Recently we sat down with frame builder Shawn Stevenson. He’s one of the primary writers for Cycle Sportive, so we were interested in seeing what makes him tick.
CS- If we read your sales material we know your father is, “The Greatest Unknown Frame Builder.” What’s your story?
My dad was already very seriously involved with cycling and frame building when I was born in 1972, so I’ve always been around bicycle culture. I was riding in a trailer before I can remember. I started riding on the back of a kid back converted tandem at four and ‘rode’ my first century before I was five. I literally grew up in the bike shops and frame shops my dad worked at. Family vacations were always cycle tours. Some of these involved my riding hundreds of miles on the middle of a fully-loaded triple with a trailer.
Shawn on the back of a tandem with kid back conversion circa 1975 or 1976
As I got older I did some club riding on tandem with my dad. At some point teen rebellion took its course and for me that involved trying to build my own identity away from cycling for a while. I still had a few part time industry jobs in high school- driving a broom at Fisher and doing shipping and receiving at Alpinestars and I rode bikes for transportation.
I had a series of jobs representing Taiwanese bicycle companies in the U.S. during my early twenties. I also started to ride seriously. This was mostly what I would call cycle sportive riding. I did a lot centuries and some double centuries. I dabbled with road racing, rode a lot of club time trials, mountain biked, and did some randonneuring. In late 1995 I started building frames with my dad. I mostly did frame finishing work, bike fittings, and a good chunk of the frame design for a while. This went on for about five years.
I went back to school full time in 2001; got my BA and put in three years towards a history PhD. I worked some summers selling bikes at The Bike Stand here in Olympia. In 2008 my life was in chaos. My partner at the time had some serious health issues that were very stressful to deal with. I needed a change. The opportunity to take on a management role at The Bike Stand presented itself and I jumped at it. Working as a manager and buyer for a good size, full spectrum, bike shop was a lot of fun for a while. Unfortunately, the economy tanked about the time I came on. We were insulated from that here in Olympia because the state government is such a big employer, but it eventually had an impact. REI came to town and really hit our associated outdoor business hard. When the business was looking ready to crack a million dollars in sales it made sense to have a second buyer. When it had been trending the other direction rapidly for over a year that wasn’t really wasn’t the case anymore and I was dispensable.
CS- This was fall of 2012?
Yeah. That’s right.
CS- Then what happened?
It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do. Dad had been building, as a hobby the whole time and I’d helped out with that occasionally. It was pretty clear to me for a long time that frame building might have a lot of untapped financial potential. I philosophically wasn’t very excited about taking on another boss. I also really liked the idea of getting back into doing artisan work where you make something concrete that you can look at when you go home at night. The idea of putting myself in a situation where I might carry on my dad’s legacy as a frame builder was also on my mind. I approached him and suggested that we put the frame operation back on a business footing, start promoting it, and see how it went.
CS- How has that played out so far?
I’ve been able to bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the project. We’ve got a new web site; we’ve started a separate cycling blog focused on cycle sportive style riding and culture. I’ve set up dealer accounts so we can do complete bikes in addition to just frames. I have also put a lot of effort into compiling some professional photography. We are lucky to have supporters like Doug Rosenfield, Alan Woods, and Paul Reynolds who are both amazing photographers and generous enough to share some of their work with us. Working up a business plan and model has also taken up a lot of my time.
There have been some challenges. The biggest one is trying to take the operation from zero to full speed ahead quickly. We started out with no backlog of orders. This means that we are positioned to offer quick delivery, which is a competitive advantage compared to other builders with the amount of time we have in the business. On the other hand it’s kind of an insecure place to be. For this to work we need to get to a place where I can count on some regular income. That means we need to rack up some orders quickly. I’m working at that pretty hard, but it remains to see when it will start to pay off.
CS- Let’s shift gears a little bit. Do you have your own philosophy when it comes to frame design?
That’s a bit of a trick question. I’ve been brought up drinking my dad’s Kool-Aid when it comes to bicycles. We are very much on the same page when it comes to what we like in a frame and what we think a quality frame or bicycle ought to be like.
That said, I can tell you what I think is important and what I like in a frame. For starters, there’s a reason we build steel bikes. I own an aluminum bike and I do ride it, but I think the stiffness of that material results in a harsh ride, especially on rough road surfaces. I can’t get very excited about riding it more than 35 miles on the roads around here- and that frame was specially designed to mitigate the bad characteristics associated with riding aluminum bikes. I’ve had better experience riding carbon fiber bikes, but they’ve still been less than optimum. Carbon bikes are light and you can get good stiffness out of them. Carbon absorbs a certain amount of road shock, so a good carbon bike isn’t going to rattle your fillings out like an aluminum bike. What I don’t like about carbon bikes is that there is something kind of dead about how they ride. In the worst cases you get a bike that rides like a dead fish. Other carbon bikes give a pretty neutral ride. They don’t have any bad characteristics, but they lack the liveliness that allows you to really get in tune with a good steel bike. There is also the issue of reparability. Carbon frames are brittle. They are particularly vulnerable to point impacts. They are repairable in some cases, but it is painfully expensive. A dent from impact with a handlebar in a crash that might cost you $40 and a paint job to fix on a steel bike is going to punch a hole in your carbon bike that will set you back $1000, plus or minus, to repair. I’m agnostic about titanium. It’s metal, which I like and low weight is certainly a positive. Expense is an issue and I just haven’t ridden ti enough to have a strong opinion.
Aesthetically, I like lugs with clean lines and long points. The kind of look you see on Italian bikes like Cinelli Supercorsas or Masi Gran Criteriums. I like the graphics on vintage British bikes- pin striping, panels, box stripes, and so on.
Conceptually, I gravitate towards bikes along the lines of the British club bike or French sportif bike- a frame that is sporty, but is designed to work with fenders and a slightly larger tire like a 25 or a 28 on a 700c bike. I also like a light frame with short chain stays. Correct fit is certainly crucial.
If I were to put it all together into my ideal frame you would end up with something like the one we built for Alan Woods’s club bike, which we will be profiling soon. It would be a bike built from the lightest available tubing- like Reynolds 953 or True Temper S3. It would have clean lugs with long points. They’d be pin striped. The bike would certainly have a panel on the seat tube and perhaps another on the down tube. I might go for box stripes as well. I might use a curved seat tube to get a little shorter chain stay with the fenders and clearance for a larger tire.
Photo courtesy of Alan Woods
CS- This is what you would call a cycle sportive bike?
CS- Tell us a little more about what the concept means for you.
I think that the majority of people riding high-end road bikes are enthusiast riders. They are riding for fitness. They want to ride fast, and they might race some, but they don’t think of themselves primarily as racers. They may do loaded touring, but that’s not the majority of what they do on a bike. They aren’t ultra-distance riders or randonneurs. They mostly do club rides and organized events like centuries or perhaps the occasional double century. They ride year round.
This sort of rider needs a specialized bike. It needs to be comfortable over long distances, sporty, and suitable for riding on wet roads and other bad conditions. Typically this isn’t what the industry is providing in a production bike. What you see instead, most often, is a repurposed carbon or aluminum race bike. There is nothing wrong with a light bike with racing geometry. It just needs to do the other things- be comfortable and able to handle a fender easily. This isn’t what the big bike companies are building. If you do see a production bike made from steel with adequate clearances it’s probably made from heavier tubing to allow it to be positioned at a lower price point. What we really want to do at Stevenson is provide people with the most appropriate bikes for the type of riding they are actually doing.
CS- Is this a heavy bike?
Absolutely not! An extra centimeter or two of chain stay with bigger clearances adds minimal weight. Fender braze-ons only weigh a few grams. A good pair of fenders weighs in just under a pound. A top of the line sportive bike should only weigh a pound or so more than an equivalent racing bike. There is no reason you couldn’t build a sixteen pound sportive bike.
CS- So these are racy bikes you are talking about?
That’s what the sportive rider needs. Performance is a big part of the equation. If you are doing fast club riding you want all the traits of a good race bike- light weight and good, confidence inspiring handling, good power transfer, and good climbing ability. That’s what we strive to provide with our sportive bikes.
CS- This has been informative. Thanks for your time.
You are welcome. Anytime…