It’s no real exaggeration to say that every bicycle sold today uses the same exact design: a main triangle and a paired rear triangle, albeit finessed and packaged in various ways. And there’s nothing wrong with that; two triangles work. But sometimes a brand comes along with a different approach. Instead of straight lines, slopes, and instead of one top tube, two. Aficionados of established bicycle design might well cross themselves furiously at such heresy. But as evidence of beautiful machines built differently, there is Budnitz.
Started in 2010 by serial entrepreneur, Paul Budnitz, whose company’s philosophy is that “people will ride their bicycle more if they have a great bicycle to ride,” Budnitz Bicycles have forged a brand at odds with the wider bike market. And it’s not just about design. Favouring titanium over carbon, a belt drive over traditional outboard gears (because normal transmission is like “driving a car with the engine on the outside“), this Vermont-based brand has demonstrated at every turn that different works, and sells.
Over the phone a few weeks before the launch of his new bike, the economically-priced aluminium ALPHA, we spoke with Paul about design, the bike business and the new addition to the Budnitz stable.
How much did the existing models inform the development of the ALPHA? And is it a natural evolution of the Budnitz journey?
Yeah, it's completely informed by our other bikes. Actually, I think it incorporates a lot of the great things we learned in designing titanium and steel bicycle over the years. And you know it has very similar geometry, which is both comfortable but fairly fast when you want it to be, the Gates Drive, and just a lot of really high-quality materials and other stuff.
We had significant demand from people who wanted a bicycle from us, whether it was a second bicycle or one of our bikes to keep in another location or for a spouse or something. But they wanted one for about the price of a good laptop. The way we pulled that off, without sacrificing quality, is that the bicycle comes in one colour: matte black. There are going to be a few limited edition colours, but for the most part, it's just black.
When you buy one of our other bicycles, we customise absolutely everything. This one, the components and everything on it are pre-set to be what seems to be our most popular setup. So it's an excellent bike for a lot of different people, and if you want to take the next step and get something that's customised entirely for you, then you can get one of our other bicycles.
So it was purposeful pricing, and specced to get it to that level, “about the price of a good laptop?”
Totally. It's all about accessibility. For example, if you buy a bike for say 800 or 900 bucks, it seems like maybe to you, buying a regular bike sucks. And you're like, "oh, that's a pretty expensive bike,” but if you think about all the mark-ups along the way, that bike probably cost them $125 to manufacture. And so all those components on the bike are built to work great for a year or two. And then things start to wear out and break. So it's our experience that if you get on a bike and it's very comfortable and fits well - it's not just sold for glitz and glam - then it's a pleasure to get on with, and you ride your bike a lot. Which is probably why roughly 60% of our sales now are to repeat customers.
That's an impressive statistic.
If I include referrals, it's more like 75%. 80. So we're really, in a certain way, a quiet company that relies on the quality of what we make.
And you're going straight to the customer. Do you see the direct-to-market model as one of your main strengths and the fact that you can offer a better spec and have more control over all the different parts and story of the bike?
Yeah, I think it's key. Again, one of the problems with the bike industry is because there's just been so much junk over the years, we've been trained to expect a pretty low price point for a fairly bad bike. And I include in that a lot of really, really expensive bikes. Or we've been trained to buy a bike that fills a bunch of trendy notches but doesn't serve the right purpose. If you want a good city bike - I mean, a bicycle to ride, whether it's for recreational use, or around town - most of the time you're steered to the wrong place. Or to a bicycle that's poorly made. And yeah, with direct-to-market, for us it means that our margins are healthy. So we have a healthy business. But they don't have to be, you know, by the time you get all the shipping in there at a five times markup; which is why those regular commercial mass-produced bikes are of such poor quality -everyone's taking a cut along the way.
That doesn't necessarily bode well for the long-term health of the industry in its current form.
Yeah, as demonstrated by the fact that the average bike shop makes most of their money off repairs. And we don't make any money off repairs. Our bikes go all over the world. I mean, we have service partners everywhere. For example, if we identify that you're in a strange place, we'll find the best bike shop in town. Both for setup if you need it, and for eventual repairs. The other thing about being able to sell direct is that generally speaking, we can make sure that the bicycle you buy is appropriate for you. And that even goes for the ALPHA, which is more of a pre-set configuration, which I mentioned. Like if you call and we don't think the bike's right for you, we'll tell you. We can accommodate almost everyone, but not everyone. And I guess we could say the bicycles we've had on sale for much longer, which cost a bit more, those are customised to you. So we'll make sure the bike fits you, and that every component you touch is both appropriate and beautiful.
You're leading with a non-standard frame, and with the Gates Drive, an alternative transmission standard. How much of a challenge has it been retraining the customer to accept something which is not necessarily what they've seen in posters, magazines or adverts over the years?
It depends on the customer, you know. There are technical reasons for why our bicycles have the split top tube: it creates a little compliance where you want it, which is one of the reasons why our bikes are so comfortable and never need shocks. But it's stiff in other places. And all those curves are there for a reason. So you know, on the technical side, people who are really into that stuff will look at our bikes and kind of freak out and think they're wonderful. I’ve often said that the worst thing to happen to bicycles was the movie Breaking Away in the 70’s, which is just an awesome cycling film. But the issue with it was when that movie came out everyone wanted drop bar race bikes.
And all these uncomfortable bikes, it killed and almost destroyed what you'd call a more comfortable bicycle industry in America; you know, city bikes. And the thing is that for years and years and years, you just couldn't get a good city bike in the US, and then mountain bikes came, and everyone started to ride them around town. Which is like, much better than a drop bar, much more comfortable. But also the same thing - completely straight handlebars are only suitable for a few people, and only technically useful under certain conditions. Some people just love it, but yeah I think a lot of the retraining just has to do with thinking differently about what's a bike; what are you using it for?
Which I guess leads to innovations like the Gates Drive missing mass-market acceptance, a system which, on the surface at least, seems so astoundingly better than what we have now.
Yeah, and so are internal hubs. The thing is, with the Gates Drive is there's no grease, there's no oil. It's silent, it lasts forever, and it weighs a third as much as a chain. So there's no downside except that you can't use a standard derailleur system. Which is, I don’t know, 120-year-old technology or something.
It's like driving a car with the engine on the outside. You know, when you've got all these gears, the transmission is exposed to the elements. But, with the combination of the Gates Drive and then one of the new technically advanced internal hubs, whether the Shimano or the Rohloff, you essentially have a bicycle that's maintenance-free. I mean our bikes are designed to have nothing on there that could rust.
Is that where the titanium idea originally came from? To be a purist about it and not have anything that would rust on the frame as well?
Yeah, I mean titanium is wonderful because of the combination: it's rust-free, it's incredibly light and strong, and it flexes. So it creates an extraordinarily comfortable ride. Actually, these bikes came from models that I was making over years and years until finally, I had these bikes that everyone wanted and we ended up - I wouldn't say accidentally - but it almost felt like we fell into creating a bicycle company out of these things.
For a long time there I was living in Amsterdam and leaving my bicycle parked outside. And again with the Gates Drive, there's no oil. With an internal hub, there was nothing to leak. And then with the titanium and everything else I could just leave my bike outside in the rain and nothing would ever really happen to it.
The Gates and internal hub system are also offered on another Budnitz bike, the road-orientated Model Ø. To jump away from the ALPHA for a moment, could you go road riding toe-to-toe with a SRAM, Campag or Shimano-equipped rider with the internal hub system? Does it give you enough gears? Because that's one of the things I haven't had answered. Yes, it has a 528% percentage range, but that's quite abstract on paper.
Yeah, the range on the Rohloff is wider than almost any other bicycle you're going to ride. The only actual complaint some people have with it is that you don't need all those gears because the gear range is just ridiculous. It's got the Mount Everest gear going up, and it's got a speed gear that's like having a gigantic traditional derailleur. And they're bullet-proof, you know.
I have to stress that the Rohloff is a brilliant piece of engineering. The guys are great, and from everything they say, they've never had a Rohloff break that wasn't still ride-able. Meaning, I think they've had things go wrong very occasionally, but they've never had one you couldn't just ride home. So it's pretty amazing.
Back to the ALPHA, can you speak a little bit about how you decided on an aluminium frame?
I mean, quite honestly the aluminium frame is one of the things that was absolutely necessary. We knew from the beginning that if we were going to hit our price point, with the rest of the bike as quality, it would've been impossible otherwise. But it took us quite a long time. We wanted a frame that visually echoed our other designs. You could tell it was one of our bikes. It just felt important, and also because it was beautiful. But again, the more narrow top tube and the wall thickness and all the rest of the stuff on the bike did give a nice weight with an exceptionally comfortable ride. One of the things that's true about all our bikes, well, the Model Three and the ALPHA - the One and the Zero are a bit more compact - but the Three, the ALPHA and the Five all have very long wheel-bases relative to what you might find in a shop. Quite frankly, a lot of times bicycles are manufactured to fit in a small shipping box so that they can get under specific size constraints.
Logistics dictating design - that's all types of wrong.
It's not quite as true in Europe, especially in European bikes like Dutch bikes. But if you look at a lot of bikes in America, I know it's kind of sad, but they want to get into a size box that goes under a certain threshold. UPS and FedEx have a maximum size, and they charge you a lot more money over that. But our wheelbase is typically long, and the ALPHA reflects that, which I think is one of the key features that make the ride comfortable. You can just think about it: if you've got a long wheelbase and you hit a bump, you just don't feel the same way that if you got one of these compact bikes.
The spec sheets for all of your bikes include some Budnitz-made or branded parts. Is the idea to go for more and more of your components over third party-made options?
The answer is yes to all that stuff. More and more, we want to make sure that we manufacture everything we can, especially the parts that your body touches, like the saddle. It's funny because the saddle and pedals are an inexpensive part of a bicycle. But they're the parts along with the handlebars that your hands are touching. Now we have these beautiful titanium riser bars, and we're making cranks, pedals, headsets, wheelsets and hubs. We've even been talking with a manufacturer about an internal hub, but that looks like a very long process - more of a partnership in fact.
Will you look to add things like dynamo lights on the ALPHA at some point, as you have on the other models?
Yeah, and in the new models, there’s almost no friction to it, so it costs you nothing. And that's the other thing; there's just so much myth around weight. Bikes are remarkably lightweight - you can get them down to 18, 19 pounds if you want. But to me more than anything else it's a question of how your body fits on the bike, how the power's transferred and whether or not you're comfortable. Because if you're comfortable, you've got way more power than if you're crazy uncomfortable. I mean, a lot of people are buying these bikes, and the handlebars are far below seat level. And that works great if you're pedalling above 25 miles an hour all the time like a Tour De France racer. But if you're in stop and go traffic, you want to be much more upright. You're going to have a lot more power, and you're just going to feel good. And then that'll make you want to ride your bike. That's the whole issue.
So the real challenge, which is what I think our bikes accomplish is, how do you make something appealing aesthetically, and at the same time build a bike that rides incredibly? I just don't want to give up either.
When are you looking to release the ALPHA, and how's the reception been so far?
It's coming out this Spring. I believe we're shipping in April. We're on and off a waiting listing. So, I think we upped production, didn't know if we could, and then that did happen. So my understanding is that the first batch is completely sold out, but that has been expanding a bit. So if anyone's interested, they should call in and talk to Gregg who is the person everybody speaks to because we're a tiny company. And he can set them up on one of the bikes and get one as soon as possible.
What would you say is the perfect application for the bike?
I see this as the bike you're going to want to ride every day. And that includes around town, going to work, going shopping, seeing your partner for a date, and going on a twenty-mile ride on the weekend. Or forty. I mean it's suitable for just about anything. Put a rack on it to carry bags and you can tour on it if you want to. A well-made bike for most people can be a pretty flexible, useful thing. Although I think that if you want to race, you should probably buy a different bike. But there you go. For just about anything else, it's perfect.
To see and shop the ALPHA and other bicycles from the Budnitz range, visit: