Meet the makers: Custom bike builders in Sonoma County
Hundreds of miles of uncrowded roads and trails traversing windblown coastal bluffs, undulating pastures and vineyards, and steep mountains shrouded in redwoods have long drawn cyclists to Sonoma County.
Over the years, these athletes have forged one of the most visible groups in local outdoor recreation, supporting numerous clubs and teams, shops stretching from Cloverdale to Petaluma, and a list of events that packs the county’s calendar from February to November.
But bikes aren’t just ridden in Sonoma; they’re also made here.
The county harbors some of the nation’s preeminent independent bicycle-frame builders. From backyard workshops and hidden warehouses, these craftsmen transform steel, aluminum, or titanium tubes into high performance machines and works of art for clients down the street or halfway around the world. Still other local businesses design and build some of the parts that make them move.
Together, Sonoma’s frame builders and component manufacturers add to a legacy of bicycle innovation that reaches back decades and crosses county lines into Napa, San Francisco, Alameda — and especially Marin.
There, as the story goes, mountain biking was born on the flanks of Mount Tamalpais in the mid-’70s when a few renegade types outfitted their heavy old cruisers with bigger tires and better brakes to bomb down its rocky slopes.
In the ensuing years, many big names in bike frames developed nearby: Salsa, Otis Guy, Ibis, Breezer, Gary Fisher. But more recently, the balance of power has shifted north, with Sonoma now home to renowned builders Soulcraft, SyCip Designs, and Bruce Gordon Cycles (recently retired), as well as the popular outfitter Yuba Bikes.
Just this year, Marin Mountain Bikes relocated from Novato to Petaluma.
Like many subcultures, framebuilding is a tight-knit world where most people know each other. In some cases they have even learned from one another or worked side by side. Each strives to make bikes and frames as distinctive as they are durable, often custom-crafted for a particular individual.
That’s the beauty of bikes built from the ground up: fit and machined and welded over many hours; backed by years of training, testing, and retooling; designed for speed, strength, and safety; and bearing the mark of their maker.
While custom cycles cost a lot to produce (reflected by price tags in the thousands), the artisans who make them — often with a dog at their feet or a beer within reach — are both a throwback to a simpler time and a quintessential part of modern Sonoma County.
From his garage workshop in Santa Rosa’s historic St. Rose neighborhood, John Fitzgerald builds frames that embody the handmade ethic.
They’re retro, distinctive, custom-fit, and generally unlike anything you’d find in a standard bike shop. He works only in lugged steel, a labor-intensive frame type that involves mating steel tubes via socket-like sleeves, called lugs.
This type of frame was prized for its performance and strength throughout the cycling boom of the 1960s and ’70s, but was eventually supplanted by cheaper welded-steel and aluminum and lighter titanium and carbon fiber.
Fitzgerald’s creations honor a century-old French sport called randonneuring, which involves long-distance, self-supported rides. He includes provisions for fenders, multiple racks (which he also builds), lights, and “dynamo” electricity-generating hubs so customers can outfit their rides for days on the road. “The oldschool flavor appeals to me,” says Fitzgerald, 46, a stay-at-home dad who has been building frames for 5 years and completes about 10 a year. “They’re extremely functional, beautiful, and useful bikes that you can really do anything with.”