Fitz Cyclez Shop Visit: NorCal Terroir

During his sojourn to Northern California in April, John Watson wanted to document one framebuilder in particular whose work had caught his eye. John Fitzgerald has been building elegant custom steel bicycles under the name Fitz Cyclez for just under two decades, yet he tends to fly under the radar. He doesn’t attend the big bike shows, and he’s not really interested in marketing his brand. But as anyone who’s seen a Fitz in the wild can attest, his work speaks for itself – and his work is seen often throughout Sonoma County and the greater Bay Area, thanks to Fitz’s popularity within the randonneuring community.

To tell the tale of Fitz Cyclez from the eyes of a local, John Watson tapped Santa Rosa’s own Nicholas Haig-Arack to interview John Fitzgerald. Take a peek into the world of Fitz Cyclez.

In winemaking, the term terroir describes the environmental factors of soil and climate that give each wine its unique flavor. It’s not the grapes; it’s the environment in which the grapes are grown. Custom bikes have terroir. Just like wine, the bikes made here are expressions of the climatic, topographic, and geologic diversity of the coastal mountains and rolling oak woodlands in which we ride.

Fitz showcasing a Tom Ritchey-inspired fork crown he uses on some builds

One of the joys of custom framebuilding is that it’s a collaborative process resulting in a machine that’s purpose-built for the environments in which it operates. The bikes designed and built by John Fitzgerald of Fitz Cyclez are expressions of the terrain and conditions found in the verdant hills and rural backroads of Sonoma County.

Fitzgerald, also known as Fitz, used that word – terroir – in a recent conversation, but he kind of said it sheepishly, as if he was embarrassed to utter such bougie terminology. He’s like that: a skilled blue-collar craftsman, rather than an artiste.

It all started when Fitz was serving in AmeriCorps in Austin, Texas. He said, “Part of my service was to do a community service project. So we contacted Yellow Bike Project in Austin and said, ‘Hey, we want to do a project for kids, and we want you guys to be a part of it.’ I was the bike mechanic for this project. I was just kind of jazzed on going further, taking it to the next step. I wanted to figure out how I can make it happen with the framebuilding stuff. So I moved to Santa Cruz and took a welding class.”

Paul Sadoff in his shop in Santa Cruz, California, 2022

“I contacted Paul Sadoff to put an order in with Rock Lobster, but I said, ‘You know, I’m really interested in what you’re doing. Is it possible that I could come by and watch you for a couple hours when you’re making my bike?’ And he kind of sized me up, and I guess he got a good enough vibe from me, so he invited me to be his apprentice. I’m like, this is it, man. This is fucking awesome.”

Fitz ended up riding the bike Sadoff built for him on a tour of South America with his wife Sandra. Upon returning stateside, they moved to Hawaii. Fitz contacted Paul Sadoff and lined up a summer apprenticeship in Santa Cruz. Upon completing the apprenticeship, Fitz moved to Hawaii and started building bikes under the name Fitz Cyclez.

Around this time, Sandra got a Fulbright scholarship to a PhD program at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fitz moved with her to Wisconsin. He reached out to Ahren Rogers of Banjo Cycles, who happened to need help at the time. Everything fell into place, and Fitz ended up working at Banjo Cycles for the next couple of years.

Fitz with his version of a modern rim brake randonneuring frame…

Around this time, Banjo Cycles was building limited production runs of the Box Dog Pelican. This detail piqued my interest – the Pelican is a cult-classic randonneuring bike originally designed by Gabe Ehlert at the beloved Box Dog Bikes in San Francisco’s Mission District. This bike was a gateway drug from the hyphy world of fixed gear riding in mid-2000s San Francisco to a more elegant and classical mode of cycling.

Peter Weigle from our 2018 NAHBS Reportage

The Pelican opened my eyes to all the possibilities of a life on two wheels. I was excited to learn that Fitz had built many of the first-gen Pelicans, but it came as no surprise – after all, Fitz Cyclez is known for rando bikes more than anything. He’s established a reputation for building lugged or semi-lugged frames in the classic French style, which in my opinion seems to be more prevalent among the East Coast builders due to the influence of J.P Weigle. There aren’t many constructeurs on the West Coast, even though the randonneuring scene on the West Coast is massive.

After Wisconsin, Fitz moved to San Francisco. During this time, he built a number of frames from a shop in SF. He said, “I met up with the whole San Francisco Randonneurs crowd. I knew the Pelican was popular here, because [Banjo] could never make them fast enough.” Eventually, rental prices drove him and Sandra further north to Santa Rosa, where they were able to buy a nice house with a garage that would become the present-day headquarters for Fitz Cyclez.

On a quiet side street in Santa Rosa, Fitz’s small but tidy shop is set up with a vertical mill that he acquired from Ross Schafer, of Salsa-fame, a small horizontal mill that he uses for cutting chainstays, a bigger horizontal mill for cutting all the main tubes, a small lathe, a sandblasting cabinet, and a bunch of files. It’s not cramped or crowded, but it is precisely enough room for one person to build one bike at a time. It’s roughly a 15 minute ride from the trails in nearby Annadel State Park.

Since moving with his family to Santa Rosa, Fitz has been riding trails a lot. A steady diet of dirt has had a major influence on his design. Five years ago, Fitz Cyclez started producing a mountain cruiser. This fully rigid bike is purpose built for the trails in Annadel. It’s not quite underbiking, it’s just enough biking.

It’s a joy to watch John Fitzgerald dance over the baby heads on North Burma aboard this neo-retro creation. He said, “I think there is definitely some value in the experience of being able to ride with the person who made the bike and understanding how their riding style influences the design decisions that they’re making. Like, are you going to trust my opinion about how a bike should perform when I can’t even ride up a hill? Where you ride helps inform how you build.”

So what’s next for Fitz Cyclez? He has a few projects in the works, including another mountain bike that envisions an alternative timeline for off-road riding. If his mountain cruiser was an updated version of the Cook/Koski SoCal lineage, then the new MTB will be a parallel-universe modern take on a Ross Schafer NorCal mountain bike. I can’t wait to see that! In the meantime, you can probably find him out on the trails or backroads of Sonoma County, sampling the terroir

Let’s check out some of the bikes that John photographed while visiting Fitz. You can see more details in the gallery above.

Fitz Randonneur

Graceful lines, vintage-inspired components, beautiful fender lines, 650b wheels, a dynamo, and all the elegance you’d expect from a classically-inspired yet thoroughly modern randonneuring bike.

Fitz All Road

Just like your favorite steel gravel bike, this rim brake all-road has bosses for fenders and a lightweight rack for when you want to strap a randonneuring bag to the front and go just a little bit longer.

Fitz Singlespeed Cruiser

Jam some city riding all the way to the trails, slam the saddle when it gets rowdy but don’t miss the detailing on this one!

Fitz Mountain Klunker

A modern take on a rigid mountain bike from the late 70s and early 80s, this Klunker fits the bill for modern trail riding.

This frame is for sale, ready to roll!

If you’d like a custom frame from Fitz Cycles, contact John directly via his website. He’s incredibly friendly and immensely talented.