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Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle

NYC's design museum celebrates the craftsmanship of custom bikes

by Karen Day in Design on 14 May 2010

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While there's no denying the sheer eye-candy appeal of the 21 bikes currently on display at NYC's Museum of Art and Design, the show goes beyond the glossy frames, contoured leather seats, and clever accessories, delving into the intensive craftsmanship that drives the growing rebirth of the trade. Called "Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle," the exhibit emphasizes both the level of customization and the painstaking techniques that go into making these one-of-a-kind rides. The bikes featured in the stunning collection all represent design tailored to meet the needs of the rider's precise specifications and interests, fitted for their exact body measurements, and carefully handcrafted by the world's most skilled artisans.

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The outstanding roster of talent includes Jeff Jones, Dario Pegoretti, J. Peter Weigle, Sacha White (who co-curated the exhibit with entrepreneur and avid collector Michael Maharam), Mike Flanigan and Richard Sachs, with styles spanning road racing, fixed-gear, mountain, commuter, cyclocross (a type of racing bike), and even a pared-down bike built for a randonnée (a friendly, long-distance competition).

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While much of the art of frame building remains unchanged, experts constantly—if not obsessively—refine their approach with new processes and tools. Richard Sachs, who has been designing and crafting bikes for three decades, claims that of the thousands of bikes he has built, less than ten come close to perfection. He drafted his signature frame in '78, only after factoring out construction time and cost as limitations.

In a fascinatingly candid and in-depth interview with Rapha, Sachs jokes that authentic frame-building is like Latin, nobody likes it except scholars. He also tips his hat to Sacha White, one of the only custom bike builders of a younger generation that Sachs believes will be around for good.

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A former bike messenger, Portland-based White has become well-known in the bike community for the racing, touring and commuter bicycles he produces under the name Vanilla. Recognized for their flawless construction, innovative concepts and painstakingly filed silver lugs for ultra-smooth connections, Sacha uses his extensive historical knowledge of frame-building to forge a new path for the future of customized bicycles.

As seductive as they are strong, Vanilla's pitch-perfect color combos dress up exceptionally lightweight steel alloy tubes that boast twice the durability of the those used on the standard racing cycle.

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Of White's bikes in the show, the two he completed this year see the craftsman experimenting with new models, a children's utility bike and a track-racing bike dubbed Speedvagen, built with the help of Dario Pegoretti. Both incorporate some ingenuity in their design. The roadster-style tricycle's large wheels and adjustable frame keep it looking proportional through the years, while the Speedvagen Track Machine has a built-in top tube reinforcement and hollow "tubular truss" dropouts—features that lend superior strength thanks to tricky engineering feats.

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Also a three-decade-strong master, Pegoretti (pictured above) was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2007, breaking the news with an online apology letter to his customers and friends for the slowdown in production. (He's now back to around 300 frames a year.) In addition to collaborating with White, Pegoretti worked with fellow bespoke builder Sachs for 16 months to come up with their esteemed PegoRichie tubeset.

See images of the bicycles from Weigle, Flanigan, Jones and others in the gallery below. "Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle" runs through 15 August 2010.

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