Custom Culture

Nestled between vacant lots near the dead ends of 37th and May Street in Bridgeport is the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, a former paint warehouse that now houses various small-craft organizations. On the third floor is the Bubbly Bicycle Works, a co-op of dedicated craft bike artisans who are bringing hand-made and custom bikes to the South Side. The co-op enables people to share expensive tools, like a $5,000 frame jig, and fosters a bike-building community that has become a hub for the Chicago handcrafted bike movement. The work that goes on in the CSMC ranges from simple bike improvements to the construction of completely custom bikes—rides designed and built from scratch made specifically to fit a customer’s specifications.

Levi Borreson runs his bike shop Legacy Frameworks out of the CSMC and is bringing the craft bike movement to a broader audience with a custom designed bike available in two sizes. These bikes are handmade, but not custom built for each buyer, keeping the cost down, with bikes prices starting at about $1,100 and going up depending on how much customization and add-ons the rider wants. To give some perspective on what might seem like an already steep figure, most completely custom bikes range from $2,000 to $10,000, prices that are quite prohibitive for those on a budget.

Despite never riding in college, Borreson got a used bike when he moved to Chicago and over time learned about bike care from the various used cycle spots around the city. For Borreson, there was a disconnect as he bought better bikes. Though he became a better rider, he didn’t feel connected to the imported factory models he could find: “I grew up thinking that everything can be made, you just need the right tools.” After lurking on bike building list hosts, he took a class at United Bicycle Institute in Michigan and began his business.

An example of what sets hand-made and factory bikes apart is the seat cluster, where the seat joins the frame of the bike. A better-made bike means everything fits together more neatly. “It’s the details,” Borreson explains. “Now, with mass manufacturing, it’s just slapped together. A lot of people don’t realize this can be done [by hand].”

While there has been a growing awareness about custom and handmade bikes over the past couple years–the success of Method Bikes in the West Loop and Heritage Bikes in Lakeview wouldn’t have been possible if people weren’t interested–Chicago is still behind for a city of its size.

“It’s becoming more and more prevalent. The movement is growing and people are choosing to go by bike now. There is an unfulfilled need in Chicago. There are more builders in Madison and Milwaukee than here,” Borreson notes. While Bubbly Bikes doesn’t offer formal classes, Borreson says that all the co-op members are open to teaching or helping one on one if you want to learn. Part of the beauty of a co-op is that “anybody can come in and use a bench for $200 a month and build a bike.”

Photos by Zoe Nalebuff

There is progress being made in the Chicago bicycling world. The new Chicago Commissioner of Transportation, Gabe Klein, has met with the Bubbly Bikes crew and is pushing for more bike infrastructure, including the Chicago bike-sharing program that’s launching in the spring. Borreson is excited for the project, “I think it will increase ridership so much and people will realize how nice or easy or cheaper it is to be on a bike because once you get a person on a bike, chances are they’ll really like it. More riders mean safer streets.”

As the mass of bikers increases, Borreson hopes that “by getting exposed to hand made bikes, hopefully [people] will be inspired to make their own.” If you are contemplating getting involved or buying a hand-built bike but the cost is still a turn off, a little bit of math shows that the switch might be worth it. Rather than driving a car that holds on average 16 gallons and filling it at current prices of about $3.50, for twenty tanks you could get a handmade bike that could save you money, reduce emissions, and get you in shape. How could you argue with that?

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