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Alchemy Bicycles : Factory Visit

Peter Stuart
27 May 2015

In Denver Colorado a hand-picked team of experts are busy turning carbon into gold

It’s a sunny day in Denver as Cyclist finds its way to an inconspicuous industrial estate in a backstreet halfway between the bustling downtown district and the Cherry Creek State Park. It’s the home of the Alchemy Bicycle Company, a bespoke bike brand that’s grown hugely over the past few years by combining the American passion for traditional bike building with the hi-tech possibilities presented by carbon fibre composites. ‘You know, there’s lots of nice bikes coming out of Asia,’ says Matt Maczuzak, R&D and production manager at Alchemy and officially ‘the brains of the operation’, according to his colleagues. ‘There are a few companies out there who make fantastic frames, but I think we can also do it here.’

Heavy Metal seems to have grown on the rest of the team. ‘We don’t really know what to do without it, if Jeff’s out for the day it’s so frickin’ quiet.’ says owner Cannizzaro

Alchemy lives by the ‘Handmade in Denver’ sticker emblazoned on its chainstays. Those frames are not just assembled on site. Almost everything, including the carbon tubing and moulds, are made in-house before the tubes are mitred and wrapped right here. Anything not made by Alchemy is sourced from carbon specialist Enve, a 12-hour drive away in Utah. When the company moved to Denver a few years ago from its previous home in Austin, Texas, it meant relocating most of the team rather than finding new staff. ‘When we moved here we moved eight families,’ says Ryan Cannizzaro, owner and founder of Alchemy.

That may sound like an expensive option, but bike building is a serious business in the US, and the talent necessary to compete for the top accolades is hard to come by. And proof of the national passion for handmade bikes is the annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS), one of the most closely watched events in the industry. Where steel and titanium once reigned supreme, carbon is increasingly the bespoke builders’ material of choice. A landmark for Alchemy was winning Best Carbon Construction for its flagship aero-road bike, the Arion, at the 2013 awards. Alchemy’s proximity to Enve is one factor that has encouraged a close, almost symbiotic, relationship between the two. Enve, which is famous for its high-end wheels and carbon components, makes carbon parts for numerous US builders, but is especially close with Alchemy. ‘Sarah’s on an Alchemy!’ Cannizzaro laughs, referring to Sarah Lehman, CEO of Enve, who bought herself an Alchemy Helios this year.

Alchemy Factory Skeleton Mask -Geoff Waugh

Into the worskshop

While Enve has long been a partner, Alchemy is bringing more of the outsourced work in-house. From welding titanium to designing carbon lay-ups to machining the tools themselves, the company aims to control every part of the bike-building process. Cannizzaro says, ‘To bring the tubes in-house we invested in the CNC machine. When we did our first moulds we outsourced it and sent the moulds to Enve to make our tubes. With the amount of money we spent to get two moulds sent to Enve, we realised we could just buy a machine and do it ourselves.’

Getting the right equipment was only part of the equation. Cannizzaro also needed the right people, and when he required an expert in metal, he found his man in Jeff Wager, a welder and musician. Sitting at his bench behind thick red curtains, Wager blasts out heavy metal from a stereo while welding a tube joint. He’s just one of the numerous talents headhunted from the US cycling industry, having previously worked at bespoke legend Serotta. He sparked a chain reaction, with many of the Serotta team moving over when Serotta closed. ‘Once we moved to Colorado we hired Shane, who was a painter at Serotta and good friends with Jeff,’ says Cannizzaro. ‘Shane became our lead painter, and then Serotta closed and we hired Nick, another painter and graphic designer from Serotta.’ Since then, with his skeleton skull welding mask, Wager has become something of a poster boy for Alchemy.

‘I’m the only one who’s really into metal,’ says Wager in reference to the deafening music in the workshop. But it seems to have grown on the rest of the team. ‘We don’t really know what to do without it,’ Cannizzaro says. ‘If Jeff’s out for the day it’s so frickin’ quiet.’ Alchemy makes four different metal frames, using both titanium and stainless steel, both infamously difficult to work with, but it’s in good hands with Wager’s decade of high-end experience. Sitting in his cathedral of metal decorated with Metallica posters, Wager isn’t the only one who treats his work with a near religious enthusiasm. Designer and painter Nick Hemendinger has also made a fitting setting for his ambitious designs in Alchemy’s paint studio. ‘It’s awesome,’ says Hemendinger, surrounded by designs of past paint schemes. ‘Sometimes you see someone’s reaction when you give them the bike for the first time and it’s an amazing feeling. We’re the final stage before anyone sees the bike.’ Alchemy’s custom paint schemes know no limits. Recently a customer asked for a complete re-creation of a Lotus race car paint scheme, a project that took Hemendinger more than 40 hours to complete by hand. A carbon frame with a fully camouflage paint scheme is drying beside Hemendinger’s desk. ‘I’m not that into it,’ he laughs. ‘I don’t really like camo to begin with, and I wouldn’t have covered up that much of the carbon. I think it would have been neat if they did camo logos or something, and outlined it in carbon. But if it’s what the customer wants…’

The Alchemist’s formula

The meticulous approach to the appearance of the bike is mirrored closely by the attention paid to the design of the frames beneath the skin. On the other side of the workshop, away from the paint and grease, Matt Maczuzak sits and develops new computer simulations for tube shapes and carbon layups. ‘Matt was in industrial design and was a cyclist,’ Cannizzaro says. ‘He thought he could build a carbon bike better than the big players, so he started making them in his garage. We were just doing titanium and steel at the time but we wanted to get into carbon and we didn’t want to go to Taiwan or China to get it, so someone introduced me to Matt and we partnered up. Now carbon is really what we’re known for.’ Cannizzaro points to his Arion frame: ‘That’s the second year we won the NAHBS award for best carbon,’ he says. ‘We inlayed the Alchemy logo right into the carbon fibre – by making the tube with the carbon weave spelling the name. Making tubes is very difficult so making the layer on the outside was real skill.’

Alchemy Factory unit Camo -Geoff Waugh

‘I think there can be a misconception – just because our bikes are handmade in a small company doesn’t make them any less technically advanced than the big companies,’ Maczuzak says. Where most bespoke carbon builders will create frames by taking pre-prepared carbon tubes and wrapping them in layers of carbon fibre to set them in place, Alchemy takes on the entire process. Tubes are designed in-house, modelled using computer aided design (CAD). The moulds are cut in Alchemy’s own CNC machine; the tubes are prepared using different sheets of unidirectional carbon, before the whole lot is put into the company’s newly purchased heat press. ‘With an oven it’s passive heat,’ says Maczuzak. ‘It’s just air, and air is not a very good thermal conductor. The moulds take about an hour to heat up in an oven, whereas in the heat press we can control the rate at which it heats. It’s like cooking on the hob instead of the oven – the heat is applied directly to the mould, so it’s faster and you can get a lot more tubes out of it.’

Of course, shape and process is only part of the game, and there’s a huge importance placed on the particular carbon fibres used in the tubes. ‘The construction of every tube here comes down to empirical evidence,’ Maczuzak says. ‘You can do the maths. A ply at 0° will react to certain forces a certain way. A ply at 60°, 30° or 10° or 25° will all have different characteristics. You can start to design that way. But once you apply that theoretical science, you make that bike and you ride it. And if it rides like a shopping cart you go back and you make the necessary changes to the plies or lay-up or whatever.’

‘At every step of making the bike there are people involved who are passionate about what they’re passing onto the next guy'

While handmade has its own appeal, there’s a wider benefit to the methods. Working in the USA does increase costs, but Cannizzaro argues it increases quality in equal measure: ‘If you look at a lot of the people who have dealt in carbon, like Enve, they’re bringing all the carbon stuff back in-house. If you do it right, you can keep costs to a minimum. You’re paying more for labour than you are overseas but over there you’re also paying for all the mistakes.’ In the Far East, where most of the world’s bikes are made, the larger-scale industrial operation tends to favour monocoque frame construction, meaning they are moulded in one piece, or two or three pieces bonded together. Alchemy uses tube-to-tube construction, where it moulds each tube and wraps them in carbon separately to form the finished bike. ‘Monocoque is a great process but you can’t offer the same customisability,’ Maczuzak says. With tube-to-tube, any tube can easily be lengthened or shortened to match the customer, as can the properties of the tubes and the bonds.

‘Here, each bike is a more intimate process,’ he says. ‘At every step of making the bike there are people involved who are passionate about what they’re passing onto the next guy, and you pay more for those people.’ While Maczuzak respects the process in the Far East, he points out the consequences of the vast corporate structure. ‘Here, shoddy parts get thrown away, and I know from anecdotal evidence that’s not how it always works in the Far East.’

American dream

Alchemy Factory Door Stickers -Geoff Waugh

Alchemy’s approach appears to be working, and demand means it is now expanding into stock frames available to consumers without the lengthy wait for bespoke design. ‘I don’t want to say we’ve maxed out,’ Cannizzaro laughs. ‘But there are only so many people who are willing to wait 12 weeks for their bike, so now we have bikes on the retail shop floor ready to be tested.’

Despite the introduction of stock sizes, Alchemy remains focused on engaging with its customers, which often means trying to interpret their needs. ‘We have a guy flying in from Washington next week,’ Cannizzaro says. ‘He said yesterday on the phone, “I don’t know what I want, but I just know I want to spend $15,000 on a bike. I want to come to you and tell you what I’m looking for and you guys design it.” That’s the thing with the customers; the doors are really open. People don’t know what they want, so you’ve got to kind of lead them.’

Americans have long had a love for home-grown, handbuilt bikes, and there will be those that say the carbon revolution is destroying the individuality that comes with traditional bike building, but Maczuzak is quick to point out that the reality is quite the opposite: ‘If you order a titanium bike, there’s two titanium suppliers in the world. You’re ultimately getting the same thing. With carbon fibre any consumer can put their imprint on every part of their own frame.’ As if to illustrate the point, the working day at Alchemy comes to end, and the floor of the factory is filled with stunning carbon bikes, all subtly different. The rear factory shutters open out onto some of sunny Denver’s finest cycling trails, and a warm breeze blows in. It’s the American dream in action.

Contact: alchemybicycles.com

 

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