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by James Huang
August 11, 2017
Photography by James Huang
There’s a difference between being riding a bike as a sport and riding one as part of your everyday lifestyle, and for all too many of us, those worlds never intersect. But for Kate Powlison, it’s all just part of being a cyclist.
Her passion is riding bikes, period, and not just when there’s a finish line or training goal.
Powlison has been the road brand manager for SRAM for the past two years, figuring out how to communicate to the buying public what she feels is exciting and meaningful about the company’s vast array of road, cyclocross, and triathlon products. In many ways, it’s a dream job for her as it combines her many years of experience in communications in the industry together with her enthusiasm for cycling.
Like many cyclists, Powlison is an avid amateur racer, having spent countless weekends competing in cyclocross and on the road, and earning a healthy stack of top finishes along the way (including a US master’s national cyclocross championship in 2015). In 2012, she was part of the Rêve Tour, a six-woman team who rode the entire Tour de France route a day ahead of the race— the first time a group of women has achieved such a feat — partially just to prove that it could be done, but also to help raise money for cycling advocacy.
Although certainly stylish, Powlison’s YiPsan townie is more about utility than style, allowing her to do the majority of her errands without having to climb into the single car that she shares with her husband in Boulder, Colorado.
For Powlison, bike racing and bike advocacy work have always played key roles in her life. In fact, for quite a long time, advocacy work was her career. Before starting at SRAM in 2015, she had a long tenure at People for Bikes, the premier cycling advocacy organization in the United States — first as a researcher, but eventually becoming the group’s senior marketing and communications manager.
“I spent almost eight years there,” she recalled fondly. “It’s a really great organization and a great cause. Even though I’ve moved on from People for Bikes, the cause is still near and dear to my heart. Whether living in a cycling paradise like Boulder or a big city like Chicago, you can see what happens when you make it easy and convenient to take short trips by bike.”
It should then come as no surprise that when the thought of getting a fancy custom bike arose in 2012, Powlison decided that the most logical decision was a town bike, not a road or ‘cross racer.
“I was trying to figure out what type of bike would make the most sense,” she said. “When you think about all the time you can spend on a bike, a city bike was where it was going to have the biggest impact on my life. If you look at all the trips Americans take, something like 40% of all trips are three miles or less, and sometimes hopping in a car isn’t the easiest way to get there; it’s way better to do it on a bike. But let’s face it, a lot of our carbon road racing bikes — or even the new gravel bikes — aren’t ideal for getting around town. There’s something really simple and beautiful about investing your dollars in a really nice townie.”
The mixte frame layout is well-suited for in-town errands in street clothes, especially when the rear rack is stacked full of bags and parcels. “I wanted the twin tubes to be lower so it can provide not just clearance for a lady wearing a skirt,” said builder Renold Yip, “but also a very simple step-over to straddle the bike.”
And so the idea was set into motion, but as far as Powlison was aware, it was just that: an idea. Little did she know that her husband, Spencer — web editor for cycling publication VeloNews — and her father conspired behind the scenes to turn the idea into reality. Nor did she realize how an interview she did that year with local frame builder, Renold Yip (of YiPsan Bicycles) would play into the pair’s scheme.
“Renold was in Boulder when the [USA Pro Challenge] came through here, and I did an interview with him for People for Bikes. And then I think my dad saw the interview, and that’s how he heard about him.”
Having a custom bike built for someone as a surprise is no easy task as there are countless — and highly personal — decisions that need to made. But luckily for Powlison, Yip had recently built a town bike for a woman that closely mirrored her measurements, and in a style that her husband and father agreed would work. Although there were still plenty of things to figure out from there, at least there was now a foundation on which to build.
The color-matching game is strong in this one.
According to Powlison, she remained oblivious throughout the process and all of the communication between Yip, her husband, and her father happened via email and phone calls — well, almost all.
“Later that fall, when the US Gran Prix of Cyclocross was still happening, there was the race up in Fort Collins [Colorado],” she recounted. “I was there, and my parents were in town watching me and Spencer race, and they ran into Renold. My dad was talking to him at the car and I was right there, and they both had to fake like they didn’t know each other even though they had been corresponding over email for all this time. I had no idea. I was totally clueless.”
And so you can only imagine Powlison’s reaction that Christmas day in 2012. Yip hadn’t actually been able to finish the bike in time, but the pictures of the build-in-process that Spencer and her father presented to her had the desired effect nonetheless.
“It was an extremely generous gift and I felt completely spoiled by it. It was a complete surprise. I didn’t pick Renold, I didn’t pick the bike. All of the choices about the bike —everything from the geometry, the specs, to the paint color — my husband and my dad made. I guess they know me pretty well because they totally nailed it.”
Kate Powlison’s custom YiPsan town bike is one that she’d dreamed of having, but one that she didn’t actually expect to get.
Powlison, an accomplished amateur road and ‘cross competitor, could easily have gone with a custom race bike to fill her stable. But instead, she always knew that she’d get the most fulfillment out of a townie.
Renold Yip is a custom builder based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He specializes in steel road and town bikes, all with a tasteful amount of flair.
One of Powlison’s favorite features on the bike is the integrated lock setup.
The decoration on the seat lug is actually Yip’s last name, “in simplified Chinese stylized with a circle around it,” he explained.
The artful rear triangle configuration creates room for the rear disc brake caliper while still retaining a sense of symmetry.
Yip cleverly places these characters (“Be strong”) so that Powlison can clearly see them in between the twin top tubes while riding.
One of YiPsan’s signature touches is this “sunflower” front rack. Powlison has a box that she usually keeps mounted on top, but she didn’t want to leave this pattern obscured for the photo shoot. Indeed, it’d be shame to keep this under wraps.
“I personally do not like hidden cables on most bikes,” says Yip, “but using the twin tubes for the rear has been something I do on most mixtes I built. In fact, the twin tubes really was the key of my mixtes; they are side tacked to the head tube instead of attaching to the back of the head tube. Leaving them un-capped allow for easy hidden cable. Some question that water will get in, which it does, but being wide open also allows for it to air out much better than tubes that only has a weep hole.”
The front and rear lights are heavily integrated, with most of the wiring run internally.
This steering lock is another YiPsan signature feature. It’s a simple device, comprising a sliding stainless steel rod that slides into a brazed-in socket on the underside of the down tube. “This is especially useful when loading the front or rear of the bike,” says builder Renold Yip.
The different hues of blue lend some nice contrast.
As the current road brand manager for SRAM, Powlison is fully aware that she’s bound to receive some abuse at the office for showing her bike with Shimano components fitted. But in fairness, the bike was built well before she started working there, and while she’s considering installing a SRAM 1x drivetrain, she also admits to loving the cleanliness of an internally geared hub.
In true World Tour team style, the Shimano logo is covered up with a small piece of electrical tape.
The sweptback handlebar is a joint collaboration between fellow framebuilders Joseph Ahearne and Mitch Pryor.
The mechanical disc brakes keep things simple.
The leather-covered ergonomic grips come courtesy of Portland Design Works. The Crank brass bell sounds as lovely as it looks.
The Avid BB7 mechanical disc brake is neatly tucked away in between the stays.
The generous curve on the fork blades is meant to provide a more comfortable ride over bumps. Note how the fender stay has to take a detour around the caliper.
The Phil Wood Philcentric bottom bracket allows the use of singlespeed or internally geared drivetrains on bikes built with vertical dropouts.
Power for the lights comes from the front hub dynamo.
The 650b Velocity Blunt aluminum rims are wrapped with Panaracer Col de la Vie tires.
The integrated lock setup perhaps isn’t the most secure option available, but it’s incredibly convenient. The frame-mounted wheel lock keeps anyone from casually rolling away with the bike, while the extendable cable up top allows Powlison to anchor the bike to a fixed object (and it also secures the seatpost at the same time).
Town bikes – even beautiful custom ones like this – are meant to be used. This is no garage queen.
Is this the first bicycle with a kickstand to ever be featured on CyclingTips? Likely so – and it probably won’t be the last.