drill or dremel or something like that once in a while for my polishing stuff. As far as painting goes I’ll send it out to a couple different painters, one is…I think he’s in Michigan or Minnesotta, and the other is Joe Bell in San Diego. Most frame builders will do that until they hit the point where they just want to start painting on their own and they get lots of practice in and they start doing it themselves.
DF – What was your path into cycling?
BSB – Cycling got me in early. I was racing around the block when I was a kid. When I got a little older I got into BMX racing and dirt jumping, did that for many years. I Turned around and got into metric century racing and racing crits. One day I got a job at a bike shop because everyone said it’s something I should have done so I finally did it. I stuck with it for a couple years, became a pro mechanic after a while. My next thing after getting tired of working in shops was to start my own business and step it up to be a frame builder and I’ve had very good people in my life who have helped me to do it.
DF – So what does cycling mean to you?
BSB – What does cycling mean to me?
DF – That’s a big, that’s a loaded question I know.
BSB – Well, the water’s been muddied lately just because of the fad of cycling, I mean, nobody thought anybody would be wearing a skirt and cowboy boots riding a fixed gear down to the train station but…you know, whatever. Cycling…that’s a hard question…cycling is an expression, or a way to express yourself. There are people who are flamboyant on their bikes and there are people who are flamboyant in how they ride their bikes and then there’s people who just pedal around. I, myself, am one of those people who like to like to push myself, I’m not vey flamboyant, I just want to get up and get the job done and it really clears my mind when I am actually doing it. That is assuming you are riding to clear your mind and not riding to think. I think cycling to me….I think it’s just another way to enjoy your life. Get yourself out of the everyday hustle and bustle and get on the road and enjoy the rest of your life. Enjoy your surroundings wether it’s in the city or in the mountain range, in the desert, in the ocean or whatever…just a way to get out and do something. To not be stuck in a box.
DF – What’s the name of your company? How can people get a hold of you if they are interested? What is the general range of the prices for a custom built frame?
BSB – My Company is Blackswift Bicycles. You can find me on my website Blackswiftbicycles.com or you can find me through Facebook and I also have an Instagram so you can pretty much find me any where. Email is email@example.com, phone is (626)806-2649. You should be able to find me on a Google search too. Price range for a track bike frame, you’re looking at about $1500 as a base point and road bikes you’re looking right around $2000 and the same thing for mountain bikes, right around $2000.
DF – I’m seeing all these new bike shops pop up, do you have any good friends that you would like to point people to or do you have any shops that you think are great that you would like to point people to?
BSB – Well, not really. Every bike shop has it’s own personality. You should go find what works for you. I know some people like Velo Pasadena and some people like Stan’s in Monrovia. I worked for Stan’s for a couple years, great place to work, I met my wife there. I got to do great stuff. I got to build a bike for Eddy Merckx there, I got to meet him, all that good stuff. It was just a great shop, lots of pros went through there. There were lots of people with money, but there were also lots of people with class that came in there and I like the atmosphere of a bike shop like that a lot better than I like these ones that are just a hole in the wall selling out whatever crappy bike someone turns in or sells to them the shop just has no class. I think it has to do with the neighborhood too. I think the better the people treat their bike shop, the better their bike shop will become.
DF – Is there any type of bike that you like to ride the most like track bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, touring bikes? What do you personally have the most fun riding?
BSB – Road bikes. I don’t really enjoy riding track bikes, especially in this area of Altadena because there are hills everywhere and it’s not like there’s a velodrome right next door. I enjoy my road bike because there’s just more freedom to it. I was never the one who was held to that, “Oh you have to wear spandex, you have to wear your gear to get on and ride.” I just rode it.
DF – What are some interesting projects that you feel like it has been a delight to work on that stand out above your other projects?
BSB – I think each one stands out in it’s own way. They all have a different feeling, they all have a different reaction, and they all have a different response to how they’re being built and what’s going on with them. They all have their own personality. It’s great being able to figure out the personality of an object. It sounds a little crazy but they want to be loved just like just like everybody else
DF – If you have the finances to do what you want to do and the time to do what you want to do what would be your dream bike to build? What would be the purpose of that bike?
BSB – I think I already built it.
DF – Which one is it?
BSB – Actually, all three of them because they all have their own personality and they have their own purpose. My camo-bike, that one’s made for climbing and sprinting and that kind of stuff. It’s a really good beater, not that I’m going to treat it like a beater it’s good for riding around doing racing and keeping up with people, showing people off too. My fleur de lis bike, that one is meant for longer riding. That one is actually meant for metric centuries and above. That one I’m putting all 11 speeds on so it should haul really nicely. It’s not meant to be carrying panniers or anything, it’s just meant for riding very long distances. And then my track bike, I just had to build one and it just worked out right. I got what I wanted out of it.
DF – I’ve been gathering that you have been intimately involved in cycling for many years so what are some positive things and negative things that are happening in cycling?
BSB – I think cycling in general is doing pretty well for itself, I mean anything that gets somebody riding a bike is good. Bad part is you have all these Taiwan makers coming in and everybody wants to start a bike business and they don’t want to become frame builders they want to just buy a frame from Taiwan, they want to put a $300 or a $600 price tag on it, and sell it. Most of the time it comes with junk parts. They’re just feeding the fad and I just like to see it go back to where it was where people actually cared about what they wanted, about what kind of bikes they wanted, and who was actually outputting them.
DF – Do you mean the materials?
BSB – Just the process alone. You get a Taiwan maker who makes 1,000 bikes in a week, there’s going to be character flaws and design flaws. You’re also getting a heavy bike that no one cares about, the bike is made to be junk when it’s done being ridden, it’s meant to be thrown away and I think in general cycling needs to move away from that and just start repurposing what is already here. I mean there’s so many great bikes out there. You can watch, as bad as it’s to sat it, a day worker going to work and he’ll be riding a Specialized or I’ve seen a guy riding a Colnago, a LeMond, and a Pegoretti, all just guys going to work. These guys obviously took the bike out of the trash or got it from a used store and they’re still riding the crap out if it versus the rest of these ones where, “It’s just a fad and I’m going to thrown it away when I’m done with it.”
DF – Bikes that are more permanent fixtures in peoples’ lives as opposed to disposable tools like skateboards or something like that?
BSB – Even skateboards, skateboarders really care about their skateboards. The guys who actually skateboard, they really care about their skateboards, they don’t want to break it, they don’t want to throw it away. They’re taking care of their bearings, they’re taking care of their trucks. Back in the day you had really crappy skateboard companies out there that would just mass produce these skateboards that were made for kids to just trash and throw away.
DF – You mentioned the bike shop you started working at, what’s the name of that bike shop?
BSB - King’s Bicycle Store, that’s where I started in San Pedro. They’re actually still around, there just not in San Pedro any more. Derek is the owner there, he took it over from his boss and the revamped the place and then I came in, worked there for a couple years and then he moved down to Seal Beach and he’s been there ever since.
DF – What materials do you use to build bikes for people?
BSB – All my frames are made out of steel.
DF – Are there any materials you would like to experiment with other than steel like aluminum, titanium, or carbon?
BSB – I will never do aluminum, it ends up killing your prostate because there’s so much road vibration that comes up into it. Carbon fiber…it’s sketchy stuff to actually build with so I’d rather not do it. I do want to reach into titanium at some point but that’s going to be years down the road.
DF – What would be the benefits of getting a custom built frame?
BSB – The main benefit of getting a custom built frame is that the frame is made for you so you get it fitted to you. It’s an extension of you and what you want and something that carries the builder’s name on too. It’s a bike that’ll get passed down and passed down and passed down until someone doesn’t want it anymore and they toss it away and next thong you know someone will pull it out of the trash and ride it because it’s a steel frame and it’ll last forever.
|James with the Camo-Bike. As I said, check the rear triangle how close that wheel is to the seat post.