Though he’s spent a decade building bike frames, Charlie O’Leary jokes he’s still just a student of the craft. But with an increasing interest in all things homegrown and handmade and a growing business nudging him along this year, he decided it was time to go all-in. At the end of an industrial park just a few blocks from Duel Brewing and Meow Wolf, he’s finally opened a storefront for O’Leary Built Bicycles.
"Really, to become proficient at it, I think you have to be more full-time. It was hard to fit in time to work in the shop in the evenings and on the weekends," he says, "and we needed the room for the equipment."
The bikes on display right inside the door aren't just his builds. They're his rides, as a little dust on the tires betrays. But where customers will spend most of their time isn't at the front desk; it's upstairs, on a sizer-bike, where they'll ride for an hour or more on an adjustable stationary bike to fine-tune the fit estimated by a computer program.
"It's about finding the exact bicycle that you want and you can't find it anywhere else, so you have it made," O'Leary says. "That's the appeal for the custom market."
He builds road bikes, mountain bikes and "roadsters" for blended uses, whether that's commuting to work or gravel-grinding, with special interest in those riders whose too-tall or too-small bodies make it tough to ride an off-the-shelf bike.
"There's something very satisfying about taking steel tubes—an inanimate object, just sort of these basic building blocks—and then working with a client to talk about what they want to see in their next bicycle … and putting that all together after a couple of months and actually having a bicycle that you can ride and puts a smile on people's faces," he says. "While they're very utilitarian and great for transportation and recreation, they can be toys—they're big adult toys."
O'Leary is a lifelong cyclist, and grew up in the bike shop his parents owned in Albuquerque. For his 40th birthday, his wife sent him to a frame-building class in Oregon.
He still has, and rides, that first frame.
In his one-and-a-half person workshop (his wife joins him part-time), he assembles chromoly steel tubes by brazing them—using metals that melt at a lower temperature than the steel to join them, something of a lost art and a slower process than TIG welding, and one that, like the jersey for La Tierra Torture and a rider number from the 24 Hours of Moab bike races, speaks to an interest in doing things the hard way. Once assembled, frames are sanded then powder-coated—a volatile organic compound-free process he sees as easier on the environment and more durable for the rider than paint. Some bikes come in just to be re-done in one of about 400 colors available or, for one ambitious cyclist willing to tape his own pattern, in tri-color plaid.
"Handmade bikes are cool. They're sexy. They're in," says Don Walker, founder and director of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.
The three-day show saw 6,500 paid attendees at its annual trade show in California earlier this year. That's up from 700 attendees in 2005. Exhibitors at that trade show range from the mild to the wild—including one who has crafted tribute bikes for Evil Dead and Purple Rain.
"Anybody can go into their local bike shop and plop down anywhere from $400 to $5,000 on a bike, but that doesn't necessarily make you an individual," Walker says. He spots riders, usually about five to seven years into the game, deciding to spring for something "a little more me."
"That's when they start really turning to handmade builders, because they can get something that not only fits, but the color, the paint scheme … can be completely seated to their wants and desires, and that's something that you can't really get out of your local bike shop," Walker says.
In addition to bringing one more manufacturing job to town, O'Leary Built Bicycles is a step in the direction the city and county have been aiming for in building Santa Fe's reputation as an outdoor sports town. So it's fitting that for an open house on Thursday, Nov. 17, O'Leary has teamed up with one of that movement's flagships: the Outside Bike & Brew Festival. Going into its fourth year (it will be held May 18-21, 2017), the festival will be under new direction.
Tim Fowler, a member of the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society (and owner of the aforementioned plaid bike) who has been involved with Bike & Brew as a ride leader, course developer and volunteer coordinator, takes the helm this year. The event will serve as a fundraiser for the nascent nonprofit Velo New Mexico that Fowler is founding to promote and increase opportunities for bicycling in the state.
"My interest is emphasizing the cycling side of the event and to have it have that greater purpose behind it rather than just a great party—and I mean, I'm all for really great parties. That's not a bad thing," Fowler says. "I just want there to be something more behind it."
Outside magazine will remain the title sponsor for the event, and the city and county, which have previously helped finance the event, have also expressed interest in its continuation.
O'Leary had been involved in Bike & Brew in the past, as had Duel, so they're combining forces this week. On Thursday, Nov. 17, O'Leary Built Bicycles (1156 Parkway Ave., Ste. B, 438-6121) hosts an open house from 3-5 pm. Then the party moves to Duel Brewing (1228 Parkway Drive, Ste. D, 474-5301) from 5-7 pm.