Hey, Sweet Bikes: A Visit to Sour Bicycles in Dresden, Germany

Over the last couple of years, our European correspondent Petor Georgallou has gotten to know Sour Bicycles, a small East German bike company who are trailblazing in their mix of domestic framebuilding in Dresden and continued importation of Taiwan-made bikes. Read on to hear about the unique conditions that have made the former states of East Germany a hotbed of innovation and manufacturing in Europe, as well as how a mega fail by Petor leads to the second of many shop visits in Germany.

Let me just say bye and grab my bag…

“There’s no time for that Petor! We’re leaving!”

Sure… just a sec…

I’d somehow dilly-dallied my afternoon away drinking coffee and Fritz-kola at the bar, while the few builders that were there became embroiled in the throws of post-show packdown. I left my bag in a cloakroom and lost the ticket, and had a hall of goodbyes to traverse to reach it.

“I’m serious, they’ll leave without you. Once the car’s loaded up they’re going. If you don’t get to the car on time the Germans will literally just leave. Last year after Bespoked in London they just left me at the venue to go to a party and didn’t come back!”

I’d spent a little time with Joergen before; an unreasonably youthful looking, bilingual American, with a mustache and a haircut like a mushroom, who lived in the Netherlands, but not enough time to know whether or not his sincerity was for comic effect. I got the bag, picked up my bike, and started searching Kolektif’s gradually emptying hall for anyone from Sour, whom I was meant to be hitching a lift with to Dresden for a shop visit and to recce the new venue for Bespoked 2024.

“Where have you been?! They’re leaving!”

Joergen ushered me out of the venue and round the corner into a packed black Jeep Cherokee—a disconcertingly un-German vehicle—which was being piloted by Christoph’s wife, Marie. We spent the journey mostly chatting about cars, Dresden’s history, and its exotic toothpastes. We had dinner and went our separate ways.

I met Chris and Joergen from Sour Bicycles the next morning at the Sour shop in Dresden Neustadt, where we bundled back into the Jeep and headed out towards the Czech border to see the new Sour factory that had been set up there. Sour started as a bike company rather than as a “framebuilder.” More precisely, it started as Skunkworks while Chris was working for another company building eBike drivetrains. For the first couple of years, they followed that model of having prototypes and then batches built in a bike factory in Taiwan, where many bike companies have their bikes made. It’s a practical way to make bikes to a high standard while also making them affordable to a wider customer base. They made nice bikes and sold them and that was fine, until it all kicked off: The virus, the canal, super inflation, supply chains breaking down, and the frail stability of geopolitical structures melting like the Antarctic.

As we drove further east, it began to snow, and by the time the autobahn had fizzled out, we were winding our way through postcard pine forests and abandoned industrial complexes. The landscape began to look more like an outpost of post-industrial Rust Belt America than Germany. All the cars were American, there were American flags on poles in the streets, denim shops, derelict industrial buildings, logging trucks; everything. Sitting in the back of a Jeep Cherokee winding through the town, I’d have believed we were somehow in America if I’d been told that with enough conviction.

The Berlin wall came down not that long ago, and with it—for better or for worse—the ideology of the “workers’ and farmers’ state.” Thirty five years may have seen political reform, but total cultural reform can only take place after the last participants of a culture have died or forgotten the culture that they formerly existed in. It’ll be a while before the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the formal name for East Germany, becomes a historic narrative rather than a lived experience.

In the Jeep, we were now east enough that children growing up here in the GDR (1949-1989) wouldn’t have seen Western television or heard Western radio. Christophe was born in GDR, so growing up in the 90’s he lived through a turbulent regime change that has left pockets of poverty and unemployment throughout the former East German states, where at one time, contraband punk, and before that western rock and roll would have been snuck in and secretly distributed by record shop owners. They would cut pirate copies with homemade record lathes onto acetate x-rays, which were snuck out of hospital archives and traded for favors. The barter culture—where friendly networks of contacts are among the most prized assets—still exists today, to a lesser extent, but as an outsider, it’s a noticeable cultural shift from Western contract-based dealings.

From left to right: Thomas, Steve, and Chris

We pulled up to a decrepit, nondescript light industrial unit with a shutter door. The building is owned by Thomas, Sour’s production welder, who came out to greet us and take a couple of bikes up to the factory on the second floor. The ground floor was full of classic American cars and trucks as well as Thomas’ private motorcycle workshop (which I didn’t dare put a nose in, but wish I had). Under a thick layer of dust sat an 80’s S-Class Mercedes-Benz neglected in a corner while all sorts of Americana took pride of place.

Walking up the narrow staircase I could hear the dull bassline of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” slowly increasing in volume until Joergen opened the door ahead of me allowing treble and mid to slip through the crack. One wall was covered with technical drawings, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden posters. The large window sills were lined with spent cigarette tins, packets of Al Capone cigarillos, tools and makeshift ashtrays while the rest of the workshop was decorated with Jack Daniels and Star Wars posters and past projects and ideas hanging from the ceiling. It was a slice of apple pie and a bottomless-coffee, served up by a waitress with a “Don’t tread on me” tattoo half-way hidden by a clean and pressed diner uniform sleeve. Cosplay norm-core Americana with undertones of hard reality.

The workshop and surrounding towns scream references to a particular kind of Amerikaphilia, which might have a slightly sinister cultural context in the West. But deep in the former GDR, the cultural context is very separate from the disappointed sycophant, Confederate flag-waving, neo-liberal, clickbait nostalgia-driven conservative nationalism that Trump’s America has left as its confused legacy.

The factory is lined with windows flooding the space with natural light and is built in the modern style of Communist industrial buildings, with optimism as a core value. Through those windows, you can see across the valley an even bigger, modern, East German industrial complex, which at one time housed the world’s biggest and most productive accordion factory. It probably still does, although most of the building lies empty, with just a small part of the original factory now making accordions. This is typical of the region.

In the GDR all manufacturing was run by the state, and its success was measured in productivity. More productivity was better and less productivity was worse. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” Karl Marx wrote; the factory produced a lot of accordions and they received a lot of state funding. Each year they’d lose or destroy 20% of their tooling because to lose or destroy more than that would indicate poor management of the business, but to lose or destroy less would mean that the factory would receive less the following year. Each year, after breakages and surplus were calculated, employees would routinely take tools home to balance the books. Life in manufacturing towns was simple, if you’re willing to overlook the STASI world’s largest intelligence agency dedicated to spying on its own citizens. While there was 100% employment, there was also a trade embargo to the West. Blue Jeans from the West were a rare commodity, and while domestic copies were made, the domestic versions were “like wearing a rug” according to Hans Kohlict, a framebuilder for the GDR olympic track team.

When the wall fell, two things happened: businesses like the accordion factory had to function within capitalism, where supply only had to meet demand, which is when they realized that not very many people play the accordion. Thousands of highly skilled workers from every industry were suddenly made redundant at the same time. The other thing was that a huge number of East German manufacturers were bought out by West German companies, in an aggressive move to eliminate new competitors in their field, while also—in some cases—buying new technologies or increasing their manufacturing capacity. This further widened the financial gap between East and West. As Joergen put it, “they took down the wall but left everything else.”

Through being cut off from the West, East Germans were shoehorned into innovation, and it’s something the state made a point of showing to the West. It meant that companies like RFT, who made high-end reference speakers, would export some of the worlds finest reference speakers at the time, while manufacturing a low-quality affordable version for domestic consumers. It made east Germany a world leader in composites technologies as well as aluminum processing and manufacturing, as aluminum and fiberglass were plentiful and there was very little steel. Everything was lightweight, from aluminum cutlery and plastic cameras to the Trabant or “Trabi,” the 615 kg fiberglass car of the east German working class.

For three decades modern concrete and glass industrial buildings verging on Brutalism have sat mostly dormant while the highly skilled, aging workforce reminisce about how good things were before capitalism and the West took it all away. Many chose not to request their STASI file which was declassified after the fall of the wall, because what benefit is knowing which dear friend, spouse, or loved one was being paid by the state to spy on you? In that way, how could they close their eyes to the failings of the GDR?

“Don’t Tread on Me,” in that context might be misguided from my Western working/middle-class high horse, but for a lot of citizens of the workers’ and farmers’ state, in spite of its shortcomings, life in the GDR was better. From that, an affinity with the downtrodden has grown, along with a semblance of romanticism for an ideology of accepting everyone as long as they mind their own business and keep their noses out of yours. In Germany’s Rust Belt, manufacturing has kind of returned, but wages for even highly skilled labor are very low compared to West Germany. Property is worthless because there are no jobs—there’s nothing to do there. Rumor has it that Thomas traded the factory for a car. A means of escape.

Chris Süße (Süße means sweet hence the knee-jerk opposite, “Sour bicycles” because “sweet bicycles” would be silly) grew up in Dresden during the worst of the collapse of the empire. He trained as a welding engineer and the staff at Sour affectionately call him a robot because he goes like a robot without the need to power down, but also because he’s driven by logic to a degree that most humans simply aren’t. But Chris is fun too: he runs one of Germany’s most exciting bike companies, so in the best way he’s a weirdo, but he’s only a weirdo by accident because he landed on bikes.

Chris’s urge to homebrew is where Sour became super interesting. The switch came when he realized the unavoidable fact that it would be illogical to continue to produce batches of frames with unknown lead times halfway across the world mid-pandemic—amidst the beginnings of global socio-economic meltdown—when for almost the same price frames could be produced domestically to order. Sour is the first business I’ve encountered that has transitioned from running a reasonably successful import business to on-shoring bicycle manufacture for a mass market. The process has taken a few years, and some frame parts are still made in Taiwan. The dropouts and custom cast frame components are designed in house, then printed before finally being cast in Taiwan, simply because it’s the most cost effective way to have high quality castings made at Sour’s scale of around 800 frames per year.

On this first visit, the factory was very much under construction. Most rooms sat empty between the room at the entrance with two Bicycle Academy jigs, a surface plate and a couple of racks of tubes sat looking Amerikan (spelled with a k in reference to Martin Kippenberger’s “the happy end of Franz Kafka’s Amerika”) where Thomas the welder and his son and welding apprentice Steve were working, and a room at the back full of cardboard boxes representing the last of the Taiwanese stock.

It was December and the country looked like a dreamy post-industrial Christmas card, so Chris drove us around to some good spots so that we could photograph the bikes in the snow. Those photographs were by far the best photographs of bicycles I’ve ever taken. Softbox gray skies reflected off beauty dish snow as each bike’s soul was stolen. Captured in magnificent medium-format detail, in 16 bit color with a backdrop of derelict brutalist factory buildings, dripping with glistening icicles and glorious dilapidation.

We crossed the border to the Czech Republic only a mile or so away for lunch because Czech food is the cheap and hearty antidote to shooting in the cold. Markhausen is a time warp. Aging diners spread thin over an interior that was in some far-flung reaches of the past, modern and sincere. I could see their reflections in the shiny blue acrylic ceiling staring at us like aliens; my eyes wandered down to the chandelier and then to the well stocked ornamental fish tank in the corner before panning robotically round to the smiling waiter ushering us to our table. We ate great slabs of deep fried cheese, and dumplings washed down with pine tar cola, before stopping at a Czech supermarket and loading up on supplies on the way home.

A couple of months later, through some cruel twist of fat, when the time came to look proudly through some of the finest images of bicycles I’ve ever seen, let alone taken, I found that the hard drive that they were stored on had been corrupted, leaving me with almost nothing. So the following August, I rented a fast car and made the 800-mile drive back to visit again, and I’m glad I did. For one thing it meant a trip back to Markhausen, but I also had the opportunity to catch Chris by surprise and see what normal looked like over at the factory.

It was 10% messier, but since my last visit, more of the production process had moved to Dresden from Taiwan, with tubes now being mitered in-house as well as welded. The quality of Thomas and Steve’s welding had massively improved, as had alignment and production speed. It was beginning to look like a real factory, with rows of finished frames lining the walls of what will at some point become the machine shop, as well as rows of tacked front triangles on carts waiting for their rears. In a relatively short space of time the entire process and time frame of manufacture had changed from eight months to closer to two weeks, which is where things began to get exciting.

With design, prototyping, and most of the manufacturing now all in-house in Germany, the “homebrew” label was born, as well as the “SRD” label. Homebrew refers to any bikes now made at home in Saxony and SRD, or Sour Racing Development, is the banner that refers to special frames for special purposes. It’s a play on all the car companies that do the same, and also the local rubbish collection service “Stadtreinigung Dresden” also abbreviated to SRD.

This is where Sour has become singular in its approach to building bikes. They can build bikes domestically within the same price-point range as Taiwanese-made bikes but they’re also an export-based mass-market brand set to grow exponentially over the next few years. At the same time, their prototyping is immediate and can happen at the scale of “framebuilding.” This means they can iterate and test designs, before putting them to market, at an unmatched rate while also being able to build in small batches of around 20 frames. Prototypes are first designed by Chris, built by Thomas and Steve, and then finished by Flori (of Brainfart Industries).

With this faster and more flexible approach to manufacturing, they can dial in processes to better suit production needs, like their dropouts with a distinctive aesthetic, that self-jig to an extent and reduce mitering time. All of this means in real terms for a customer is fast, affordable, fun. It means they can still offer niche bikes like the Bad Granny, which will only ever appeal to a relatively small number of weirdos, while also selling the classics (a road bike, an all-road bike, a gravel bike, an off-road touring bike/rigid mountain bike) AND develop new things, to be made in small batches; like a suspended XC ultra-distance race bike, or a long-travel steel trail-duro bike (which I was lucky enough to take home with me).

Sour uniquely has changed the narrative of how bicycle manufacture should happen and who it is for. In that way they are trailblazers in the cycling industry, shining a light on how it can be good, which I hope others follow in the future. They’re proving that big-batch ordering and the relatively conservative design ideals that come with it aren’t the only way to run a bike company, by offering something in between that and framebuilding.

Because of this unique approach, they’re able to develop designs around the (predominantly female) athletes they support, like ultra-distance cyclist and artist Quinda Verheul who won the inaugural Hellenic Mountain Race on a Sour Pasta Party. Beyond all of that Chris, Joergen, Flori, and Tom, are all super nice with a strong sense of fun, willing to put in the work to make that happen. Every day in every way they get a little bit better; they are quietly influencing the cycling industry as a whole through leading by example.

I’ve been riding my Sour SRD, which lives up to its double-entendre’d name by being made from recycled, wrongly mitered tubes—for a few months now and it’s been eye opening… Tune in next time to hear the most real-world review of a bike I don’t deserve.