How to shop for a bike: Our visit with American Cyclery’s Brad Woehl
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
This sidebar is a supplement to From bicycles to “pedal steel” guitars: One maker’s quirky frontiers
If you’re ever near San Francisco and happen to visit American Cyclery, a tiny little bicycle shop on the Southeast corner of Golden Gate Park, it won’t be long before you realize you’ve stumbled into a rare treasure trove.
Established in 1941 (by an old, long-distance racing legend named Oscar Juner), American Cyclery is the oldest independent bike shop in the city. Its current owner, Bradley Woehl, has spent decades doing everything in a proprietor’s power to preserve its traditions—and, by extension, the traditions of fine bicycle design. In an age when more than 90 percent of the world’s bicycles (some estimate as much as 99 percent) are made in Asia, American Cyclery both sells and helps develop artisanal approaches to bike frames and bike parts that most other dealers have long since abandoned.
An example: For many bicycle purists, there has never been a drive system better than the old Campagnolo set of front and rear derailleurs. Sadly, this venerated Italian company did not keep up well with modern trends. As riders turned toward bikes with a stack of huge sprockets for easier hill-climbing, Campy, as it is still lovingly called, failed to fully adapt. So people slowly turned to companies that did—primarily Shimano, the Japanese firm that now dominates bicycling’s drive train market.
Instead of abandoning Campy the way many bike dealers have, Woehl decided to design an extender, so that riders could use their old Campy derailleurs on rear sprocket sets with large cogs (up to 32 teeth). This little part, pictured below, sells for a mere $40—a godsend to those with boxes of the finely machined Campy Nuovo and Super Records sitting in their garages that they are loathe to give away.
For his bicycle line-up, Woehl has established relationships with several innovative American manufacturers. This allows him to offer customers a wide range of unusually well-made bikes at a wide range of prices.
His product line begins, at the low end of the price scale, with offerings from Public Bikes, an increasingly popular national brand of city cruisers that Woehl helped develop. (Prices for Public Bikes start at a mere $350 and top out at $2,000, with a good many costing less than $1,000.) Public Bikes has been so appreciative of Woehl’s efforts that it published a sweet story about him on the Public Bikes website, which is worth a read.
One of Woehl’s lovable idiosyncracies is his curation of a vast historical archive of old catalogues, magazines, and bicycle parts. “I just love old derailleurs,” he told me when I visited, smiling like a little kid as we stood over a glass case in his basement that was overflowing with decades of inventions.
Next up the American Cyclery line are SOMA bikes, another increasingly popular brand that Woehl had a hand in developing. SOMA bikes sell for around $1,000; they are made in Taiwan but designed by a South San Francisco firm, The Merry Sales Co., that has been in the bike business for generations. No matter where you live, when you order a SOMA, the frame is delivered to American Cyclery, which builds it up with parts according to Woehl’s specifications and then ships it to you. (For SOMA customers who care, Woehl will offer some custom parts selections.)
The next tier up the bike chain (so to speak) are Gunnar and Waterford bikes. These are custom and semi-custom bikes that Woehl has made by Waterford Precision Cycles in Waterford, Wisc. Waterford descends from the famous Schwinn line of bicycle manufacturers, and one of the company’s owners, Richard Schwinn, is the great-grandson of Schwinn’s founder.
A Gunnar, which has TIG-welded joints, can be ordered online (prices for just the frame start at $950). If you order a Waterford, the frame will be built with the finely crafted lugs that are the hallmarks of yesteryear’s fine bicycles. If you’re going in this direction (Waterford frames start at $1,500), you probably want to pay Brad a visit for a truly customized fit.
On any given day, there will also be a wide variety of other bikes in the shop, including some fine vintage bikes that the American Cyclery team has refurbished.
ACROSS THE BAY
About an hour’s drive from American Cyclery’s doors, at Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, Grant Petersen works as hard as Brad Woehl, in his own way, to go against today’s mass-production trends.
Petersen, an avid believer in the value of a lugged frame, has contracted with Waterford to construct many of the Rivendell bikes, which he manages to sell for remarkably reasonable prices. One of the best examples is the superb Clem Smith Jr., which sells (frame only) for $850. In a detailed pitch for the Clem Smith, Petersen, who is a talented and prodigious writer, says that, with all the parts added, the Clem Smith turns into an unusually fine bicycle, for almost any terrain, for around $1,500.
Our final recommendation is a rare bow to the evil empire–those giants of mass-market bike manufacturing that people like Petersen, Woehl and Ross Shafer have spent their lives competing against. We’re talking about a new bike from Specialized called the Diverge.
Our faith in this recommendation comes from none other than Jan Heine, the publisher of Bicycle Quarterly, which is possibly the most avidly traditionalist bike publication in existence today. In the fall of 2015, after railing against Big Bike Manufacturing for years, Heine published an exhaustive article about his test of the Diverge during a long-distance trip. His conclusion: it’s the best all-round bike to hit the market in years.
The Diverge comes with its own range of price points, depending on frame materials and quality of components. They start as low as $1,000 or so for a Diverge A1, and go as high as $5,500 for a Diverge Pro.
Which of all these bikes is the best? “The best bike,” Woehl says with another one of those childlike smiles, “is the one that inspires you to go riding.”