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Me and my bike: Matt Appleman

James Spender
16 Nov 2018

Minnesota-based framebuilder Matt Appleman explains why he only works in carbon fibre, and why all his bikes are black. Except this one

Matt Appleman’s story begins with an engineering course, and an injury. ‘I ruined my knee racing a bike at college that didn’t fit properly,’ he says.

‘It happened that the college I attended did what was then one of only two composite materials engineering programmes out there – I think the other was in the UK, funnily enough – and while I didn’t go there to do the course with this complete vision in mind of building bikes one day, that’s where it started.’

Appleman jokes that his injury left him needing a bike whose saddle was ‘four inches behind any bike out there,’ which left him with a choice: buy custom or make his own.

‘I was in my dorm room sticking tubes together, and trying to break them. I’m not a heavy person, so I was getting six-foot levers, hanging all my weight off them and bouncing on them to see if I could break the tubes.

Once I couldn’t break them I figured I was good to build a bike.’ But there was still a lengthy, though useful, hiatus between graduating in composites engineering and starting his company.

‘When I finished college I went to California and started working in aerospace and building wind turbine blades in carbon fibre and fibreglass,’ he says.

‘It came to a point where I realised that I didn’t want to be away from home any more, so I came back to Minneapolis and started Appleman Bicycles. My first bike I built in a spare room, then I moved into a garage and then to an industrial space.’ 

Intensely concentrated

From such humble beginnings, Appleman’s business grew steadily to the point where making custom carbon fibre bikes is now his trade, albeit with a deliberately low volume.

‘I build about 15 to 20 bikes a year. Each bike takes about two weeks – or 80 hours. I think I’m a bit like Tom Warmerdam from Demon Frameworks in that regard: we’re both free thinkers, always wanting to take the time to try and take things to the next level.

‘His stuff is just fantastic. I’m also a one-man operation. I do everything and I enjoy all of it – designing, cutting, sanding, epoxy, even accounting.’

What sets him apart from a lot of builders, he says, is that every tube is tailored specifically to the rider, but not quite in the fashion you might expect.

‘My tubes are roll-wrapped [flat carbon plies layered up around a cylindrical mandrel] to the specifications of every rider.

‘I don’t just pick from a set number of different types of carbon tubes like most builders – every tube is specially designed for each customer.

‘They are then fabricated by someone who was on the same college course as me, who set up a business making carbon tubes for industrial robotics and aerospace.

‘I could make the tubes myself, but it’s easier to use someone whose business is making tubes.

‘I choose the carbon fibre I want, specify the number of layers, how they’re stacked, the diameter.

‘With all these parameters there’s pretty much an infinite number of possibilities of tube stiffness, so I can dial in very specific ride characteristics for each customer.

‘It’s why steel is steel and carbon is such an amazing material. I could build you a 1mm thick carbon panel that, depending on which way you pull it, is going to be 70 times stronger or weaker.

‘It’s all a balance of torsional stiffness, flexural stiffness, compression strength and tensile strength. I can dial that in with the layup because I’ve been working with this material for over 15 years.’

Nobody puts carbon in the corner

With so much labour going in to the carbon layup of the frame, Appleman usually prefers to leave it free from layers of paint.

‘I’m a materials guy – I don’t normally do paint. But this is a bike for a show so I wanted to mark it out a bit, do something fun. But the rest of my time the bikes just look how they do because of function.’

This is how Appleman explains his hallmark curved, sometimes slightly bulbous, tube joints. Carbon fibres don’t like being pushed into corners by their individually brittle bending nature (they only achieve bike-level strength by being bundled together), hence his smooth wraps.

It’s also why his one-piece bars look as they do, made from cut up and filed down Enve components that he then bonds and wraps, and why he says his bikes are so strong ‘you can cut a tube out, any tube, and still ride it to a safe stop.’

Yet for all this function, he’s not entirely averse to the odd flourish.

‘I think one of the coolest things on this bike is the little apple logo laid into the reinforcement for the thru-axle. I like to do logos and things with layers of carbon.

‘I use titanium, bronze, copper and wood bonded to the frame, but really I’m just a carbon guy. It’s all I know.’

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