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Bikes are back, and so are the people who make them

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A steel lug of a handmade bicycle frame made by Richard Sachs. (Photo by Jeff Weir)

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A handmade track bike by Richard Sachs. (Photo by Jeff Weir)

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Johnny Coast, of Coast Cycles in New York City, has been making hand-built bicycle frames since 2005. (Photo by Tomas Dinges)

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Johnny Coast, of Coast Cycles in New York City, describes the features of his newest hand-built frame. (Photo by Tomas Dinges)

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Coast Cycles is found at the end of nondescript cul-de-sac in the Bushwick neighborhood of New York City. (Photo by Tomas Dinges)

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Bicycle messengers and their friends congregate on track bikes to watch a race in New York City. (Photo by Jose Martinez)

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Bicycle messengers and their friends congregate on track bikes to watch a race in New York City. (Photo by Jose Martinez)

String music played recently in the brick garage where soft-spoken Johnny Coast, founder of Coast Cycles, hand-builds bicycle frames.

A few unpainted projects hung on the wall, and a row of metal files, the tools of his trade, were lined up neatly near a 5-foot-high metal tool cabinet.

Momentarily, the gravelly whine of an electric drill shattered the serene atmosphere as it filed away burrs inside a thin tube of steel alloy.

“I come from a long line of craftsmen,” said Coast, 32, who began to weld when he was 12 years old. “Basically I looked around to build things and wanted to continue that tradition in my family as I grew older.”

He was deep into the 40-hour process of building a steel, lugged bicycle--one of three that month for customers who paid $1,000 or more for a custom-size and later, custom-painted, frame.

Coast works alone in his studio on the edge of New York City, but he’s part of a growing number of craftsmen at the heart of a surging interest in hand-made bikes generated partly by the mystique associated with urban bicycle messengers and effectively revitalizing a century-old tradition.

Coast launched his business in 2005, and he’s managing a two-year waiting list for new customers responsible for what he calls an “explosion of orders.”

Half of what he builds is track frames, the brakeless, one-gear bicycles designed for races in a curved and banked velodrome The first Madison Square Garden in New York City was a site for track bike racing as early as 1879.

Recently, the track bikes used by bicycle messengers in New York and other urban centers have seeped into the public consciousness and spawned a new fashion trend.

“The messenger crowd, more than any single demographic, is responsible for this resurgence in the handmade bike,” said veteran frame-builder Richard Sachs. Since the 1980s, many bicycle messengers have used one-speed, fixed-gear track bikes to do their jobs. With no brakes, these bikes have nothing on them to steal and are simple to maintain.

Sachs, 55, who works in Connecticut, has built more than 4,000 frames in his 30-plus-year career.

He said that rise of the Internet made it easier for people to be infatuated with the equipment, and eventually messengers began to buy and sell parts and frames. Online forums and chat groups provided a way for cycling enthusiasts outside of the messenger scene to take interest in older, handmade frames--specifically track bikes.

“A cult arises,” said Sachs. “If you look at the way things have gone, the messengers got in early, and then the society or fashion or culture began to co-opt what the messenger likes.”

Street races, known as “alley cats,” attract messengers and nonmessengers to compete on track bikes. These races have popped up on college campuses and in towns where messenger companies don’t even exist.

In February, more than 7,000 people filed into the fourth annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Portland, Ore. That was double the number of attendees from last year. The first show, in 2005, had fewer than 20 frame builders. This year, it had 100 and.

Of those, 10 percent and two prizewinners were graduates of the United Bicycle Institute, a trade school in Oregon that has offered-frame-building courses for more than 20 years, now at a cost of $2,150.

John Baxter, an administrator at the school, said the demand for classes has risen sharply in the last two years. Waiting lists have lengthened despite the addition of new courses to the curriculum, and the institute already is accepting applications for its January 2009 course in steel-brazing frame-building.

Students, mostly in their 20s, come to build a frame for personal use. However, Baxter said that at least one or two members of each class of eight think seriously about hand-building bicycle frames as a career.

He attributes the interest in his classes to a variety of things including a resistance to the factory building methods of large bicycle manufacturers, a growing do-it-yourself approach to frame building and nostalgia for frame designs of what Baxter calls the golden age of cycling of the 1910s and 1920s.

Back in Connecticut, Sachs said a growing backlash against industrial, mass-produced goods, may be partly responsible for the increase in orders he’s received in the last 10 years.

“People were going back to find things made by a person that had invested something in the making of the product,” he said. “It’s not just ‘here’s the money and here is my bike.’”

He sees the wave of interest caused by the messengers’ interest as positive. “It raises the tide for other manufacturers with less experience and helps them live a bit easier knowing the current bubble that messengers have helped create,” said Sachs.

He also claims the handmade frames are better quality than those made during in the 70s and 80s.

“We are not here to recreate the past,” he said. “We are making bikes much better than 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I’d like to think that the folks making frames now are doing cutting edge work.”

In New York, Coast says it’s about the special attention craftsmen can give. “I take my time to build each frame,” said Coast, “A lot of care goes into each one.”

E-mail: tmd2115@columbia.edu