Inside / Out at Richard May’s Moustache Cycles in Flagstaff

Back in February of this year at Singlespeed Arizona in Bisbee, I had wanted to document the wild variety of funky, freaky, and beautiful bikes that had descended on the small town for the event. Unfortunately, the pace of that particular weekend didn’t lend itself to photographing individual bikes (something I certainly plan to do in 2021). Bike portraits, or not, it’s impossible to ignore the eclectic array of Mone, Oddity, Moonmen, and other eye-catching derailleur-less boutique fabrications and other unusual setups while in that environment. There were a handful of frames though – clean and somewhat understated with swoopy seat stays and moustache-shaped logo badges – that I didn’t recognize. While chatting with Nate from Absolute Bikes, I pointed to a member of Thee Deores (Northern Arizona’s premiere Mountain Biking band) cruising around on one of these swoopy-tubed moustachioed hardtails and asked if he knew anything about the bike. He responded by pointing to Richard May and informing me that Richard, based in Flagstaff, builds bike frames and other custom parts under the moniker Moustache Cycles.

Later that night I bumped into Richard at the bar and we chatted about a variety of things including the relatively long list of singlespeed events he’s attended over the years, forest health and firefighting in Arizona, endurance riding, trends in frame geometry, and other aspects of his journey over the past 10 years as a cyclist, mechanic, and custom builder. We also probably discussed moustaches and chickens, but I can’t remember for sure. Not knowing that the impending pandemic would indefinitely shut down most future aspirations we would have for the riding season, we parted ways with a plan to ride together in Flagstaff later in the spring. While the pandendemic did, in fact, shake things up during the spring, I was able to escape the Phoenix summer heat for a few weeks to a cabin outside Flagstaff. During my time there, Richard invited me to photograph his shop space, check out the evolution of his craftsmanship exemplified in some of his personal bikes, introduce me to his chickens, and guide me around some of the area’s most spectacular trails. I even got to watch him braze a handlebar, which made for some great photos!

Situated near the base of Mount Elden and only about one mile from the Schultz Creek Trailhead, Richard’s house and shop are located at the gateway to hundreds, even thousands, of miles of epic singletrack and dirt roads. He takes cycling and other aspects that come with it – like forest health, access, trail maintenance and stewardship, and rider-to-bike pairings – very seriously. He effortlessly and poignantly pontificates and educates while grinding up steep mountain access roads. The following questions and responses are redolent examples of the conversations we had while sucking wind climbing up Elden Lookout Road on our way to Little Bear trails or multiple descents on the recently rebuilt Heart Trail.

What is your background (how did you get into building bikes) and how has it shaped your approach and philosophy as a designer/builder?

I have always been into bikes and I have always been into tinkering with and making things.  I grew up in a part of Georgia where most people saw bikes as driveway toys.  I got hired at a bike shop in high school and spent those days fixing people’s Huffys and selling them upgrades. I gained enough of a skill set to work my way through college in bike shops.  Somewhere along the way I learned that people were making bikes themselves, and I yearned for a long while to do just that.  My time as a mechanic serves as a basis for nearly every decision that I face as a frame builder.  You get to recognize what works and what doesn’t work.  So many fads show up in the industry as the latest and greatest only to disappear unsupported.  A small shop is always faced with the decision whether to adapt to the new and at great time and expense.  Being a mechanic day in day out for a decade gave me an understanding of functional purpose that helps filter some of that marketing buzz. Ultimately I want my bikes to be reliable much more than I want them to be trendy.

Recently you stamped bike #50. What has your journey been from the first bike designed and built for a customer to the latest one?

My first customer bikes were very standard geared 26” mountain bikes.  The customers were ones that I considered “safe” in the sense that I knew I had more hard miles on my own work than they were likely to put.  They solved fit issues for the rider, but really they just let me practice.  As I kept at it the requests got bigger, the riders became boundary pushers for my skills and put my bikes through the abuse. I started doing more with manipulating metal and found the results very satisfying. I did everything with hand files when I started out.  I was young and my ability to stay put was pretty uncertain, so I was reluctant to take on any big machinery.  Everything I thought I knew about design and construction was eventually challenged. I managed to work part-time for a more established builder, Steve at Coconino Cycles, for a number of years and the exchange of ideas has been ongoing to this day.  It meant a lot that someone much more invested into this craft thought enough of my efforts to invite me over to work for his own brand.  Eventually, I recognized that it was going to be hard to make the bikes I wanted to make without being able to make good precise tooling, so I started learning the machines.  Now it’s pretty rare if some part of a frame doesn’t come off one of the machines.

You can obviously grow a wonderful moustache. How did you land on that as the name of your brand?

I was working on a fire crew for the US Forest Service around the time I started building.  We would routinely go out on assignment for 14 days at a time.  The Moustache became my joke.  On day 7 I would always cut a new Moustache and make up some ridiculous personality to go with it.  One of my friends on the crew came up and told me I needed to call my bikes Moustache Rides.  I figured she was right.

What do you think draws people to your bikes?

I get a lot of people that are tired of working on their bike or looking for the next one, so I think reliability and ease of ownership are big.  Fit is also a big factor: I get a lot of outliers to the production sizing curves.  From the advanced user group, I think it’s largely about specific demands they hold of their bicycle and my ability to meet those demands.

How do you help your customers determine the right bike for them and their interests/riding style?

I like to base designs around qualitative data whenever possible.  What makes riders feel they’ve reached their limits (with a bike, as a cyclist) and where?, Where does the pain start and how does it persist?,  What are your fitness goals with regards to cycling? etc.  I’m less interested in how a rider thinks they understand the numbers, but there are exceptions, especially if I know you as a rider.  Everybody measures a bike differently, so I try not to lose that data in translation, but I very much value experience granted by past bikes and try to draw on that in making your next one better.

Along with frames, you also design and build other components like handlebars, racks, and forks. What has been your approach to designing parts beyond custom frames?

It’s all about making the best BIKES I can, and while the frame gives the bike its structure, it’s the components that interface with the rider and give the bike its personality. Forks determine front-end handling.  If I am building a rigid bike why not complement the artistry with a fork that matches the aesthetic and measures to create the steering geometry rather than accept it from a stock offering? Handlebars are, in my view, critical to fit and interface; hand position is a very personal choice.  Stock bars and forks have their place, but I like to build dedicated bikes rather than split personality efforts.  I won’t be touting suspension “correct” rigid forks or frames that take one wheel or another depending on the day.  I prefer to build without compromise…I tried really hard to do build a “quiver killer” over a few renditions of a 29er frame, and ultimately thought that the compromise was where it fell short of the expectation. A frame that tries too hard to reach multiple disciplines will be particularly good at none of them.  In the end, they are frames that are compatible with endless combinations of parts, and the personality of the bikes they make will change, but from the design onset, I want them to be true to a clear, purposeful vision.

What music is typically playing in your shop?

We can just lump it into one genre: “Productive”

I see a drafting table, measuring devices and paper in your shop, rather than a computer with fancy software. What’s up with that?

I love mechanical drawing.  I took every drafting class I could in high school and had been doing it for years before even that.  I drew bikes for years before ever making one.  I like that a frame can literally grow out of a two-dimensional drawing by simply transferring pen marks and angles. I understand where computers can be beneficial to a process, but so far I’ve missed that boat.  I just don’t have the interest in keeping up with the updates and switching over would be a big project in both learning and tooling.

What goes into choosing and sourcing materials for your builds?

I build in steel because that’s what I have always ridden.  I’ve ridden nearly everything else at one time or another, but to me, none offer the ride quality that can be achieved in a well-executed steel frame.  Nothing else feels as planted while ably responding with the rider’s inputs.  Then of course there’s the whole list of advantages throughout the production process from resource extraction to disposal.  It’s easy to work with can accommodate any structure and leaves by far the smallest footprint.

Choices in tubing ebb and flow, but filtering the specifics is mostly about where achieving the appropriate structure meets availability.  It’s hard to feel like my low volume of output has much impact on the supply chain.  Choices and brands disappear and (sometimes) re-emerge so when I find something that works I order in higher volumes.  It’s less about a brand or country of origin; I’m way more inclined to directly support livelihoods of families around the globe than put a company’s label or a country’s flag on my down tube.  I do think that a short-range supply chain is preferable, but the selection and quality in the material has got to support the finished product.

Where do you draw some of the inspiration that goes into your designs?

From riding, from my time as a mechanic, and from my failures.  Some of it you can see, some of it you can’t. I try to make bikes as strong as I can as simply as I can, but also keep a pleasant, distinct look.  The curves you see in the rear ends are movements to allow a certain way of functioning but that flow to the eye.

What role have the trails in Flagstaff played in your bike designs?

I am fortunate enough to have a shop at the base of a rugged mountain that leads into millions of acres of public lands.  This alone has been the single biggest influence on the specifics of what I offer.  This mountain breaks bikes and it breaks riders.  It filters hype within minutes, and it has shown me time and again that just because something is sold under a given label, doesn’t make it worth its salt.  It’s shown me an area and a community that is underserved by the bike industry at large and allowed me a small space to fill some of those voids.  The bikes I build bear that mountain in mind, even the ones that go elsewhere.  It is the benchmark for everything I do, and I feel privileged every day to have it as my teacher.

You seem to have a penchant for rescuing old machines and putting them to use. What are some of your favorites in your shop, currently or in the past, and what do you use them for?

I’d probably call it a tool junkie’s opportunism.  Northern Arizona is quite a desert for machinery, so in that sense, I’ve been really lucky to find the little bit that I have and persistent enough to make it work.  The farthest I’ve driven for a machine was Sedona and all so far have come from within the county.  The one of current fancy is a small-ish horizontal production mill made by Bansbach of Chicago.  It’s perfectly functional, but information about it is scarce: a forgotten relic. Manufacturing in America was so ubiquitous that once machine tool companies were as abundant as consumer products companies today.  So my neighbor offers this up to me as its collecting dust in a corner of his shop and of course, I have to buy it.  It’ll be the main tube miter station when I get around to putting it into service.

What have been your favorite and most challenging bikes to design and build?

The favorite is always changing, but usually, it’s the last one that left or the one in the jig.  The most challenging so far was the 36er I made for a local professor standing 6’9” and weighing 300 lbs.  He recently came back because he kept bending seat posts, so I turned him a thick wall post on the lathe.  The challenge keeps on giving.  The more general answer in terms of challenging builds, though, is anything where fit criteria doesn’t match the space allowed by the specifics of the bike being requested.  Usually, this is an outlier to a conventional size table, and often someone who has never owned a bike that fit or rode well. They are answering my questions (or not) with limited personal understanding. I know my ask is a big one and I only get one shot at this, so I take the process very seriously and want to deliver a product that exceeds all expectations. When there are gaps in the full picture from the beginning I feel that pressure through the build process and I have to fill them in somehow. Often these bikes are the most rewarding because the customer never knew how well a nice bicycle should ride.  But sometimes you just have to say “no”.

What’s next for Moustache Cycles? Where do you see yourself in five/ten years?

Well, the next generation is due in December so there’s that! Hopefully, he’ll pick up the cycling bug for the third generation.  I figure it’ll be pretty hard for him to avoid, but you never know. We’ll see what kind of rabbit hole that is in terms of making things.

Shop wise, I’m on a quest to speed up my process through adaptable fixturing. I’ve been dabbling in batch work and am excited about the possibilities that afford. I think you’ll see more of the bikes I want to make taking shape simply because I want to see them out there.  I’m not giving up on the customer request end, but it seems lately that the requests have been flowing in similar directions granting me more freedom than maybe I’ve felt in the past.  I’d like to start experimenting in other metals, which means TIG welding, which means heat-treating, which means purge setups.  I’d like to do some full-suspension prototyping, but don’t feel much need to rush in.  It has been cool to see how other small builders have approached this and the response that those efforts have received.  Props to those builders for sure.  Really though, I prefer to keep things flexible rather than force plans into existence.  In offering shop work for hire I’m happy with whatever keeps the time I spend a relevant and meaningful pursuit in addition to keeping the wheels rolling down the trail.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look in detail at some of these wonderful creations that have rolled out of Richard’s shop, so stay tuned!