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Many of us have been fortunate enough to have ridden a lot of different bikes over the years, and have developed a keen sense for what we like, what we don’t like, and what we’d do differently if given the opportunity. The luckiest among us have perhaps even treated ourselves to a custom bike, where we’ve been able to funnel all of that collected knowledge into one gloriously perfect machine.
But for others, the holy grail of bicycles is an asymptotic goal that gets tantalizingly closer with every try, but remains achingly out of reach. 99% is more than good enough for most of us, but there are others for whom that tiny remainder is just a sore reminder that there’s just that little bit extra left to be had. A bike that perhaps could carve that downhill corner just a bit shaper, one that rode just a tad smoother over that patch of washboard that always bothers you, one with the cable routing just so, or the right type of bottom bracket, a dropout that’s just a bit prettier.
I guess, then, that you could think of Drew Guldalian as a one-percenter.
For the last two decades, Guldalian has been the owner of Wissahickon Cyclery, a successful full-service bike shop located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And like many long-time cycling enthusiasts, he’s had a number of fine bikes over the years, many of them custom. But as good as they all were, Guldalian wasn’t one to settle; none of those bikes were ever quite exactly what he wanted.
One day, he’d just had enough.
“I paid Moots so much money over the years to make me bikes,” he said, “and I would have to beg them to do the simplest changes — can I please have a bottom bracket height that’s different by 5mm, can I please have a head tube that’s this — and then they would charge me hundreds of dollars over the normal price, I would wait forever, and then I would get it and be like, yeah, this is close, but I wish I could do it just a little differently.
“Finally, I was like, ‘no, I’ve got to do this myself. If I’m going to be this obsessive about small tweaks, I have to do it myself.’ I just couldn’t take it anymore.
“I sold all of my bikes, every one of them,” he recalled. “I had a Parlee, I had three Moots, four Independents, all these bikes. I sold every one of them, turned around and bought a Bridgeport, a lathe, a drill press, a granite table, and a couple of other things, and then proceeded to make the shittiest bikes possible.
“I think I made 50 bikes in the first year, all of them for myself and maybe two other people. I just cranked them out and changed the most subtle things. By the time I was done with that, before I went to the public, I had definitely figured it out enough that I was comfortable hanging a shingle.”
Guldalian officially started Engin Cycles in 2005, in a small stone-walled space that his grandfather had built decades earlier, right behind the bike shop. Initially, Engin exclusively offered steel frames, but gradually transitioned to titanium. And along the way, that obsessive personality drove Guldalian to bring more and more of the manufacturing process in-house.
Whereas most frame builders — particularly ones that work in titanium — are content to buy things like housing stops, dropouts, and other small bits from a supplier like Paragon Machine Works, Guldalian does almost all of that today himself, along with thru-axles, seatpost collars, and an achingly gorgeous two-piece clamshell-style chainstay yoke.
Much of the design work on those components was done in collaboration with freelance engineer and machinist Peter Verdone (his day job is at San Francisco State University).
“The first thing he did for me was my MTB drop out,” Guldalian said. “That dropout is still one of my favorites. So many things that bothered me about available products were resolved with that part. Then came the road dropout and finally the flat-mount dropout. The seat collar was next. He helped take that part to 11 and it was so worth the effort. It became way harder to make but it is a killer product. The yokes were a result of him having a yoke made for himself and me contacting him about a slight variation of that for me. We ended up designing three yokes together and all three have very specific end uses (wheel size or tire size and even chainring sizes).”
Guldalian has also amassed an incredible collection of machinery over the years to get all of that done, including a two CNC mills and a CNC lathe.
Almost every process has a dedicated machine to do it, in fact, along with tooling and filtering that Guldalian designed and built himself on yet another set of machines. That fact is incredible in and of itself, particularly given that Engin only produces about 15-20 complete bikes per year. But Guldalian isn’t hiding a secret trust fund; he’s just extremely savvy — legendary amongst the custom world, in fact — when it comes to finding used equipment at ridiculous prices.
Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of the used machine coming from a company that finds it more economical to buy a new machine that can make parts faster, instead of shutting down production for a week to do the necessary maintenance on the machine they already have. In those cases, the company basically just wants to get rid of it as soon as possible, and Guldalian is standing at the ready when the opportunity arises.
“Once I get something in my head, I’m like, ‘I’m going to find it,” he said. “It took me five years to find this machine, but the thing is, when you find it, you have to have the ability to just — no matter what — you have to buy it, and you have to not care where it’s located in the country.
“This one was in Wisconsin. It weighs 12,000 pounds. You’re going to pay a rigger a minimum of $1,500 if the thing needs to move across the street. It’s $2,000 to move something 20 miles, but it’ll be $2,500 to move it 700 miles. The distance doesn’t really matter. The hard part about the distance is the leap of faith that you can inspect the machine remotely.
“I had 30 days to get it here, get it wired, and turn it on, and only lose the rigging fee if I wanted to return it. This is a $125,000 lathe, brand new. I paid 10% of that.”
Even after getting the machine in the shop, though, there’s still the matter of understanding how to operate it. Guldalian admits to having had plenty of help — Paragon owner Mark Norstad is a close friend and mentor — but it’s still been quite the steep learning curve.
“I probably paid one-third of what everything is worth. But I have an insane amount of labor hours invested to bring everything back to where it should be,” he said. “The time that I invest to teach myself to run these two CNC machines, that in itself was a bonkers investment, especially with the first one, when I was $25,000 into something that you don’t even know how to run. I took a community college class. How many people take a community college class for CNC machining that already own the machine?”
There are so many machines in the shop, in fact, that there are even ones that don’t ever get turned on.
“There isn’t a frame builder out there that wouldn’t die to have this machine [a Deckel FP1 vertical/horizontal milling machine]. But I don’t use it. It just sits there. But I got it for so cheap.”
Putting it all together
According to Guldalian, the titanium all-road/gravel bike pictured here is arguably the culmination of everything he’s learned over his decades in the industry, the embodiment of that elusive 1%.
“The more my time disappeared, the more I wished I had a bike that could do whatever I wanted,” he said. “The idea of it just being a gravel bike is wrong to me. I’ve always been willing to ride my road bike on gravel. I wanted something that could go even a little more beyond that: be a commuter, be a vehicle if you must, be your road bike, go into the park, everything other than be a [road] racing bike or a mountain bike.”
The chainstays are only 420mm-long, but yet they have room for 45mm-wide knobby tires and a two-chainring crankset. And up front, he built the frame with a longer front-center and shorter stem to gain a bit more stability on loose surfaces.
The seatpost collar holds securely, but its generous height doesn’t cause dropper seatposts to bind thanks to the relatively low bolt torque values. The Engin logo is engraved on the front of the gorgeous machined-in-house head tube, instead of tacked-on with a separate badge or plate. The aluminum chainring spider is designed around standard five-arm, 74/110mm BCD Sugino chainrings that are offered in sizes that work perfectly with large-volume tires and don’t cost a fortune to replace (and, naturally, the chainline is designed with 142mm-wide hubs in mind).
And my god, look at those dropouts. Not only are they stunningly beautiful, but the made-in-house driveside mounting bolt is threaded to serve double-duty as a fender mount, while the hardware on the non-driveside dropout also anchors the flat-mount brake caliper interface. Both dropouts are modular, too, so if some wacky new “standard” comes out, Guldalian likely won’t have to redo the whole thing.
Down below is a wide-format T47 bottom bracket with threaded cups, and the cables and hoses are routed externally for easier servicing. The logos aren’t painted; they’re an ultra-durable Cerakote ceramic coating that’s almost impossible to scratch.
“I try to make a bike that has absolutely zero compromise,” he said. “I admit it; I’m ridiculously obsessive about what it is that I’m putting out there, but this has to be done the way I want it to be done.”