Stop staring, start riding

Speedvagen make head-turning bikes, but don’t get too precious about them, warns the man behind their world-renowned frames

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For frame builder Sacha White, the thought of someone not riding one of his creations is sacrilege. “That stuff is like a dagger in my heart,” he explains. “I come from a background of messengering, from a background of ‘I’m going to put this bike together and ride the shit out of it.’”

So when people began regarding Sacha’s bikes as you might a piece of art, opting simply to gaze upon it rather than ride, he decided to do something about it. “There was a lot of talk of ‘those bikes are too pretty to ride, you should hang it on the wall’.” Sacha’s Vanilla Bicycles brand was doing what most bike manufacturers could only dream of; generating an insane amount of hype. By handbuilding in steel, and creating something beautifully individual to each owner, he had people banging down his door for a Vanilla.

“At the height of popularity for Vanilla the wait list was seven years. The easy big business thing to do would have been to work with a factory somewhere, make as many bikes as we could, and sell as many bikes as we could.” There was just one problem: “Meanwhile, we’re not actually making bikes.”

“The name just sounds fast and euro, right?”

So in 2007 Sacha launched Speedvagen, the rebellious offspring of Vanilla. Sacha’s new brand introduced beefy block fonts, crazy colour schemes and a logo featuring a shield and a unicorn that wouldn’t look out of place on a European supercar. “The name just sounds fast and euro, right?” he asks. Speedvagen rocked the custom bike building scene by being everything Vanilla is not, while sharing its DNA. But the clincher, and the reason for its existence, is that you don’t have to wait seven years for Sacha to build you one.

Speedvagen is Sacha’s answer to his Vanilla problem. He has gone from a one-man-band to a company of framebuilders. “Speedvagen was thinking: ‘OK, how do we solve the problems we’re seeing with the Vanilla business model while still being able to keep Vanilla?’”

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“When I started, I didn’t know anything about building bikes and I didn’t know anything about fitting. It was kind of trial and error."

Sacha founded Vanilla Bicycles in 1999, aged 22, not long after moving from Colorado to Portland and while he was working as a bicycle messenger. “I broke my frame and someone said I should take it to this frame builder. I hadn’t really thought about where a bike had come from before and this guy was building one from scratch. I was totally blown away. I saved up and took a course from him. It was a one week, 15 hour-a-day project.”

Sacha built a couple of frames for friends, then local racers, and very quickly established a reputation as a builder of bikes that were beautiful in both fit and construction. “My waiting list grew.”

And yet Sacha’s background is far from the bike industry. “When I started, I didn’t know anything about building bikes and I didn’t know anything about fitting. It was kind of trial and error.”

“I grew up snowboarding and skateboarding and listening to rap music and doing a little bit of graffiti and probably smoking too much weed. I was able to bring that kind of perspective to bikes. One of the cornerstones of Speedvagen is really taking a hard look at why we have been doing it the same way for 100 years. It has been a big advantage that I didn’t come up through a traditional bike shop. I wasn’t given any rules to follow.”

“From the age of 12 to around 19 I was really obsessed with vintage motor scooters, old Vespas and Lambrettas, restoring and customising them. Then I moved to Portland and all my obsession with scooters shifted to bicycles.”

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Vanilla and Speedvagen stand apart in the bike industry for their construction and paint schemes. More understated but equally radical is Sacha’s bike fitting, which has become the stuff of legend. His method is unconventional, yet remarkably reliable: “I noticed on the first bike that really fit me well, my cyclocross bike, that when I would stand up above the bike and then straight back down, those contact points were right there and coincidentally that bike was very intuitive and it has a very balanced ride. I reverse engineered it and tried to figure out what it was that felt so right – it was that balance point.”

"If someone ends up waiting longer than four months they start to consider the thing more precious. I don’t want that.”

Sacha has developed a bike fitting technique that others struggle to reproduce and he soon realised the fitting forms he was being sent to build simply couldn’t be best for the rider. So rather than rely on someone else to measure his customers for their bikes, Sacha does it himself, on bike fitting world tours. It all sounds a bit long-winded, but in Vanilla terms it’s nothing.

“I kind of have PTSD from Vanilla and the long wait list. If someone ends up waiting longer than four months they start to consider the thing more precious. I don’t want that.”

So when that Speedvagen arrives on your doorstep, for the sake of Sacha’s sanity, make sure you ride it.

The Speedvagen fitting tour will be at the Service Course in Girona from Tuesday, September 5th to Monday, September 11. The tour will include rides, demos, a fit clinic and custom bike fittings.