More than 80 years ago Ben Hanoski opened the doors to Ben's Cycle on Milwaukee's South Side. It was later passed down to his son Larry, and then passed down to his son and current owner, Vince.
A few years ago Ben's started making custom frames under the name The Milwaukee Bicycle Company. Because of the rise of fixed gear trick culture and hard court bike polo there has been an increase in desire for the single speed market. The Milwaukee Bicycle Company has stepped in to offer high-quality, locally made frames and parts, from custom chain guards to bar caps emblazoned with beer mugs.
This year they released their curious new model of single speed, The Bruiser, a hardcore combination between a track bike and a BMX bike, perfect for doing tricks.
When the first images of The Bruiser were leaked to the prominent fixed gear blogs there was a lot of wide-eyed pondering about where it belonged in the current market, with its strange geometry, unique down tube supports and brake mounts. While they get to chew on the pictures, Milwaukeeans can walk into Ben's Cycle and check one out for themselves.
We got a chance to talk with Drew Triplett, one of Milwaukee Bicycle's designers about what it takes to get a great custom bike.
OnMilwaukee.com: How many people does the Milwaukee Bicycle Company employ?
Drew Triplett: Milwaukee Bicycle is under the Ben's Cycle umbrella. It's got two or three guys that work on the "Milwaukee Bicycle Team," so to speak. I do all of the mechanical design for all of our products, but I'm also the Internet area manager. So we kind of wear a lot of hats around here.
OMC: How did the idea to do custom handmade bikes come about?
DT: Well, we saw what the single speed market was asking for about five or six years ago and we approached Waterford for the first frame. You know, the first one was kind of a relaxed road geometry, but we found that people wanted a true track bike so we went that route instead. We developed a mountain bike when mountain biking started taking off. Then urban riders got involved across the country. So, we take a lot of input from all of the important people, so to speak. From all across the country. We're kind of a grass roots type of store.
OMC: So you're not geared towards a specific market?
DT: Well, each bike is geared towards a specific market. We want to make sure the bike is not too vague. Otherwise it doesn't have a good showing in the market. We don't want people to look at it and ask, "Oh, well what's that bike really designed for?" When you build frames you have to have a certain market in mind.
OMC: Have you worked on any super strange designs or do you stick with that typical diamond-shaped frame?
DT: Well, I think the last bike that we did, The Bruiser, people looked at it as somewhat strange, but it has a mix from the BMX market, from the 20-inch wheels to the 700C big wheel market. A lot of these guys, the tricks and things they're doing with their bikes right now, the standard track bikes just can't hold up. The Bruiser was designed to take a beating. It looks beefy, it has brake mounts on it that aren't standard road calipers, they're actually borrowed from BMX technology. So every little part of it says "beef."
OMC: What do you look for in a frame designer?
DT: Most of it we're trying to get it locally. Most of our bikes are 90 percent American. The Bruiser was the first frame that we had to go foreign because at our American frame builder, the price that they wanted to make the frame would have meant an outrageous retail price, so I don't think we would have ever sold it. But for the most part we've been working with Waterford (Aluminum Company) since conception. They've treated us really well and they make a great product. For some of our smaller parts we use a machine shop in Germantown. Our headbadges are laser cut in Cudahy. All of the accents are installed in-house and the upgrades are done at Waterford. That's our biggest thing. We try to keep our products first and foremost in Wisconsin and in the U.S. after that. Unless, of course, the price point gets to where the market can't handle it.
OMC: So the bikes are designed in house, but built outside of the shop?
DT: Right, we send out the geometry for the bikes, either to Waterford or Taiwan with the exact specifications that we want so we can get exactly what we want to make a high quality product.
OMC: How does one order a custom bike?
DT: All of our custom bikes are on our Web site. We make it really easy with a lot of drop-down menus, bullet points. If you have a specific color in mind you could actually send us a CMYK color that you pull from Photoshop and we can use that to match it as best we can. I think that, specifically, is one of our niches. Every one of our bikes goes out the door different. They're not cookie cutter.
OMC: What's the timeline from creating a bike to getting one in the store?
DT: It depends on how much fine tuning we go through. For The Bruiser we went through three different revisions. First there is the initial prototypes and I think that took about three months. Then we went to the riders to find out what they liked and disliked about it because I think that's the only way you're going to find out if people are gonna want to get on the bikes. They give the feedback and we send the changes. Then we get the finished product about six months later.
OMC: Are there any big ideas for future bikes beyond The Bruiser?
DT: Well, The Bruiser is this year's model. We've concentrated so hard on getting this bike right that we haven't really had time to think about much else. We've got a couple other projects, like components and things like that, but they're kind of secret, so I don't think you're going to get much from me.
OMC: But we can rest assured that you've got many more innovations in your head?
DT: Oh yeah, yeah. That's what I love about this job. It's got considerable freedom. If I had to just sit in front of a computer monitor all day looking at orders I'd probably go crazy.
OMC: What kind of bike are you riding right now?
DT: I have a Trek Madone that I've set up as a single speed. That's one of my bikes, anyway. I have a Bruiser prototype that I ride, as well.
Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.
In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.
Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.