It was really by chance. When I started working at Yellow Jersey in Madison, Andrew Muzi the owner there, he used to build frames maybe 25 years ago. Andy took a course with Albert Eisentraut who was one of the first custom frame builders in the U.S., before Richard Sachs and all those guys. The equipment is there in the basement of Yellow Jersey, they still do a lot of frame repair and modifications. Fixing broken drop outs or putting track ends in or cantilever mounts.
I got my start just doing frame repair work in the basement there. It was a really great way to learn because everything at Yellow Jersey is next day service. If you bring in a bike for repair work it’s always done the same day. Frame repair work is always next day. It was a super fast, hurried, quick, get it done learning environment. So of course, curiosity got the best of me. I thought ‘wow, I really gotta’ build a frame because, it would be so fun.’
Andy was there for advice and sort of as a mentor. I didn’t want to hassle him too much because he was busy running the shop and I felt like I could figure a lot of it out on my own. There was also a frame builders email list that I got a lot of good advice from and the frame building manual that Tim Paterek wrote. I combined those things with Andy’s advice. Asking ‘here’s what I’m doing now, am I going in the right direction?’ Andy would go yeah. Or I would do a test braze and ask ‘does this look safe?’ He’d say ‘okay this looks good’ or ‘a little more heat here next time’ or ‘you got it a little too hot.’ So I built my first frame there without any intention of taking it further. It was fun.
From there I had a friend Kevin who worked for Scramm, a Madison messenger service, at the time. He thought it was really cool and asked me to build him a frame. I’m like ‘alright.’ Essentially, he just paid for materials and that was the second frame I built. Then sort of jokingly we came up with the name Johnny Cycles ‘cause I felt I had to put something on the frame. I gotta come up with a name’ and I didn’t really like my last name Kendziera. Uh, it wasn’t really happening. So we’re like ‘Johnny Cycles!’ And we came up with a cool Mom heart sort of logo which fit well with it. But not seriously, just to have something fun is how it all came about. Then Julian, the woman who owned Scramm she’s like ‘I want a bike.’ So I built her a bike and then my friend Peter who works for Scramm was like ‘uh, I want a bike.’ That’s how I got into the whole fixed gear bike thing ‘cause that’s the crowd I was in and I started building bikes for them. Then friends of friends got interested. They asked ‘what sort of stuff can you do?’ I started my web site to show people ‘this is what I’ve done before,’ ‘here are the pictures of it,’ here’s what I can build you.'
It took off from there.
I started getting emails from people I didn’t even know. Then I came to a crossroad, it’s either scale back and do it more low key for myself or go for it. So I decided there’s no harm in establishing a business, do it part time and then see what happens.’ I never had any big plans for all this. And that’s the way it always has been up until recently. ‘Let’s see where it goes.’ No real ambition. I never had a business plan. I never had any grants or needed big schemes, like ‘this is gonna’ work, I’m gonna do it full time.’ It was always ‘if it keeps working it keeps working.’ But interestingly enough ever since I built my first frame I’ve always had two or three frames waiting. There has always been some demand.
Then recently I realized, ‘alright with a 15 month waiting list people obviously like my stuff.’ I took Jason’s bike to the Handmade show it won best Track bike. The other builders are really into what I’m doing which is sort of validation. ‘I’m on the right track.’ They didn’t pick on me, which was big concern. Especially about Jason’s bike with the three holes in the top tube. I thought I was going to get so much shit for that, but I didn’t.
Yeah. there’s the messenger community and then the whole hipster fixed gear crowd. Some of them had been messengers in the past and some of them were just inspired by the whole culture and go to alley cat races and get really into it. Then they’ve started a whole online culture, you know like the various bike forums that exist. There’s the fixedgeargallery forum, bikeforums.net, the Chicago gang has their own more exclusive forum. You get all these people talking and then of course they have to one-up each other. You start out with some crappy conversion, move on to a Bianchi Pista which is sort of a real track bike and then it’s ‘how far can you take this?’ They eventually find custom frame builders and then it’s ‘alright, this is the ultimate. This is as far as I can take it.’ I think they’ve given a boost to the whole thing.
And then some messengers are actually moving on to building frames themselves. In some respects me coming from a bike messenger background and Sacha at Vanilla, he worked as a courier in Portland, this other guy Johnny Coast, I don’t know much of his background but we’re all kind of similar. Everyone has the same friends really. All together, this has added a boost to a new younger crowd getting into either buying custom frames or building custom frames which are sort of weirdly interconnected.
But this crowd is also interested in the ultimate builders like Richard Sachs. The guys who’ve been around forever. Also Brian Bayliss and the old Keirin builders like Nagasawa. So yeah, it’s been a boost all around.
I’ve just always liked stars and I needed something for the head tube on my bike. I thought ‘I don’t know, I’ll do a star, it’s cool.’ But there’s no significance or meaning to it other than I like stars. People ask me that and I always feel like I should come up with something like ‘oh yeah this is the meaning.’ Stars are nice and simple too. It’s not an overly ornate headbadge, which are cool too, but they’ve never done it for me. I’ve always liked really simple bikes. If you look at most of the frames I’ve done I don’t even have a down tube logo. It’s just the frame, paint and the lugs. Very minimal as far as the graphics and stuff go and the star fits well with that. Sort of unassuming. I don’t claim it as mine obviously because well, it’s a star.
I got it down to a basic track bike nothing fancy no extra braze-ons, no fancy lugs is maybe a good solid 20 hours of work or a week in the shop. I don’t work on one thing at a time; there are other things to do like ordering parts, paying the bills etc.... So if I start a frame on Monday, a basic track bike, I’ll have it done by Friday assuming I have all the parts. But a really complex frame can be 80 hours, 100 hours.
It can get pretty insane time wise. Like the matching bikes Jason is working on now. All polished, stainless lugs. I did some custom carving on the lugs. Each frame is close to 90 hours just on my end. I don’t know how much time Jason spent masking and painting those. It can quickly double, time wise. Most of that was the polishing. The only good way to do polishing is by hand and so for a fork crown that’s eight hours polishing. A full day.
Polishing. You start with the fork crown and begin with 80 grit, all hand sanding. And you work your way up to 1200 grit in 20 steps. The final step is buffing it on the wheel to get the final polish.
It’s just tedious and hard. Your hands hurt when you’re done and you get all cramped up and get blisters. The only fun part is being done and you’re like ‘wow, that looks great!'