An Interview with Bryan Luce of Renaissance Bicycles

Bryan Luce is the owner/operator of Renaissance Bicycles. Renaissance specializes in what they call “renaissanced bicycles” — individual creations that meld vintage frames with modern components. They also build-to-order complete bicycles on frames from Rivendell, Soma Fabrications, and Velo Orange. Bryan recently sat down with us to answer a few questions about his unique business.

Can you tell us about your background in cycling?

I feel very fortunate that I have never forgotten the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Though it sounds silly (and possibly diminishes my bravado), each and every time I ride a bike I still get the same childish sense of, “whheeeee!” I think this is why my personal emphasis has always been on riding for Fun instead of Competition or Fitness. Not that the latter are not reasons to ride, but I don’t think they alone could have kept my interest in cycling.

My cycling accomplishments revolve around touring and exploring via bike; I have no racing pedigree. I have ridden in one mountain bike race, but only with the intention of having a good time. I basically consider myself an average “approaching-my-middlin’-years” rider. I don’t train, or race, or get worked up about the weight of my waterbottle cage. I stay away from Goo and synthetic drinks; I am suspicious of 5-minute Ab Workouts. I did set out to ride 5200 miles this year, but that was really just a I-can-have-a-baby-and-still-keep-my-lifestyle fantasy.

What led you to start Renaissance Bicycles?

The short answer is that Renaissance Bicycles basically grew out of the idea, “If I could run a small business, what would I do?” For some unknown reason, my wife agreed.

The more in-depth answer is that I was looking to do something unique, something with intrinsic (and hopefully) extrinsic value, and work that involved e-commerce. Cycling has always been my passion, and I have an affinity for vintage bikes, so it seemed logical to extend that into a professional life. I have web design experience and always enjoyed photography as a hobby. Through my own curiosity and tinkering, I acquired some specialized knowledge regarding vintage bikes. More importantly, I have spent countless hours of “intensive bicycle research” on the Internet. Why not use that towards creating something worthwhile?

On a more personal level, I have always been intrigued with mechanics, design, and their synergy in aesthetics. Hot Rods and classic cars have always been out of my financial reach, but I relish the individual statement they create. As I wrote previously, most people make the sensible choice to buy a Honda, but it takes something special to look at a rusty car left in a field and see the potential Dream Machine. This is what I try to do with the “Renaissanced” bicycles I build — like my personal mountain bike, a 1983 Stumpjumper.

What is a “Renaissanced” bicycle?

Basically, a “renaissanced” bicycle is the term we coined for a vintage bike that has been “reborn”. Whereas a “restoration” puts the bike back to original (or as close to original) as possible, a “renaissanced” bike has been purposely updated with modern or neo-classic parts. Think 700c to 650B wheel conversions; upgrading a 6-speed freewheeled bike to a modern drivetrain; taking a vintage 3-speed and stripping it down to be a quick Townie. A “renaissanced” bike also has some personal touches that emulate the owner; there is a sense of uniqueness and individuality. The bike and the owner “match”.

In practical terms, a “renaissanced” bike might have been sitting in the dusty corner of the garage (the one behind the lawnmower, in front of the old paint cans, under the tarp), but it has now been carefully revived to provide many more miles of enjoyable riding. It may not be the lightest, vertically compliant-est / laterally stiffest, most carbon-acious bike in the stable, but is probably the one that brings the most smiles. When you ride by small children they don’t chide, “Lance needs his bike back now, Grandpa”, but instead say, “WOW! Can I take that for a ride?”

Do you also sell “off-the-rack” bikes or do you only build to order?

All of our bikes are built to order. We do have some “stock builds” listed on the website to go along with the Rivendell, Soma, and Velo Orange frames we sell, but interestingly, we have never sold a single “stock” bike. Instead, customers use these as a reference for incorporating their own preferences. While that might seem like a headache to a Local Bike Shop — there is certainly a lot of back-and-forth with customers — it is what we feel is valuable about our business. There is definite satisfaction in taking a customer’s hopes / desires / dreams, translating that into a list of twenty plus tangible items, and then (after some focused labor) presenting them with a cohesive final product.

What advantages do “Renaissanced” bicycles have over standard production builds?

For better or worse, a traditional Local Bike Shop can’t do what we do … there are children’s helmets to be sold, last season’s gloves to be discounted, Magnas to be repaired, etc. It is simply easier (and smarter) to sell a well equipped GianTrekCialized than sweat the details. But sweating the details is what makes our bikes better than production bikes.

Basically, we don’t do a lot of “traditional” bike shop stuff so that we can be flexible enough to custom tailor each-and-every detail of each-and-every bike for each-and-every customer. This sometimes presents an interesting hurdle for our customers regarding “choice overload” (like the dish detergent isle in the grocery store), but we pay attention to product reviews, the latest offerings from our suppliers, general industry news, and (most importantly) the customer’s criteria and preferences.

If you were commissioned to build the ultimate commuter bike for under $2000, what would it look like?

I was both hoping for / dreading that you might ask this. Not to dodge the question, but it genuinely does depend on who is riding the bike, where they are riding, what distances they ride, etc. For some people, a folding bike is perfect, others need a Surly Pugsley.

However … we have tried to address this question in our own style. Using a Velo Orange Polyvalent as a foundation, we created two dissimilar bikes. One is a practical City Bike with fenders, swept back bars, cushy 650B tires, and a simple 1×9 drivetrain. Basically, it is intended to be very classic around-town bike. The alter-ego is an homage to Scorchers of yester-year … fixed-gear drivetrain, more aggressive stance, Nitto DirtDrop bars, etc. It is for aggressive riding on backroads / pot-holed streets / gravel paths. Both versions are a lot of fun to ride and can easily be tailored with racks, lights, etc., and both versions address a distinct type of transportation cyclist. More importantly, both versions will sell for around $1500 complete.

The flip-side of your question is that a $2000 “ultimate” bike is only really viable for a small percentage of riders. I enjoyed your recent post about the Ruminations on the Ubiquitous Transpo Bike, but I think (and Sheldon Brown would probably agree) that Raleigh created the real-deal transpo bike years ago with the English 3-speeds. These bikes were made by the bzilliions, they’re sturdy, meant for city riding, can be found for cheap, and are really just good fun. In fact, my personal utility bike is a 1975 Raleigh Sport with panniers and a cushy Brooks saddle. A friend gave it to me in trade for some bike repairs.

This inspired us to create a Vintage City Bike portion to Renaissance Bicycles. Although it is still in rough form, we hope to provide resources for updating English 3-speeds, Schwinn’s “Sports” series bikes, and the coveted Japanese Touring bikes. Our intent is make people aware that these are perfectly affordable, usable, repairable, and upgradable bikes that, for the money, are much better commuting bikes than the lowly entry-level mountain bike.

Internal gear hubs and belt drives are hot in the transpo arena these days. Do you have any plans to start offering bikes with IGH/chain or IGH/belt drivetrains?

Yes, we do build IGH bikes for customers. One of my personal favorites is an IGH Surly LHT that has a Dutch-style build. The IGH offerings from both Shimano and SRAM are very good, and we would love to do more; the drivetrain efficiencies, price, and simplicity definitely make them appealing for dedicated commuter bikes. The same goes for belt drives, but that tricky slotted dropout will probably keep us at arm’s reach for now.

You do a wonderful job photographing bikes for the Renaissance website. What type of set-up and equipment do you use?

That is a serious complement coming from you! Like your site, we realized from the get-go that good quality photos were really what the customer wanted. We could drone on and on about the virtues of the bike, but it was a strong visual impression that engaged us with our potential customer.

Our studio set-up is actually pretty simple. We use a pair of inexpensive 500W studio lights with umbrellas, a giant roll of white paper suspended from the ceiling, a Canon digital SLR on a tripod, and a quality macro lens. The bikes balance with the use of a few wheel chalks and a white stick — Photoshop makes sure they aren’t a distraction.

Photo-wise, we (well “I” really) just try to take a few overview shots, close-ups of the drivetrain, and highlight anything interesting or unusual about the bike. I work slowly, and always ask myself, “What would I want to see / know about this bike?”

Can you tell us about your “1% to USBRS” program?

This came about from the notion of “doing well by doing good”. We wanted to give back to the cycling community and to indirectly challenge other small Shops to do the same. Our hope is that members of the Industry will appreciate the value in contributing to the overall well-being of cycling … not only with donations but with ongoing support.

For us, the Adventure Cycling Association was a natural fit. Their resources are directed towards the type of riders we cater to — bike tourers, commuters, non-racers. They create outstanding maps, provide relevant content via Adventure Cycling Magazine, and have embraced their role in cycling Advocacy. Their master plan of creating a nationwide bike route system (the USBRS) is phenomenal. Think about that — a network of safe riding routes that could connect any two major cities in the continental U.S.

What do you see for the future in transportation bicycles, and how will Renaissance Bicycles fit into that picture?

As for day-to-day business, Renaissance Bicycles will keep tailoring bikes to our customers’ needs and intended uses. As transportation bikes change, so will we. As better products for commuters emerge, we will test them and incorporate them into our offerings accordingly. We will change as the needs for transportation change.

For longer term business goals, we are in the initial stages of designing our own line of lugged steel bikes. The objective is to create a classically styled lugged steel all-rounder frameset with many of the features of a “constructuer” bike … integrated fenders, routing for lights, braze-ons a-plenty, etc. Everything will be made in America by small suppliers, quality and craftsmanship will be paramount, and we will retain the flexibility to incorporate customer preferences without the long wait-times or expense. Yes, that sounds like a grandiose plan, but we want to eat our cake and to have it, too.

For the bigger picture of bicycles and their role in the American transportation landscape, we take the firm stance that Individuals and Inclusion will make all the difference. People can (and do) debate public funding, helmet laws, cyclist’ rights, infrastructure, etc. ad nauseum. But a much better use of our time and energy is to actively find and engage the individuals who “might” ride their bikes for transportation … riders who are undecided if cycling for transportation is right for them. And when we do find them: take them riding; talk to them about good cycling habits; suggest and scout safe routes; let them borrow your stuff; thoughtfully answer their questions; point them to quality websites like this. And above all, physically Be There to support them. (For more, read the two part-er: The Bike Commuter Green Dot and Being the Bike Commuter Green Dot — 8.5 Things That You Can Do.) Basically, the emphasis needs to be on recreation and personal enjoyment. The take-home message is ride a bike because it is fun.

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions, Bryan!

Renaissance Bicycles

Note: Renaissance Bicycles is a sponsor of this website.

25 Responses to “An Interview with Bryan Luce of Renaissance Bicycles”

  • Jesse says:

    Thanks for this! I had never even heard of Renaissance Bicycles but they’re bookmarked now, I want to follow up on those lugged frames Bryan mentioned…Now it’s back to cleaning up my Cityfied Smoke!

  • Derek says:

    Great interview. I love both versions of the Polyvalent.

  • Phil says:

    I hate to be the fly in the ointment, but that Legnano is a travesty. If you had to “modernize” it, at least go with a Campy group. Those Shimano brifters the butt-ugliest ever created.

    Better to do a combination of period correct and modern and only use modern components where they truly achieve a performance differential. I can’t tell what the brakes are (and the site doesn’t say) but the bike would likely have had Universal Mod. 61 centerpulls, and there’s no sidepull that will perform better. Use the Universal brake levers and install a modern Campy FD and RD with bar-cons as a compromise (preferably ones that can be switched to friction at the rider’s discretion).

    Same with the hubs. The only advantage to the modern hubs might be the sealed bearings, but properly packed loose balls run just as smooth and can be replaced easily. Lace a pair of “No Record” hubs to modern rims with modern spokes and you’ve got the best of both worlds.

    The frame restoration is beautiful. It deserved better.

  • Nathan says:

    I think “renaissancing” is a great idea. Recently I got fed up with my too-small, too-bent-over compact frame racing bike and moved all the components over to a late-seventies 64cm (!) Colnago. The purists may scream at the FSA and Shimano parts on it, but it will be a dream to ride and keeps that frame doing what it was meant to do.

    (in all fairness, I’d like to go all Campy on it, and maybe over time I will replace parts that way, but for now I wasn’t ready to drop 2-3K on a new gruppo)

  • Andrew says:

    @Phil

    As an owner of a late-60s/early 70s Legnano (mine’s the signature electric green, though), I went through a similar hand-wringing over originality before deciding to ‘renaissance’ my bike.

    The universal brake levers were the first to go, replaced by Tektro aero levers so that I could actually get proper braking from the hoods – the difference in mechanical advantage between old and new-style levers is really noticeable.

    I did keep the original Campy Record derailleurs and downtube shifters, and they work just fine. Also felt no need to replace the very pretty Ofmega Record-clone crankset. You’re probably right about the hubs – I believe my bike originally came with tubulars (probably on Campy hubs), but they’d long-since been replaced by some Shimano-hubbed Weinmann 27″ alloys, so I didn’t feel bad replacing them with some 80’s vintage Campy Victory/Ambrosio 700c’s.

    At that point, I thought the bike was as good as I needed it. And then I made the mistake of riding a modern road bike, only to realize that they actually stop! On my Legnano, about half of the lever pull was taken up by flex in the Universal centerpulls. Despite their vintage appropriateness, they had to go. I actually ended up e-mailing the good folks at Renaissance about that very bike, and partly based on their endorsement, replaced them with with Tektro R556 dual-pivots (well, an R556 in the rear and an R538 in the front because the 556s had too long a reach) and the difference is night and day.

    Maybe there’s always an element of sacrilege when you modernize an old bikes, but it’s my only road bike, and instead of leaving it to rot and buying a new bike that I’ll actually enjoy riding, I feel like little specific upgrades that improve safety and performance allow me to actually take advantage of my little piece of history.

  • Don says:

    Thanks for the interview. I’ve been following Bryan’s work and have one of his Polyvalents as my screensaver! I find his approach wonderfully refreshing and most like my own that I’ve found. I think he’s hit the nail on the head. I’ll be headed down the road to see him soon.

  • Phil says:

    Andrew,

    I guess my experience has been different. (Stopping’s not all it’s cracked up to be. ;-)) I’ve never had any problem that I couldn’t cope with using vintage centerpulls, be they MAFACs (my favorites), Universals, Weinmanns or others. Even with their limitations I prefer them to most sidepulls. I do use them with modern brake pads (Kool-Stops or similar) but retain the original levers. I just ride accordingly, which I don’t find an imposition. And, in all fairness, I’ve got more than one bike, including a modern Tommasini Techno with 2004 Chorus gruppo. (Strangely, is the least fun to ride of the stable, which is why it’s going on eBay soon.)

    I’m not one who thinks that every old bike has to be rebuilt to catalogue spec. I do, however, try to stay period-correct, at least on the big stuff, with my builds. Frankly, I wouldn’t put a modern indexed drive-train on a bike that’s 48 years old like the Legnano because I think friction shifting is superior. I’d probably go as far as new Nitto bars, modern rims and spokes that looked right and a Phil Wood BB, but I do understand why others go a different route. I just thought that those ugly Shimano brifters went too far over that line.

    One more thin in the interest of full disclosure. I’m retired, which means I don’t have to get on any of my vintage bikes and commute in all kinds of weather. I get to choose, even when it’s time to run errands. I acknowledge that makes a difference.

  • Stevep says:

    I like the “I-can-have-a-baby-and-still-keep-my-lifestyle” fantasy. 5200 miles is a feat with a new kiddo. Awesome.

  • sygyzy says:

    I really like and respect the work they do at Renaissance. I had some talks with Bryan about a custom bike and while nothing has commenced (YET!), I thought he was really professional, polite and considerate of my biking needs.

  • Don Bybee says:

    Thanks for the great interview. I enjoyed the philosophy of Rennaisance Bicycles. I also enjoyed the two articles about being a green dot. I have been coming to the conclusion myself that being on the road setting a good example, talking to new users one on one, mentoring where possible, may have more of an affect than the more formal approach. We have been trying to give formal cycle safety classes but they do not seem to reach a very large audience. There is a lot of information and debate on line in regards to cycle safety, helmet usage, separate bike facilities, etc. but it just does not seem to be reaching the basic entry level riders that could potentially become new transpo cyclists. In most cases those discussions would more likely intimidate new riders than encourage them to ride more.
    Don
    Sacramento
    California

  • Fergie348 says:

    Maybe my standards are too high, but this is just the kind of work that your LBS ought to be able to do. And should want to do.

    Specialty retail means being able to work on anything, and it’s not that hard to keep a well equipped shop staffed with mechanics who can actually work on bikes rather than act as glorified assembly line workers.

    The fact that there appears to be a good business opportunity in ”Renaissancing” existing frames is actually a stinging indictment of the state of bicycle retail. If you’re nothing more than a showroom for new product, then you become immediately replaceable by that big Ogre called ‘the internet’. Anyone can sell new bikes – it’s actually really easy..

  • Ryan says:

    Alan

    Great interview thanks for posting this. I think I orginally stumbled accross Renaissance cycles from EcoVelo, and have loved going back ever since. Although I am anxiously awaiting thier completion of the Murphy’s Law project they have given me plenty of builds to drool over and give me even more ideas about bike builds. If spending “countless hours of “intensive bicycle research” on the Internet” is a good basis for a bike building business then maybe I need a career change ;-)

    Thanks Alan and Bryan love the Pics too

  • Pete says:

    I’ve been a frequent visitor to the Renaissance site while researching, buying and building my Sam Hillborne. Great inspiration.
    I can appreciate what Fergie348 says. In the process of buying and building that bike, my 3 LBS’s had nothing to offer. Sure, they’d be happy to order parts for me, but if it ain’t in the QBP catalog, forget it. They all just push “product”, and only really show any interest when some local Wall Street guy comes in asking about a new $1500 carbon fork for his poseur-racer.

  • Warren says:

    Loved this article and this company sounds great. I love this style of bicycle and I hope we see more people riding these instead of their carbon bicycles to work as commuters.

  • Gabriel says:

    @Alan
    Thanks for a great interview. I found Renaissance Bicycles through the sponsor link on your site about a week ago and really like their philosophy and what they’re doing. It’s nice to read a little more about them and what they have planned.

    @Pete, & Fergie
    I am agree completely. I was doing my own revival of an older lugged Specialized Allez and none of the shops in my area were that comfortable or knowledgeable about quill stems or the downtube shifters. I think part of it has to do with the fact that these shops see fewer and fewer of these bikes. It also doesn’t help that the mechanics working there are appear to be in their 20’s or younger, which would mean that they were probably just born when these bikes were produced and haven’t seen them in service in their lifetime.

  • Andrew says:

    @Gabriel

    Hah, it’s funny, I’m 24, but because I do most of my bike wrenching as a volunteer at a do-it-yourself bike repair shop and advocacy centre, most of the bikes that I refurbish for sale are older than I am. I can set up indexed shifting well enough by just fiddling with tension, but I’ve never even tried to set up brifters, or disc brakes, or many of the other new standards.

  • Moopheus says:

    One thing that does not seem quite clear to me from their web site or the interview: if I want them to “renaissance” a bike for me, will they help me find the frame or do I have to supply the frame? I’ve been thinking about getting a vintage road bike to build up for fun, and finding the right frame in the right size seems to be the hardest part. New parts can be ordered, any decent mechanic should be able to do the assembly.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    Thanks for this great interview… but I had a hard time focusing after seeing the Polyvalent build with the thumb shifter on the Porteur bars. I would not have thought that this would look good, but it most certainly does. I will have to ask Bryan about this set up!

  • DervAtl says:

    What a great article! Finding this great resource has given me the push I needed to start on my own 3 speed Raleigh.

  • Bryan @ Renaissance Bicycles says:

    @Moopheus

    The answer is Yes.

    Mostly customers bring us their bikes for repaints and upgrades, but occasionally we help customers locate bikes.

    One current project is this Colnago Super we located and purchased for a customer. It will get the full treatment — paint, wheels, and 2011 Campy.

  • Renaissance Bicycles — Custom Tailored Rivendell, Velo Orange, Soma, and Lugged Steel Bikes » Blog Archive » Our Benevolent Dictator on EcoVelo says:

    […] http://www.ecovelo.info/2010/08/24/an-interview-with-bryan-luce-of-renaissance-bicycles/ […]

  • Nathan says:

    @Bryan

    Can you re-post the link to the Colango Super — That’s the same frame I just finished!

  • Adam T says:

    I had this look alike Great bike i have bought it and tried it out really excelent quality but the design didnt quite speak to me. I changed it at bicycle motor they have chrommed it and now it looks a lot better if you have that bike i really advice to do the same.

  • Bryan @ Renaissance Bicycles says:

    @Nathan —

    Yes, the HTML part got clipped. Here is the full link:
    http://www.renaissancebicycles.com/gallery/top-secret-gallery/?album=11&gallery=59

    The bike is being re-painted this week. More photos to follow.

    Bryan

  • WPM says:

    Agree with the reference to the Raleigh Sports as a great around town bike. I would add that the 1960-70s Schwinn 3-speeds lack some of the styling details and leather saddles, but are about as indestructible.

    PS Errata: It’s Adventure *Cyclist* Magazine.

 
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