by by Chris Cohen

Chris Bull and Brian Chapman turn steel tubes into bicycles at their Providence shop, Circle A Cycles. This week, they sat down with the Independent to talk about bikes, building bikes and knowing where your bike comes from.

I get the feeling that there's a lot of Providence pride in the shop. Every bike comes out saying "Hand built in Providence."
Brian Chapman: Yeah, I guess so. We like to build for locals. We obviously build for other people. I don't know if it's Providence pride. I mean, I love this town. It's a way of defining ourselves as the Providence builder. It's not uncommon for other builders to do that too, to know where the bike is coming from.
Chris Bull:  Right. Because with so much of it, you don't know. It's from China or Taiwan. That's really changed a lot in the bike industry. When we were working in shops, there was a lot more American-made stuff. Now all the big companies that we grew up with have been bought out. GT used to be a California brand and now you can get one at Wal-Mart for 99 bucks. Part of it is making it something where people can think about--where did this come from? Whether it's a bike or a t-shirt or a meal, who's responsible for this? What do they feel about things? Where do they live and how do they live? Just be a little more in touch what you're consuming.
Is that a conscious choice you guys are making, to manufacture something here in Providence?
BC: If we're manufacturing and want to live in Providence, it's our only choice.  We're conscious towards the materials we use. We like to use domestic tubing and domestic lugs, when it's an option. Some people choose lugs that are cast elsewhere, or tubing that's from Italy or something like that.
How do you learn to make bikes by hand?
BC: There are several ways. The way that I've seen people do it is that they go to the United Bicycle Institute out in Portland. They have a frame-building class that lasts about a week or two. I know several people that have gone to it and become full time frame builders. What you learn there is invaluable, but it's a crash course. You have so much information thrown at you in a short period of time. There are other people that teach these classes as well, and it's their other way of making income, aside from making frames. I chose a different route: I apprenticed here, with Chris, at Circle A Cycles and, over the years, learned every process, from measuring people to cutting tubes to the paint and finish work. It's so much information I don't know how they can fit it into a week course at UBI.  
CB: I don't think they can, yeah. I think it's almost more useful to figure out "Is this something I want to do? Is this something I'd be happy doing full-time, if I could?" It's sort of an immersion: here's what it would be like to be a frame builder. You kind of don't even know what you don't know, and you at least get a sense of that.
And how did you learn, Chris?
CB: I basically did the same thing, but with someone else. I was living in Worcester, and there's a frame builder in Worcester named Toby Stanton. I worked with him for about three years and built my first few bikes up at his shop. It's a very old world, 18th- or 19th-century way of learning a skill, working with someone who's doing it, and often basically for free. It's such a complicated thing, as Brian was saying, that's really the only way to do it. People are certainly self-taught and they get books, but it just strikes me as an infinitely harder way to do it. If you're working with someone who's done it any longer than you have, you get the insight of whatever extra experience they have, whatever mistakes they've made you don't have to make. You know, you can make a bike, especially if someone's leading you through it, but it's all the minutia of how to make it fit someone and how to make it handle the way they want, and how to deal with things you aren't used to doing.
BC: Like being ambidextrous with the torch. Brazing is not something that comes naturally; it's a very learned skill. Even learning to weld is a course within itself. Harder than playing drums. 
CB: Every one of these things, like just brazing, or just welding, or just painting, or just metalworking, like fitting tubes, are all things people learn over a lifetime and do as full careers. And here you're doing it all, and doing it with very fine materials as opposed to other metalworking. It's very expensive steel, it's very high quality steel and you can't make mistakes with it; you can't afford to. It's very thin. It's one thing to weld a bridge, it's another to weld stuff that's paper thin and not blow a hole through it, and make it into something that someone can ride down a mountain at 15 miles an hour and not have it break. That's not the kind of thing you learn when you're making a sculpture for your lawn or something.
How many people are there in the United States turning out high quality, hand-built steel frames right now?
BC: It must be like two or three hundred custom frame builders. If you go to any large city you'll find a frame builder or two there. 
CB: Or go to Portland and there's like a dozen.
BC: Going to a custom frame builder to get a bike is still a unique thing; you don't hear about everyone doing that. It's not in any way dying. It's definitely getting bigger, if anything.
What's the process of someone coming and getting a bike here?
CB: Unless they're local, in which case it usually starts with a conversation in a bar or a coffee shop, it starts with an email. We don't really advertise, so it's generally word of mouth. We have a discussion about what they've been riding, the kind of riding they want to do. Is it a touring bike? A commuting bike? A racing bike? We do measurements: there's a whole fit program that measures all dimensions of their bodies. The thing I always stress is that it's more art than science, because you and your identical twin might have totally different riding styles and be more comfortable in a different position on a bike.
We really want to know what folks have been riding. Sometimes it's someone who has a ton of bikes and wants one from us for whatever reason, whether they want a certain style or a certain paint job or with certain tubing or lugset. Then they might just hand us the sheet that says "These are the dimensions I want." That's obviously very easy for us, but often it's someone who's having a hard time.
Often the reason they're getting a custom bike is because they're a little bit atypically-proportioned. So it's sort of like clothes in that way: if you're average size, it's easy for you to walk into the store and pull something off the rack, but if you have extra long legs or an extra short torso or anything else out of the ordinary it can be harder to get fit.
Often it will be someone who's had a hard time being comfortable on a bike, and now maybe they want to go cross-country or want to ride across Africa or South America. That's when the experience really comes into play, when you're trying to figure out, "Okay, what can I do, given that this person had never been totally happy on a bike? How can I make one that they will be happy on, and want to ride all day, every day, and be totally excited about?"
So we'll talk about that, and generate, with the CAD [computer-aided design] program that we use, a design, with specific dimensions for every single part of the bike that you can imagine. So we get all those dimensions straight and we have adjustable jigs that we set to build the different size bikes.
Then we pick a tubeset, and then we miter the tubes, and then join them. We clean it up, put on any rack mounts or braze-ons they want for water bottle bosses, lighting systems, anything. That's the thing about a custom bike: often they really want specific things. Then we paint. That's at least as specific, often more so, and often as elaborate as any other part of the process. In the end sometimes we ship off a frame, in a box, and they build it up on their own and hopefully they send us back pictures. Or, we might build up a complete bike that we either ship out or someone will pick up here and ride away. Or, in one case, hitchhike and hop trains to get here and grab a bike and ride away.  

CHRIS COHEN B'12 dances the adjustable jig.