Over the years Stephanie and I have visited some out-of-the-way frame builders, but Sam Whittingham’s Naked Bicycles is one of the more out-there. Pedaling our camping bikes on the ups and downs of Quadra Island, an eclectic community of 2,700 people off northern Vancouver Island, we’re reminded that this is a two-speed kind of place – where the only gears you need are your easiest and your hardest.
The road narrows and the hills become even steeper, and we eventually come upon a gate, with a kind note asking us to close it after entering, for there are horses inside. We put Denver on his leash and grind the final few hundred metres to Sam’s shop, a quirky metal-roofed building with lots of windows, reflecting the even-more-whimsical shape of his house on the other side of the driveway.
If people make the effort to get here, Sam makes them feel at home. He arrives on the porch with a smile, and invites us in to his frame building shop in the woods.
In the repair stand is a 29+ hardtail, its asymmetrical paint showing signs of heavy use. Sam explains a bit about the history of the bike while introducing us to Dave, who works full time prepping frames, assembling builds, and performing maintenance on bikes like this one.
And then there’s a freshly-minted drop bar bike in another stand waiting for a customer to make the pilgrimage to Quadra, a blend of fall colours on a metallic orange base, and Naked’s signature maple leaf pattern on top.
I begin my tour from behind the lens while learning about Sam’s internationally-driven business in a small community, the evolution of his style over two decades building bikes, and finding common ground over our desire to experiment with the outer reaches of bike geometry.
Sam is an innovator, an artist, and a passionate rider.
At first glance, I see the usual shop stuff – frames in progress, raw tubes, bikes in various states hanging from the ceiling, custom-made tools – all surrounded by a personal collection of esoterica, things found along the way that add character to the space. The large paned windows bring the outdoors into the shop, which feels wholly appropriate in this rural enclave.
Sam is about to show me the paint booth when he stops, smiles, and pulls a suspension fork box out from under one of the benches. Inside are dozens of treasures: blueprints for the intricate paintwork Sam is known for, each colourful tube the story of a bike built and painted right here in this shop. I immediately recognize the maple leaf fade from the bike in the stand, and upon closer inspection, Sam’s bikes from the years flood my memory.
Tube after tube, Sam describes not only the bike each sample represents, but the customer, and the conversations that represent much more than just paint choices. Sam’s face alights with the memories of all these great interactions, customers for life, bringing home the reasons we find to invest in handcrafted bicycles in the first place.
After this moment lost in the stories of the years, Sam leaves me alone with my camera to explore the nooks and crannies of the shop, finding more and more evidence of his inventive nature. Trophies dating back over a decade, to when I first heard of Sam’s work. In 2008, Naked won Best in Show, President’s Choice, and People’s Choice at NAHBS.
My mind jumps to other trophies that I know must exist here, those from Sam’s speed racing career, a time during which he held and defended the human-powered world speed record over a number of years. Among the collection of speed racing mementos, I find a cheque for the deciMach prize – Sam was the first human to pedal to 1/10 the speed of sound.
For a humble guy building bikes out of a rustic shop way out in the woods, Sam sure is well decorated.
Interrupting Sam and Dave from their work to ask a few questions, the conversation jumps between rural living and the current state of bicycle design. We dive deep about axles and angles and reach, where Sam pulls the cover on some of his experimental ideas – ideas that wouldn’t sell bikes in a big brand bike store just yet, but might just push our thinking if we were open to listening.
Thus is the life of an innovator like Sam: experiment with your wacky ideas on your own bikes, bring the best of those ideas to your customers and the rest of the cycling community and live the good life all the while.