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 April 21, 2014
Struggling with poverty is a difficult challenge, especially when children are relying on you to provide them with a stable, healthy life. But helping families in need can be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.
Published Jan. 23, 2014
Former Milwaukeeans Brian Dillman and Eric Kremin were featured in GQ this month for their tenacity in the sport of bike polo. In 2010, with the help of their original teammate Joe Burge, the team took the World Championships. In 2012 they took the North American Championship, and in 2013, after a move to San Francisco and the acquisition of new teammate Joey Halverson, they took both.
Published Jan. 8, 2014
There is a belief that making small, incremental changes is the best way to go about changing your life. This is why big goals like exercising and eating right fail so often. While always a good idea they're just too disruptive to handle with ease. But what about learning a new language? That may also sound like "too disruptive" of an idea. Learning a language is complex, time-consuming, and getting the right software is expensive, but in the past few years a solid group of apps have risen to the challenge of making language learning easy, fun and for the most part, free.
Published Nov. 25, 2013
The Santa Rampage is an annual event in Milwaukee that has reached cult-status, featuring hundreds of people in Santa suits - as well as a wide swath of various holiday-themed costumes - riding their bicycles through the city. The occasion is so beloved that even the dodgy weather of the season typically does not detract from the merriment or the number of riders who participate in these festivities.
Published Oct. 23, 2013
"Frankenstein" features three performers who are charged with a task: "make monster." Bound in elaborate Edwardian costumes, the trio embarks on a journey to construct Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory while they struggle and battle through acrobatic feats." What better way to enjoy the Halloween spirit?
Published Sept. 4, 2013
A former phone sex operator in Milwaukee recalls her time in the business in this eye-opening interview.
Published Aug. 11, 2013
New Belgium is back with the Clips Beer and Film Tour, a "beer-toting, film-traveling, nonprofit-benefiting show." Since its inception Clips has raised more than $200,000 for nonprofit organizations. This year it is supporting the Wisconsin Bike Fed with 100 percent of the profits from beer sales.
Published Aug. 11, 2013
Frank Ortlieb at Big Dogg Bakery has been baking homemade, natural, healthy dog treats on-site in Bay View for about nine months. "Dogs seem to have more dietary restrictions than people, as well as the normal people-type allergies," he told OnMilwaukee.com.
Published July 18, 2013
There is always an internal debate about how early one needs to arrive at a show, particularly when the opening act is a mystery. Choose incorrectly and you're stuck impulsively checking Twitter all night, sucking down cocktails too quickly, and waiting impatiently for the opening act to utter those magic words, "This is our last song." Luckily the opening band was well worth the gamble. It only took a few chords before the conversations quieted and many heads turned. This, everyone's eyes seemed to agree, was going to be a good night.
Published May 8, 2013
Don't feel like you need to ditch your car. The overall goal is participation. Don't feel bad if you can't ride all seven days, but don't give up after only one. Take small steps towards enjoying riding a bike. If you find a problem, ask around for a solution; odds are someone has already figured it out. Bike to Work Week may not convert you to a spandex-loving gear head, but it might provide you with a new, fun weekly goal.