New York, despite having roughly nine million residents, only has about three commercial hand-built bike makers. One is Thomas Callahan — the six-foot-two, incredibly friendly purveyor of Horse Cycles. Callahan, and his omnipresent cat, Charles, are the perfect argument against buying a cookie-cutter, out-of-the-box bicycle.
Callahan is my local frame builder. He shares a space with a custom motorcycle shop in a traditionally Hasidic neighborhood of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn — just a short subway ride away from the GP offices in Manhattan. Callahan has been operating out of his shared custom motorcycle/bicycle workshop space for the past six years and has been building bikes for just about eight years. “I was riding a lot and my bike got stolen,” said Callahan. “I was looking to replace it and wanted to buy a nice bike. I decided to buy some nice tools instead. I just went from there and taught myself.”
The cycling world has yet to embrace the local movement in the same way that many other industries in the US have. Food, beer, style and accessories have all trended back toward local makers. Take, for example, craft beer: before Prohibition fucked everything up, many of the most popular beers in the US were the beers brewed around the corner; now, with local craft brew booming, that mentality has returned with a vengeance. Bikes were once the same way. Before the time of internet bike companies and mega-conglomerate bike makers based overseas, your local metalsmith would make you a bike. The bike industry, however, has yet to experience the same renaissance.
“I was looking to replace it and wanted to buy a nice bike. I decided to buy some nice tools instead.”
Callahan’s bikes have garnered a strong following among in-the-know New York cyclists, and Horse has customers as far abroad as Mexico. But even with the massive number of potential buyers right in his backyard, Callahan is only operating on about a five-bike work list at any given time. This goes to show that the buy-local mentality has yet to catch on in any meaningful way — at least on the East Coast. On the West Coast — especially in Oregon, and Portland in particular — buying a hand-built bike from your local bikesmith is commonly done. Breadwinner, Vanilla Workshop, Ira Ryan, English, DeSalvo, Land Shark and Stoemper all thrive in Portland, a city of 2.3 million people. In theory, if the cycling industry in New York and elsewhere embraced the local movement in the way other industries have, Callahan would have a 50-bike work list and likely a lot more competition.
Callahan is still a one-man operation, working maybe eight hours in the shop a day and four from home, corresponding with potential buyers. (He also makes knives and accessories, which help supplement his profits from bikes and “go along with the whole adventure concept,” he said.) His intake of new customers involves gathering every piece of pertinent information: “I’ll ask them about their riding style, their riding history; age, weight, height, body measurements,” he said. “Then we talk about their past rides, their length of rides, their intended use. Based on all of that information, I tweak every single measurement to cater to specifically to the rider.”
Try getting that type of service from an out-of-the-box internet bike company. Which is the point: In addition to the simply romantic notion of buying a bike from your buddy down the street, buying local also comes with a host of advantages over an off-the-shelf bike from the bike store. You can pick your tubing, have it sized specifically for you, talk with your frame builder about the type of riding that you do, get recommendations, pick your paint scheme — all without touching a computer or phone. You can look your builder in the eye and shake his hand. Each turn of the cranks, each mile that you put in, will be that much more rewarding thanks to a deeper connection between you and the metal underneath you. There have always been strong advocates for that sort of relationship in cycling gear — but it’s about time the general population started thinking that way, too.