Origins and Activations: How Ronnie Romance Found Inspiration at Blue Lug Bike Shops

This is a long story. It is a story of Blue Lug‘s influence on me, an interview with the co-founder, and hopefully it will lend some inspiration to American bike shops.

The photos you are seeing are of Blue Lug employee bikes that I shot one after another as we visited each location. We thought it would be cool to document the personal bikes of the build artists whose handiwork you see each day on the Blue Lug Instagram softcore porn for bike nerds.

We will begin with the story of my 650b leather and canvas activation as a lead in…

Racing mountain bikes in 1997. That is my sister to the left. This was a Specialized M2, but I tried to make it my own with XTR upgrades and custom decals and such.


Old Saybrook Connecticut, spring of 2008: I was working the off-season from the family fishing boat at a small mom-and-pop outdoor store in the paddle sports department. In a town where you don’t have the typical outdoor types most of you are used to seeing in abundance out west, the folks who worked at this place (it eventually went out of business) were Yankees, perhaps to their own detriment (again, they went out of business), but good folks. The late Steven Wall, one of these good-hearted locals, was about double my age and saw that I was commuting to work every day on a fixed gear 70s Trek touring bike with mustache bars and bigger tires (28c ha!). And while this accidental build was embarrassing by my standards of today, it was enough to catch the eye of this elder dandy of the Yankee outdoor scene.

Photo from 11 summers ago. This was my Trek touring bike converted “country fixed” gear. I was really getting into baskets.

Steven did not look like a cyclist — a big guy in cotton and wool with a fishing pole often strapped to his basket. A basket! He would go on and on about French parts and Suntour everything, and every once in a while would invite me on what he referred to as an “S24O” (sub 24-hour overnighter), another term he threw around as if everyone knew what it meant. His bikes made no sense to me as I was still actively training 20 hours a week for my all-important Cat 3 road season, yet while I was burning myself out riding in the slush and in the dark after work each day, his tweed-clad n’ quaint overnight camps and picnics were really starting to intrigue me.



This also happened to be the first year Rivendell did a Taiwanese bike, the 650b Bleriot, and they made it available through QBP at a very reasonable price. On Steven’s advice and influence, I had perused the Rivendell website a few times and had daydreamed of riding the wistful and whimsical oaky rolling hills in their photos. The tweed, wool, leather, and waxed canvas paired with the lusciously painted lugged steel bikes had me picnic-ride curious—but I did not know how to bridge the gap (nor did I really want to at the time)—just a few more races and I’d be a Cat 2!

2007 racing Cat 5 with Patrick—working on that lead-out train! We were very into customizing our bikes and looks at this point.


Steven wanted a Riv… and now since you could get the Bleriot from QBP, he could afford one. Since the outdoor store we worked at was not a bike shop, I was the only one within his network that knew how to build a bike up from scratch. So one day he brought to me a pile of “new” stuff, that looked to me like a vaguely polished museum collection, along with the frame, and trusted me with piecing together his dream bike. One could say the first Ron’s Bikes build! I scratched my head and got to work.

Ronnie’s first appearance on The Radavist

Up until then, I’d only worked on featherweight performance-oriented builds for myself and others, so this stuff was soooo weird to me. 650b??? Steven loved to talk about it… Peter Weigle this, Grant Peterson that… I remember the only tires available for it at the time were the Panaracer Col de la Vie in 38, and that seemed as big as a mountain bike tire to me at the time. He had me wrap the bars with this yellow cat-eye cloth tape and told me to shellac it to make it brown. I cringed and did as I was told. I installed his well-worn hefty Brooks B17 and cringed some more. What really got me is that this bike cost as much as one of the aluminum bikes I was racing on at the time, yet weighed double. I did not fully understand until I gave it a test ride. A curated bike built for comfort — but not the gel seat cover and rear view mirror kind. The classic lines were undeniable. From that moment on I was “activated.”

My first Rivendell after I tried for years to make various Surly’s look like this.

My battle wagon Trek 900 series touring out west in 2012. Istripped the paint and did the old school logo thing from velocal (left). Arya and me 2014 on an overnighter (right).

Three years later I was a different person and rider altogether and I had the opportunity to visit Rivendell HQ in Walnut Creek on a California bike tour with my friend Jarred. We were on 650b converted Raleigh Internationals with the game-changing Grand Bois Hetre 650b x 42 tires, with our front baskets and rear Carradice long flap campers. We met the cool staff and even got to witness Grant giving our bikes a little saddle sniff. Jarred returned to Austin after that tour, quit his job, and was hired on by Riv just a few months later. We were in! It is about this time that he asked me “Dude, have you ever heard of this bonkers Japanese Bike Shop called Blue Lug?” I had not.

Touring Vermont 11 summers ago on my Raleigh International 650b conversion.

An Introduction to Blue Lug

By then, Blue Lug was already doing heavily curated Surly and Riv builds, and photos of their shop space looked more like a Chris King X Paul Comp showroom. All of the small American brands—that no bike shops here would ever dare to carry—in all of these colors and options were proudly on display in jewelry cases, and it even looked like folks were buying them! Bike shops around here, especially in 2010, were very much still gripped by the Lance Armstrong effect, and the viability of selling these cool niche parts out of a brick-and-mortar bike shop just seemed too risky. It was also around this time that I stopped even being interested in local bike shops since they’d all become so homogenous and defined by how grumpy their staff was. No thanks.

Of course, the U.S. had some cool shops that had popped up during the “sweet fixie” craze, and since that was indeed a short-lived phenomenon, they’d already begun switching over to the next urban progression of cyclocross bikes not used for cyclocross. Golden Saddle Cyclery comes to mind, as well as Monkey Wrench Bikes in Nebraska. This was also Instagram 1.0, so these more lifestyle-focused shops were able to reach further than their local bike scenes. Blue Lug was also on Instagram though, and it was clear how far ahead they were from anything we had here. The dream of one day pilgrimaging to bike shop Mecca was becoming more and more common in my nightly fantasies.

In 2019, that dream became reality as my pal, Pat, and I made our first visit to Japan in order to tour the famed Panaracer factory that makes our tires. We let Blue Lug know we were coming, and they pulled out all the stops: touring us around Tokyo visiting their then three (now five) brick-and-mortar shops. To quote Pat, “Each shop was as if they took my Google search history from the last 10 years and put it all in a store.” Yes, Blue Lug was even more than we’d bargained for; our brains flushed with dopamine, unable to control the Pavlov’s dog’s response … just us, countless shades of machined anodized aluminum, the entire Rivendell and Crust frame catalog hanging from the rafters… and a puddle of drool on the floor.

How is this kind of bike shop model possible? Why is there nothing even remotely close to this in the U.S. where many of these parts are made? Is it something unique to Japanese culture? Lots of folks ride bikes in Japan, but they do in Denmark also, and you don’t see anything like this over there!? I had, and continued to have, so many questions.

Fast forward three-and-a-half years, and we finally got to sit down with Blue Lug co-owner and founder, Toshi, on our most recent trip and ask him how this all came to be. So now onto the interview segment of this novel:

A Conversation With Toshi, Blue Lug Co-Founder

Toshi: “It all started in 2006. I got really into San Francisco’s fixed-gear bike culture and I started to post blog post about their culture. But I didn’t have a shop at first.

(*Blue Lug, just like the Prolly era Radavist, started as a fixed gear blog.*)

Nobody in Japan was posting anything about fixed-gear bikes in Japanese, so whoever came into the culture would search for information about them on the internet and they would automatically see my posts. In some of the blogs I posted, I would kind of show off the bike parts that I got from overseas. I started to get a lot of comments like ‘Where did you get that!?’—or something like ‘I want that too!’—so I would reply something like ‘Do you want to order them together with my next purchase?’ and I guess that was the start.”

Ronnie: What was the first product you imported?

Toshi: “I believe it was a seatpost from Miche…the one with holes in them. Do you know what I’m talking about?
That was very rare at the time…Oh, and Velocity rims too.”

Ronnie: The Deep V?

Toshi: “Yeah! Deep V! We couldn’t get those in Japan. The fully colored ones were super hard to get at the time. Wakako, the co-founder of Blue Lug, who currently lives in Vegas but lived in SF at the time would get in contact with all those brands for me.”

(*Wakako speaks fluently in English, while Toshi does not, so her translations played a valuable role in these early business connections.*)

“So, back to the rims. I only needed two rims for my own bike, but they wouldn’t just sell a pair of rims for one guy. They had to be ordered in bulk, so I would get a full box of rims. I knew that selling those rims through the comments would be such a pain in the ass, so I created an online store, which exploded.”

Ronnie: Can you tell us a little more about Wakako?

Toshi: “Wakako is a tattoo artist who lived in SF at the time I met her. My friends would often get tatted by Wakako and we were often hanging out. One day she started to talk about Keirin (track racing popular in Japan for sports betting)…I think that was like 17 years ago…Then she started to come back to Japan frequently and would take a few Keirin frames or Suntour hubs back to SF. Then, she would show up to Japan with a few friends in SF who rode track bikes. At the time, the SF locals were really into those Keirin frames, which were basically just trash for us so they were super cheap. So Wakako would share the frames to her friends and I was always watching them, which made me want to ride a fixed gear too, so I chose my first Keirin frame with the SF guys and started riding. I couldn’t ride as well as the videos people were putting out, but I was trying hard to be like them.”

Pat: So this was the beginning of the online store?

Toshi: “Yes, and upon making an online store, the store of course needed a name, so I named it Blue Lug. This all happened in 2006. I ran the online store for a year. The online thing was kind of like a side job. My main job was as a fashion clothing manufacturer (non-bike related). As time went by, the web store was growing and I got super busy. A lot of people were into what I was doing, which made me happy and made me think that I needed to step my game up.

I got super busy and I eventually got tired of the web store, so I took it down and rented a small space in Hatsudai, which is the city right next to Hatagaya, where our current HQ is located, and made it a physical store. The store was open from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. which was the time I had outside my main job. I was running the store like a hobby. So, I was basically working 24 hours a day.”

Pat and Ronnie: We can see clearly the through lines between your fashion background and the focus on aesthetics Blue Lug is so well known for—that’s pretty cool. One thing we noticed while hanging out here a few times is that the mechanics (who only build alt-dream bikes) hang out and build until 10 each night. We do this at home when we have company over to help piece together our deeply curated builds in the garage and call it a build party. To us, the vibe in the mechanic’s area is very “build party.”

Toshi: “Their jobs are kind of like an extension of a building party. In the very early days of Blue Lug, I would let my customers build their bike in front of the store. I didn’t have any experience as a bicycle mechanic, so I would just give a few pieces of information I know to my customers and let them figure it out or we would help each other out. Some of those customers are now very experienced bike mechanics for Blue Lug, so we’ve always had that ‘trial and error style’ since day one and we just kept that style.”

Ronnie: That’s a build artist’s dream job to build bikes like this every night!

Ronnie and Pat: Can you talk a little about where the celebration of lifestyle cycling in Japan comes from? How did it become so popular?

Toshi: “Bicycles in general are very popular in Japan. Especially those mama-bikes, you see everywhere. Almost everyone here owns or rides a bicycle.”

Pat: What is a mama-bike?

Toshi: “It’s a bicycle made for transportation. They are called ‘mama-bikes’ because Japanese mothers would use those types of bikes to go grocery shopping, pick up their kids from school or taking them to school and such.”

Pat: And you see them everywhere…

(*And you do, they are 20”, often ebikes, with a covered child seat in the front and back either loaded up with groceries or children. Seemingly every mother owns and operates one on a daily basis instead of driving. The “mama-bikes” are strictly functional, and you rarely see anyone riding bikes for sport in the cities.*)

Ronnie: So you think just having all those people riding bikes makes it possible to do the kinda curated stuff Blue Lug does?

Toshi: “Sure, everybody rides bikes, so there are a ton of demands for bicycles and we have so many great Japanese manufacturers who have been supporting the Japanese bicycle industry, but most people do not have that much expectation for bicycles.

People here were not interested in having fun riding, upgrading their bikes, or making their bikes look cool. I am not saying everybody, but most.

There were so many cyclists and so many people who can manufacture great components with high quality, so I believed that we had great potential for many opportunities in the bicycle industry. It’s just that the average people’s expectations towards bikes were very low.

For the people who became into [the scene] with the track bikes, including myself, we were always about the style, we always wanted our bikes to look cool. And I started to think that we can make a ‘cool commuter bike,’ since we were in an environment, where we have people who can make bicycle components with great quality. So we started to put baskets on our builds and that sort of ‘commuter style’ (Rivendell) builds were kind of becoming a thing and I think that style kinda slowly traveled from overseas.

In 2006, I went to NAHBS the first time. I believe it was the 2nd tradeshow they ever did. In the tradeshow, I saw so many bikes that resembled a ‘mama-bike’ but looked really nice. The porteur-style bikes made by the American handmade bike builders were very inspiring to me. After seeing those bikes, I knew that we could build something similar with the track bikes or the Surlys we liked and were building.

You guys went to the Honjo factory today, right?”

Pat and Ronnie: Yes! What an amazing place.

Toshi: “I never knew how fascinating Honjo was, until I saw the U.S. handmade bike frame builders using them in their builds. The bikes they built with Honjo fenders, looked like a really cool mama-bike. Those people taught me that you can make a bike look fantastic with baskets and fenders. We took what we learned and then tried it with what we could get our hands on, with a bit of our own twist and that became the style we have today.”

Pat: It’s neat to think that there has been back-and-forth inspiration.

Toshi: “That is true. We learned a lot from America and added parts that could make our daily rides convenient and used parts that were accessible for us, then that turned into our style.”

Ronnie: There are some good parts available in the palette here for the build artist to choose from…

(*Toshi explains that he lets the staff bring in the parts they individually think are cool, and that’s how the shop stays relevant.*)

Toshi: “I never say anything to the staff members, but they’re always having a bike-building party!”

Pat: If you have a curious mind…there’s more out there…

Ronnie: It helps if you have that fashion background.

Pat and Ronnie: What do you see as the progression of Japanese bicycle culture?

Toshi: “I feel like people who enjoy bicycles are increasing within the 16 years of running this shop. I’m not saying more people are riding. I just think that there are more people who enjoy and celebrate cycling. There are more people who think bikes are cool, and are trying to spread the message. I think people’s expectations of bicycles are getting higher, regardless of the genre. Mama-bikes, road, MTB, track bikes…whatever. I can’t predict how the cycling culture will evolve specifically, but I feel like there will be more people who can enjoy bicycles or people who will find a way to make good use of bicycles.”

Pat and Ronnie: There is an incredible amount of stuff packed into these stores, things you only ever see on the internet.

Toshi: “We have a large staff (50) here at Blue Lug and they are all unique. I truly think individuality is important in this business, so I make room for everyone to cultivate their own personality with their builds. Having individuality often leads to curiosity and curiosity can make someone grow in many ways and I think the result of that is the variety of the products we carry.

If someone wants to carry a certain component or a brand, I want them to order it. I want to make sure that everyone has the condition to build a cool bike, regardless of how niche or new the product is. If they want to carry the product, I respect their opinion and want them to actually touch the products. Now that we have so many staff members, our stocks have become quite big.”

Pat: We’ve always wanted to see the Blue Lug staff’s personal bikes. It was cool to see their personal influences today.

Pat and Ronnie: Thanks Toshi for sitting down and having this conversation with us today. A big thanks to our interpreters Jag, and “The Colonel” for facilitating!

A Swift End to Japan’s Fixie Era—Onto Cool Commuters!

The next evening we ended up having a late-night meal with Toshi and they got to loosen up a little more about Blue Lug history. To us, it seemed like a big jump from fixed-gear culture to the Riv-style commuter basket bikes. We expressed this to Toshi via The Colonel, and he dropped a bombshell on our investigative report. So the Japanese are a rule-following culture, and once the police figured out that people were riding fixed gears without brakes, they implemented a law shortly thereafter banning this kind of riding in Tokyo. Overnight, the sweet fixie era was over. The new cool urban bicycle was the decked-out bespoke commuter with fat tires and upright bars… and two brakes!

To Wrap This Up…

Why do I think this kind of bike culture is important and worth striving for? The more you make your bike yours, no matter what it looks like, the more likely you are to adopt the bicycle as a lifestyle and not just something you do as an activity. Shops like Blue Lug aren’t locked into the big brand annual new model cycle and mechanic technical classes on how to Bluetooth their VR headsets to adjust “transmissions.” Instead, they sell and promote handsome utilitarian bikes with a nod to the builders’ and customers’ personal tastes. The small brands they promote and use in their online store and customer builds, in turn, help support a large sum of my friends and colleagues in this industry. And if I can speak for all of us, we are forever grateful for the Tokyo police and their two brakes law!