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.

An Interview with Joe Breeze

“My lifelong quest is to distill the bicycle—the most efficient form of transport ever devised—to its purest form. When you achieve the essence, you bring forth the most endearing traits of a bicycle, the qualities that let us fly down the road with the greatest of ease, and give us the biggest smiles.” —Joe Breeze

Joe Breeze is one of the founding fathers of mountain biking. He built what are considered some of the first true mountain bikes in the late 1970s, and his company was a leader in the industry throughout the 80s and 90s, selling a variety of models under the Breezer label. Most of the early Breezers were recreation-oriented mountain and road bikes, but Joe’s lifelong interest in using bicycles for transportation eventually led him to launch a line of transportation-oriented bicycles in 2002 under the Breezer label. These bikes are fully outfitted from the factory for use as motor vehicle replacements with features such as generator lights, fenders, racks, reflective tires, locks, and bells included as standard equipment.

For 2010, Joe and company have come full circle, once again offering a selection of Breezer mountain bikes alongside their extensive transportation line-up. As with many of their bikes, these new models bear the distinction of being Joe Breeze designs.

How did your background in mountain biking lead to designing and manufacturing bicycles for transportation?

Actually, it was the other way around. My quest for transportation biking led me to mountain biking. As early as 1968 I was dreaming of a world, or really just my country, where bikes would be a popular mode of transport. Bicycling in the USA at that time was largely a sidewalk endeavor by children, so we had a long ways to go. I found road racing to be a steppingstone toward outing the bicycle secret of swift human-powered conveyance. Another, rather brief, attempt to get the word out was the idea of displaying bikes from the Golden Age of cycling, the 1890s. I hoped to restore some of those beautifully made old bikes and give people an awareness of cycling’s vast heritage. In the 1890s, bikes were the king of the road and the pinnacle of personal locomotion. That led me to buy, on a lark, a crusty old 1941 Schwinn balloon-tire bike, which my friend, Marc Vendetti, said I might enjoy riding down the slopes of Mt. Tam. He was right. And of course many others found they enjoyed it too. In fact, the mountain bike got more Americans onto bikes than any other bike since the 1890s. After a while it was apparent that interest was spilling onto the streets and a better bike was needed for everyday getting around. Hence my shift to bikes for transportation.

What type of technical innovations were brought forward from your mountain bike designs and incorporated into your transportation bikes?

Certainly I learned a lot about bike design through mountain biking, but really the crucial thing about everyday bikes is that they are equipped with useful accoutrements such as fenders, racks, lights, etc.—like a car.

What is your current role at Breezer? Are you still directly involved in the design process?

I help plan the direction and the bike and component offerings. I design the frames and act as spokesperson for the brand.

Do you feel bicycle design should be driven by consumer demand or the philosophical approach of the designer?

I don’t think that’s an either-or choice. I have my ideas of what would make sense to offer to consumers. I’m also interested in hearing the interests of consumers, and am willing to incorporate their good ideas.

What kinds of innovations do you see coming in the future for transportation bikes in general and Breezers specifically?

Over the last twenty years Shimano has done a great job making shifting easier. This will continue to the point that shifting is fully automatic and seamless. Cyclists won’t even need to think about shifting, aside from the initial programming of their shift computer. I’d like to see similar advances in braking; braking that makes stopping at stop signs hardly a bother. E-bike battery and delivery technology will see big advances.

Where do you see the market going? Do you foresee a time when the sales of transportation and utility bikes surpass sport bikes in the U.S.?

Absolutely. I see the potential in the US as ten times what we see today. The majority of that growth will be in the transportation or “need” category. We all need to get places and bicycling there keeps us healthy and saves us time. It’s just a matter of awareness for the pieces to fall into place to bring about that growth. And with that growth and the ensuing bike culture will come greater use in the recreational or “want” category. The sport of bicycling will bloom as never before.

The “vehicular cycling versus infrastructure” debate is always a hot topic around here. Where do you stand on this issue, and what do you think will get people out of their cars and onto bikes (other than $7 per gallon gas)?

I am a vehicular cyclist, that is, I ride on the road according to my rights and responsibilities stated in the California Vehicle Code. That said, we will not see 10X growth in cycling without offering separate paths for new cyclists. Look at Europe: far more utility cycling by people of all ages, and it’s happening on far more bicycle-specific infrastructure, separated from cars.

Can you tell us about your daily commute? I’m assuming you ride a Breezer? Which model, and why?

I work out of my home and do almost all my errands by bike. I do not own a car, as it would just sit there and rot, but I do occasionally use my wife’s car. My “car” of choice is a Breezer Finesse, although where parking security is problematic I ride my Uptown 7 (ex-Villager), which now has about 25,000 miles on it. I ride up to 50 miles a day on these bikes. Occasionally I augment my errand rides with a BOB trailer.

What advice would you give to those who are considering adopting a car-lite or car-free lifestyle?

  1. Get equipped. I did a fair number of errands by bike when all I had was a “naked” bike, but until I had a fully equipped bike, I didn’t know the extraordinary change it would have on my life.
  2. Get smart. Boost your confidence by taking a bike education program. Study the motor-vehicle code as if your life depended on it. Take it to heart. Ride like an ambassador of cycling.
  3. Get trim. Consider selling your car. If you’re in a two-car family, try doing with just one.
  4. Get going. The hardest part is getting out the door with your bike. Once you do, the smile crosses your face and you wonder why it seemed so hard.

We’d like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Joe Breeze for taking time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts with our readers. —Alan & Michael


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