Raw metal working can sometimes seem hard and brutish, a job with a predilection for welding gloves and dirt. At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, there is brazing, a technique used in the construction of traditional steel frame bicycles. The lugs (the parts of the bicycle where two or more tubes are joined), can be quite beautiful and light.
Corey Thompson, the owner and sole operator of , is extraordinarily adept at this art form. While some lugs can be gaudy or chunky, his are neither, and they lend the frames he builds a certain grace. This is not to say that his frames aren’t remarkably purpose-built, however, and for a variety of purposes, ranging from hardtail mountain bikes to elegant road racers.
“I tell people that I can make them whatever they want,” he says, and the frames hanging on the wall suggest that he can, and has been doing so for some time. “Randonneuring frames are my specialty, though.”
For the uninitiated,has its origins in an Italian distance cycling sport called audax, and was further formalized in France. In it, riders will attempt a “brevet” or randonée of at least 200 km, and attempt to finish it in a pre-established time span. Brevet lengths go up in 100-km increments, and they can get incredibly daunting very quickly. Brevet distances of 1,200-1,400 km are not uncommon.
Randonneurs tend to focus less on speed and more on getting the ride done, which can involve sleeping on the ride, or pressing on through the night, regardless of weather conditions. This begins to get to the heart of what makes a good randonneuring bicycle. After all, the regulations are quite open, and randonneurs are welcome to ride almost anything.
“The thing that fascinates me most about randonneur bicycles is the integration of components,” says Thompson. “Chances are good that you’ll be riding at night at some point, so you’re going to need lights. You’ll also need to be able to carry at least a minimal amount of gear, and you’ll probably want fenders. The randonneur bike integrates all of that in a cohesive way. I’ll show you.”
He walked back into the garage that sits off the shop and brought out a gorgeous, nearly black bike. The head tube featured a built-in light, powered by an integrated generator with wires that ran inside the frame, like the brake cables, connecting to discs on the front and rear. The front fork was a bit beefier than normal, to accommodate the different mechanics of the disc. The luggage rack, sitting above it, was clearly a considered part of the bicycle (to my untrained eye, the cuboid, earth-toned front bag with the clear map pocket was the safest randonneur badge I knew of, up until today), rather than something tacked on in the service of functionality. Naturally, “THOMPSON” ran down the down tube in classic block capitals.
Asked how he got his start, Thompson replied that he comes from a family of makers.
“Everybody in my family makes something,” Thompson says, “so it was kind of just natural development. I enjoy bicycles, and I’d worked as a bicycle mechanic for a long time. Frame building was the next step.”
Thompson apprenticed under Bill Stevenson, a renowned steel frame builder in the community. Stevenson was a friend of Thompson father’s, and the two worked together at The Bike Stand for a number of years before Thompson began to build frames. In 2008, Thompson Custom Bicycles was officially founded.
Apart from the predilection for randonneuring, steel defines what Thompson does. Building in steel allows for a great deal more flexibility in meeting the particular needs of the rider, as it’s available in a wide variety of different gauges, weights, and dimensions.
“Steel makes it possible to really control how the bike feels and rides,” says Thompson. “Until recently, it was also relatively easy to get American-made tubes, which is important to me.” The main US supplier of steel bicycle tubes just closed, but Thompson is confident that another will arise.
“Steel frame building is doing really well these days,” he says. “Building in steel is often the best way to get exactly what you want.”
While the hardware and frame design that Thompson brings to bicycle building is remarkable, his personalization goes even further. The bike he showed me belongs to another randonneur I know, and this rider had chosen the color of the frame, but Thompson pointed something else out to me. On the left-hand chain stay, about halfway down, two tiny stripes crossed the tube, one light blue, and one orange. A tiny detail, to be sure, but Thompson’s bicycles are made of such details, each tiny component informing the whole.
To learn more about Thompson Custom Bicycles, visit www.thompsoncustombicycles.com