NAHBS 2016 Builder Stories: Soulcraft Bikes
It would be all too easy to define the North American Handmade Bicycle Show as merely a gathering of beautiful custom-built bikes. While that is absolutely true, NAHBS at its core is more about being a gathering of builders: their personal philosophies when it comes to building bikes, their histories, their approaches for satisfying the remarkably diverse needs and wants of their clientele. U.S. tech editor James Huang takes a closer look at the stories behind the badges and logos of some of the most recognisable builders in the industry along with some of their latest projects.
Rise of the machines
Sean Walling started Soulcraft Bikes with partner Matt Nyiri in 1999 after a decade-long stint working under Ross Shafer (of Salsa Cycles fame) and a few years with the legendary Bruce Gordon before that. From the outset, the goal was clear: to build purposeful steel-tubed bikes that were well made tools first and foremost.
“Our approach was more blue collar and not as artsy as you see with a lot of builders these days,” Walling states on his web site. “We saw this as a profession rather than a lifestyle, and tried very hard to push beyond the stereotypical romantic ideal of an artisan in overalls working in a dimly lit shop. Being cool wasn’t going to pay the bills.”
Seventeen years behind the torch later, Walling is now a one-man shop and while he and Nyiri originally dressed their Soulcraft frames with simple head tube decals, these days the bikes wear a no-frills, hand-stamped badge that has become somewhat of a Soulcraft trademark.
“I had always worked on old cars and like all the machines in the shop, they always had an ID plate that told you where it was made, what the paint was, all that kind of stuff,” Walling told CyclingTips. “I always had in my head not necessarily of putting them on a bike but I’d see them in my shop and think, ‘those are really cool looking’.
“So I contacted a guy about making them and then I lost his number and couldn’t even remember the name of the company he worked for so I was like, ‘apparently this wasn’t meant to be’. I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of trying to source these things.”
As luck would have it, that would not be the end of Walling’s search. Sometimes the things you’re searching for, but can’t find, eventually find you instead.
“Now, our shop is not like a retail shop. It’s out on a farm and not easy to find, and this guy walks in and he’s got a briefcase and says, ‘Hey, I’m the guy who makes those badges’ and I just stood there like: ‘What? How is this happening?’ I stopped what I was doing and he showed me some samples. All these things finally came together and finally I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’
“The other impetus was, I was not going to do a cast head tube badge. Everyone was doing it, and I’m not saying anything bad about people who do that — I think they’re beautiful — but it just didn’t fit with the way I approach building bikes as more of a tool, not a toy. So I thought, well, how perfect is this? This is a tool, these are what comes on tools, so let’s put that on there.”