Launched less than a year ago, Detroit's consumer goods company Shinola is still picking up speed, as well as worldwide recognition. In July 2012 we had the opportunity to visit their expansive HQ in midtown Motor City, where we witnessed first-hand the brand's dedication to American manufacturing through impressive watch-making facilities and a bicycle assembly area in a space only a city like Detroit could accomodate. Moving firmly ahead after selling out their first watch run (months before consumers had even seen one in person), the ambitious brand is now switching gears to bolster their emerging bicycle program. Lending credibility and industry experience is veteran bike designer Sky Yaeger, who came on to lead that design team.
Having designed everything from mountain bikes and cyclocross to Bianchi's iconic Pista, Yaeger embraced the opportunity to work domestically. "It was extremely appealing to try to make bikes in the US after all the years of going to Taiwan. I've spent 25 years or so doing the same thing—sourcing bikes in Asia—and this was a new challenge, a new company starting from zero." And while it seems reasonable enough to manufacture bicycles stateside, a long history of overseas sourcing is not easy to erase. "The industry is based in Asia for the whole world, and this isn't changing. So it was exciting to start something that really hadn't been done before. Certainly small builders have been making bikes in the US but not at the level we're doing it," explained Yaeger.
With this in mind, Yaeger and her design team reached out to one of the most celebrated small builders, Waterford Precision Cycles, to produce each and every Shinola frame and fork by hand in their storied Wisconsin shop—once home to Schwinn Paramount. Both backed by a lengthy behind-the-scenes history, Shinola and Waterford make a sensible match. "There's a high level of mutual respect for what they're doing and for how many years they've been doing it and the level of craftsmanship they're bringing to the table," Yaeger admits. Once the frames and components make it to Detroit, each bike undergoes a near complete, custom-level build to check brakes, gears and overall aesthetics before being broken down again for shipping to the end consumer.
The classic Runwell and curvaceous Bixby make up the line to date. Both are custom-made of sturdy double-butted CroMo tubing with signature Shinola dropouts and branded leather saddles. While riddled with intricate design tweaks, each detail is subtle and comes together nicely for a unified feel. "Certainly the look is really compelling, the whole look. I like that the bikes are not heavily branded, and I love the head badge designs, they're not typical badges," Yaeger confides.
We recently had the opportunity to rip around NYC for a few days on the 11 speed Runwell, and can confirm it is in fact all it's cracked up to be—beautiful, sturdy, silent and seamless when switching gears. The two bikes retain their subdued style thanks to sleek internal cable routing and internally geared hubs, two systems heavily favored by Yaeger.
"I've been a huge fan of the internal hub since the Bianchi Milano was born—which was the late '90s—for city bikes. It just looks friendlier. Nothing is exposed to the elements," comments Yaeger on the advantages of housing all moving parts inside the rear wheel hub. By ditching the front derailleur and rear derailleurs, the bikes seem more approachable with the same functionality. "When you try to explain gears to people who aren't enthusiasts it's very confusing, it baffles people. So when you have an internal hub with one shift lever and no derailleurs it's very easy for someone sitting on the bike to get how to shift it."
While the idea of developing everything from watches and leather goods to cola, notebooks and bicycles may seem like a lofty goal, Shinola's design teams are firmly focused on developing a comprehensive brand aesthetic. For example, the Runwell shares a name with the brand's first watch, and both bikes take their color palette from other Shinola products."When they put it all together it's just stunning," says Yaager. "We're lucky to have such an amazing creative team."
The Bixby and Runwell are available online now for $2,950 and $1,950 respectively. For more images from inside Shinola HQ in midtown Detroit and our first encounter with the Runwell see the slideshow.
Images by David Lewinski for Cool Hunting