Last week, John Caletti of Caletti Cycles hosted five up-and-coming bicycle framebuilders at his shop in Santa Cruz, California. An event that had been on John’s to-do list for the past few years, his first Framebuilding Summit was intended to be an educational meeting of the minds–a time dedicated to sharing knowledge with a group of young bike builders.
Who’s Got Next?
Situated a few blocks from the beach in Santa Cruz, California, Caletti Cycles‘ workshop is the stuff of a young framebuilder’s dreams. John Caletti’s space is full of natural light and orderly workbenches. A row of frames-in-progress hangs from one wall. Below those frames live several weathered machines, clinging to usefulness as bicycle-making tools. Homemade benders, squishers, notchers, and other doodads dot the space; they’re evidence of a long career spent solving the problems inherent in building quality things for quality clients.
Caletti Cycles is a reflection of its occupant–unassuming but thoughtfully curated. Ask any aspiring framebuilder what their long-term goals are and they’d likely point to what John has built in Santa Cruz with motivated admiration.
That same young builder, however, would have so many questions. How did John build this business? How has he sustained it–through economic cycles, ever-changing markets, and relentless industry turnover–for more than twenty years? What is his secret?
Earlier this fall, Caletti Cycles sent out an invitation: “Attention Framebuilders.” After a couple of years’ consideration, John had decided to get a small group of young builders together for a framebuilding “summit.” He proposed a few days at his shop during which the group would talk about bikes and business. They’d even build a frame together as a way to share fabrication techniques, and they’d spend some time riding the roads and trails of Santa Cruz.
John has reached the point in his career where paying it forward is (nearly) as important as getting paid. For this first summit, John deliberately chose participants who are making–or attempting to make–a living by building bikes. He chose builders with solid experience but still riding the kicker of the learning curve, hoping a small nudge might propel them over that hump towards a true, long-lasting career in framebuilding.
Will Bender, of Bender Bicycle Company, is an uber-talented up-and-comer from Fort Collins, Colorado. Will is a lifelong mountain biker with an obvious eye for design. When asked what initially attracted him to John’s summit, Will said, “It was an easy ‘yes’… to spend a week in John’s shop, immersing myself in a world of knowledge… How could I decline an opportunity to learn from someone like John, who has been crafting incredible bikes for two decades?”
Nick Jensen, the soft-spoken yet meticulous builder behind Manzanita Cycles, drove in for the week from Reno, Nevada. He agreed. “It was a no-brainer. John has run a successful framebuilding business longer than most. The fact that he was willing to share his knowledge with builders like me who are establishing themselves was unexpected and exciting.”
Originally from the Bay Area, B Vivit is a career welder and enthusiastic workhorse now living in Portland, Oregon. Formerly employed by Seven Cycles and Simple Bicycle Company, she’s welded together beautiful frames for some of the most respected brands in the business. She’s also recently launched her own brands, Lunchtime Bike Co. and HotSalad Bicycles. B explained that “…to be able to learn from someone who has been successfully building in this vein for as long as he has, is such a treat. Not only to sit in the same room and watch John’s techniques for machining, welding, aligning, and finishing a bike–but also to listen to his expertise around building a company and a brand.”
The final, last-minute invitee was myself. I previously worked with B at Simple in Portland. After the stresses of co-running Simple’s production-oriented shop got the better of me last year, I’m now back to building mostly for myself, but I was intrigued by the opportunity to spend a week with some current pros. In what other industries do four competitors get together to exchange knowledge like this? I’ve been following framebuilding for a long time… There’s something so unique about this little niche of theirs. It’s hard not to want to be around it.
Also participating in the summit was John’s longtime apprentice, Zach Weiss. Zach has recently launched his own brand of bikes, Zabrina Cycles, after a few years of learning under John. The proverbial life of the party, Zach is a charismatic and talented builder who knows John’s shop and style but can also relate to a group of younger builders. (Besides the short commute) Zach thought that the summit would be an “opportunity to both re-ground what [he’s] learned and gather even more insight from people who speak the same language.”
The five of us arrived at John’s shop on Monday morning. While the four newcomers poked around the space, Zach answered (pressing) emails and John got to work making (impressive) cappuccinos. Coffees in hand, we introduced ourselves and chatted about the week. We made a list of topics to discuss; nothing was off limits. Will was intrigued by B’s experience with contract work. B wanted to talk about pricing and margins. Nick was curious how the group handled their marketing and photography. John suggested a round table on mental health, time off, insurance, and client interaction. All the while, we would build a gravel bike together, taking breaks to sit and chat about business.
Framebuilding has undergone a lot of changes since John founded Caletti. Like many crafts that were once true trades, bicycle-making has transitioned into something less definable. Gone are the days of long-term apprenticeships followed by stable employment under the watchful eye of an established company. Today, framebuilding is equal parts craft and art. Indeed, framebuilding now largely resembles other creative endeavors. The passion is high, but the pay is consequently low. The activity tends to attract inventive self-starters, and many builders are largely self-taught. In 2023, framebuilding classes likely outnumbered actual firms that hire for entry-level positions.
As such, the long-term survival rate for traditional, bespoke builders is incredibly low. It seems every few years a new generation of enthusiastic makers comes along. Of those, a small few manage to find a niche and achieve stability.
The rest burn out, move on, and make way for who’s got next.
During one of our chats, I asked John why he was holding this summit. Specifically, why did he invite three of his motivated, potential competitors to come visit and learn from him? John nodded his head in understanding and then remarked that he doesn’t view himself as competing with other custom builders. He sees the entire handmade niche as competing against something larger and more threatening. The real competition is the big-business models of Specialized, Trek, et al. Passing on knowledge to younger builders isn’t undermining his own business. Rather, it’s feeding a tide that can raise all these small ships, his own included. By growing the handmade segment–and holding each other’s quality accountable–John’s hope is that the niche as a whole remains healthy moving forward. That attitude might be even more impressive than the frames that hang from John’s shop wall.
The next three days at Caletti were filled with lessons and laughter. After the natural jitters of day one, our group settled into a groove together. We worked at a deliberate pace, and took long breaks to ride into Santa Cruz for coffees and lunches.
On Tuesday, Will and Nick began the day by chasing John around on some of the local singletrack that lies just beyond Caletti’s front door. Will noted that John “rips on a bike!” Accordingly, the workday began with a discussion focused on riding. John noted how important it’s been over twenty years of building professionally to continue to actually ride bikes. He schedules riding time as a part of his work week, and laments the builders who’ve lost touch with the bikes they build. B appreciated that John makes that time. She said, “Of course, you will have to build the things… But to run a business, you also have to feed yourself–whether that’s physically, mentally, or emotionally; sometimes that means going for a bike ride.”
Wednesday was spent welding. John, Will, and B are experienced welders, but they each noted how enlightening it was to see each other’s techniques and chat about tig-machine settings. Nick is working on transitioning Manzanita from fillet brazed frames to tig welded ones, something that many builders do as they work to create a sustainable business for themselves. After receiving some tips from B and John, Nick layed down “some of the best beads of [his] life” on the frame that the group built together. He said, “I was beaming so hard, I couldn’t get to sleep that night.”
Another highlight of the week came when a mistake was made on the collaborative frame. John wanted each builder to have a hand in the communal bike. As such, Nick and I were tasked with brazing the seatstays to the rest of the frame. None of us realized, however, that the dropouts used on this frame happened to be stainless steel. So, when Nick went to stick them to the seatstays, the bronze filler–which isn’t suitable for use on stainless–quickly made a mess of things. Realizing what had happened, we chatted about how we should resolve the issue. Zach noted, “We got frank and honest with one another as to how we all might have tackled similar calamities in the past. I found it really refreshing to hear how each of us approached the set-back with both integrity and ingenuity.”
Ultimately, once the mishap was corrected, the collaborative frame came together nicely. Each welder tackled one joint. Nick and Will jumped in and welded up the head tube joints. B was nominated to weld the notoriously difficult bottom bracket junction. (She obliged and gladly put the boys to shame.) I was volunteered to braze (and file) the seatstay-seat tube joints, and quickly reminded the other builders why they’d learned to tig weld. Zach handled the braze-ons. The frame was finished by Thursday morning.
In much the same way that our group frame was a collaboration, so too is Caletti Cycles. While John is, of course, the driving force behind the business, he also surrounds himself with talented like-minds. Throughout the week, many of these people stopped in to say hello, snap photographs, and chat with the group. Peter Thomsen and Chris Corona–two photographers well-known in the Santa Cruz cycling scene–are often spotted hanging around Caletti. John actively promotes their work and, in return, they capture his. John and his wife, Cory, live above the workshop. Their dog, Max, checked in on the group regularly throughout the week. More than anything, one gets the sense that Caletti is truly a community. It’s no wonder John was excited about working with a group of young builders.
In a quiet moment before the week ended, I asked John if he could point to one specific thing as the driver of his success over the years. What was it? Was there one big thing? Is there a secret?
John thought for a moment, staring up at the frames hanging on the wall of his workshop. “You know,” he sighed, “if I hadn’t done this, I probably would’ve done something similar… Built motorcycles or custom furniture. I guess, then, that it’s been my love of this craft that’s allowed me to find success. It hasn’t been easy, but all of the headaches over the years–they were always worth it–because I really love what I do.”
As the summit broke up on Thursday evening, the budding builders reflected on what they’d learned during the week.
Will said, “As a frame builder, I often find myself working alone, lost in my thoughts. This week served as a powerful reminder to break free, explore different perspectives, and connect with diverse people and places. Each of us, whether a newbie or a veteran, brings something valuable to the table, enriching each other’s craft.”
B concurred. “Not only did John bring his expertise to the table, but Nick, Will, Chris, Zach and myself, all had expertise that we were able to share with each other.”
And finally, Nick concluded, “I’m planning to go home and continue to reassess things so I can keep doing what I really love to do: make bikes that people love to ride.”
Both frames collaboratively built during the summit will be available on Caletti’s website. The proceeds will go toward scholarships for the next builder summit.