At the time of this interview Matt Bracken was the president of Independent Fabrication. He has since moved on. Matt was and still is a very nice guy. He’s knowledgeable, animated and experienced and his take on all things riding and building bikes, while verging on the philosophical, was solid, unhampered and unaffected. Overall, his message was “ride bikes cause it’s just plain good on so many levels, and ride good bikes because good tools do the job better.” Nice, right?
His office is tucked under the main floor of IF at the bottom-end of a driveway. Upstairs on the main floor, industrial equipment, bicycle paraphernalia and a number of varied and seemingly specific work-stations occupy every turn. Everyone we met was happy to chat and very helpful even amid the collective sense of industriousness vibrating throughout the building. The day of our interview IF turned two large work areas over to us for an East Coast Continental bike building operation. More than a handful of freshly Molotov-painted frames needed to built up and photographed that day before the team could ride Fitchburg the next morning. All day long, all of the IF employees happily offered-up cameras, tools, advice, an interview and random facts and information. A couple even stayed late to help us finish the builds. Thank you again IF.
As a collective Independent Fabrication doesn’t really reflect the norm? What’s your program?
We have 13 people total, all full-time, and we’ve been employee owned since day one. There’s only one original founder left, Lloyd Grace. He’s our production manager and he’s stubborn about his passion and belief in the potential of IF. It’s difficult because we have a lot of personality and passion and opinions. We’re not a collective or a co-op and we’re not communists, we just control our own destiny.
We’re impressed by smaller builders with three, four and five-year wait lists. But we do see that the potential for failure and complication when you create a waitlist like that, is huge. People change their mind about what they want or need, they buy new bikes, they stop riding road or don’t commute by bike anymore. IF bikes are tools. And all our bikes are equal in terms of quality, and performance, we don’t make a cheap bike, we don’t even have a way making a cheap bike if we wanted too. The labor is, what it is, the only real variables are material upgrades like paint and tubes. And basically we can make a custom bike with impeccable welding and alignment, that’s aesthetically beautiful, in six to seven weeks.
Is that why IF is successful, because you can turn around custom bikes so quickly? Because you represent the best or a blend of production and custom bike building?
Some people that say our growth and attention is luck, others say it’s fate, or attribute it the stars aligning. I don’t think it’s any of that, I think everyone here has worked long and steady, and we’ve made solid relationships with the country’s best dealers and their customers. People take notice of a company whose employees are genuine and work hard and do a good job because we leave customers and shop employees satisfied. And they talk, in parking lots after a ride, on the way up a mountain, at parties, wherever. I think we’re doing well because we’ve been generating good will.
Who does IF make bikes for?
There are two major sides to cycling and building bikes and while they aren’t mutually exclusive, they do seem like distantly different camps. One is an emotional viewpoint, it’s love and passion for bikes and all things cycling, like racing or the Continental project. The other is technology driven, where you’re geeked out on special tube sets or titanium vs. carbon. When people tell me about how much ‘soul’ or ‘love’ their bike has it makes me, as a frame builder, want to puke. I don’t care if you’re old or young, fat or skinny, experienced or pro, a fixed-gear commuter with fenders or bad-ass Record 10-speed guy on a Ti-carbon flame painted bike, its all good. People want to carry flags, the passion flag, or the technology flag, or the geek flag, but why not just a bike Flag. And I think people are starting to see that, that there are so many good reasons to ride and it doesn’t make sense to choose one and say it’s the only one, or it’s the one true reason. Hard core mountain biking to environmental activism through commuting to political activism to fitness. It’s all a good reason to ride. Some people ride for all those reasons or some of them, but I think one is enough.
For the Continental bikes. What was your inspiration? What was your approach? Was it different based on the style of riding? Where did you start?
This project tugs at our heart-strings. Just about everybody here rides to work, cycling is a part of our lifestyle and our culture. We felt honored to be among the other builders out here on the East Coast making bikes. We love what we do and we are committed to giving these guys, Richard Bravo and Kansas Waugh bikes that are going to perform. These aren’t seconds, they aren’t used race bikes or stripped down by any means. They are one-off custom built bikes, made for the project. And if the bike doesn’t fit, no matter who makes it, or what it’s made of, it’s a terrible tool, one that’s going to hurt you. And if you’re in pain you’re not going to survive a five or six-hour day. Not even a one-hour day.
Fit, with this style of riding, is certainly more important than efficiency. Every bike we design starts with fit because if it’s skipped or the order or priorities jump around, and there are examples of this in the pro field, the bike is never going to work right. Fit leads to comfort which leads to efficiency which can ultimately lead to increased speed, a personal best up the hill, maybe two hours longer in the saddle without aches and pains. But when you start with efficiency, I don’t care what the brand is, domestic or international, or what fantastic material; carbon, steel, aluminum, you run the risk that a cyclist will be in too much pain to ride their best or longest.
What does epic mean to you? Why ride?
Lets say the weather was terrible, it rained for hours the whole way up the 4000ft climb, your hands are numb and the wind-chill is killing you. Then you finally make it to the top right as the clouds break and the sun comes out. And you finally get home to a big burger and too many beers while you’re still cold and covered in sweat. All after having put down one of the hardest efforts of your life, and the endorphins are really kicking in. You’re have the best thoughts and conversations of your life because you’re in that post ride zone. The phone isn’t ringing, your kids are sleeping, your wife is happy and you don’t need to be anywhere other than where you are. You’re so exhausted with everything beaten out of you. For that little bit of time there’s no stress, no worries, and no anxiety. That’s why, that’s epic.
For more information visit: www.ifbikes.com