Matt Cardinal and Nate Meschke are Signal Cycles. Co-workers at first, then friends and now business partners, they share a remarkably similar, but totally different history. More importantly they share a strikingly congruous vision and aesthetic. In a word they ‘compliment’ one another. Which, it would seem, in an industry hallmarked by craft, individuality, nuance and subtlety, would be a requirement for successful partnership. We spent a soggy afternoon in their North Portland shop to learn more about Signal.
Nate is 29 years old.
I grew up all over the place, my parents were missionaries and we traveled a lot. I definitely, sort of have Midwest roots. I spent a bulk of time in Colorado skiing and climbing before going to an Art College in Lincoln, Nebraska. For six years I studied painting and then got my Bachelors of Fine Arts. I’ve been married to my wife Emily for four years, we have no kids, two cats named Murphy and Stella and a raccoon that lives in the tree in our back yard.
When I was 12 my dad retired and started a construction company, so every summer I built houses. In high school I started hanging-out at a bike shop, not getting paid, but just sweeping floors for parts. I knew that we could never afford a cherry-red BMX bike so my first bike was a junkyard thing that had been pieced together. We lived in the country and I remember having quite a few more liberties than most kids my age, our parents would just set us loose during the day. I used my bike to get around. It wasn’t until I started college and worked part time at bike shop that I saved up and bought my first real bike. It was a GT mountain bike. It might have been purple.
When I first moved to Portland four years ago and started working full time as a bike mechanic – this was my first year out of college – I had a lot more free time. So I set up a little studio in my garage and painted pretty heavily for a year. Now that I’m building, it’s sketchbooks and just smaller stuff. But building bikes is sculptural and you’re forced to make aesthetic decisions, it’s like composing a photo or making a painting. It’s not random.
Matt is 37.
I was born in Iowa in the same town and hospital as Rapha Continental rider and builder Ira Ryan – we found that out just a few months back. I grew up in Canada in northern Alberta. When I was 13 I moved to Arizona for a year and hated it so much I moved to Oregon. I’ve been here pretty much since 1986. My wife Elizabeth and I have two cats named Stevo and Otto. And like Nate, I also have a College degree in painting.
When I was ten my friend had a BMX bike and I really wanted one so I could be like him. When that Christmas came along and my parents bought me a 10-speed, I hated it but I rode the shit out of it anyway. When it quickly died I got a job delivering newspapers and bought a real bike. I had to order it from the hunting store. Where we lived in Canada it snowed for six months of the year but for some reason I just loved bikes. We lived in a small town but on a bike you could quadruple your radius, I loved that freedom. We built jumps out of two by fours, and yes, they were sweet.
I’ve worked in bikes shops off and on my whole life. A few years ago I left bikes to work decommissioning residential oil tanks. Which I did until I cut through a gas line with an acetylene torch. I should be dead, literally. The fire chief told me right to my face, he said I should be dead several times over. I started thinking about how you can’t really kill yourself at a bike shop.
Building is about making something, the same as painting and drawing and making photos. Making bikes can be an art but it can also be very mechanical. I think that’s the split between a lot of builders. Some people you can tell come to it with an engineering background, they have a very mathematical approach, while some people are a little more creative about the process. I enjoy making bikes, I think about it the same way I think about making anything. It’s problem solving and working around limitations.
Nate: I was starting to loose my ambition to paint and burning-out working full time at the Bike Gallery. You can only fix so many flats. And eventually the routine of working on bikes starts to feel stifling and you grow bitter. Then one day Matt said, “I want to build a bike, let’s build a bike.”, and at that point bike building sounded like a fun project. Essentially that’s how Signal started two years before Signal started for real. So that winter we just started doing it in Matt’s garage. I ordered the cheapest tubes I could find and went over to his house one winter night. It was cold and raining, and the garage wasn’t nearly as organized as it is now (lots of laughter). There was a fridge and two or three motorbikes.
I’ve been working with my hands since I was 12. I’ve always had this idea that I could see what something should be, and see what needed to get to that final product. My first bike didn’t look pretty. You’ve got to be willing to recover from a mistake, from a waste of money and time and effort. I would have loved to go to UBI (United Bicycle Institute) but I didn’t have the money. Also, when I built that first bike it was a fun winter project, I didn’t know at the time I was starting a business.
Matt: Yeah, you’ve got to be willing to go back to that point where things went wrong, so you don’t find yourself there again or make the same mistake twice.
I’ve been in shops so long and been around frame repair for so long I understood the gist of it. A few years ago, I worked with Sacha White and Ben at Vanilla for the summer. The way Sacha runs Vanilla is pretty ideal. It’s all the best parts about building, hanging out with friends listening to music and just working. It was pretty inspiring and I really respect his focus, his commitment to doing everything as well as you possibly can. When I see something somebody has made and it blows me away, it’s inspiring.
Later that fall I had this project, I wanted to build a rack. I quickly realized that I had everything to make a frame so I got some tubes together and talked Nate about it. We had some good resources for tools and I knew how to use a torch. I had already done some small projects like drop-out installs and little stuff like repairs here and there. And once you get a feel for how the brass works it just comes together. My first bike was horrible even though I spent six months building it. It’s still out on the road but I keep expecting it to crack.
It’s great when a plan comes together.
Matt: I was burning out working at the shop and was starting to think about going to school for industrial design. Around that time I decided to go to the North American Hand Built Bike Show (NAHBS), which was in San Jose that year. As I was going, Bike Gallery told me to look out for smaller, independent builders for the shop to sell. When I got back it all came together. Nate and I had been building in my garage, Bike Gallery was looking for smaller builders and I wanted to leave the shop to do something more industrial.
We wrote something of a business plan and Bike Gallery became our main investor. A year later at the Hand Built Show in Portland we showed four complete bikes. They weren’t for customers and building those bikes took a lot time and money, but we were lucky the Bike Gallery helped get us off the ground.
Efficiency vs. Uniqueness.
Nate: Because there are two of us we don’t work in a vacuum. You know how when sometimes you get an idea and you do something and then you realize how stupid it is, well we’re able to eliminate a lot of that because we have someone to bounce ideas off. And because we both still work at Bike Gallery a couple of days a week, we’re able to grow more slowly and not feel thinned or stretched-out.
My favorite part of the build process is when I actually have everything set in place and two hours of uninterrupted torch time. When I first started building bikes I thought it would be all brazing but that’s maybe 10% of it. So when I’ve done the emails to customers and I’ve ordered tubes for the next bikes, all the administrative stuff. And the night before I’ve mitered up all the tubes and set-up the jig. And all I have to do is come in the morning and just turn the torch on, that’s the best part.
I want to be good at every part of the frame building process, not just a seat stay or single-task expert.
Matt: We’ve been refining our process. Most of the bikes we build, both of us are in that bike. It’s really rewarding to go from a bunch of tubes to a bike, and it happens so fast. For most builders that process goes even more quickly because they aren’t limited by their tools. You hear about people that can build a bike in a day – the concept of that is so foreign to me. But I don’t want this to become production bike building. We don’t want to build a run of sized medium bikes. What’s exciting is doing something new every time, we’ve never built the same bike twice. Efficiency versus uniqueness is a struggle but cream rises to the top, so if we’re doing the best job that we can do and it doesn’t work out, it’s okay, things just sort of work-out how they should.
Nate: There are some customers out there that truly need a custom bike because of fit. But I also think that we’re making something someone has always wanted. I like playing guitar. And I know that I’m going to play guitar more and treasure the experience more with a custom guitar. It’s that simple. At this point in my guitar career (okay, my guitar playing hobby) I want something really beautiful and inspired- even if I can technically play the same thing on a $300 guitar.
Freshness is going to save us from becoming static, and that’s when people start to lose interest. We’re lucky because we have two brains and a constant flow of new ideas. We‘re constantly pushing each other, criticizing each other’s work and ideas, and inspiring each other.
For more information visit: signalcycles.com