Thursday, November 1, 2007

BSNYC Interview: Mission Bicycles

(The Mission Bicycle--yours for nine-fiddy.)

Recently I received a number of emails from readers in a short period of time informing me of a new company called Mission Bicycles. I checked out their website and learned that "the Mission Bicycle is a light steel frame fixed gear bike with high quality components, a custom paint job, no visible branding, and a price point of $950." This struck me as being rather audacious. I mean, $950 can buy you a lot of bike. How much bike was this? Like a vice cop trying to bust a bunch of johns, I wanted to know where these guys got off. So I emailed John Adams, who was gracious enough to agree to an interview. I immediately flew first class to San Francisco, had some great Mexican food, flew back to New York and emailed him some frank questions. His answers follow. Thanks to the guys at Mission Bicycles for being forthright, and thanks as always for reading.

(As with the Aerospoke interview, yes, this is a real interview; yes, it is different than what you usually find here; and no, I didn't receive any product or compensation for this. Having interviewed an established company in the context of the fixed-gear trend I think it's interesting to hear from an upstart company too, and hopefully you'll agree. Hyperlinks in the interview are theirs and I maintained them at their request.)

Who is Mission Bicycles?

Mission Bicycles is only a month old. We (John Adams, Matt Cheney, Zack Rosen, and Josh Koenig) had all talked a bit about starting ths business for some time but really got serious about everything right before Interbike in late September this year. We have been scrambling for the past few weeks designing and sourcing our first model, got our first prototype together last week (pictures), and are processing our first orders this week.

At this stage we're really just trying to build reliable and beautiful bicycles for our friends. Next month we will have a large run assembled and we will see how much interest there is in them from the outside world. We'll be blogging on our website throughout and would love to hear from anyone with questions, comments, and substantive (or at least witty) criticism.

What are your backgrounds as cyclists? How and when did you first start riding? What kind of riding do you do now?

John: I started racing in regional BMX races when I was twelve and raced through the junior ranks in road and MTB. In 2000 and 2001, I got into Cyclocross and competed in the several SuperCup series races. I also competed in several collegiate races and served as vice president of the University of Cincinnati Cycling Team. I recently raced in Godzulla ( and the Ault Park summer crit series ( in Cincinnati prior to moving out to San Francisco last summer. Mission Bicycles has kept me pretty busy, but I'm looking into building out a cyclocross bicycle and will probably head out and compete in a few races. They have an amazing crit series out here.

Matt: I stripped down my first bicycle and rattle-canned it hot pink and neon green during junior high school. Since I moved out to San Francisco a couple years back, I have been doing a lot of city riding and currently roll around on my converted and customized green and purple fixie.

Zack: I started biking in San Francisco out of necessity a few years ago on a crappy hybrid I had until my garbage man mistakenly threw it away. On a whim I replaced it with a stock track bike I picked up from Pedal Revolution last year and discovered how much fun cycling is on a bike that fits and suits me.

Josh: I grew up on bikes in pedal-friendly Eugene, Oregon, but didn't start really identifying as a rider until I moved to New York City in the late 90s, where I immediately fell head-first into the outlaw style and cowboy culture of the city's boisterous bike scene, bringing most of my friends along for the trip. Since then I've gone through a number of rigs (and locks), but currently I reside in hilly, remote, gravel-strewn Humboldt County, cruising the Pacific hill-shores on a Surly Crosscheck -- which incidentally does very well with slicks on city trips too.

What is your professional experience in the bicycle industry? Outside of the bicycle industry?

John: I started working as a mechanic in a local bike shop, Bishop's Bicycles, when I was in high school. In 2000 I helped my friend Jason Reser get Reser Bicycle Outfitters off the ground in Cincinnati and helped run the shop over the last seven years. I helped with just about everything involved in getting a bike shop up and running: setting up the retail space, managing inventory, sales, marketing, and services. Outside of the industry I'm a trained graphic designer.
Matt, Zack, and Josh founded and run a successful San Francisco based consulting firm called Chapter Three which works primarily on socially motivated projects using open source technology. They have a lot of collective experience in designing products and working with customers and through their consulting business are financing Mission Bicycles.

What other bike companies or builders do you admire?

John: For bike companies I would have to say Principia and Bontrager (defunct). I just love the design and engineering behind Principia frames. Bontrager, made awesome steel bikes with a very innovative approach to early MTB construction. To this day my all-time favorite bike is a Bontrager CX. For custom builders, we're huge fans of Matt Chester and local steel-genius Eman. Eman hasn't been at it that long but I've never seen anything like the frames he's been building, they are truly stunning. In a perfect world everyone would ride around on frames made by these guys.

Can you give me more details about the frame? Where is it made? Is the tubing butted?

The frame is straight-gauge chromoly steel designed by a US company and manufactured overseas.

This is a San Francisco-bred bike. It can be pretty wet there. How come no braze-ons or fender eyelets?

It's a slippery slope. A fender eyelet here, a brake mount there, and pretty soon you'll end up with with 27 gears, lazy-boy geometry, and both of your Docker pant flaps pinned down by reflective yellow ankle bracelets. You can always toss a seat post mount or clip on fender if you're really in trouble.

Who are your customers and how do you see them using these bikes?

Right now our customers are our friends. They are young professionals living in the city that are looking for a dependable and great looking bike to ride around San Francisco. They have varying degree of experience and proficiency as mechanics, but for the most part would rather not have to deal with assembling their own bicycles. Some day we hope to open a retail store in the Mission in which we would also sell our bikes as well as parts and accessories to anyone who needed them, including DIY'ers who, for example, just need the hubs, rims, spokes and nipples to build up a set of wheels.

When and where will the bicycles be available?

We sold out our first run of bikes in November and are currently taking pre-orders for our second run of bikes in December. The bikes are sold both through our website and out of our shop in San Francisco. The first bikes will be in our customer's hands around Thanksgiving.

Can you explain how the "artist designed vinyl decal kit" works?

Certainly. Instead of pasting our branding all over the bikes they will be shipping with artist designed decal "kits". We are working with a number of local graphic designers to design patterns that will be cut out of colorful vinyl and can be placed on bikes by our customers like fancy stickers rated to last 5+ years. We will also give out blank sheets of decal material so they can design and cut their own. If any designers are interested in working on this project the details are posted here.

You're entering a crowded and competitive marketplace. What sets your bike apart from all of the other off-the-rack fixed-gears, specifically the Swobo Sanchez, which is also designed with a "blank canvass" philosophy?

There are plenty of ~$600 off-the-rack "blank slate" starter bikes like the Sanchez available that can be easily ripped apart and rebuilt with better, fancier, and more customized parts by their owners. Of course, this kind of customization takes some time, can cost a lot to pick up the right parts piece meal at retail shops, and requires some amount of bike mechanic experience to put it all together.

Mission Bicycles are instead designed during the ordering process and built to our customer's specifications. Our thinking is there are plenty of people out there that want a high quality, beautiful bicycle custom designed for them and would rather pay more up front instead of buying a cheaper bike and rebuilding it with purchased parts and their own labor.

Your bike costs $950. Isn't that a lot of money for a bike like this? Bikes like the Sanchez, the Pista, the Langster, the 925, etc. all retail for hundreds less, and quite frankly I'm not sure why your frame and component spec warrants the higher price. What am I missing?

The selling point of our bike is the ability to customize it as you order and easily create an unique and great looking bicycle. During the ordering process you can pick the color to powder coat the frame and mix and match the color combinations on their components. We deliver the product without visible branding (we don't plastering our logo all over the bicycles) and we offer vinyl decal design kits produced by local artists that can be applied to further personalize the bicycle.

Additionally, compared to other stock fixed gear bicycles on the market, each Mission Bicycle comes with the Deep V wheel-sets (that run for $100 more than generic) and a standard front brake ($50). Not to mention the powder coating ($150 retail in SF) or the seat, seat post, and drive train that are a cut above the quality of the components you will find on a stock fixie. We did a lot of cost comparisons for these parts and this type of bike customization in and around San Francisco and are confident it represents a fair and competitive price.

What kind of warranty do you offer?

We don't have an official warranty plan in place yet. By the time we start shipping bikes we will offer one that is comparable to local bike shops.

Will riding without a hooded sweatshirt, colored chain or top tube pad void the warranty?

We are consulting with our legal team on this one. Likely we would probably need to know a little bit more about the musical tastes, coffee shop preferences, ironical abilities, and jean size of each rider before passing final judgement.

What are your goals going forward? Would you like to offer different bicycle models? Components? Accessories?

We started this business to make beautiful bicycles for ourselves and our friends to ride around San Francisco. We would like to see more people riding their beautiful fixed gear bikes to work or school everyday. We have big dreams of opening a retail store in San Francisco. We also have started thinking about what a lower-cost simplified version of our bike that stores could carry would look like.

Do you see fixed-gear bicycles remaining as popular as they are now? Where do you see this whole thing going?

It's hard to predict where things are going, but there is some amount of anecdotal evidence that commuting on bikes picking up in some major US cities. It's pretty apparent amongst the younger population in San Francisco (yes, including a lot of hipsters). At the same time, in our view, the most interesting and desirable bikes on the road are not the ones being sold in stores, they are the hand assembled fixed gear bikes being built by hobbyists. True, there are a lot of hilarious tragic abominations out there, but ultimately it seems like there is an increasing number of kids excited about biking and excited about their bikes -- and that's awesome.