Steve Hampsten in his Seattle shop
A little over a year ago, I received an email from Steve Hampsten. He was responding to my request for an interview with his brother, which he went on to facilitate (you can read that interview here).
While cycling fans have always known of Andy Hampsten's feats in the sport, many are also getting to know his brother Steve. The company they own, Hampsten Cycles, has been producing custom frames for thirteen years. The company's success has not been based on name recognition alone though. Hampsten has chosen to focus on a specific type of bike frame: the kind of bike that he and his brother enjoy riding. This means that Hampsten's frames are more rooted in reality than in delusions fueled by marketing trends within the professional peloton (see Andy's bike as a point of reference here).
During a recent visit to Seattle, Steve was kind enough to host me as I asked endless questions and took far too many pictures. What follows is the result of that visit, which was originally published in Road Magazine. Thanks to both Steve and Andy for their time.
Photo: Michael Matisse
The GPS navigation system that was supposed to help me ride to Hampsten Cycles's shop in Seattle was elegantly simple. So simple, in fact, that it was made up of nothing more than four sheets of paper from a hotel notepad. Each sheet was full of handwritten directions and maps. In a time when bike computers have grown in complexity, and can change a flat tire for you, as well as help you pick a great wine while riding the France (and then ordering it for you in the correct regional dialect), I thought my low-tech solution was fail-safe. But when I stopped in a scenic spot near Lake Washington to check my progress along the route, I realized two things. First, I was missing sheet #3 out of #4 (I number them). Secondly, I was running more than twenty minutes late, and the missing sheet of paper wouldn’t be making matters any better. I clipped back in, and started riding as quickly as I could, heading in what I thought was the right direction.
It wasn't the right direction. Not even close.
By the time I arrived at Hampsten Cycle's headquarters, I was almost forty-five minutes late. I felt ashamed and defeated. I apologized profusely to Steve Hampsten, showing him the sweaty sheets of paper in my back pocket, assuring him that I’d lost one of them along the way. I was basically an adult explaining how a dog had eaten my homework. But Steve didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was late. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He had something more important in mind. "What bike did you ride here? Can I see it?" he asked excitedly. We went outside, and Steve took his time, studying every aspect of my rather humble lugged steel frame. He went from the front of the bike to the rear, and then back again, methodically examining every inch of it.
At the risk of oversimplifying matters, I believe that short interaction exemplifies Steve Hampsten, and conversely the bike company he runs with his brother Andy. Steve has real love—a passion really—for both the details and the aesthetic beauty that is inherent in well built objects like bike frames. But Steve never loses sight of the need for performance and usability, a rarity in today’s climate, when builders will often cater to those who see bikes simply as collectibles or status symbols.
As a matter of fact, Hampsten’s bike designs are very much rooted in reality, and how people who ride and love their bikes actually use them. Why shouldn’t you be able to put big tires or fenders on a fast bike should the need arise? Steve champions that kind of flexibility, and obsesses over the details that make it possible. Refreshingly, however, he manages to balance his quest to make great bikes with a laid back and welcoming attitude that make him an ideal point of contact for customers. In short, he’s an unusual mix among today’s custom builders. One that has made Hampsten Cycles successful in a time when the interest in custom bike frames is once again starting to wane.
Thinking back to the company's beginnings, Steve can't help but remember the opposition that he faced early on. “Brother Andy and I started Hampsten Cycles back in 1999, when people were saying that road bikes were dead, and that we were fools for doing anything but mountain bikes. Then Lance won the Tour and the market got interested in handmade bikes.” Since that time, their company has seen substantial changes both in itself, and the market in which it exists. Steve admits that having a brother and partner like Andy; easily one of most beloved figures in American cycling has helped.
But when you speak with Steve about the company’s history, you realize that it’s probably his nimble way of thinking that has gotten the company where it is today. From its inception, Hampsten Cycles has partnered with some of the best builders in the industry to have his designs produced. “We started with match bicycle company [where Steve had worked along with builders like Curt Goodrich, Kirk Pacenti, and Mark Bulgier] building frames. They were steel and not custom. Then match closed shop and Dave Levy of Ti Cycles offered to build our steel frames. At the same time Moots stepped in to build titanium for us, and I think that really upped our game. As we went along, various other builders became involved: Carl Strong and Co-Motion for steel and aluminum; Parlee for carbon; then Independent Fabrication for steel.”
There was also a partnership with famed Italian builder Dario Pegoretti, who was to build frames for Hampsten commemorating Andy’s win at the Giro in ’88. Sadly Dario’s cancer diagnosis complicated matters, and only one frame was made. It was not to be.
Through such experiences, Steve Hampsten’s body of knowledge grew, and he eventually decided to bring most of the fabrication in-house. “Today, Kent Eriksen [founder of Moots] does maybe half a dozen titanium frames for us each year from his shop in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Max Kullaway is welding the steel, stainless, and titanium frames, as well as most of our custom touring racks here in-house. Martin Tweedy builds all the lugged frames and brazed forks that we offer, also in-house.” Steve suddenly pauses and smiles, “Well, he does some of the work in his own shop at home. Which is a mile away. Does that count as ‘in-house’?”
In a time when most bike frames are produced several time zones away from those who design them, Steve’s ability to open the shop door or ride over to oversee production is certainly interesting. That has allowed him to test new ideas almost at will, giving him a level of flexibility that might cripple some who become fixated on new trends or eternal lists of what-ifs.
Steve does acknowledge that there are many things he’d like to try, but he knows what works best for his company. “There are plenty of projects I wish we could do: shopping bikes, reasonably-priced commuters, and kids bikes come to mind. But the economics of being a small one-off shop mean that we just have to charge way more than most people will want to spend for certain kinds of bikes.” In short, both Steve and Andy know what they’re good at. “Hampsten Cycles is seen as a custom bicycle company and my customers want custom frames, they don't want to save a couple of hundred bucks, and have limited options.” Hampsten’s customers also appreciate that Steve and Andy choose to make the bikes they themselves like to ride.
When I ask Steve about the prospect of making cyclocross bikes due to the current interest in the discipline, or fixed gear bikes for the urban crowd, he’s quick to respond, “I think in most cases if it's not genuine, if you're seen as just doing it for a buck, people sense that and react accordingly.” But Steve’s take on the company remains fluid, and always grounded on what he’s legitimately interested in. “My girlfriend Jenny has a fourteen year old son that she'd like to see get into track racing, so you never know. Or maybe he gets into cyclocross or mountain bikes, and that could change what we offer right there.”
Guiding principles and inspiration
When you speak with Steve about the company, and his reasoning for doing things as he does them, you realize that his sources of inspiration and guiding principles are pleasantly varied. Sure, there’s always Andy’s input, which is informed by experience and the world of bike racing. But there’s more.
Although Steve worked extensively in bike shops (eventually learning to weld and do metalwork himself) he also cooked in several high-end restaurants before starting Hampsten Cycles. It’s for that reason that he can’t help but see similarities between both industries, as well as their customers while speaking with Steve. He sees the similarities as well. “People eat out because they want good food and a nice experience—and I think they buy custom bicycles for similar reasons. So I try to remind myself that I'm there to make the customer happy, not vice versa.”
Steve’s words set him apart from those builders who see themselves as artistes, ones who manufacture a cult of personality and work out their own issues and problems as they build frames, instead of solving their client’s problems and understanding their needs.
Similarly, his years working in restaurants taught him that good customers are knowledgeable, and thus come to him knowing what kind of bikes his company makes. “Most of the time, when a customer comes into a restaurant they know what the choices are, they know the style of food being presented. We never got too many requests for Moo Goo Gai Pan in an Italian joint, if you catch my drift.” The same holds true for bike makers like Hampsten and their customers.
Adding to the list of pleasantly unusual sources of inspiration, Hampsten references mid-century modern furniture designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Bertoia and Hans Wegner. Also on his list are older European cars (particularly Italian and French marques), and the one-off motorcycles he carefully examines on websites like bikeexif.com.
Another important aspect of Hampsten’s bikes, one which appears as a quiet undercurrent in all of their frames, is something that Steve says is simply a result of his Midwestern upbringing. Put simply, both Steve and Andy have a strong dislike of “faddishness of most kinds”. This point of view is perhaps best expressed in their bikes’ understated paint schemes, and straightforward designs. They are beautiful objects, sure, but they are quietly elegant as well.
This means that if you buy a Hampsten bike, you are getting all the insight of a Midwest-raised Giro winner, informed by a need for flexibility, an understanding of the customer by way of high-end dinning establishments, and influenced by the most aesthetically refined and elegant product design in history. A Hampsten is not your average bike. And Steve wouldn’t have it any other way. Henry Ford once famously said that his customers could have their cars in any color, so long as it was black. Steve and Andy are not that dogmatic. Not at all, but they know what they like, and their bikes reflect their tastes.
As I get ready to leave the shop, Steve receives a UPS parcel containing several titanium bottom brackets. As he opens the box, he exhibits what is perhaps the ultimate guiding principle for the company. One that he shares with brother Andy: a passionate love affair with the bicycle, down to the smallest detail. As Steve opens the box, he smiles wildly and focuses on its contents. He looks at the bottom brackets closely, admiring every bit of them as though they were pieces of art worthy of being hung in an art museum. For a second, he looses himself within the box’s contents. When Steve looks up, the UPS driver (who is still standing there watching Steve as intently as I am, and waiting for a signature) takes a deep breath and speaks up.
“Steve, I have to get you to build a bike for me! We need to talk.”
Steve has just gained a new customer by merely looking at the contents of a box. His passion is wildly contagious. ✖
The newspaper El Colombiano is reporting that Rigobero Uran will be the leader for Sky at Fleche Wallone, Liege Bastogne Liege, and the Giro (he is scheduled to have fellow Colombian Sergio Henao at his side for all three races). This will mark the first time since Alvaro Mejia's time that a Colombian will be leading a team in a grand tour. Of lesser importance, but also interestingly mentioned in the article, is the fact that Uran has allowed his hair to grow long so he can be easier to spot during races.
What was the biggest news story to come out of the Roubaix velodrome over the last couple of days you ask? Not Boonen's record-tying fourth victory, that's for sure. By far the biggest news in Roubaix is that someone with impeccable taste in cycling attire chose to wear their Cycling Inquisition jersey while doing a victory lap around the velodrome. Well done sir, whoever you are.
As seen in Cycling Tips
The other bit of big news, of course, is that this happened, which was noted and photographed by Stevil from All Hail The Black Market.