Maybe Peter Weigle and his peers really belong in another realm.
Some place and time totally unlike our mass-production-plastic-and-high-tech-carbon-fiberized-21st-Century-profit-and-speed-obsessed-America. Some distant dimension where anyone wanting to do things slowly and carefully, with fanatical precision and dedication to detail, isn't dismissed as an oddball weirdo and relegated to the fringe backwaters of our corporate-driven society.
Weigle is one of a very few dudes in Connecticut who make bicycles. By hand. Customized for one particular individual. Expensive. Gorgeously painted. Each unique, subtly different from all others.
Andrew Watson, another of CT's boutique bike-builders, calls the lovingly constructed machines they create "rideable art."
Such handmade creations aren't intended for mass consumption. They're not even desired by most of the Tour de France-wannabe "hammerheads" that you can see furiously pedaling along our roads, encased in Lycra and garish jerseys, riding the latest lightweight dream machines cranked out by major manufacturers.
"Most cyclists wouldn't even get what I do," says Weigle, a youthful 62-year-old who produces bicycles out of his shop in Lyme. "I can't tell you why anyone would buy a bike from me."
Enough people have lusted after Weigle's bikes, making him one of the nation's premier custom builders.
Weigle has been hand-building bicycles for 40 years. He learned his art at a cycle production company in England and opened J.P. Weigle Cycles in 1977. Once upon a time, Weigle made all sorts of road (what the uninitiated may think of as "racing") bikes, mountain bikes and long-distance touring bicycles.
Not long after the turn of this century, Weigle began to focus his creative efforts on just one single specialized type. It's called a "randonneuring bike," and was developed for cycling events like the Paris-Brest-Paris race, which takes place over 750 miles of roadways in northern France.
Participants in Paris-Brest-Paris are required to complete the course in less than 90 hours, so the bikes can't be too heavy or too slow. They tend to be equipped to ride in all types of weather (think fenders), and have a rack on the front so you can carry extra clothing, food and water. The bikes are designed to be comfortable over long distances, with thicker tires for different kinds of terrain, strong and durable.
The result, explains Weigle, is that "They just end up being great bikes to ride."
They also take him a long time to make.
If you got measured and your riding preferences noted and you decided to order one today, Weigle says it could take him "three or four years — with no guaranties" to deliver the finished product.
"This style of bike, you can't crank them out," Weigle explains. One of his admirers once wrote that Weigle's bikes are "already rare when they leave the shop."
Devotees put up online photo galleries of Weigle bikes made in the 1980s. The photos draw oohs and ahs from fellow enthusiasts.
"I don't advertise," Weigle says. "Either you get it and you want one, or you're not interested at all."
Weigle won't discuss how much a bike of his will cost you. He does point out that some high-end models from big manufacturers could cost you more than what he charges. That's not saying much because some of those top-of-the-line production models can run upward of $5,000.
There are only a handful of these solo custom-bike builders in Connecticut. A renowned master bike builder named Richard Sachs made exquisite bicycles for decades in Chester, but moved recently to the Massachusetts woods. In Colchester, former Pratt & Whitney mechanical engineer Matt Klucha began constructing bikes in a converted garage several years ago using $25,000 in savings as seed money.
And down in Waterford, Andrew Watson is establishing a reputation as one of the young guns on the custom-bike-building scene. A mountain biker at heart, this 27-year-old builder began creating his "rideable art" about four years ago and now builds a variety of different types of bikes.
"I have a true passion and love for all forms of biking," Watson says. He always loved working with his hands, had experience as a carpenter and an electrician, and got a bachelor's degree in product design. "I said I had nothing better to do with my life, so I guess I'll build some bikes."
But getting into the world of custom bicycles was a frightening proposition.
"I didn't have a mentor, and I didn't apprentice under anyone," Watson says. "It was extremely scary, very intimidating." Particularly when he took one of his early products to a big custom bike show featuring many of the nation's top builders.
"It was filled with guys I'd idolized for years," Watson recalls.
When the top builders saw that Watson was serious about making really good custom machines, many offered advice and support. "I got a lot of warnings," Watson says, "about how this is a hard business, that you've really got to give it your all."
"It isn't always rewarding," Watson admits, and the work involves "lots of long hours" in the shop. "But when you give a customer a bike and they love it, it's really wonderful."
Watson estimates he's producing between 30 and 40 bikes a year. He figures that's the number of bicycles he can turn out to both make a decent salary and provide his buyers with the type of quality machine they desire.
Prices "start at $3,500 for a complete bike," Watson explains, but adds he recently delivered one special model for a whopping $9,000. "The typical build is around $5,500," he says.
Customers who want a bike from Watson Cycles come from all over. Watson says in the last few months he's delivered bicycles to Puerto Rico, Delaware and California.
"Some of my customers are just regular Joes, regular lower-or-middle class people who know what they want," he says.
Others are cyclists with particular problems that make finding the right size mass-production bicycle difficult. A person might be too tall or too short, or have extra long arms or legs or torsos and reached the conclusion that they need a bike built to their exact specifications.
"If you're out of proportion," Watson says, "You need an out-of-proportion bike." Finding that exactly right bicycle can mean an end to nagging pain in the back, shoulders, arms or knees, making the price well worth it to someone in love with cycling.
Commercial bike manufacturers, says Watson, "measure 1,000 people and take an average and build bikes to it."
There are bike shop owners around who will tell you these custom bikes simply aren't worth all that money, and that big bike companies do make various sized bikes that can fit nearly every rider.
Most handmade bicycles are constructed out of steel, and steel frames are considered way old-fashioned by modern bicycle manufacturers. Carbon fiber is the cutting-edge material these days (nearly all Tour de France bikes are made of it), or maybe titanium or aluminum.
For the same kind of money you might pay to Weigle or any of these other custom specialists for one of their creations, you can pick up a replica of a race bike that has carried the top pro riders to victory in the world's great cycling events.
Watson and Weigle say they aren't trying to compete with commercial bike manufacturers, and that they appeal to a different sort of customer.
According to Watson, it's very understandable why bike shop owners would argue in favor of commercial bikes. "If you can take a cookie-cutter bike, and move them out of your shop, make some money and move on, that's a good business model," he says. "They're not chasing the same clientele I am."
"Is it better or worse?" Weigle muses when asked to compare his creations to top commercial bicycles. "I wouldn't attempt to say."
Watson argues that many customers of American custom builders "appreciate American-made artistry." He says most carbon-fiber bikes toady are made in Asia "under unethical conditions," and insists modern steel bikes offer a "ride quality" other types of mass-produced bicycles can't.
Weigle says someone who buys one of his bikes is similar to a musician who hungers after a custom-made guitar or a devoted fisherman who's always wanted a handcrafted bamboo rod of his or her own.
Watson agrees. Someone who pays top dollar for a custom bicycle wants something that is different.
"They don't want cookie-cutter bikes," he says. "They don't want their bike to be like everyone else's."
Andrew Watson makes bikes in Waterford. (photo courtesy Andrew Watson)