The Rise of Bespoke Bicycles

Naked Bicycles | BCBusiness
A custom City Adventure bike by Quadra Island’s Naked Bicycles.

Handmade bikes are hot in B.C., and local entrepreneurs are building their businesses—and massive wait-lists—one meticulously crafted ride at a time

It wasn’t long ago that building bicycles by hand was a nearly forgotten craft. But with more people than ever cycling, handmade bikes are enjoying a renaissance—and a few talented B.C. builders are leading the way.

“We literally can’t keep up,” says Sam Whittingham, owner of Quadra Island-based Naked Bicycles, which has a year-long wait-list for its custom-built bikes. He sells about fifty bikes a year, with price tags that typically range from $4,500 to $5,500. It may seem pricey, but not for someone who’s after a one-of-a-kind bike, says Whittingham. “For people who ride a lot, it becomes part of who they are,” he says. “It’s a companion. People want something unique, something that is purely theirs.”

Whittingham sees the revival of handmade bikes as part of a wider trend—what some are calling the new artisan economy. “It’s not just the bike they’re after,” he says. “They’re after the whole experience: the service of it and knowing where the product comes from.”

Much like a tailored suit, each handmade bike is made-to-measure. For someone who doesn’t fit the mould of a small, medium or large, explains Whittingham, the difference can be dramatic. The buyer also selects the style of bike and the material used (steel or lightweight titanium). And, of course, there’s the paint job. Some people don’t care what colour it is, he says, but others—like the person who wanted her bike painted to match her favourite dress—can be fastidious down to every last detail.

Whittingham got his start 15 years ago tinkering with frame-building tools in the basement of a Victoria bike shop. He made his first bikes for friends, before word started to spread. Most of his business still comes by word-of-mouth, he says, with the majority of his customers from the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island (with some from as far away as Slovenia and Indonesia).

Over the past five years, his business has grown by about 10 per cent a year—even through the economic downturn. “A lot of my customers were trading in their second vehicles for a custom bike,” he says.  

According to Bill Yetman, executive director of the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada, bicycle sales across the board have been soaring over the last few years. Better cycling infrastructure has played a role, with more people biking to work and for recreation. Handmade bikes represent only a tiny fraction of overall bike sales, but the niche is growing.  

The North American Handmade Bicycle Show—which started in 2005 and was most recently held in February, 2013, in Denver, CO—draws thousands of visitors from the U.S. and Canada every year.

In B.C., which has traditionally been a hotspot in the bike industry, a handful of small business are now offering custom bikes, including Berg Bikes Ltd., in Vancouver Island’s Cobble Hill community; Cunningham Cycles Inc., in New Westminster; and Dekerf Cycle Innovations Ltd., in Richmond.

“It’s not a tidal wave,” says Chris Dekerf, one of Canada’s best-known bike builders, “but there is definitely more interest these days, especially locally.”

Dekerf started with Vancouver-based Rocky Mountain Bicycles in the late 1980s, before creating his own company. Over the last 15 years, Dekerf says he has shifted his business to strictly making one-of-a-kind bikes, adding that it’s the type of work he’s always preferred. He grew up in a household where making things by hand was valued, with a craftsman father who taught him how to use hand tools at an early age.

Dekerf’s two-wheeled creations fetch between $10,000 and $20,000—with a four-month wait-list—and his customers come from all over the world. He can spend up to a month building a single bike. “They’re looking for someone to build that perfect bike for them,” he says. “They want something that they’ll ride forever.”