Too Small To Stomp Out: Reflections from 2023 “Meet Your Maker” in Napa, CA

Meet Your Maker is an ongoing series of rides hosted by the Northern California bike-making community and finally returned to Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa, CA this past May after a nearly eight-year hiatus. Always excited to document cycling culture, Erik Mathy loaded up his touring bike and headed to the event from his home in the Bay Area with his usual eclectic mix of handmade cameras and lenses in tow. Below, Erik shares reflections on a few aspects of the memorable weekend that resonated with him, in addition to a series of interviews, a gallery of uber-creative analog portraits, and scenes from the event.

The bicycle industry is going through some interesting times. At the start of the COVID pandemic everyone (not just in cycling but across the world) expected the economy to fall flat on its face. Oddly, unexpectedly, it didn’t. Cycling in particular exploded. People were forced to stay home and started dusting off their old, hadn’t-been-ridden-in-10-years, bikes which led to a massive upswing in basic services, repairs and parts replacements. Some people even thought ‘that 10-year-old bike is kind of fun so, hey, let’s get a new one!’ Because nobody could really go anywhere, the streets were suddenly empty and shockingly safe. As a result, parents who hadn’t gotten bikes for their kids because of that perceived danger maybe felt that now they could.

Bicycle shops boomed. Nobody could keep enough of anything in stock. Not complete bikes, not parts, not accessories, not anything. Service dates were pushed out by weeks. International shipping was also a quagmire, adding to the delays. It was mayhem. Oddly glorious mayhem, but mayhem nonetheless.

The bicycle industry heavyweights, seeing the boom, of course ramped up everything. Hiring, manufacturing, product, buying/selling—it all soared to a massive, unheard of fever pitch. But this last year has seen that hastily-built scaffolding crash. With too many products, people were no longer buying new bikes or getting service at the same rates. There have been staff layoffs, price reductions and sales galore. And while the result of this has been difficult for small, independent bike shops without deep pockets, it’s also accelerated an already existing trend: the move by the biggest players to consolidate their businesses, remove dependence on independent local bike shops (LBS) by opening their own branded storefronts or purchasing existing LBS locations, and aggressively continuing their move to direct to consumer sales.

Or, as my Pops would say, it’s “the same shit, different day” in corporate America, the never-ending dance between the biggest players and the small fries trying to avoid being stepped on. I was recently given the opportunity to talk to a group of independent bicycle business folk at the Meet Your Maker fair at the Skyline XC race in Napa, CA. In light of what’s been happening in the cycling industry I was curious to know what they thought about it all. How did they survive and, possibly, thrive as the Treks, Pons and Specializeds of the world amassed more of literally everything? So I asked them each the exact same question and recorded their responses:

“Both outside of the cycling industry and in the cycling industry itself there is a surge of consolidation. Large companies are swallowing the smaller ones, expanding their direct-to-consumer sales while also trying to find ways to subvert new ideas from other sources to expand their business. The big brands are making their own bags now, for instance.

In that kind of business ecosystem how do small makers hold their space or find ways to not just survive but also to thrive?”

The following are the answers from six different frame builders—with experience levels ranging from one year to almost thirty years—a bag maker, one of the crew from Paragon Metalworks, and one of the two people managing a small boutique Japanese parts and accessories distributor. I found them to be really interesting, informative, and even in some cases inspiring. I hope you do as well!

(Note: responses have been lightly edited for readability and brevity.)

Cameron Falconer, Falconer Cycles

So in my experience, what the big companies do doesn’t affect me a whole lot, other than obviously people like SRAM or Shimano, supplying new and different parts, and big companies that have deep pockets to develop technologies that are beneficial…disc brakes, tires, all that stuff.

As far as it relates to my day-to-day life building bicycles, the way I see it is that I almost live in a different industry. Some of my customers do have bikes from big people, and that’s fine. I’ve certainly ridden bikes made out of carbon in China as well. But yeah, truth be told, I feel like people at my level, we’re not even grassroots.

We’re too small to stomp out, and we’re not acquisition targets. The era of Trek buying Bontrager and Fisher, not that I’m anywhere near that scale, or QBP buying Salsa. I’m one dude in a garage in Plumas County. Nobody gives a shit about trying to buy my company. So I’m not an acquisition target. I’m able to exist in my own weird little world, and it really, in the end, doesn’t affect me a whole lot.

Nick Neuhaus, Neuhaus Metalworks

I really feel like in that environment, the consumer still sees value in a competitive marketplace. They want choices. Nobody wants to be told you have to shop here, you have to conform to this purchase model, things like that. Much like anything else in life, the first thing that comes to mind would be school. Nobody is a perfect fit. There is no one size fits all solution to presenting things to people.

I think that’s really where a small maker, small operation, small builder fits into that world: As the alternative path to a similar product.

I know for us, we really try to compete somewhat directly with those big brands, but we offer a very, very different experience. You walk into your big brand store and you buy X bike for X dollars and it just comes with these parts in these colors and it’s very much a one size fits all solution. I know that not all of those customers are our customers, but the question becomes how do we make them our customers? Most people that walk in to buy a hardtail from a bike store are not going to keep that bike forever. That box store hardtail is a gateway to the product that we offer here.

I think that’s where the legwork really falls on the small builder and the small manufacturer to figure out how to get into that space to expose your product to that customer so that when they are prepared to replace that bike, the justification in the increased cost, the process of it, the enjoyment of riding, understanding the quality of riding a metal, handmade bike, being able to deal with the company or builder really presents its value.

I know for us, we look at what those brands are doing and try to tailor our build kits and sell complete bikes because that’s really what people want. People buy things from Amazon because it’s easy. In 2023, people want an easy, seamless experience. They want to know how much they’re paying, what they’re getting when they’re getting it, and then they want the choices. One of the things that we do at Neuhaus is we really try to make the hard decisions so the customer can make the fun ones.

What color do you want? What add-ons do you need? Do you need attachments for a bag, for a rack? Do you have a specific component that you want to use? We’ve got the bike dialed. If you’re here and you’re talking about this bike, you’ve already decided that the bike we make is the bike you want. Now you just get to make those enjoyable decisions.

Chris Sallen, Sallen Cycles

Okay, so I’m a new guy. I gotta throw that out there. I don’t have all of the wisdom of 30 years of building and selling handmade bikes or small production stuff. But I’ve been a customer of handmade bikes for decades and these builders in particular.

And I do think that it’s a different customer. I think there’s a different mindset for someone who’s going to buy the Canyon direct versus someone who wants one of Curtis’s awesome, curvy Retrotecs. I think it’s a different experience people are looking for in a bike.

When you’re looking at people making these small businesses thrive, there’s a lot of new cyclists since the pandemic, a lot of people who got on a bike and now there’s a whole other layer of bikes that they can discover. With social media, everybody can get their stuff out there and build some more interest from those new riders.

But then I also think that there are people who’ve always been there all along who are just like, “I just want something that is fun to ride. I’m not looking for lightness or a bunch of wires.” They’re looking for something different. Introducing this handmade bike experience is how you find that market of cyclists. If we push the vibe of the handmade thing, it just introduces a different, additional layer of fun into it for them.

Rie Sawada, Sim Works USA

I’m grateful to be in this small bicycle industry community; being friends and then riding bikes together and supporting each other. Most of the frame builders, they’re our long-time friends. They appreciate our parts and then we appreciate how they make their products and frames. We show their products and they are also showing our products on their bikes. So I think without being in this community with everybody else we couldn’t survive.

Also, we’re trying to be unique, trying to bring a little bit of authentic Japanese bike parts, culture, and style. Nobody else is really doing that.

Todd Ingermanson, Black Cat Bicycles

I don’t know because, you know, it’s hard to tell. It’s such a fashion industry that you really kind of have to stay outside of that ecosystem where they’re trying to respond to trends. It’s not that we’re trying to set the trends, but we’re the people that are looking to capitalize on our craftsmanship. So if you have an original thought, then there’s going to be a certain amount of people that respond to that. Hopefully, there are enough of those people that can pay me to do my thing as opposed to trying to respond to what these companies are responding to.

And then also, really, like…I have very little control over what I do. Because each bike has to have a buyer. I’m not making stuff that just interests me. I can’t afford to have a bunch of bikes that I thought were cool to build hanging on pegs. Like, each bike has to be sold to a person to their spec. How do you come up with a business plan to either subvert or stay above or stay outside of this race between Trek and Specialized and Giant? Like, how do you do that?

You don’t. You come up with an aesthetic you like that is repeatable and you can apply to different styles of bikes. It is kind of a design language, if you will. Just coming up with that and being able to try and make money applying it to these different bikes. Because, yeah, it would be great to say, like, “Oh, I have this business plan that’s going to totally subvert this snake eating its tail (bike industry).” But if nobody’s buying the bikes, it doesn’t matter. So, we honestly have probably very little control. You see a little opening and you’re like, “Okay, I can do that. I can mine that vein.”, if you will.

Tony Pereira, Breadwinner Cycles

Well, what they’re doing is they’re commodifying every product, right? So they can get into something that they can just churn out. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we’re doing. People come to us because they get a unique thing that’s made by people that have a face. Like they know who is building the bike and they know the story.

There’s a story behind it. There’s a relationship with us. As a small builder, that’s always been the answer to this question. They’re buying something that’s uniquely theirs and they can’t get anywhere else. And then there’s also the experience of buying it and interacting with the people that are making it. That does present some problems with growth and scaling because at some point, parts of that get lost.

But I think there’s still the story and the experience that can remain. We only build custom bikes or we only have built custom bikes until now. Starting next month the A-Road will be offered in stock sizes. We’re going to launch that officially. That’s the first time we’ve done that. [The process] will still be you order the bike, we’ll build it for you that week and then send it to paint. So there’ll still be an experience to it. There’s going to be two drivetrain options, two cockpit options, two wheel options. We’re going to make it really simple because I just realized maybe two months ago that not everybody wants a custom bike. It’s very intimidating for probably most people. I was talking to somebody else about this earlier and they said, “Yeah, because when you buy a custom bike, you have to kind of know what to ask for. If you don’t know what to ask for, you have to reveal that you don’t know.”

People don’t want to do that. You have to be very vulnerable to do that. And that’s a barrier, right? People still want a Breadwinner because they know they’re great bikes, but they can’t get to the custom step because it’s intimidating. So now you can just go on our website and go, ”I want to look at the sizing chart. Oh, I’m a 58.”, they order a 58cm bike and then, cheers! That’s how we’re growing in this world. But it does take some of the experience part of it away, but there’s still the story behind it. I’m building the bike, it’s the same small team working on it, and it’s made to order.

David Taylor, Paragon Machine Works

I think it’s an issue that has pretty much always existed. It might be a little bit more significant these days now that we have a lot of really large companies and a lot of vertical and horizontal integration in them because they just have a lot of money to throw around.

But, in general, I think the small builders are always gonna have a place because there’s a strong niche market of individuals who really value the quality of the hand-built and the personalization and the customization and the local manufacturing. They value that over a lower price point.

I think some of that market may get lost a little bit over the course of time. Frame building is a difficult industry to turn a profit in. But the demand is always going to be there and there’s a pretty large level of artistry in it too.I think that’s important as well.

Jessica Chan, Tunitas Creative

I think it’s a lot about educating the consumers, the people that we’re selling to, and telling them why it’s important to support local makers because it’s also about supporting the local economy. When you’re supporting local businesses and local makers, whether it be in the bike industry or your local bakery down the street, like your mom-and-pop shops, it’s the people within your community that you’re supporting.

Because when those places close up, like little downtowns, there’s nothing there anymore. I think that’s why it’s important to support local makers. A lot of that is educating people about what it takes to run a small business. You think it’s expensive to buy that $6 coffee, but when you learn about all the little things that go into paying the barista a livable wage and stuff, you think, “Oh, yes, I’m supporting these people and their livelihoods.” And that, in turn, is going to help grow our communities.

Curtis Inglis, Retrotec/Inglis Bikes

We gave up having our bikes in shops 25 years ago. I saw the people that were in front of me, and how it was not working for them, and we just went straight to direct (to consumer). I had friends that built bikes and wouldn’t sell a bike direct at all. They had their dealer network, and they pushed that and tried and tried and lost their ass. So we went straight to consumer. I have a few shops, but it has to be a really special shop. Mainly I have one, Circles Japan, they are special. They like what I do and they represent it well, and it’s great, and they deal with that handmade niche really well. Most bike shops in the United States just don’t.

I know that it’s horrible that all the big companies are consolidating, buying shops or opening their own, but I also have friends that work in those shops that now make a living wage. They get benefits. So for all the negatives of “They bought a shop and they ruined it” or whatever, right, but they’ve also given all those people raises. And yes, they push them to sell and be corporate but they make a living so what’s the difference?

What’s better? I work for a mom-and-pop shop where I don’t get hammered on my margins, but I also don’t make a living, right? Now I get to make a living, but I have to worry about margins and quotas. I think there’s always room for little scrappy companies. Yes, Specialized can make a bag but it’s not the same as getting an Outer Shell bag.

The people that care are going to get an Outer Shell bag. The people that just think Specialized, it’s the same, they’re going to go do that.

But I think there’s always going to be people that are turned off by the corporate giant, or whatever, the greed and all that. It’s like when Specialized brought their stainless steel cage to market, just like King Cages. Here’s a friend of ours that makes the best, in my opinion, (water bottle) cage in the world, and Specialized just goes and rips him off and makes it in Asia. That sucks. Go get your own idea. Don’t steal from this guy who’s been doing it for 25, 30 years. Don’t steal his design, knock it off and sell it for the same price while he’s over there, working super hard trying to make his in the United States. Go get your own niche.

They do some horrible things. Horrible. And at the same time, I have friends that make a living selling their stuff in America.

There are always going to be pros and cons. It’s easy to say the blanket statement and all that, say that all big companies are terrible. But the reality is sometimes you need them. Sometimes they do really good things. But, you know, for me, I just have my teeny little niche in the market, you know what I’m saying? And it’s okay.

About the Images

I won’t lie, to make portraits of, or rather with, people who make beautiful things is a little bit intimidating. These are fabricators of the highest order. While my personal ability to make physical objects isn’t nearly at the level of theirs, I still felt it was appropriate to honor the subjects by bringing handmade instruments of my own: My 4×5 box camera and a handmade 180mm camera lens. The lens was equipped with a commercial shutter for the sake of my own sanity. On the medium side, partially for the challenge and partially for affordability, I went with paper negatives.

In all honesty, they didn’t come out quite as I had hoped. Yet, at the same time, they also had a soft, beautiful graphite drawing feel to them that I wanted to keep. So I combined them with the color, digital backup portraits I’d made with a Fuji GFX50R medium format digital camera and an older Nikon 35-70mm f/3.5 manual focus lens. The two mediums put together resulted in final images that I hadn’t even considered as a possibility but just felt…right.

The best part of pushing your creativity is going to new places that initially feel like a failure and then realizing that it’s just the first or second step to something you didn’t even know was there. I’d like to thank everyone I met at the Skyline XC Meet Your Makers Fair for taking time out of their day to make portraits with me and being just overall a really inspiring, thoughtful, and great group of people. Without them, I wouldn’t have pushed myself or learned anything new. I hope to cross paths with each of you again soon!