The Dust-Up: (Most) All Bicycles Are Handmade


The Dust-Up: (Most) All Bicycles Are Handmade

In today’s Dust-Up opinion column, John brings up a controversial point about the disconnect between the “handmade” language surrounding bicycle framebuilder showcases and Asian-produced bicycle frames. Hold onto your butts for this one!

Inside Moots, the Masters of Metal

As I’m staring down a full year of bike shows where I document various framebuilders’ efforts in expansive detail, I’d like to bring up something that has bothered me for a while now. But I wasn’t really sure it was worth shooting myself in the foot again with an op-ed piece. You know me: I have the potential to be a hammerer of semantics and am very opinionated about the bicycle industry, its faults, and the rock tumbler of a world we in bike media often find ourselves in, particularly when it comes to marketing terminology.

My intent with this piece is more about getting some thoughts out of my head and jotting them down in true op-ed form. If you’re looking for quotes or statistics, this ain’t gonna be it (though I do name a few), but that doesn’t mean a larger piece isn’t in the works.

To that extent, I’ll re-state the title, which is also the thesis for this Dust-Up:

(Most) All Bicycles Are Handmade!

I figured if there’s any media outlet that could be a fitting home for this discussion, it’s the one that has dedicated as much time and energy to the framebuilding world as The Radavist has and I’ll do my best to stay on track here…



First Off: Why “Most”

I include “most” in the title because machines do make some bicycle frames. If you watch the above video from VPIC, a manufacturer of bicycle welding machines, you can see a machine welding a bicycle frame. This process tends to happen at higher-volume production houses and is often used with aluminum frames, but there are machines that can weld steel frames too. Bikes built by machines like this are typically what you’ll find in department stores.

From our Taipei Cycle Show 2024 coverage

There is a difference between a human in a production line welding a bicycle frame and a machine doing all the welding with a human loading that machine, at least in terms of what “handmade” means for the sake of this discussion and for almost all of the bikes you’ll see documented here on The Radavist.

Baphomet Bicycles

Conflating handmade with bespoke or custom-tailored

I’ve long documented framebuilders and framebuilding culture in this weird little corner of the bike industry. My interest in doing so is multifaceted and has evolved over time but has been inspired or influenced by the following:



The Atavistic Urge, May 14, 2010

  • Making things in backyard workshops and garages is rad (support your homies who make stuff!)
  • People who make those things are often rad, too!
  • Framebuilders, like the bicycles they make, have a story.
  • The US used to manufacture many products domestically, but now it doesn’t. There are a few reasons why this is sad.
  • Custom, bespoke bikes often signal forthcoming trends or directions the bike industry is heading toward (think gravel bikes, the first full-suspension mountain bikes, drop-bar MTBs, and more).
  • Bicycles are utilitarian art – like if you could ride a painting or sculpture(as I duck from objects being lobbed at me from the back row).
  • By nature, no two bespoke bicycles are the same.
  • A custom-tailored bicycle fits just right and can alleviate physical ailments caused  by ill-fitting bikes.
  • Humans love to personalize themselves and the things they own. Personalities are fun to document.


Chapman and Oddity, two wildly different bikes, MADE 2023

Handmade Shows

Through the years, there have been many custom bike shows, ranging from European showcases like Bespoked UK and EU, and Concours de Machines, to the late North American Handmade Bicycle Show, Oregon Manifest, and the new kid on the block: MADE.

Builders bring out their latest and greatest ensembles at these shows, usually with flashy paint finishes and US-made components customized to the nines with personality and bling. These bikes are stunning examples of how a simple machine like the bicycle can be adorned with glitz and glamour, resulting in what I jokingly like to call “balleur.

Documenting these bikes is a lifelong passion of mine. It is something I hold very dear and am honored to be in the position that I am in.

However, I can’t help but notice there’s been a persistent disconnect between the “handmade” label that’s customarily attributed to these bespoke, or small-batch, show bicycles and bikes that are still made by hand overseas in Asia.

Aren’t (most) bicycle frames made by hand? Regardless of whether they are done so in the US, the UK, Italy, Australia, Taiwan, or China?

We love Bespoke!

Here’s where it gets tricky. Is the label “handmade” somehow implying a value-add over a production frame made in Taiwan or China? Are one-off bespoke frames better than frames made in Taiwan? Objectively or subjectively? From a quality standpoint, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-constructed bicycle than one that rolls out of Maxway. This Taiwanese manufacturer makes Sklar Bikes’ overseas models, Surly, Velo-Orange, All-City (RIP), and other brands we feature here on The Radavist.

These frames are straight as an arrow, consistent, well-built, and long-lasting.

Crust Bikes, left, Johnny Coast, right. Similar use case, wildly different prices…

This is why I never viewed the world of bespoke framebuilders as one of higher quality, yet it’s tricky not to get sucked into that line of rationale. Rather, bespoke bicycles are still very well-made and—as the Coast exemplifies above—are literal works of art, undergoing countless hours of filing, sanding, and finishing.

Crust Romanceur and Chapman seat tube cluster

Bespoke and one-off bikes made by framebuilders can be intrinsically nuanced, imperfect experiments that represent where trends are or where they are going vis-à-vis a customer’s or framebuilder’s ideas surrounding a bicycle’s use case.

Each framebuilder is like an artist (pick your media metaphor, be it music, sculpture, etc.) and the customer is simply requesting a piece of art from that builder. But each of the above two bikes are still made by hand, albeit at a different pace and using different construction methods. The Coast was made by hand from start to finish with a higher grade of finishing; the Crust was made by hand(s) in a production run in a small factory in Taiwan where lugs are still used but not filed down and thinned to the level of the Coast. They’re both exceptional bikes occupying different points along the manufacturing spectrum, and both offer a stunning example of a bicycle respective to their owners’ budgets.

Ritchey A Bike, Everest left, Ritchey B Bike, Tam, right: note the higher quality of the fillet-brazing finish on the Everest.

Many production bikes often have details that aren’t as “finished.” Tom Ritchey had his A and B Bikes with the latter being less finely detailed. Tom would spend more time filing and sanding the fillet-brazed tubing connections on the A Bikes. The A Bikes also had better, lighter head tubes, whereas the B Bikes were left more raw. As a result, B Bikes had a lower price point. These bikes would later be directly copied by Specialized in Japan at Toyo Frames as the genesis of the Specialized Stumpjumper frame (citation).

When you look at the birth of the MTB, these builders couldn’t keep up with the public’s demand, so in many ways, Specialized brought this new craze to a broader audience at a much lower cost.

Another example would be the Salsa Fargo, one of the original (if not the very  first) overseas-made drop-bar mountain bikes. Plenty of framebuilders offered a similar bike when the Fargo was released in 2008, but the Fargo brought the drop-bar mountain bike to the masses at a much more affordable price point.

Framebuilders have inspired larger bike companies for decades.

Otis Guy’s 1978 Breezer Series I and Wende and her Breezer Series III

Framebuilders Inspire

The first fat bikes rolled out of small framebuilder shops, as did the first mountain bikes, gravel bikes, and more. We’ve featured boost-spaced gravel bikes, the father of the orignal “gravel bikes,” the earliest mountain bikes, and countless other innovative designs that either have or will influence where the mass-produced market might go or has gone. In a lot of ways, framebuilders are making one-off samples, representing nuanced ideas or approaches.

Trends are born from innovation, and small-time shops are quicker to pivot to demand than larger companies, which is why the big corporations are often spotted in attendance at framebuilder showcases, for “inspiration.”

Countless big bike brands have models made in Taiwan that were inspired by builders, yet these bikes are often less than half the cost of the US-made frames, meaning more people can afford them.

At the 2023 MADE showcase, I overheard someone make a comment about a brand that makes its frames overseas in Taiwan, at Maxway, along the lines of “Why are they here? Their bikes aren’t handmade…” To which I interjected, “Yes, they are. Handmade in Taiwan.”

The brief exchange was the catalyst for me to write this Dust-Up. It’s taken months to finally put pen to paper…

My Black Cat Project Swami

Epilogue: So why do I support bespoke frames?

Going into this Dust-Up, I really just wanted to end it with the previous section, but I’ve learned to listen to my intuition when it comes to writing articles like this. So if you’re still reading, thank you! I decided to include an expanded section that explains my personal beliefs, and a slightly deeper dive into this subject. As you might guess, yes, it gets complicated. 

I realized that in the eighteen years I’ve been running this website, I’ve never made an official statement about why I like supporting framebuilders and makers. What better place for this statement than a Dust-Up article? Let me first say that buying products made in their country of design origin is expensive. A pair of made-in-the-USA jeans will be much more expensive than jeans made overseas. The same applies to a bicycle frame.

Here’s where I really have to tread lightly. Bear with me. This is a very complex issue, and I might not get everything right, but that’s not a good enough reason not to talk about it. Sticking your neck out is never easy, but I beg: don’t break out the guillotine.

Taiwan production, photo by Daniel Yang

The reason a bicycle frame made overseas is cheaper is multi-faceted. For one, they are made in the thousands. Like Henry Ford (who wasn’t a great human) first implemented, the assembly line made it easy for production to ramp up considerably. If specified workstations exist for each production stage and multiple people run similar stations, production can increase exponentially.

So why not do that in the US? Well…

Neuhaus Metalworks utilizes China-made 3D sintered components in a US-welded frame

Many US companies—in the cycling industry and otherwise—choose to export production to cut costs. To be clear, overseas workers are often being paid very well in their local currency, but the exchange rate still makes the production cost cheaper than if the frame were built in the country of the product’s design origin (in most cases, we’re talking about as compared to being made in the US; one Taiwanese dollar currently equals .032 USD). The average pay for a factory worker in Taiwan is 500,852 TWD a year and 241 TWD/hour (citation). This equates to an annual wage of about $16,000 USD at $7/hour. Here’s a breakdown of the average cost of living in Taiwan.

Is this labor exploitation? I am not sure. Is it neocolonialism? I would say so. The same thing happens with India and call centers. Brands use lower-priced labor in other countries to make bikes and other consumer products more affordable in their home country, which results in better profit margins. In my opinion, this is a version of neocolonialism at play.

Yet, at what point will the cost of mass production catch up with the US minimum wage? What will happen then? We’re getting closer…

US bike companies make their products overseas because it is possible to make thousands of bike frames, and it is cheaper to do so, yielding more profit, in general. Here’s where it feels like a knife twist: in doing so, companies are able to make exceptional bikes that are very affordable. Instead of spending $2500 on a frame, you can get a complete bicycle for that much.

That’s the main reason why I was so excited to do our Taiwan-made Radavist Edition Sklar SuperSomething bikes; they felt “custom” but were half as expensive as a US-made batch would have been.

Making bikes in Taiwan is very important for getting people on bikes and offering more affordable bike offerings. However, I’d present a question: What if the minimum wage in the USA had kept up with inflation? Would we be as reliant on overseas, i.e., cheaper production, if it had? Then you might not balk at a $100 pair of jeans or a $2500 frameset that you bought once every three or four years, if you were making $26 an hour. That is if minimum wage kept up with productivity and inflation numbers (citation.) That’s a yearly gross income of almost $52,000 on minimum wage.

The intricate fabrication of the Chromag Darco, built in Taiwan

On the flip side, since so much production has moved to Taiwan, they were given an influx of capital to advance their production lightyears ahead of what mass-produced bicycle frames ever looked like in the US. Many technologies that Taiwanese factories utilize simply aren’t available in the USA, like hydroforming steel or titanium into full suspension linkages or mass-producing 3D-sintered frame parts.

Neuhaus Metalworks utilizes 3D-sintered frame components made in China to make their US frame production process faster for their wide range of stock sizes and more cost-effective for completely custom frames. Check out our Shop Visit for more.

Now, we are all part of this late capitalist system and are only trying to do our best to make it day by day. I am in no way pointing my finger at companies who make things overseas. I’m simply stating why companies make products overseas and why I often choose to support people making stuff domestically in the US.

Made in Taiwan (left), made in Montana (right), can you tell the difference?

Over the past 50 years, the United States has moved a large portion of its goods production overseas. From cotton towels to bicycle frames, we used to produce a lot more here:

“According to the International Bike Organization, the U.S. was in the top five for bicycle production in 1990 at 5.6 million units. As more offshoring occurred, U.S. bike production fell to a low of 200,000 units in 2015…” –Industry Week, 2016.

At current estimates, Taiwan produces more than two million bikes a year (citation). For perspective, one of the only bicycle manufacturing houses in the US, Detroit Bikes, produces 10,000 bikes a year. I could not find a current bicycle frame production number for the United States.

I do feel that it is important to hold onto producing products in the country of design origin for several reasons. First, reliance on everything being made overseas is not a net positive. There are product shortages when a natural disaster or another issue offsets demand inadvertently. In my opinion, we saw a little bit of this happen with the pandemic, when staples of living and recreation were in short supply because so much of our consumables are made overseas.

There’s also a decrease in craft overall when it comes to Americans.

That’s a whole quagmire that I won’t be able to go into here. If you’re curious, I recommend Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. Matthew discusses the decline of shop class in US curriculums and the propaganda that plumbers, carpenters, and other trade professions represent the proletariat and are seemingly beneath those with “college ambitions.”

Cari on our Globe Haul

Going down the list are the environmental implications of overseas production. If everything we consume is made overseas, there is an inherent disconnect of what the adverse effects of industrialization bring these areas. The air quality in industrialized areas can be very poor. Taiwan’s AQI reaches unhealthy levels due to the industrialized nature of the country, primarily from power plants that run factories (citation). Not to mention, the 3% sulfur diesel fuel-burning ships transporting lots of consumer goods to the USA are not that great, either (citation).

Although, I don’t particularly think weaponizing carbon offsets is productive when it comes to making an argument, especially related to cyclists. We’re riding bikes around towns when most Americans drive. We’re already doing a lot more than most people! Anecdotally, when I go on a bike ride here in Santa Fe, I rarely see another human riding a bike or walking, yet I see hundreds of cars.

Cyclists are inherently better at minimizing impact, especially when we commute or make our 3-mile inner city trips by bike. So please, don’t feel too complicit in the fossil fuel guilt spiral.

Where I will point the blame in the bike industry is this infatuation with “model years” of bikes, which, in general, just creates more waste. A lot of these model year bikes are made from carbon fiber too, which will not last as long as a steel bike. The United States is a vehicle for consumption (as someone who owns a media company); it’s often a tenuous dance between consumption and re-use. It’s one I am conflicted with the most.

This is why I have chosen a “made in the US”/bespoke label to act as a filter for my personal buying habits, or I’ll buy secondhand when I can. And it was a big reason why I wanted to launch our community marketplace to sell used goods, the Rad Bazaar.

I’d also argue with a bespoke frame; there’s a significant emphasis put on personalization, custom fit, and “preciousness” that perhaps encourages people to hold onto it for a longer time. Granted, even Taiwan-made frames can possess this!

If I rode this bike on mountain bike trails, it would most likely break (eventually) as it’s made from road-spec tubing. Yet, a Crust Bikes Evasion or Romanceür would not break from the same riding. However, the Bruce Gordon (above) has a different ride feel, which is why I love it so much. It’s also painfully light due to its delicate tubing selection.

Another reason I like the way US-made bikes ride is that they are more prone to breaking. Yes, you read that right. Bikes break. It happens. However, the way a bicycle rides without having to pass extensive consumer safety testing is drastically different. Also, when a steel frame breaks, it’s often just a crack, not a catastrophic failure like when a carbon frame breaks. And it can often be repaired.

To further expand on this: When a bike is designed to be ridden on dirt, it has to pass MTB certification when it’s produced in Taiwan due to US CPSC laws. We are a litigious society in the US. That means the thin and flexy US-made fork that you love the feel of would not pass those tests, and that is why those four-pound steel forks from Taiwan might not flex and “plane” as nicely but won’t break on ya…

Now, good framebuilders will engineer a bike to withstand the customer’s riding style, and to be fair, broken US-made frames are not very common—no more than Taiwan-made frames. Bikes break, but it’s often due to engineering or design flaws, not construction technique or execution. Or you just ride too hard! ;-)

For example, a frame might crack at the end of a butting line in the downtube because it didn’t have a proper butting spec or a head tube gusset. Or it might crack on an investment cast dropout design because the dropout design wasn’t engineered correctly.

Jeremy Sycip in his shop

I am privileged to be able to own bikes that have been built by my friends.

When given the option to support the overseas manufacturing system, which often feels complicated and sometimes icky in an exploitive, late-capitalist way, I’d rather opt to support the community I find myself in because I can afford to. I’d rather spend +/-$2,500 on a frame that a friend made to fit my body’s shape and is tailored to a specific use case, with a paint job I can design and my money supports someone doing a job they love.

Maybe it’s a weirdo request like a 29 x 3″ tire on a super boost spaced titanium frame with a lot of reach and a flexy steel fork, or it’s a fillet-brazed rigid 29er with swoops and neat details, or maybe it’s an ultralight fat-tire road bike that dances up climbs. Thus, I try to support this community and the art of framebuilding in the US and end up with a product that feels more personal and less transactional.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where a frame is born; it’s still made by hand. Where and who you choose to buy your bicycle from is wholly up to you, but don’t ever let someone tell you that it’s not handmade.