Art on Two Wheels

There are reasons for building and owning extremely expensive, not especially speedy one-of-a-kind bicycles. The appreciation of craftsmanship. The satisfaction of owning something absolutely unique. The comfort of a perfect fit. The joy of true obsession

Crouched beside three bicycles -- his hand-built dark-purple cyclocross bike, his mountain bike specially welded from rare Russian aerospace metal, and his customized single-speed cruiser -- and bag upon box upon shelf of bike parts, Joel Metz awaits a dream.

"It's going to have 700-c wheels with straight blades on a five-piece fork, massively oversized gussets, and a track rear end," sighs Metz, 28, a wavy-haired Mission District bike messenger with a gentle, if slightly nervous, air. Assembled into a complete bicycle, Metz's ideal steed will be worth more than $2,000.

Art Kimura, an S.F. cabinetmaker and father of two, also has a dream. Someday he'd like to make room in his garage -- the garage with the 1944 Monarch cruiser, the custom cyclocross bike, the custom road bike, the cantilevered-frame mountain bike, and the nine other highfalutin bicycles -- for a $3,500 Morgen triple-shock, full-suspension, off-road machine.

Cycling, Kimura says, "is the only piece of freedom I have."
Fred Fiske, an S.F. carpenter, is a dreamer as well. He wants an Eisentraut-brand custom-built road bike to supplement his bicycle collection -- of four custom-built Eisentraut road bikes. Like the other Eisentrauts, the joints of the dream bike's frame will be filed so smooth that the tubes flow into one another like water. It will be tailor-made to Fiske's 57-year-old body. It will be sanded and painted and painted again, until it shines like glass. When finished, it will be worth around $3,000.

"I know it's going to be wonderful," says Fiske.
Pricey art bikes -- and their devoted following -- are nothing new in America. Before World War II, America was populated by hundreds of bicycle manufacturers. Top-notch brands such as Waverly and Columbia were joined with mirror-polished fillet brazing work and adorned with flawless gold-leaf filigree. But the advent of the automobile put an end to all that, and by the close of the 1940s, there were few Americans who could properly wield a bicycle brazing torch. Little evidence remains of America's 1880s-1930s golden age of bicycle craftsmanship, thanks to a government drive during WWII to collect old bicycles as scrap. The only well-known outfit that continued building top-end bikes was Schwinn of Chicago.

But during the late 1960s, the Bay Area spawned an American renaissance of this long-lost art. Now just about every major American city plays host to at least one custom bicycle frame-building shop, just as at the turn of the century. The San Francisco Bay Area, however, remains the soul of the art-bike cottage industry. From San Rafael to Santa Cruz to Walnut Creek to the Embarcadero, builders of one-of-a-kind bicycles are rarely more than a stone's throw -- or at least a bike ride -- away.

These builders are as passionate about their work as their patrons are about the creations they buy. And although those creations are expensive, the world of hand-built bicycles isn't populated by ostentatious poseurs. The young legal aide you see rolling up Market Street on an Eisentraut is as likely as not to have spent her life savings on it. The bicycle messenger struggling up California Street on a Sycip may be mounted on most of his personal net worth.

"It pretty much takes all my money," Metz says.
Practical considerations don't seem to motivate these aficionados, either. Metz's dream bike won't deliver packages much better than an old Schwinn three-speed. Former racer Fiske doesn't expect to win any more contests on his newest Eisentraut. And Kimura's mountain bike is as likely to absorb bumps on-road as off.

They are driven, rather, by appreciation for the beauty that results from devoted craftsmanship, the satisfaction of owning something absolutely unique, and the feeling of community that results from personally knowing the person who made your favorite possession.

"I always feel really good riding it," Fiske says.

Albert Eisentraut is the founder of an entire American industry, yet he has nothing of an industrialist's air. He's soft-spoken beyond the point of modesty, courteous to a fault, and generous with his time. After a three-decade career that involved running a 14-employee bicycle factory, training or inspiring hundreds of American bicycle builders, and establishing a high-finish style of bicycle-building known internationally as "the American school," Eisentraut also, less fortunately, has nothing of an industrialist's wealth.

As a child, Eisentraut spent hours accompanying his father on visits to a friend who worked at Chicago's Schwinn Bicycle Co., and, in his teens, tinkered with bicycles, brazing together a half-dozen bikes, using skills he learned from his dad, who was a plumber.

Eisentraut worked for a time as a schoolteacher after he moved to the Bay Area during the mid-1960s. He later established a frame shop in Berkeley in 1969 that eventually grew to become a 14-worker frame factory in Oakland. His former employees, along with graduates of frame-building classes he has led over the years, have spread across America, creating their own apprentice spawn. Almost to a fault, these builders have followed Eisentraut's immutable aesthetic ethic: Finish comes first. Now, around the world, American-built bicycles are noted for their watery-smooth finishes.

Though expansive, his Oakland workshop -- an old corrugated steel warehouse -- shelters just two workers, Eisentraut and his son, who braze and weld together frames one at a time based on custom orders tailored to each buyer's body type. It's not that Eisentraut hasn't tried to expand. But the hassle of managing a dozen employees was more stress than he could comfortably live with. Despite a few other attempts at the big time -- including a notably short-lived bid to go into the parts manufacturing business -- Eisentraut has always come back to his small custom frame shop, filing joints until they look like pearls.

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