This article was produced in association with Shimano.
Many people who have an innate love for cycling have a bike which they can see when they close their eyes. Just as brides may have a vision of their perfect wedding dress, or as car fanatics know the exact make, model and parts of their ideal vehicle, this is a bicycle that pops into a cyclist’s mind as they allow themselves to dream, even just for a moment, of the perfect build.
In an era when most bikes are produced on a mass scale in the Far East, where advances in manufacturing and production processes have seen bicycles become both more affordable and more technologically advanced than ever before, bringing an individual’s vision of their uniquely perfect bike to fruition has become much less common. The majority of frame geometries and components are largely off-the-shelf and while they come in a number of options, for cyclists searching for the ultimate tailored fit, or the most premium comfort, or perhaps some specific, niche design elements, these sometimes just don’t make the cut.
So for those who have the means, and the vision, this is where the artisans come in: the longstanding, traditional, custom bike builders who have the ability to cater to a rider’s every need, who treat frames like valuable pieces of art, with no cost spared, no corners cut, no details missed. In recent years, there has been a dramatic resurgence in the number of custom builders; innovative craftsmen who build through a labour of love, not a desire to produce products quickly or cheaply.
Cycling componentry brand Shimano has long had an appreciation for these independent framebuilders who create bikes in the rawest form. Last year, the Japanese giant awarded three artisan bike brands its special-edition, gravel-specific GRX Limited groupset to show “a love and respect” for each manufacturer’s work. At its core, GRX Limited is the 11-speed mechanical GRX 800 series groupset, but the brushed and polished silver finish of the Limited delivers a classy take on the quality, precision, and durability synonymous with GRX – the perfect accompaniment to a classic, carefully designed custom frame.
Each of these artisan framebuilders is based in a different continent, and each has a unique take on the requirements of a gravel bike for the varied local landscapes. From the busy streets and paths in Sakai City, Japan, through the mountains around Lake Como in north Italy, to the dirt roads of the New Hampshire/Vermont borderlands in the USA, these are three very different framebuilders, highlighted by Shimano because of their shared passion for creating stunning feats of innovation.
Made in Sakai City
In a small corner of Sakai City, Japan, on a busy street shared with a car repair garage and an in-town rice paddy, Shouichi Soukawa is building bicycle frames. Enclosed in a cramped workshop surrounded by the dark greys of metal tools and scattered tubesets of forgotten frames, he’s crouched down, labouring over every detail. Gloved fingers carefully weld steel to create a meticulously designed shape; he moulds curves and corners, sharp angles and soft edges. Soukawa’s eyes are focused with concentration and his mouth is set in a thin line: this is serious work. In the same way that an artist paints a canvas, or a musician writes songs, Soukawa builds frames with thought and innovation, inspired by his friends and surroundings. His brand, Corner Bikes, is fast becoming Sakai City’s most famous and coveted place to come for people who want a locally produced frame, customised to their very needs.
“Everyone inspires me,” says Soukawa. “For example, my friend who draws. When he is drawing a line, a small adjustment changes the quality of the line; that gives me hints when I make frames as that’s what I’m trying to do, too.”
Soukawa was raised in Sakai, but learned his craft in Tokyo, training in the traditional methods of steel frame production. From drawing life-size frames on paper using pencils and rulers, through bending and mitring tubes and welding, to perfecting polished mirror finishes, he became well versed in creating bikes for the long haul, convinced of the comfort and durability of steel frames. Once his training was done, Soukawa felt a calling to return to his roots in Sakai, and it was from then that Corner Bikes was built.
“Being in Sakai I can better take care of my old friends and their bikes, so the most suitable place for my business is Sakai.” he says. “I would rather open a business that is deeply rooted in real friendship than have a big business in a big city. That’s why I came back to my hometown.”
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that a true craftsman like Soukawa feels most comfortable in Sakai. It’s a city with a long history in the steel industry, with tradition, skills and ingenuity carefully nurtured and passed down through the years. When all imports stopped due to World War One, Japan had to make many things domestically, including their bicycles. Sakai grew to be one of Japan’s major frame-producing regions during this period and it is said that Japan’s bicycle industry would disappear without Sakai’s bicycle parts.
The area’s creative culture, fused with this history of bicycle production and innovation, created the perfect birthplace for Soukawa’s Corner Bikes. It’s a company that has given a new meaning to gravel cycling in the area, reminding people that in a world dominated by fast production and consumerism, we only really need products which work for us. Corner Bikes are made for local needs, be that riding on small gravel paths on the outskirts of the city, heading to the mountains for long adventures or simply riding for the love of it. “I think part of the enjoyment of gravel in Japan is finding places to bike. We can enjoy the process of finding good gravel routes. We don’t have to copy how they do it in the USA. We can look for different narrow paths, connect them together and find our favourite route,” says Soukawa. “Paths which were too rough for road bikes to get into, you can get into these paths with gravel bikes, so now you have more areas to enjoy.”
Souwaka argues that his customers have wanted gravel bikes all along, but it’s only now that frame builders like himself have started to create bikes that fulfil their desires. “Until now, I used to use thin tyres and then over-inflate them and climb mountains with them. I used to do that a lot, but now I use wide tyres and reduce the air pressure to get a safer and more comfortable ride,” he says.
Seeing true craftsmanship like Souwaka’s is refreshing in today’s world, and it’s clear that the Japanese artisan is inspired by his surroundings to create perfect bicycles. It’s not about them being the lightest, or the most aerodynamic or the stiffest. Instead, it’s creating practical vehicles which support adventure in the area he loves and calls home.
“Sakai City has a big population, but if we travel a little to the outskirts, the choice of gravel paths expands a lot,” says Soukwaka. “There are traditional Japanese landscapes in town, too. I think Sakai is an incredibly attractive city, and bicycles are vehicles that are close to daily life.”
Made in New England
When fireflies swarm around Rhode Island and illuminate the evenings at sundown it feels like magic. They are small glimmers of light that electrify their surroundings, creating an excitable buzz, a heady swarm of countless points of light. They are a reminder of nature’s power to transform a normal summer’s evening into something spellbinding. As a child growing up on Rhode Island, Jamie Medeiros used to chase the fireflies and try to catch them in glass jars. That feeling of being carefree outdoors in the summertime is one that has stayed with him long into adulthood. It’s for this very reason that he, Tyler Evans and Kevin Wolfson named their company Firefly Bikes; an ode to that childhood freedom and fun. Wolfson smiles as he shares this anecdote from behind his desk in Boston, where Firefly Bikes has been based for the last 12 years. “From the start, we’ve always been focused on building bikes from only the best materials,” he says. “At the beginning that was titanium and stainless steel, and then eventually a titanium and carbon blend.”
The focus of the American company has never been to mass produce bikes quickly or cheaply, but instead, Wolfson and his colleagues have just one key goal in mind: to be proud of every bike they make. It’s for this reason that they keep production small (around 110 bikes per year) and place a huge focus on the customer experience, finding out exactly what a person wants from their bike before setting to work building it, all in-house.
“We’ve always been very focused on making the experience of getting a bike personal, detailed and enjoyable for the customer. It means that we’re making a better bike in the end, because we have a better understanding of what the customer wants out of it,” says Wolfson. “The most important first question is how they want to use the bike. Some people come in and they know exactly the type of riding they want to do; some people come in and are just looking to get into gravel riding or a different type of riding. We’ll work with them to try to determine exactly what that riding might look like, and how we can build a bike for it.”
Naturally, Wolfson has spent plenty of time creating his very own Firefly bike over the years, using it to find the limits of what he and his colleagues can make, and optimising it for the roads he uses most regularly in and around Boston. “Around Greater Boston there aren’t many extended sections of dirt roads. For the most part, you’re either on roads or you’re on short sections of dirt paths or fire roads that quickly become mountain bike trails. I wanted a bike that would be capable when it transitioned from a dirt road to a singletrack trail. That meant that my headtube angle was a little lower than I might do on someone else’s All-Road bike and I have tonnes of tyre clearance. The GRX groupset gives you a nice wide gear range for steep climbs on trails, too,” says Wolfson.
Recently, Wolfson returned to the Upper Valley of the Vermont/New Hampshire borderlands on his Firefly All-Road bike. The Upper Valley is a place where he previously attended college and raced competitively on the road. The rolling, expansive bright green landscapes, quiet dirt roads and stunning views make the Upper Valley a cyclist’s playground, and it reaffirmed to Wolfson the importance of what a gravel bike can offer.
“The Upper Valley is a little bit of a local mecca for riding up there,” says Wolfson. “It’s pretty rural, beautiful roads, a huge variety of roads. There are a lot of long, steep climbs, short climbs, rivers, dirt roads, mountain bike trails, just everything you could want for riding is up there. When I lived there, my focus was really mostly on road riding, so I’d only explored a handful of road routes in the area. To go back up there and explore dirt roads that I hadn’t ever seen before, but that I had been close to for a long time - that connects nicely to the way a lot of people use gravel bikes, which is to find new roads and new places to ride in an otherwise familiar area. It’s sort of like rediscovering somewhere that you’ve already been before thanks to the capability of a new bike or a new style of riding.”
Wolfson and his colleagues’ passion for making custom bikes isn’t dwindling anytime soon and they strongly believe that building everything in-house and keeping things small has sheltered Firefly Bikes from problems faced by the wider industry in the past, such as material shortages during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite being in the minority as a small, independent framebuilder, Wolfson argues there will always be a place for a brand like Firefly Bikes in the cycling world.
“We think there’s always going to be a market for people who want custom bikes, because there are a lot of reasons to get a custom bike, whether it’s because they need a fit that they can’t get somewhere else, they need a combination of options that they can’t get somewhere else or just because they want something that’s special,” says Wolfson. “In terms of what we want from our business, it’s just to keep making bikes that we’re proud of, and slowly improve the small details of the bikes. It’s less like we want to grow or we want to make this many bikes in the future. It’s more we want to keep the focus on high quality and we want to keep trying to do a good job.”
Made in Milano
The mountains surround Lake Como like looming giants hoping to take a sip from the azure blue water. Buildings spill on to the shores of the lake, baked in the orange light of the sun. It’s peaceful, but the bright paint on the houses and strings of washing blowing in the breeze give a sign of the life that permeates through this idyllic scene. Teenagers play football in courtyards, the smell of sizzling fish pasta comes from kitchens and babies giggle at their parents pulling silly faces. In a flash of colour and whoosh of wind, a cyclist whizzes past.
Often, that rider might be Passoni’s Matteo Visentini, using the flowing Italian tarmac to test the custom bike brand’s latest prototype or new design. Lake Como is just a half an hour journey away from Passoni’s Milan-based atelier, and Visentini says it serves as one of the best areas for riding new bikes: “We can test road bikes there, we can test gravel bikes there, even mountain bikes there. We use a pass, the Colma di Sormano, which is very famous because the Giro di Lombardia uses it. It is the top of one of the highest mountains around the Como area. We usually always test our road bike there but this time we spent a lot of time testing the Cicloprato gravel bike there because from the Colma di Sormano there are the main roads, then from there, there are three or four mountain paths, perfect for mountain biking and gravel riding.”
Matteo is the son of Giro d’Italia winner Roberto Visentini, and cycling has always been in his DNA. He was never a racer, though, and obsessed over bikes in a very different way to how his father did. “Before, I was an architect. I am a creative person but not like a painter. Everything must be in line. It’s more like an artistic wave with geometric thought,” explains Visentini. “This is a great feature for me in my job, because with bicycles, everything must be perfectly balanced between all the aspects of the bike. It is like a building. There are a lot of similarities between the two things.”
Visentini says that Passoni designs are heavily influenced by bicycle models of the past: “I used to read a lot of books about geometry and a lot of books by old Italian artisans, writing about their prototypes and models. I’m also a huge collector of Italian bicycles of the 80s.” He explains that when designing new builds, he is inspired by cycling’s history of great framebuilders, aiming to do things differently to other brands who always strive to create something new or radical. Passoni’s flagship gravel bike, the Cicloprato, is the brand’s attempt to fit with the changing demands of the modern cyclist, while remaining true to its traditional, Italian heritage.
“Gravel is a new sector, but it’s very similar to the early 90s mountain bike. In this future, you cannot forget your past. A lot of great technical aspects are already done, we just have to look at it and then have new ideas about it. New, big companies are an inspiration for us too, but a lot of companies try to create something from scratch without looking at the past. That’s a missing link,” says Visentini.
With a number of former professional riders as advisors and product testers, as well as 30 years of experience building bikes from scratch in Italy, Passoni has become one of the most premium and respected brands in the cycling world.
“Passoni always has, and always will have, this thing: the heritage. This is the most important thing for me. Even creating our Cicloprato with new geometries and a new design, we look a lot to the past of road racing without looking too much for new trends. Bigger companies want to sell more and more bikes, so they have to create different segments for the same bike, like speed gravel or endurance gravel. Our main goal is to create the perfect bike. I like to sell to a client the perfect bike for their needs. I don’t want to create more needs.”
Helping cyclists find their dream build is a long process, and one that Visentini takes seriously. Each person who wishes to own a Passoni bicycle is invited to come to see it being created in the Milan headquarters, where everything is built and designed. There, any changes can be made quickly and easily, and different combinations can be tested to see what works for each rider.
“We can create a prototype in a very short time because the production is just behind my office wall,” says Visentini. “I can walk into the workshop and say, ‘Okay, guys, let’s do this.’ I’m very lucky because most of the guys who work for Passoni have over 30 years of experience. Every time, we have a lot of discussions about it and I’m very confident in what they suggest to me, then we mix our ideas together and create the first prototype of a bike. The first prototype usually is always used by one of our mechanics or myself, otherwise we use our ambassadors to test it. We are proud because we have a lot of former pros who can give us the perfect feedback which is very important to us.”
When it comes to the Cicloprato, Visentini says that Passoni has taken everything it knows from three decades in the road-racing sphere to create a gravel bike that hits a balance between the correct tyre clearance and wheelbase to make it fun to ride both on the road and when the tarmac ends. He explains that the Cicloprato is a bike that can be made in standard geometries, but Visentini’s heart lies with the fully made-to-measure, custom option.
“A lot of people think that the best thing about a custom made bike is the size, but it’s not,” he says. “The best part is to have a bike which suits your needs. If you want a very quick Cicloprato I can make it for you, if you want a very stable bike for riding for a tour of Europe with your bags, we can create it. The size can be adjusted with the stem or saddle, a lot of stuff can be changed to create the perfect size for you, but going custom is how to get the perfect feel.”