The Founders Series #1: Chris, Sulfrain, Generic Cycles
_Filmmaker Eric O’Connor goes beyond the bike with Chris Sulfrian — founder, builder, believer – of Generic Cycleshyperlink link, a Denver, Colorado-based fabricator of innovative, high-performance bicycle frames. This documentary short marks the debut of the Something Independent Founders Series. The S|I Founders Series seeks a glimpse of the passion and spirit of those business founders living at the intersection of lifestyle and commerce. In bringing their stories to life, Something Independent partners with Colorado filmmakers such as Eric O’Connor.
By Colin Bane, November 1, 2012
Although the vast majority of bikes sold in the U.S. are mass-manufactured overseas, Chris Sulfrian’s Generic Cycles is a Colorado story through and through. He made his first welds in the Black Sheep Bikes shop in Fort Collins while studying art, metalsmithing, and jewelry at Colorado State University, then went on to work in the shop for two and a half years, learning the ins and outs of designing, fabricating, and building high-end custom bike frames before moving to Denver’s daVinci Designs shop to bring the same level of craftsmanship to performance hand-built tandem bicycles. In 2005, he built the first frames of his own design out of his garage in Denver, aiming to build the perfect bikes for himself and a few friends that would be ideally suited to the steep Front Range trails they were riding aggressively.
“I build bikes because I love to ride bikes and I also love to make things,” says Sulfrian, who is profiled in the first video in the new Something Independent Founders Series featuring Colorado entrepreneurs. “It was sort of a happy accident to have stumbled upon Black Sheep Bikes and have gotten the opportunities I had there, which gave me the foundation to eventually start my own thing. To be able to make a living building bikes that make other people happy and make them love mountain biking even more? I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Sulfrian built just four or five bikes a year in his first years making a go of it, but has since grown Generic Cycles into a brand that is anything but generic, with a line of three custom frame options and a thriving contract frame-building business that has attracted other companies like Longmont’s REEB Bicycles and Avon’s Twenty2 Cycles, among others. Last year he built over 100 bikes, this year he’s on track to built 200, and his goal for next year is 300. But Sulfrian says explosive growth is not the ultimate goal: the endgame is merely to build the very best and most-coveted bikes on the market.
“I want to be on the top of people’s lists when they think of fun, capable, hand-built mountain bikes, and to really grow my brand into something that people desire,” Sulfrian says. “I’m less interested in sheer volume than I am in raising the bar for quality.”
When it comes to bike frames, Sulfrian says quality and customization are inseparable.
“The biggest thing that sets a bike apart is the basic geometry, because if your bike doesn’t fit you it can be the coolest, most expensive bike in the world and you’re not going to have fun on it,” he explains. “You’re going to be uncomfortable and it’s not going to feel right and you’re not going to be in tune with how it rides. So that’s really the biggest building block everything else is built off of, and that’s why every bike I build starts with a set of very specific rider measurements. After that comes the more specific ride geometry, how the bike rides compared to other bikes, and that’s where a builder can really set himself apart and innovate.”
His Generic Cycles designs are not only custom-built for individual customers, but also directly inspired by the local Rocky Mountains terrain, a research and design lab Sulfrian says has forced him to rethink and challenge some long-held conventions of bike design.
“A lot of what I do is single-speed mountain bikes with 29-inch wheels because that’s my background and suits where I like to ride,” he says. “The mountain bike riding along the Front Range is very steep: we have up and we have down, and once you’re even a little ways into the mountains there’s not a whole lot of rolling hills or flats. We also have a lot of technical, rocky stuff, a lot of loose rocks all over the place, a lot of hardpack with gravel that tends to be very slippery, and people want to be aggressive on those trails. Through a dozen years of riding here I’ve kind of honed my idea of the perfect bike: I tend to run a slacker head tube angle than a lot of people are used to — I see a lot of people sticking to older racing geometries because that’s what’s been drilled into people’s heads — and I also like running as short a rear-end as possible, which really helps with the climbing and the descending, the two really critical elements around here. The way my bikes ride is 100 percent driven by the trails that I ride. My bikes have a certain style to them, because that’s also important to me, but it’s really based around function.”
In addition to building his own brand bike-by-bike, Sulfrian has become a go-to guy for other small bike companies looking for expert craftsmanship. When Dale Katechis and Chad Melis of Longmont’s Oskar Blues Brewery decided to launch a bike brand last year, they turned to Sulfrian to get the job done right: he now does all the welding and frame building for REEB Bicycles (that’s beer, spelled backwards, of course) out of his Denver shop.
“Cycling has always been a big part of the Oskar Blues culture, and we wanted to take that next step to make the connection complete,” says Melis. “I first met Dale trail-side and riding bikes is just something we’ve always made a part of our business, from Tuesday night rides that start at Redstone Cyclery and end at Oskar Blues to us sponsoring local races and national events. Even the whole concept of putting Dale’s Pale Ale in a can in the first place stemmed from wanting a big, hoppy, trail-side beer. Everything we’ve done at Oskar Blues from the beginning has been truly inspired by riding bikes. It’s just part of the whole deal.”
Katechis and Melis were determined to bring the same microbrew approach that has made Oskar Blues a success to their new venture. Their search for a like-minded partner to build their bikes lead them straight to the Generic Cycles shop.
“We were looking really hard at trying to use all American materials and trying to find somebody locally who had the same mindset we did as far as what they wanted to get out of a bike,” Melis says. “We had our own design and had all of the technical drawings done and knew what materials we wanted, and we just had to find the right person to put it all together. We met Chris through a mutual friend went for a ride, shared some beers, and sat down and talked about things, and it just kind of took off from there and has turned out to be a perfect fit. How’s that for a Colorado story? That’s the way we do business here.”
Melis says he and his partners were particularly drawn to Sulfrian’s attention to detail and his expert welds, things they would have had less control over if they’d gone with a larger manufacturer or outsourced production overseas.
“We wanted to strip everything down,” he says. “We wanted the frames to be not only 100 percent American-made and locally handbuilt, but also totally raw and naked so that the focus would be on the craftsmanship. Instead of painting the frames we wanted to just clear-coat over the material and let the tubesets be totally naked and totally seen, and let the quality of those welds be totally seen as well. That’s an idea Chris embraced and wanted to take on as a challenge because it meant his work was going to be front and center.”
Sulfrian says the appeal of handbuilt bikes and other “microbrew” products being made right here in Colorado is about much more than feeding locavores, from a business standpoint.
“It’s about accountability and traceability,” he says. “Most of the bike world is using Taiwan and China to build their bikes, and nobody really knows what’s going on in those factories over there. But if you’re buying one of my bikes you know who’s building it and you know that I’m staking my personal reputation on it. If you end up having a problem of any kind, you can call me and know that I built the bike in a very known, traceable, controllable process. If something does go wrong I can pinpoint why because I deal with one person at the tubing mill and one person at the parts manufacturer, and that’s it, so there’s a very clear trail of accountability.”
It doesn’t hurt that consumers have grown savvier, says Sulfrian, noting that expert riders now demand high-end bikes up to the intense challenges they intend to put them through.
“The handbuilt bike world has been growing rapidly in the last ten years and it’s becoming apparent that the things that are important to me are also important to other riders,” he says. “People are genuinely interested in where their bike is made and seeing how it’s made, and the process, and having a hand in it. It’s really gratifying. I think we’re seeing more and more people coming to understand what goes into a truly outstanding product and differentiates it from everything else out there, especially here in Colorado where there are a number of other great builders in what has become a very collaborative, supportive scene.”
For Sulfrian that scene includes his former employers at Black Sheep Bikes and daVinci Designs, his new contract customers like REEB and Twenty2, fellow builders like his friend Eric Baar of Colorado Springs’ Ground Up Designs, and the business owners behind local shops like Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop who send custom bike referrals his way.
“‘Competitors’ isn’t even a word I would use if we’re talking about other Colorado bike builders,” Sulfrian says, in a refrain that has become common among the Colorado entrepreneurs Something Independent has been collaborating with. “It’s an absolutely supportive scene: if we need help, we ask each other and get help. It makes it so you don’t feel as alone in the business side of things, which is great because it can definitely get overwhelming at times. It’s really encouraging because so much of business can be very competitve and create a very exclusive environment, but there’s something different going on here.”
In addition to the support of his direct peers, Sulfrian says he’s also been grateful for the support of the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center and other local resources for entrepreneurs and start-ups.
“In the beginning a lot of my education about the business side of things was in the form of failure,” he says. “I definitely made it a point to learn from each of those things that went wrong, and one of my biggest early mistakes was thinking I could do it without some support and resources. I don’t have any formal business training, but I’ve been taking classes through SCORE [Service Corps of Retired Executives], getting advising through the SBDC has been very, very helpful, and the support from Something Independent has been tremendous. It turns out Colorado is a pretty great place for an independent business to plant a seed and put down roots, for a whole bunch of good reasons.”
Denver-based writer Colin Bane has been featured in ESPN.com, Westword, The Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine, Aviation Business Journal, Washington City Paper, Bail Skateboard Culture, and S|I’s On the Road with 2012 USA Pro Challenge. Colin is a skateboarder, snowboarder, action sports fan, and proud dad.
_A graduate of Colorado State University and Denver South High School, Eric O’Connor’s filmmaking portfolio includes feature films, commercials and music videos. His documentary work with the United Nations has led him throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa. Most recently, O’Connor braced the power of Mother Nature over the course of three intense days in documenting the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy for NY1 News. While currently based in New York City, Eric still calls Colorado home. _
The Something Independent Founders Series has been many months in the making. To all of those who have helped us along the way, we are most grateful. Special thanks to:
Club Workshop-for providing the facilities that you do and allowing us to film in your shop
Visionary Collective and Richie Kendall
Schui Bauman and Level1 Productions
The couple who owns the house on S. Ogden Street for allowing Richie & team to take over your garage, blow up firecrackers, and start small fires in making the end bumper
David Liechty of Grace Skis for introducing us to Chris and Generic Cycles