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.
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