I met Brian Chapman of Chapman Cycles a few years back circumstantially through mutual friends. We were both staying at their house for our own bicycle related reasons. Brian was displaying his bikes at that years Philly Bike Expo and I was headed off to some empty field to pretend that I was a bike racer. Throughout the weekend, we shared beers, conversation, and cheap Chinese takeout from around the corner. Brian’s background in frame building is rich with the history of the New England scene and it shows in his work. His classically unique builds and stand out paint tones have had several of my friends order frames from Brian and has me wondering why I haven’t yet. I recently got to catch up with Brian at a safe distance from his pint-sized attack dog to see what he’s been up to and how his prep for NAHBS is going.
I think the last time we saw each other your dog had some beef with me. How have you been? What’s been going on in Providence?
Oh man, I’m sorry about Polly. She’s cute but she can totally be a jerk. For future reference, if you have a stick, she’ll be your best friend but you’ll be playing fetch for days.
I know Rhode Island is the “Biggest Little State in the Union” but I’m actually located in Pawtuxet Village in Cranston, a whopping three miles south of the city. I’ve just been building and riding for the most part. It’s not bike related but my partner Hilary and I have a two year old son who is pretty much the greatest.
When did you first get started building custom frames?
The long version starts with me working at Union Cycle in Attleboro in 1987. I remember seeing an article about Glenn Erickson and his insanely ornate lugs and thought that was what all custom bikes were about. I never thought that was something I could do but I knew I did want to design and build bikes. I went to school for Mechanical Engineering at UMass Dartmouth with the hopes of getting a job at Cannondale in Connecticut after graduation. Cannondale was not Witcomb USA and they weren’t hiring in 1997. So I got a job doing IT at Brown University, as I had a bunch of experience having worked in IT through school.
In 2001, I learned that Chris Bull was building frames as Circle A Cycles in Providence and it turned out that it was literally a half mile from my apartment. I walked in and knew I wanted to work there. But instead of working, I ordered a frame. Over the next couple years, I became good friends with Chris and eventually started apprenticing there in 2004. After many repairs and paint jobs, I built my first frameset from start to finish under the Circle A Cycles name in 2005. There you have it.
Chapman Cycles began at the end of Circle A? What did you take away from that experience when you decided to go out on your own?
Well, there were two years of overlap from 2011 to 2013 before being totally on my own. I wouldn’t be a viable frame builder if I hadn’t worked there. Circle A was definitely a unique shop. You’d think that an anarchist collective of frame builders with no business plan wouldn’t last more than a couple months but the shop lasted for over 15 years. Chris, Emily, and I were the three builders doing the process from start to finish. It was like three builders renting the same space, using the same tools and materials, making different frames that suited our specialty, all under the Circle A brand. It was the best job I ever had but also super stressful. Money was always tight and expenses never just seemed to disappear. I knew nothing about running a business but slowly gleaned how it could possibly be done. Basically, do everything yourself and have the lowest overhead.
What I learned most from Circle A was how to listen to customers to figure out what they wanted out of their bike. Having gone from Circle A customer to Circle A builder, I felt I had a unique perspective on where customers were coming from most of the time.
Your bikes have a very classic, almost timeless style to them, do you ever feel pressure to build around current trends? ( oversized bb, headtube, etc.)
Ha, of course! It can’t be avoided. I will build with new technologies if they make sense in steel which is my material of choice. Some “new” technologies I’ve built with include thru axles, disc brakes, and T47 bottom brackets. That stuff that makes sense to me on the right bike. Tapered oversize steel head tubes, not so much.
I noticed you recently built up a complete with Di2 and what looks to be a custom crank, is that purely for an aesthetic reason?
I think you’re talking about the bike that was reviewed in Bicycle Quarterly. That was actually a René Herse crankset anodized black. I do make my own cranksets though and will have a couple bikes with them on display at NAHBS.
Are there current trends in frame building that you wish would go away?
No. It can all stay. The trends are fun to watch. Even steel tapered head tubes.
Are there specific builders’ work that you are looking forward to seeing this year at NAHBS?
I always look forward to seeing what Chris Bishop, Peter Weigle and Bryan Hollingsworth (Royal H) are working on. I’m excited to see the new builders too.
Do you try to create special bikes for events like NAHBS or is it more about engaging customers?
I go to shows mostly to engage with people. I spend all my days in a dusty 16×20 foot shop alone. It’s fun to get out and see other humans.
I’m not building any bikes specifically for the show. They’re all customers’ bikes or my personal bikes.
What do think it is about the New England area that it is home to so many custom frame builders?
This area is great for manufacturing but it probably was a perfect storm with Sachs, Weigle, and Chance doing Witcomb USA in the 70s to spawn/inspire a whole slew of New England builders in the 80s and 90s and beyond. The New England builders are also very supportive of each other which makes it a great community to be a part of.
What is the style of bike you get the most orders for these days?
Lugged 650b randonneur with fenders, connectorless dynamo hub, integrated lighting, pump, bell, custom stem, and custom racks. Lots of those and not enough mixtes and tandems.
Last but not least, do you have favorite paint color that you have been using lately?
I have this old Acme lacquer chip book from the 60’s that I like to use for choosing colors. It was one of my best flea market finds. If a customer is having difficulty picking a color, this book always comes through! On the 700c light randonneur I’m bringing to the show, I used a pukey green from that book with a modern yellow candy over it to get a beautiful chartreuse. That’s my new favorite color.
Keep an eye out for Chapman Cycles February 16-18 at this year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Hartford, Connecticut!Tweet Print