Germany is an epicenter of cycling innovation and production. Home to a lengthy list of big brands including Canyon, Diamant, Focus, Bosch, and so many more, the central European nation is also inhabited by an ever-growing community of smaller bicycle and gear fabricators, builders, and makers.
While we saw many examples of cycling-related German craftsmanship on display in our Bespoked coverage last month, those examples just scratched the surface. On his way to Dresden for the show, Josh stopped over in Berlin and spent his brief amount of free time learning about the city’s special place within the larger German—and global—cycling industry context.
Willkommen in Berlin
My trip to Germany last month to cover the first Central Europe edition of the Bespoked Handmade Bicycle show would have been uber lame without the warm welcome and hospitality offered up by Florian Haeussler and Kristin Heil. Flo and Tine are the Berlin-based dynamic duo behind the brands Fern Fahrraeder and Gramm Tourpacking. With Berlin as my stopover between my home in the US and Bespoked in Dresden, they made my arrival infinitely more enjoyable by inviting me to sleep in their flat; providing desk space, meals, and bottomless Club-Mate (a yerba mate soda) in their workshop; and offering an immersive snapshot of their wonderful community with group meals and connections to the other folks I’ll introduce below.
I’ve known Flo and Tine virtually now for a couple of years, as I tested their Diamond Rack/Bag combo with my State All Road review and we’ve coordinated a couple of other projects together. We’d had a professional rapport for a while leading up to my travels over to Germany but I do not think their welcoming attitude had much to do with my job as “bike media.” Rather, it is more consistent with stories I heard about their roles in the European cycling scene where they serve as seasoned mentors, role models, and community builders. But they are incredibly modest, so that’s where my job as media comes in. Let’s take a brief look at their operations, as we have more on the way from both Fern and Gramm in the coming months.
It would be difficult for any appreciator of beautiful bicycles to not admire Florian’s work with Fern. For as long as drooling over bikes on Instagram has been a thing, Fern bikes have caused me to stop scrolling and have provided endless inspiration for my own projects. Even without that quintessential cracked plaster beige wall backdrop, Fern’s comprehensive meshing of form, function, and style is instantly recognizable.
Flo started building bikes back in 2012 and spent about two years honing his craft by making them for friends and family before taking custom frame commissions. In the years since he’s been looking for ways to make bike fabrication a sustainable lifestyle and living, undergoing multiple transformations and changes in order to survive what he describes as a “really hard business,” going on to add that:
“Frame building looks great and super romantic in Instagram pictures, but in reality, this is a tough job which takes a lot of toll from you.”
Although the likeness is uncanny, Flo can’t get by on being a Leo DiCaprio doppelgänger alone to sell bikes. Instead, he takes a holistic approach to delivering a bicycle to his customers, one that utilizes “designs, parts, geometries, etc., for function and/or aesthetics, rather than just following the latest hype like everybody else does.” Fern bikes are also typically a team effort working in collaboration with Gramm Tourpacking and Velociao finishers to create a unique machine that’s as distinctive as its owner.
“I see the bike’s frame, the components, the bags, paint and even the rider as one unit and so we try to design the perfect fitting package for them.” – Florian Haeussler, Fern Fahrraeder
Even with the success of Fern, Flo continues to look for ways to carve out his place in the cycling industry and make his work available to more folks. He started the sibling component brand Allygn as the demand grew for custom parts he was making with Fern. A mix of the words “ally” and “align,” the growing Allygn (pronounces “əˈlīn”) collection features racks, fenders, and soon-to-come carbon fork, all of which are being made in Asia. Additionally, Flo is experimenting with making bikes with set geometries and sizing under the Allygn umbrella. These bikes will be made in-house, but TIG-welded rather than brazed to speed up production.
The “Beast of the East” is a prototype Flo had built up and featured at Bespoked. It’s a test case for this different production method and parts experimentation while also serving as a platform for the new micro-lowrider racks and micro-pannier collaboration with Gramm that I spotlighted in my Bespoked coverage. It has all of the Fern DNA, just in what Flo hopes will be a more approachable package.
Since I was visiting just before Bespoked—an event that always requires tons of preparation from builders and makers—I got to witness the Fern/Gramm workshop in a flurry of action. And not just pre-show makers’ action as I also found myself audience to the team’s collective conviviality in celebration of Lena’s birthday. Tine and Flo pulled out all the stops, preparing an amazing family-style lunch of traditional German food and Ukrainian treats, which is where Lena is from.
Tine and Flo’s trajectories in developing their respective brands share some parallels, including their timelines. Tine started making bike bags back in 2012 and, with a background in long-distance touring and randonneuring, her early bags were made of lightweight sailcloth and pack-cloth fabrics. At the time, this was in contrast to the heavier woven fabrics and PVC tarpaulins preferred in much of Europe for their notable water resistance and durability. Tine found the alternatives to be preferable in their high quality, ease of processing, and overall performance. Her focus on utilizing lighter materials organically resulted in adopting the name Gramm and, as she commented to me,”Nomen est omen, which is our guide post ever since.”
In 2015, Tine went all in and made Gramm Tourpacking her full-time gig. From then on, she prototyped, tested, and rode everything that would eventually be sold from their Berlin workshop. As she told me, “If that means hard and long working days for so many years, developing and crafting bags and products is an integral part of our identity.”
Today, Gramm has expanded to include a few employees aside from Tine, as all prototyping and custom/made-to-measure frame bags are done in their workshop, which is a lot of work. Being able to bring on a core group of craftspeople has allowed Gramm to grow while still retaining the agility to weather downturns and turbulent times, like the kind many brands are experiencing now. They are currently planning to expand their business partners to include more global bike shops and continue working with Flo at Fern for even more innovative products in the coming months and years. As for Gramm’s established lineup of bags, including the popular Diamond Bag and Hip Bag Handlebar Roll, manufacturing takes place with a partner in Portugal. Or, as Tine frames it: “Our online shop gives us the chance to offer continuously a slightly larger range of bags to more people (one size fits most) whilst keeping our passion for making custom bags, currently frame bags, alive.”
Drust and Akinn Cycles
Each time we feature a bike built by Konstantin Drust it never fails to garner a lot of attention. And for good reason. Still relatively new to building bikes and components under his own mark, Drust Cycles, Konstantin has quickly developed a unique and readily-apparent style in the crowded world of custom bikes. Equal parts visual art and punk rock, Drust’s raw and often unfiled fillets with their pronounced angleture make a strong countercultural statement but also speak to his utility as a craftsperson. Before taking me around to some tourist spots in the center of town, I got a brief glimpse into the Drust workshop.
Building bikes is as much about community for Konstantin as it is about running a business. And it also speaks to the environment within Berlin and Germany. Following his studies in mechanical engineering at Technical University of Berlin, and learning basic metalworking, he took a job at Big Forest Frameworks. There, he participated in both sides of the business: producing custom frames and teaching the craft. Now running his own operation, he still occasionally offers instruction on a small scale.
“I learned that the custom bicycle industry, or let’s say the community of builders, is a nice, friendly and welcoming niche, almost a subculture. Almost everybody is open to sharing information, processes and contacts. Its more common to compliment and appreciate others work and achievements than I have experienced elsewhere. I do enjoy being part of this and am happy that I slowly find my place here.”
Thus far, Drust’s customers have asked him to build bikes for long days in the saddle, from ATB/touring mountain bikes to drop-bar gravel framesets. A prime example of this would be the gravel bike built for a customer, who rode up to Bespoked where I was able to quickly photograph (shown above) the wild build. As the bikes he rides and is most excited about, this makes sense. In the future, though, expect to see more utility and commuter bikes from Drust. While something of an experiment, the 29er cargo bike I documented at Bespoked is emblematic of the direction Drust could head in the future as, according to Konstantin: “I love when my work is not a trophy in the garage but put to good use.”
In partnership with Konstantin’s shopmate André Roboredo of Vetra Bikes, Akinn Cycles is a new concept for the duo to offer a standardized alternative to their custom practices. Similar to trends we’re seeing across the handmade sector (and as seen above with Berliner coevals Fern (Allygn) and Gramm) Akinn will be high-quality handmade frames, but available in set geometries at a lower price than custom or one-off builds from either Drust or Vetra.
Utilizing the talents of Christophe Synak, André created a strong brand identity for Akinn that instantly caught my eye on Instagram when it launched. To me, it harkens back to ’90s skate and BMX cataolgs and I can’t get enough. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a lot more soon from the Akinn partnership!
Flo and Tine’s workshop space occupies an entire level of what was previously a massive industrial bakery. There’s more room than each of them needs for their respective operations and they sublease a few spaces for other businesses and friends. It further solidifies the community vibe that they are so central in nurturing.
One of the spaces belongs to their longtime friend Philipp Böse who operates Velo Saloon, a vintage and refurb business specializing in rare and unique finds. Beginning around the time the Berlin Wall fell, Philipp became interested in collecting the discarded bikes and parts people were throwing out as they were finally able to buy fancy new gear from around the world. Having grown up repairing everything from electronics to bikes, Phillip developed a strong sense of joy in prolonging the lifespan of all sorts of things.
As time went by Philip had a variety of jobs but eventually found himself out of work and randomly picked an old bike out of the bulk garbage. He then disassembled and cleaned it to sell online. Enjoying the end result and process, he looked for more and made it his side hustle, which also included sewing machines, factory lamps, furniture, toner, and printer spares.
Now working in a bike shop, he also runs Velo Saloon and is trying to ramp up his sales. His stash includes bikes and parts collected from Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Austria and, of course, all around Germany, and have now been made (re)available to customers all over the world. After nearly 20 years of collecting and selling, he’d rather pare back the accumulation side and own just a few bikes. Of course, he has a lot on hand and is regularly building for friends and acquaintances.
Short on time before heading to Dresden for Bespoked, Flo ensured we made a quick stop at Velociao, which is Robert Scmidt’s paint and finishing shop located just a few kilometers down the road. Robert is a humble guy but he’s one of the most in-demand painters in Europe and has a body of work to show for it. Nearly one-third of the bikes I documented at Bespoked were painted by Velociao and I wasn’t even being remotely intentional about it. Certainly not a representative example, Robert is busy.
Closely connected to the local handmade and vintage scene, Velociao has a range of specialties from bespoke paintwork to full-on restorations of classic bikes. Even before becoming enmeshed in Berlin’s handmade scene, Robert was painting – he studied graphic design while also working in an auto paint shop. Then, after working as a computer programmer and traveling the world by bike (this was years before the term “digital nomad” existed), he stayed in Berlin to establish Velociao.
While Velociao often paints for custom builders like Fern, Drust, Merglas, Bonanno, etc., they also get work from larger brands doing prototyping, world tour teams, and carbon production factories. But when it comes to art direction and implementation, Robert is happy to take as little or as much from his customers as they want to give:
“Some [customers] have very strict designs in their minds and our job is to make it reality. With others, we work together to create a design. Sometimes it is very easy to get inspired, with some ideas you really have to fight hard. But I think the best designs you will not find at first try. In some rare occasions, we get a wildcard and we can try to do some art.”
For some examples of this, look no further than a custom-painted OPEN U.P. frameset for a customer over in Leipzig, Konstantin Drust’s personal road bike, or the Soft Touch finish on Fern’s Ultra Rando. In addition to performing period-correct paint work for restorations, Velociao also keeps a number of vintage hard goods on hand to complement such projects. From GDR-made track wheels to Italian racing frames and everything in between, Robert and team have both old and new concepts covered.
While I wish I could have spent more time in Berlin, and Germany in general, I had traveled so much already this year that I was looking forward to spending some much-needed time back at home after Bespoked. But, in just my short time visiting with these inspiringly creative and hard-working folks, it’s clear that there is still room to maneuver in the global cycling industry even when times are tough. While it’s incredibly difficult to continually reinvent and search for new ideas, small brands appear more able to respond to changing economic climates than larger counterparts.