Last year Mitchell Connell fell in love with a custom road bike he saw at a bike show. After missing an opportunity to test ride the bike, he took a road trip to Raleigh, North Carolina to find it and its creator, Charles Thompson of Fine Bikes. Along the way, Mitchell got to pay a visit to the iconic local shop, Oak City Cycling, and get the tour of Raleigh’s mixed-surface riding.
The Perfect Thrift Store Flannel
Working in a bike shop, I see a lot of bikes. A back-of-hand calculation makes me think it’s about a hundred bikes every week and eventually, they all start to look the same. It takes something special for my eyes to open wide and to feel that excited feeling. The kind of feeling you get when you find something amazing at a thrift store, and you can’t wait to tell your friends about it. A Filson flannel; a perfect pair of vintage Levi’s.
The first time I saw one of Charles Thompson’s custom frames, I found the flannel. At the time unpainted, it was in a parking lot full of bikes and it stood out. A lugged steel frame with classic geometry, room for 36’s, an AXS kit, and it just happened to be my size. It felt like a drawing from my sketchbook had just appeared in front of me.
After gawking at the bike for perhaps too long, Charles approached me and introduced himself as the frame-builder. I knew he looked familiar, and after a brief chat I realized he was the manager of the legendary Raleigh bike shop, Oak City Cycling. He graciously offered to let me test ride the bike later that weekend, and we exchanged contact information.
A Missed Opportunity
Unfortunately, tragedy struck the next day. I had installed some brand-new fenders on my bike the day before which absolutely slipped my mind. I was leading a mixed ride that showcased some of my favorite trails in Knoxville, and after hammering down Toll Road, I met my match, a small stick. The twig, no bigger than a pinkie finger, got choked in a fender sent me over the bars and into an oak tree. My helmet, fender, and hopes of riding Charles’ lugged road bike were crushed.
I texted Charles that evening to let them know I wouldn’t be able to make it on the ride. A few weeks passed by, and I was still waking up at night thinking about what tires I would put on that bike if it was mine. How would I paint it? What drivetrain? These are the questions that—quite literally—were keeping me up at night. So I reached out to Charles with two questions. First, could I come to hang out in Raleigh and finally test-ride his bike? Second, would he consider building a frame for me? A few weeks later I loaded up my 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier and headed to Raleigh to hang out with Charles, visit Oak City Cycling, and design a dream bike.
Visiting Oak City Cycling
I’m not sure if it was the bright blue awning or the rack of staff bikes, but when I arrived at Oak City Cycling, I felt right at home. The shop is community-focused with bike trivia, jam nights, and group rides on the calendar a few times each week. The shop feels like an antidote to the lifeless corporate bike shops that are gaining traction across the US.
It’s fun to go into shops that are filled with boutique bicycle components. The stuff that you see as you doom scroll through Instagram, but rarely get to see in real life. Oak City Cycling has plenty of these, but in my opinion, it’s the hand-drawn signs across the shop that really set the space apart. The shop feels lived in. It feels like an extension of the staff instead of being designed by an algorithm.
Riding (Mixed Surfaces) in Raleigh
After a weekend in Raleigh, one thing that made a strong impression was the diversity of riding accessible from the shop’s doorstep. On Saturday Charles, his partner, Adeline, and I met up with a crew of folks at the bike shop, rode across downtown, and connected a series of bandit trails to get to William B. Olmstead State Park where we then rode a mix of gravel roads and singletrack. If you find yourself in Raleigh, do not skip the opportunity to commute across town with the folks from OCC. Roads were few and far between. Instead, we connected disc golf courses, abandoned trails, walking paths, and a cyclocross course. The commute was as fun as the destination.
Unfortunately, when we got to the trails, Scott, one of the mechanics at OCC, ate shit and had to get picked up. But having a sag wagon ended up being helpful because Charles went a little too hard on a jump section on his gravel bike and flatted. Once he burned through two more flats he called our friend in the van and caught a ride back into town. This left our slimmed-down crew to commute back to the other side of town, stop by a CVS to pick up another memory card for my camera, and get ready for the road ride the next day.
I was excited to finally take Charles’ road bike on a real ride. Scott, bandaged from his wreck the previous day, led a group of about 25 folks on a road ride with a requisite ice cream stop in the middle. I think the two rides over the course of the weekend spoke to the ability of OCC to serve the diverse needs of the cycling community in Raleigh. Our gravel ride included a variety of practical bikes clearly designed to prioritize fun on the bike. The road ride pulled in a pretty different crew. There were a half dozen superbikes in the mix and the vibe changed from basket bikes to carbohydrate-optimized sports nutrition mix. Everyone was incredibly nice, and I finally got to take Charles’ Fine road bike out for a fast ride.
A Review of the Fine Bikes Road
The traditional road geometry gives the bike a classic silhouette that hides some really unique build decisions. Charles elected to build the bike around one of the most interesting offerings from SRAM, the AXS XPLR electronic drivetrain that’s paired with cable-actuated brakes. To make the bike even more unique, Charles brazed direct-mount bosses for Paul Racers.
The Paul Racer Medium brake is an interesting and compelling caliper brake. The brazed-on brake bosses are not in the standard cantilever position. Instead, they’re directly brazed to the fork behind the brake-arm pivot which results in an incredibly stiff brake with a fantastic lever feel. Plus, the Paul Racer Medium brake has clearance for 45-millimeter fenders which would be impossible with traditional caliper brakes. The most interesting part of these unique direct-mount brakes is they’re controlled by modern SRAM Force AXS levers.
Charles took full advantage of the modularity of the SRAM AXS groupset. He paired SRAM Force levers with a one-by XPLR rear derailleur and cassette. This gives the bike a wide enough range to avoid spinning out on a spirited road ride, but also a low enough gear to enjoy a mixed-surface route. The controls are set up so your right-hand shifts up and your left-hand shifts down which was very fun for me and gave the bike a kind of race-car feel.
The 36 mm Challenge Strada Bianca tires rolled incredibly fast on his .light wheels, and the bike cornered noticeably well. The words, “slammed stem” don’t really roll off my tongue, but the bike felt like a good compromise between performance and comfort. I loved it, and at the end of the ride Charles and I started scheming something similar for me.
The Bikes of Oak City Cycling
The next morning we rolled back to the bike shop to make some drawings of my dream road bike and take some photographs. We went back and forth on some design decisions, and we settled on a dedicated road bike with rim brakes, room for 32 mm tires, and a form-follows-function design philosophy. After we finished our design meeting, the mechanics working were kind enough to let me pull them aside, so I could photograph them with their bikes.
All good things eventually have to come to an end, so once I was done photographing Charles’ road and each of the staff bikes, it was time to make the drive back home. I want to thank the whole team at Oak City Cycling for being gracious tour guides and Charles and Adeline for hosting me. I’m also excited to say that my custom frame is on top of the queue at the Fine Bikes workshop. I’ve never commissioned a builder to make me a frame before, but something about Charles’ bike, his ethos, and the shop he’s a part of convinced me to put my name in his queue. Each conversation we’ve had about my bike has been a joy, and he always circles back to how stoked he is to build a bike that’s going to be ridden hard, and that’s a promise I know I can keep.
If you’d like to see more bikes built by Charles, go give him a follow Fine Bikes on Instagram. If you’re in Raleigh, make sure to stop by Oak City Cycling and go on a group ride. And above all else, remember to support your (good) local bike shops, bag makers, and frame builders.