On a warm June morning, Paul Levine is sitting in a leather club chair in his New York office, interviewing a client about his goals. Levine is wearing a pressed, short-sleeve, button-down shirt; neat shorts; and a focused look. He takes notes with a Montblanc Starwalker. On his right wrist is an elegant Officine Panerai chronograph.
But he isn't talking to his client about equities or real estate or even psychological issues. Levine is a bicycle fitter.
He is the proprietor of Signature Cycles, an elite bike retailer with locations in New York City and Central Valley, New York. This isn't the kind of bike shop that you just you walk into, pick out a model, and wheel it out. At Signature, bicycles are displayed like museum sculptures, and most of what's in the 2,500-square-foot studio are just samples of what custom fitters might have their bike-building partners produce for you. This year, Signature will sell only about 200 bespoke bicycles, but it will tally nearly $2 million in sales. The typical bike will cost a shade more than $8,000.
In 2006, for the second year running, the number of bicycles sold in the U.S. surpassed the number of cars and light trucks-18.2 million, according to the National Association of Bicycle Dealers, compared with 16.5 million autos. The demand has extended to handmade bikes, thanks to a combination of Lance Armstrong related hype, the rise of bespoke products in general, and a growing awareness among consumers that even if a one-off bicycle costs $10,000, it's much cheaper than a sports car.
There are about a dozen shops like Signature around the U.S., and though many of them are new, all of them report surging interest. Parlee, a boutique bikemaker since the late 1990s, reports that its sales have doubled every year since 2002. Serotta, a Saratoga Springs, New York, company, has been in business since the late 1970s, and it expects to produce about 3,000 bikes a year, making it one of the largest custom builders in the country. Founder Ben Serotta says the average price of a build has nearly doubled in recent years. "Even $15,000 isn't that uncommon for us anymore."
Though Armstrong may be an inspiration for some high-end cyclists, they're not replicating his Tour de France bike. Each bicycle is like a tailored suit; because everybody is different, what works for Lance might not work for you, even if you are in great shape. In fact, weekend warriors willing to spend the cash can ride a bike that not only fits them better than any professional's model would, but in many cases is actually lighter and more forgiving.
For instance, not all carbon fiber is the same; it can be made to be more pliant for a ride that's easier on your body. "We don't have you come to the bike," Levine says. "We measure you, your range of motion, and then we bring the bike to you." In other words, you'll sit more upright than Lance does, but at least that way you'll be able to breathe a little more easily.
Buyers can choose everything from components ($3,000 carbon-fiber wheels are an option) to frame material-custom-mitered titanium or carbon-fiber tubes, for instance. They tend to get crazy with paint schemes: Matching the bike's color to a favorite necktie or pair of Ferragamo loafers isn't uncommon. Some clients request iridescent tones that change color in different light. One custom-ride buyer had a profane word and three exclamation points painted in red letters across the top of his white bike.
For all this customization, of course, you have to wait. Since everything is done by hand-from custom-mitering carbon-fiber tubes to applying paint-the time from fit to delivery can be anywhere from two months to a year, if an order is particularly complex. What's complex? Try the buyer who wanted his bike painted the same blue that glistens on his Aston Martin Vanquish-not merely the same hue, but the identical paint. He also wanted real gold-leaf decals and a gilded crest head badge on the front of the bike. Some buyers even want custom anodized screws or copper plating.
Tom Rodi, who handles sales and marketing for Parlee, which will make about 300 frames this year, says his buyers are exacting. "They're perfectionists," he says. "When they spend that much, their expectations are very high."
David J. Carlins is a typical bespoke client. He has flown in from Chicago just to be fit for a custom bike at Signature Cycles. For this two-hour session, he'll pay $375-not including any gear.
Carlins, president of Magellan Development Group, a real estate firm, makes more than $1 million a year, but outside of the office, his passion is racing in triathlons. He qualified for this year's Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, so he's in outstanding shape, but he's not perfectly mated to a bike. When he rides his current set of wheels-an adapted road bike-it's a bit like Yo-Yo Ma fiddling on a child's cello; sure, he can make it sound better than a 12-year-old could, but ultimately he's limited by the instrument.
Before the fitting begins, Levine fires a barrage of questions at Carlins. "This is part psychiatry, part coaching," Levine says. "People don't come to buy the product. They come for the benefit that the product can provide. So I need to know their goals and aspirations, not just their physical dimensions and limitations."
Next comes time on a Size Cycle, a stationary bike that's adjustable in virtually every direction and is hooked up to a computer screen that displays everything from the evenness of Carlins' left-leg stroke-rate cadence to the power produced by his right leg. While Carlins rides, he asks questions: What sort of pedals create the best power transfer? He also answers questions, since Levine wants to know whether Carlins is comfortable in the increasingly aerodynamic position being created for him. By the end of the session, Levine believes that he has found the fastest, most comfortable position for Carlins and that he can have a bike built to those specifications. Later that afternoon, Levine will send Carlins' measurements to a bikemaker, and he'll follow up throughout the frame's construction. Only after the bike is built will Carlins face his toughest choice: just how fancy to get with the paint job.
Carlins, who is low-key, doesn't exactly jump up and shout after his fitting. Instead, he says something more revealing: "I was more comfortable in that position than I've ever been on a bike. It was definitely worth the trip."
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