This week is the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin's Bike to Work Week. In celebration of this event, OnMilwaukee.com will run new bike-related stories each day.
In the mind of a cyclist, Waterford, Wis. is a bit of a magical spot on the map. It's the home of Waterford Precision Cycles, one of the last few high volume, high quality, handmade, customized bicycle producers in America. All of the big guys, such as Giant, Schwinn, Huffy, Specialized and even Trek, with their headquarters in Wisconsin, are now produced overseas. Waterford Precision Cycles manufactures frames for, among others, Gunnar, Fleet Velo, Boulder Bikes, Rivendell Bicycle Works, our own Milwaukee Bicycle Company and, of course, Waterford itself, which, according to owner Richard Schwinn, retains "unquestioned dominance" in tube construction.
The Waterford factory was originally an offshoot of Schwinn outside of their Chicago factory. It is a fairly non-descript building and quite small considering its notable reputation. But it was there that Marc Muller, who worked for Schwinn, revived and produced the now much sought-after racing bike, the Schwinn Paramount. A few turns down the road the factory stopped producing Schwinns, as everything was moved overseas. The factory stopped production until it was purchased by Muller, George Garner and Richard Schwinn, the great-grandson of Ignaz Schwinn, founder of the Schwinn Bicycle Company.
From there, Waterford started pioneering work on oversized tubing such as Reynolds' 753 and 853 chromoly steel tubesets - a difficult task since the materials can be finicky if not heated and treated properly. But according to Richard Schwinn, when Reynolds came knocking for a quality control check they admitted that they had "never seen work so consistent, so good." The oversized tubing allowed for much lighter bikes while still retaining their strength. Waterford also formulated single bend chain stays and vertical dropouts for better wheel stability.
Waterford bicycles are custom built for each individual. This makes for a higher price point (anywhere between $2,500 and $8,500), but the idea is to build a bike that, unlike a car at the same price point, will follow you through the rest of your life. Customers can measured for a bike at their favorite shop and remit requests for detailing, such as one man's request for his lugs (the fancy detailing at the joints) to look like they were melting. Everything is sent to Waterford, where skilled factory workers, whose average seniority hovers around 10 years, set the angles into jigs. This part is the most time consuming. Once the jigs are set, the tubes are cut and carefully arranged.
Once everything has been welded into place Waterford can add whatever accessories you might need. Disc brake tabs, fender eyelets, canti bosses, water bottle bosses and more. After construction the bike is given an acid bath to remove all of the impurities, after which it can be painted just about any imaginable color, including fades, custom lettering and pinstriping. Really, the thickness of your wallet is the only limitation. The clear coat they use to seal the frame takes nearly two months to dry, all the time getting harder and more protective.
If you treat a Waterford bike like a car, washing and waxing as necessary, the bike should last a lifetime.
Custom bicycles don't have to be a vanity project either; sometimes they're built out of necessity. One man came to the shop with a badly arthritic hip, but he still wanted to continue to ride. His condition was so bad that in order to mount his bike he had to use a ladder and be lowered on to it. But Waterford came up with an elegent solution by lowering the top tube with custom brazed gusset, almost like a half step-through, half standard frame.
The idea of a purely customized frame may seem like a luxury few of us can afford, but Waterford's Gunnar line still provides the same handmade quality, but in limited stocked sizes and colors.
So what is the future of bicycling?
"The polo bike has more of a chance to save the world than the others," said Schwinn. He elaborated, "Kids right now think that BMX bikes are cool, but when they grow up they're still riding these bikes that are too small for them. They give up riding bikes because they just suck to ride."
On the other hand, bike polo, he says, is a team sport. The bikes are easier to ride because they're "normal" bikes and they scale easier. The playing field, a flat piece of cement, is easier to produce.
"If anything, if bike polo falls out of favor at least you can turn that into a tennis court. What are you going to do with a skate park?" he said.
FleetVelo, another line produced by Waterford, has just released their newest polo bike, The Joust, which takes advantage of gusseted True Temper OS steel, tight geometry, a straight fork and 26-inch wheels for accurate cornering and v-brakes for the strongest, no fuss braking.
If you want to take a look at the factory yourself and see what it takes to build a bike from the ground up, you have your chance this weekend. There will be a factory tour and a fun, relaxed metric century bike ride (60 miles/100 kilometers) for the purposes of enjoying the beautiful Waterford countryside this Sunday, June 11 starting at 9 a.m.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Jason McDowell
Published June 24, 2015
Timothy J. Reynolds, who goes by the online handle turnislefthome, is a digital artist who specializes in adorable lowpoly 3D renderings of cartoon cars, imaginative, pastel and otherworldly landscapes, and video game inspired nostalgia.
Published May 8, 2015
No matter how far away you go for vacation, it's hard not to keep track of the similarities and differences of the cultures that you encounter along the way. Here are a few notes Jason McDowell kept during his visit to the motherland.
Published April 2, 2015
Basketball is a game that involves quick moves, clever tactics, and constant energy, but there is nothing dynamic about this logo. The whole thing is mirrored from right to left. There is nothing interesting about that. I want this deer to be doing something. Not running or fighting or playing basketball, but something as simple as turning its head would tell me it's a three-dimensional living, breathing, exciting team.
Published March 13, 2015
Bublr, the city's first bike share system, rolled out last year and was subsequently rolled back in before winter. But while the wheels were only on the ground for a limited time, the company still deemed it a success, coasting through the finish line with an impressive 5,500 trips. What was not so successful, however, was the confusing pricing. So as Bublr gears up to return, the company announced a new, simpler pricing structure.
Published March 4, 2015
Ramen for a dinner party is an exciting and relatively inexpensive theme to craft a dinner party around. At its very basic it only requires a few veggies and a handful of noodles, but it has the ability to unfold possibilities like a flower. During a ramen party, there is something of a slow, orchestral build until suddenly the cymbals are crashing, the violin bows are fraying and the tubas are blasting fortissimo.
Published Nov. 5, 2014
The Delphines' club shows were frequent and album releases were fast and furious. Eventually a full length album called "Hush" was released, but shortly afterward the band quietly broke up. Disappointment followed. How could we allow this to happen? This band felt like it was composed of sun-bleached driftwood, waiting for a match to drop and set fire to the music scene. It was a band that made Milwaukee's music scene vibrate. So I was surprised this morning when my phone lit up with a message...
Published Sept. 6, 2014
The theme is Steampunk, which is essentially a Victorian alternate reality in which electricity was never discovered, but steam-powered clockwork-based technology continued to move forward regardless. Thus the fashion show should feature gears, glass and leather laden corsets, top hats and other Victorian-esque paraphernalia.
Published Aug. 7, 2014
This week's weather has been a fine example of what makes summers in Milwaukee so beautiful. Looking ahead to the five day forecast it appears this fine example will continue. If you're looking for an excuse to get outside and make the most of it by engaging in a friendly competition, doing some good for your community, and maybe even learning something, too, you might consider signing up for the Amazing Milwaukee Race on Bikes (AMRoB) taking place this Sunday, Aug. 10 at noon.
Published Aug. 6, 2014
Midwest BikeShare announced their second kiosk opening today and the city is abuzz about it (or maybe they're bubbling about it?), so I had to check it out.
Published Aug. 1, 2014
If you're into unique forms of self-expression, Michael Mejia of uncoverbodyart is an artist to check out. Mejia's artistic style tends to be animalistic, with tigers, razor-toothed fish and exaggerated lizards. Beyond animals, Mejia's pattern work is also beautiful and surprising.