John Koutrouba is a “refugee from the corporate world.” Before he became a framebuilder, he managed a company that had grown from 40 to 400 employees. He left that gig, moved to Salt Lake City with his family, and took a long, hard look at himself and what he wanted to do. As he searched for a new job, he asked himself what it is he would do if he could do anything he wanted. He realized that the answer was building bicycles.
“Getting into framebuilding is shockingly easy,” Koutrouba says. “It’s having the conversation with your wife that starts with ‘I’d like to try something a little different this time’ that is hard.” He found a local framebuilder and picked his brain, enrolled in the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) and learned the basics, and now builds bikes with a passion that came across even through email.
“Every bike seems like the result of magic,” he says. “How many people get to go to work and do actual magic every day?”
At Sixth Law Cycles, Koutrouba’s goal is to solve problems for people. “From my perspective, everyone should ride a bike every day,” he states. “However, something keeps most of us from doing that.” He specializes in finding solutions to the common problems and excuses that stop people from cycling, such as fit and sizing, fitness level, or the idea that cycling is too much of a hassle.
“My value is not in creating a thing, but in moving you through the process of figuring out what it is you need, and then providing something that meets that need,” says Koutrouba. He tries to listen closely to his customers, and throws an unexpected, personal touch into every bike. “On my last bike, it was as simple as some really huge, wide handlebars,” he mentions. “When my customer saw the bike, he knew I had been listening.”
It’s this connection that sets Sixth Law apart from mass market companies, and makes small framebuilders like Koutrouba so special.
He mainly builds in steel, because it’s forgiving, easy to work with, and he can fix almost any mistake he makes along the way. If that doesn’t work out, at least steel is cheap, so it is an affordable material for experimentation and trying new things. “And so far at least,” says Koutrouba, “I haven’t run into a problem that I can’t solve with it. I suppose I haven’t run into anyone who doesn’t ride his bike because it isn’t light enough yet.”
I asked him if he has a favorite bike that he’s built, and he told me it’s always his most recent. “The feeling of amazement is always freshest on the last bike out the door. And frankly, I’m getting better with each new bike. My last bike is quite literally the best I’ve ever done at this point.”
This eagerness to learn and grow has allowed Koutrouba to add many new skills to his talent stack along with framebuilding. In addition to bicycles, he also works with people on a variety of different custom fabrication projects, such as outdoor furniture, bike racks, and even a sidecar for a motorized wheelchair to allow an aging dog to cruise around with its owner.
Eventually, his dream is to hire employees and put more people to work building bicycles. While it’s a far-off ambition at the moment, he might be closer than he thinks. While his bikes certainly use plenty of mass-produced parts, he uses local talent whenever possible. His bike for NAHBS, for instance, is a collaboration involving no fewer than six people he knows personally. “I can’t think of anything I own that involves me that deeply in a real community,” he says.
Yeah, bikes tend to do that.
If you’re headed to NAHBS this year, be sure to check out Sixth Law Cycles at the New Builder Table!
There’s a certain infamous former pro cyclist from Texas who is known for (among other things) writing a book entitled “It’s Not About the Bike.” But like so many other things this yellow-wearing racer has said over the years, it simply isn’t true. Sometimes it very much IS all about the bike. Plus the wheels, and the tires, and the apparel and the brakes and everything else that goes with cycling.
Cycling means a lot of different things to a lot of different people—exercise, adventure, freedom, transportation—but it can also be a great excuse to drool over the latest gadgets, gizmos, widgets and wonders.
In this issue we’re covering the gear that gets us there, focusing on brands, products and people behind the latest goodies on the bike shop shelves. We started with six drivetrains you didn’t know existed, unpack the details of how bottom brackets work and hear the behind-the-scenes stories of how bike models get their names.
Along the way we stopped in Colorado, where we visited the shop of Bedrock Bikepacking Bags, a tiny, homegrown brand that is threading its own path through the increasingly crowded cottage industry of rackless bags.
Then we visited Arkansas, where some longtime bike industry innovators are bringing high-end bicycle manufacturing back to the United States. Their aim is to offer competitive pricing, original product design and world-beating performance. Get the scoop on the new brand, HIA Velo.
In Portland, Oregon, the wooden bikes built by Renovo might seem Old-World, but they are as high-tech as anything coming out a modern factory. After all, company founder Ken Wheeler got his start in wood composite engineering while designing airplanes. Our photographer takes you there in our latest installment of the Made series.
We also expanded our product reviews in this issue with a full 17 pages of the latest and greatest, as tested in the real world by the editors of Bicycle Times. Be sure you take a look before you buy.
Even if you have no plans to do any shopping in 2017, you can still enjoy our stories of the human input that turns ideas into item. So don’t be a dope. Enjoy our Gear Issue. Grab a copy now from our online store, or better yet, order a subscription and you’ll never miss an issue.