[BikePortland intern Jonathan “J.R.” Reed contributed reporting to this story.]
(Photo: Daniel Sharp Photography)
Portland-based Sweetpea Bicycles is the latest local bike builder to offer a line of production bikes. Builder Natalie Ramsland says the move was made to make Sweetpeas more accessible, both in terms of price and availability.
Natalie has garnered attention in the world of handmade bikes, not only because she is one of very few women making them specifically for women but because she does beautiful work and has the business acumen to continue doing so (which for some builders is more difficult than the building part).
The idea behind Sweetpea’s new production offering — dubbed “Lust” — is simple: Get more women on bikes that fit them in less time and for less money than a fully, one-off custom bike.
Natalie began the Lust line with her most popular model, the Little Black Dress road bike. The Little Black Dress model was born from piles of custom fit data derived through years of customer feedback and tutelage under Portland’s renown bike fit guru, Michael Sylvester of Bicycle Fitting Services. Ramsland has crunched the fit numbers critical in a custom built bicycle and distilled them down to standard small, medium and large sizes. According to Ramsland, the standard sizes of the new production frames will fit 80% of her customer base using only minor adjustments in parts selection.
Ramsland maintains production oversight and customer relationships, but actual fabrication of the Lust bikes is contracted out to a larger, undisclosed Oregon-based company with the stock and experience to turn around a Sweetpea design in approximately 8 weeks — compared to the three-year waiting list for a handmade-by-Natalie version. (The three year waiting list, Natalie says, is a result of hard work, positive customer response and a couple of shop relocations which put a kink in her production schedule.)
Unlike the limitless choices of colors and components available with a custom bike, the Lust bikes are available in three colors (juniper, pumpkin, black) and they are available as complete bikes only (assembled with what Ramsland termed “well-curated” parts kits based on Shimano’s 105, Ultegra or Dura-ace options). Price difference between a production and custom Sweetpea is likely to be at least several hundred dollars.
Sweetpea’s production offering isn’t new in the handmade bike world. Other builders, struggling to meet demand in a business that does not scale with popularity, have taken similar routes.
Another local example is the Speedvagen line created in Sacha White’s Vanilla Bicycles Workshop in Southeast Portland (read our Speedvagen coverage from 2007). Chris King, the man known for his legendary headsets and hubs, also offers what he calls “hand-built production” bikes under his new Cielo brand, and Joseph Ahearne of Ahearne Cycles, has also dabbled in a semi-production line (with pre-built front triangles) in the past.
At this point, the Little Black Dress road bike is the only model in the Lust line; Ramsland has yet to determine when or if she’ll add others. “I won’t launch a new model just for the sake of doing so. The demand and business case have to dictate it.”
Even in a down economy, Sweetpea’s business — which is run by Natalie and her husband Austin — seems to be doing quite well. Ramsland says Portland itself plays a large role in their success. “Cycling is in Portland’s roots. There is an appreciation for craft, a talent pool and an industry base that earns the city’s reputation.”
When asked about the future of framebuilding in Portland with around 30 builders toiling in a similar niche and a new UBI campus in town, Ramsland responded with a cheesy metaphor. “Lots of people make their own cheeses. Mozzarella is relatively easy. But when you get to blues and more elaborate types, you head for the specialty shop which will always have its place.”
If you Lust (ha, get it?) for a Sweetpea Bicycle, contact Natalie via SweetpeaBicycles.com.
Builder Focus is a new section we’ll bring you with the help of our intern Jonathan Reed. J.R. (which is what he goes by around here to avoid confusion), is not just a stellar intern, he’s also the man behind Quixote Cycles.