If you’re interested in hand-built bicycle frames, there’s a good chance you already know the name Cameron Falconer. A custom frame builder, Falconer designs and crafts elegant minimalist bikes. In a workshop ceilinged with bike frames in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, he uses manual machine tools to turn a few feet of steel tubing into durable and well-fitted bike frames for road, cyclocross, and mountain riding.
The constraint of simplicity drives his design and production methods. “You can’t really add a lot [to a bike], it will affect the performance, and there is not much you can take off,” says Falconer.
While the basic form is simple, a bike’s measurements and design can make all the difference to the rider. Falconer’s job is to make a bike that works with the human body for maximum efficiency. You don’t want the front derailleur hitting the water bottle cage. You don’t want your neck to hurt while you climb a hill.
“It’s 8 tubes and a bottom bracket shell and some widgets. It’s not hard to make a bike. It’s hard to make one that is going to be excellent,” says Falconer.
Spend an afternoon in Falconer’s shop and you’ll discover that, true to his reputation, he’s a part of a community of people that make things and make them well. (“Bikes are how I’ve met the best people in my life,” he says.) Besides an education in the history and mechanics and construction of bikes, you might meet a friend coming by to bend steel rod for a hanging bookshelf or a man picking up a metal frame Falconer welded for him.
“My challenge has always been to improve my process: build better tools, be a better welder, improve my product,” Falconer says. Along the way he has designed and constructed specialized tools, like a chain stay sub assembly jig, a stout tool that ensures precision in the tricky rear end assembly.
This process begins with a fitting — correct proportion and an understanding of the rider’s intention is crucial to customization — and that information gets plugged into a CAD program. With a frame jig, a chain stay sub assembly jig, a seat stay cutting tool, and vertical and horizontal milling machines, Falconer custom cuts his pieces and then meticulously joins them using TIG welding. True to his commitment to simplicity, Falconer’s bikes are only single color. He does not do lugs. He does not do brazed work. His bikes, however, are beautiful.
But that does not mean they should be looked at like art — a bike is a tool, and he wants you to use it. “I come from a racing background and I see bikes as tools,” he says. “In the end they should end up scratched and dirty and ridden to death.”