At the moment, Circle-A is two guys, Chris Bull and Brian Chapman. Their workspace is in an updated garage-like box attached to the back of what looks like a small multi-story apartment building. Chris and Brian work in a 2000 square foot box that has a huge floor-to-ceiling sliding door on one side, allowing tons of natural light and fresh air to spill in.
These guys are exceptionally nice, patient, and humble. When making plans, actually when changing plans, because we were running several hours late for our meeting, they invited Jeremy Dunn and I to co-host a college radio show they do called “Bike Talk” later that night. We had other plans, but the gesture was much appreciated and their tendency towards spontaneity was duly noted.
Most bikes are either built by a single builder or several hundred assemblers in a factory in Asia somewhere. It’s not often that you find two builders working as one. Two is a curious number in a craft hallmarked by strong wills, opinions, and yes, egos. But Brian and Chris were easy with each other and the fielding of our random questions and tangential nature.
Chris and Brian are not an assembly line. They don’t work in stations or on a particular piece of equipment. They don’t ‘hand-off’, they both follow each custom frame from working with the customer from initial design to finished paint.
How did it start for you? Tell me about your favorite experiences on a bike, best ride, things seen and felt? Who was with you and what was it like?
Chris Bull: I was one of those mountain bikers who didn’t understand the people who liked to do long miles on the road in Lycra. That is, until I got into riding a fixed-gear which grew to an interest in road. Riding road is a whole different thing from cross-country mountain biking. Mountain biking is painful and brutal but it never lasts, riding a fixie on the road is the complete opposite, it’s smooth and consistent.
Some memorable times on a bike – The night we rode home from Kipp & Michelle’s and it was totally icy in spots, cornering hard on a fixed-gear at speed, nothing feels like that. The streets all empty and wet, were amazing. Oh, and during that crazy blizzard last year, riding through town on cross bikes past all those cars in gridlock. It was such a great feeling and we were all, “cut me off some other day, today belongs to me.”
Brian Chapman: My first real bike was a Supergoose which I got for the very specific purpose of racing. I had this crappy BMX bike when I first started and I was tired of getting laughed at by my friends and needed a good bike to keep up. I raced for several years and then started riding flatland and freestyle too. Now I race road and cross and when I have the time I like to tour.
The happiest I’ve ever been on a bike was riding around Prince Edward Island in Canada with my friend Brian Oakley. It was just so beautiful, it was August and we were riding down this road, and there were dragonflies everywhere, they were running into us and it was just the weirdest most surreal experience. When we stopped they would land all over us and just hang out. The ride itself was pretty amazing too, we rode right along this muddy red shore for miles. You could stop pretty much anywhere, get off your bike and walk into the ocean. They have this current there that’s so warm, not like Maine where you’d die.
How’s does Circle-A make a bike. What’s important to you in the process?
Chris: We work with a person from start to finish, and when I say finish I mean all the way through to paint. It’s a really thorough process, so we develop a solid relationship with our customers. It’s pretty amazing because they feel like you’ve worked some magic when you hand over this finished product. Which when they last saw it was a bunch of tubes and drawings. A lot of our customers are local so they’ll just stop by and check in on the progress. And as we get closer they’ll say – “Wow, it almost looks like a bike!” So that’s totally become our line, “it looks like a bike.”
Brian: I try to figure out how best to design a bike for someone based on their riding style and based on what I know about my own riding style. What I mean is I try to interpret a customers needs and wants through first hand experience, building and riding the kind of bike we’re talking about. How upright do I want to be on a touring bike or how aggressive should a cross bike feel? It’s a balance between taking cues and fine-tuning my process. Last year for example, when I built a cross bike for myself, I first took a lot of cues from Dan L. based on his experience on the bike I’d built for him the year before. And after building two more cross bikes for our team, one for Henna and one for Jack, I did the same thing, asked questions and really looked for invaluable feedback. I’m always asking questions like what kind of cycling experience do I want. Am I getting it? Or what can I change so that my mom would enjoy riding this bike?
For more information visit: www.circleacycles.com