interview & photographs by
Peter DiAntoni

sponsored by
ABUS Locks ABUS Locks
// Joshua Muir, Frances Cycles
It was back at the 2008 NAHBS in Portland where we first took notice of Joshua and his Frances Cycles. At his booth we witnessed his Defusable track bike complete with the Ritchey breakaway system and a beautiful yellow mixte with swooping lines. Both bikes had very nice touches without being overly slick and the trademark Frances curved rear stays grabbed our attention immediately. A couple years passed since that first meeting, but we never lost interest in Joshua’s work. We made it a point to visit the Frances studio in Santa Cruz during our recent stay in the San Francisco area. Getting around on bike through the Bay area is pretty easy with the Caltrain, which takes you from San Francisco down to San Jose. But getting to Santa Cruz from there, you’re faced with one of the most intimidating and notorious sections of road in all of California, the infamous State Route 17. Lucky for me I hopped a ride from Santa Cruz local and traveling filmmaker Brian Vernor who was heading home for a couple days. He had the route wired. We coasted in to town, I got out, set up my bike and made my way through the mellow streets of Santa Cruz toward Frances Cycles. Upon entering through the handmade gate into the Frances Cycles workshop I immediately became fascinated with its seemingly idyllic setting. A Persimmon tree was lush with fruit. I was instantly greeted by an inquisitive duck while chickens were wandering about an avocado tree among lush foliage. It was quiet and calm with an abounding sense creativity. The interview that follows took place on a warm afternoon in the Frances Cycles workshop in November, 2010.
Josh making his way through Long Meadow, in the nearby Santa Cruz mountain trails.

Have you been living in Santa Cruz your whole life?

I moved here in ’93 and I grew up in Merced which is central valley California, the gateway to Yosemite. My interest in frame building follows a lifelong interest in bikes starting as a teenager. Working in a shop, meeting a mechanic who wanted to help me set up a nice road bike, and then eventually being interested in building and doing little modifications on my own. From there, my friend Josh Thayer brought over a bunch of tubes and some little tubing blocks. I had an oxy-acetylene torch and he showed me how to put them together. Josh did most of the brazing, but I got to do a little bit of brazing. Since then, it’s just been choppers and cargo bikes and finally like, oh, I want to buy a new set of tubes and try to put a nice bike together for myself.

Paul Sadoff at Rock Lobster who’s also here in Santa Cruz has always been super generous with his knowledge and time. I’d walk into his shop and he’d say, “Oh hey, have you seen this procedure? Have you seen this tool? Check it out!” and it would just be things that he’s used for the last 30 years but that to me was like, “Oh! That’s how you crimp a tube properly,” all that kind of stuff. I’ve never had any formal apprenticeship or anything like that, but through being a house carpenter for a decade, I’ve spent a lot of time tinkering and messing around. Figuring things out, which is part of what I like about the building process to some degree. I like learning how to do things and being versatile.

Where did the idea for the curved rear stays come from?

Honestly, it’s mostly a nice shape and it’s something that I can do to frames. You have to deal with cutting your miters straight and it does present different challenges, but it’s something that’s kind of a signature, kind of recognizable. I’ve hung on to it. I basically started building all the bikes with curved stays, curved seat stays. It’s worked out well, and although not structural. I can see that a curved shape is going to absorb shock a little differently, but I have no attachment to the concept that it’s softening the ride or that it’s absorbing a certain frequency. It’s an aesthetic decision.

The Frances Small Haul, photographed for the COG 11 pullout centerfold by Seng Chen @msgr33
The Frances Cycles Small Haul
An original and quite whimsical take on the classic Dutch Bakfiet cargo bike. The model pictured was custom made for Mark at Paragon Machine Works (hence the Paragon logo headbadge). The Small Haul can carry approximately 80lbs in its cargo bay and is probably the lightest and most nimble cargo bike we’ve seen in this form factor. We’ve heard reports of wheelies being ridden on certain Small Hauls... The Small Haul has a unique steering system which employs two Frances designed machined aluminum pulleys. The pulley system allows the two separated steering columns to be linked via standard bicycle cables. This steering design benefits from the elimination of a full length handlebar steer tube and extra steel linkage tubing, allowing for more usable cargo space and options closer to the rider. The pulley/cable system also lightens the overall build significantly.
Being here in your workshop which you’ve built from mostly scrap lumber, walking through the garden, I get the sense you’re very grounded. There’s a great sense of sustainability here...

I’m definitely interested in the concept of sustainability. I think my venture into frame building is probably more a violation of that. I sometimes feel that because I end up building a higher priced, high-end item. It’s hand built but I’m purchasing new materials, new steel to do it. There’s a whole industry behind what I’m doing that makes what I do possible. When I think about sustainability in most parts of my life, I ride a bike. As a carpenter I love used materials. I love used materials in general and I like taking old broken things and fixing them. We’ve got a nice garden. I’m super into composting. Socially, I’m really into collectives and cooperatives which is what the Bike Church and that whole scene is about. A bunch of people coming together to do something that is mutually beneficial to everybody.

As a mechanic, I volunteer there and there’s a little bit of paid work that I get to do as well. I appreciate having a relatively diverse schedule. Part of me is like, I need to be in the frame shop five days a week to keep up with more orders and I’d like to be building new designs. I could spend so much time in my shop, but on the other hand, I like that I work at the farmer’s market one or two days a week and I like that I go down to the Bike Church. It all ends up feeling like a full schedule.

Also recognize that I struggle with it because I’m like, I’ve got to work! I’ve got to get this stuff done. I figure if I can try to relax a little bit, its fine, just don’t even worry about it. In the frame building business, or any business where you’re taking orders and people have expectations, it’s just kind of learning how to put out the right expectations. Make sure that what I want to be producing and how I want to spend my time is actually what I’m telling these people I’ll do.I think that’s an interesting thing to get used to.

What kind of riding to you enjoy?

My favorite kind of riding is probably dirt riding but not mountain biking. I love getting out on a good distance bike which means relatively smooth tires. I’m maturing toward slightly fatter tires these days. In the Santa Cruz mountains, there are paved roads and dirt roads that can take you on a 15-mile loop, or you could do a 60 mile loop that involves a whole lot of dirt and gravel roads and a lot of beautiful scenery.

You said something before, it’s not about the destination but the route to the destination?

Yes, and that comes up with bike touring. The best riding and the most pleasure that I have with bike touring is going to the roads that I want to ride, rather than trying to find the roads that are going to get me directly to my destination. It’s all about getting away from the cars... good air, good scenery and of course fun roads or terrain. Something that you are not just suffering on. Basically, if there isn’t traffic and the surface is rideable, then it’s probably great.
I try to get out on at least one or two, two to four week tours per year. I haven’t been on any really long tours in a while though. I’ve ridden across the country to southern Mexico and ridden around Europe a bit and then I’ve ridden around California a lot. Lots of little trips that you can get far on.

We love the cargo bikes your making.

It’s kind of what I was saying earlier of how to set up a business, so you’re actually doing what you want to be doing. So far, what I found that I love the most is touring bikes. Just well designed, high quality steel, rides great, carries a load, and is versatile. Versatility is really good in a bike and then more specific designs for cargo. The Small Haul, which is the curvy basket shape and I make something called the cycle truck which is just a standard flat bed. It’s very much like the van Andel Long John (Bakfiets) and then we talked a little bit about the trikes earlier and so far I have orders for the next 10 months, work for the next 10 months that’s all going to be whatever I’ve taken orders for already. Mostly touring, a couple of track bikes, a couple cargo bikes, but it’s with all those commitments trying to figure out how I can keep building the things that I’m not getting orders for. I’d like to explore different designs that I’m excited about. Like a design and build rather than just trying to crank out what I’m getting orders for. I keep getting orders for track bikes, which I’m excited about but like I said, I think I’m interested in more diverse bikes...or, I don’t know.

Free roaming chickens, cats, an inquisitive duck and the persimmon tree all add to the idyllic setting of the Frances workshop.

Well they definitely attracted us because they’re so unique

Yes. The old split seat tube. It’s a Rigi design from the early 80’s which I’ve reworked. Rigi was an Italian builder who built it quite a bit differently than I do. He built it with a 78 degree seat tube and 78 degree head tube. The wheelbase was extremely short, and I managed to keep it just as short, but I’ve mellowed the angles to be a little bit more rideable, let’s stay, and just feel a little bit better all the way around. I mean, they’re still steep road angles. There like 74-75 degrees, but I’m not real big on steep angles. Yes, they ride great and they’re super fun. I wouldn’t discount them because I love riding my track bike, but my favorite thing to do with the track bike is to take it up to the woods and ride dirt. So, it’s different.

I’ve done a lot of alleycats and those sorts of things on the track bike or on the fixed gear. It’s fun. It’s kind of like high energy. But starting and stopping all day on a track bike, if I’m just going for a road ride or something in the city, like on track bike it’s all about getting spun up and finding nice rhythms and just going. City riding I find to be a little bit like I could just ride another bike.

You mentioned Paul Sadoff at Rock Lobster being an early influence on you. Are there other builders in your community here?

Yes. Paul has been building bikes for so long, he once said, when he started he thought he would just build lugged steel road bikes. I think he’s primarily building aluminum cross bikes right now. He’s just so diverse. Paul uses all the materials that the bike industry has to offer which I really respect. He’s extremely reasonable, prompt, and I’m just always blown away how he just busts projects out so fast. I don’t get it, maybe it’s because he’s been doing it 30-40 years. Paul has always been the frame builder that I looked up to and know the most about. Rick Hunter shared a shop with him for a number of years here on the west side of Santa Cruz, he’s up in Bonny Dune now.

We have six builders in the immediate area now, which is crazy. Paul Sadoff at Rock Lobster, Rick Hunter, Todd Hatch of Black Cat, makes mountain bikes, Craig Calfee is in Watsonville doing carbon fiber and John Caletti. Caletti Cycles is right near downtown Santa Cruz. I said there were six, oh there’s me. Calfee’s work with carbon fiber is really impressive. They have a big shop and are doing lots of different things. Their bamboo bikes and then they’re also apparently on track to repair 2000 carbon frames this year.

They’re getting carbon frames shipped to them, but 2000 a year is insane and it kind of rearranges my thinking on carbon fiber. It’s never been a material that i’ve been interested in. I have a phobia of solvents and I don’t like paint. But, knowing their process and watching them repair the carbon frames, it’s impressive. Carbon is really a very repairable material which is cool.

Anything else, in closing?

I’m training my first apprentice to do frame repairs. I didn’t talk much about frame repairs. There are lot of great old steel frames that most commonly break a dropout or have a tube in need of replacement when something happens. I get satisfaction from repairing frames because it keeps these existing items in service.

I think frame repairs are hardest as far as a needed skill set. Having to work around difficult situations. Pulling old and painted things apart and putting them back together is always tougher than working with a new clean tube. I do like the challenges as much as I complain about how much time they take. It’s just there’s always something else I want to get to. That’s the way it always is, which maybe means that I’m not as grounded as you might think.

This feature in print within COG 11