Even before the shop local movement began, many cyclists were keen connoisseurs of Canadiana, ardently seeking our national brands in everything from energy bars to jerseys. These days though, maple-leaf-minded riders are having a tougher time than ever finding a fully homegrown bike. “It is virtually impossible to make top-quality bikes that are all-Canadian,” said Mike Barry Sr., Canada’s elder statesmen of cycling, who’s been handcrafting beautiful Mariposa bikes in Toronto since 1969.
“It is extremely difficult to be competitive these days. Excellent-quality bikes are coming out of Asia at very low prices,” he said. Nowadays, an international inventory of bike components with top specs and low prices are proving difficult for cycling manufacturers to resist. While proud nationalists may point to local success stories, such as Cervélo and Cunningham Cycles, look more closely and you’ll see parts made in China (or Taiwan or Italy or France). Post 20th-century, “made in Canada” more often means “assembled in Canada”, if that. Famously-Canadian conceived Cervélo is actually fabricated in Asia and headquartered in Switzerland.
And therein lays the debate: even if loving the ride and winning races really count, should our roots come first? Not always, according to a quick survey of some big and small Canadian manufacturers. Oh Canada. We are not always on guard for thee.
“Canadian manufacturers cannot compete with the likes of Specialized, Trek, Giant, Colnago,” said Shane Camilleri, a Toronto racing enthusiast and bike mechanic. “When I’m spending $10,000 on a bike, I could care less about where it was designed and made as long as it can take all the race abuse that I can throw at it,” he said.
Today, as much as Camilleri wants to be patriotic, he’s realistic. “I would buy Canadian if there was a bike that rode up to par with what I expect from a race bike, but as of now, none exist.” Ira Kargel, co-owner of Gears Bike Shop in Port Credit, Ontario agrees. “I don’t know a single Canadian manufacturer which offers more benefits than buying elsewhere on the planet.” She and co-owner, Kevin Wallace, who’ve sold thousands of bikes since opening in 1988, need to offer their clients the best products to stay competitive – and she admits that means imports. “Independent bike dealers don’t want to be forced to buy Canadian [products] that won’t sell.”
Even Guru, known for high-quality custom frames made entirely in Laval, Quebec, uses imported frame tubes from the U.S. and Italy. ”We take pride that we are a custom frame manufacturer that makes each frame, one at a time with care and precision,” said Phil Pinsky, Guru marketing manager. “Our frames start out as an idea in the designer’s mind, to 3-D renderings, to engineering, lay-up, paint and manufacturing. Each steel, titanium or carbon fibre frame is made specifically for each one of our customers, and fits them like a fingerprint with performance as the ultimate goal.”
Of course, beloved companies such as Cervélo outfit many of the world’s most famous and fastest cyclists and do so thanks to some Canadian design ingenuity. But the statistics don’t lie: the majority of high performance bicycles are now made in Asia, where low overhead costs and escalating production skill is seducing international customers and squeezing all-Canadian manufacturers off the road. Randy Cunningham of Cunningham Cycles in New Westminster, B.C., has been in the bike business for almost 40 years and has seen a lot of change. “Today’s big names in cycling are all basically marketing companies. They are large concerns that do battle in the industry with massive dollars. To get these massive dollars, they need massive margins. The only way they can do this is by having their products made where labour is cheap.”
But cheap labour isn’t the only obstacle to building at home, said Peter Keiller, mastermind of Misfit Psycles in Ontario. “The lack of domestic engineering, the lack of domestic innovation in cycling is every bit as frightening as the lack of manufacturing. In general, our domestic attitude toward manufacturing was out of whack compared to other nations. Quality was nowhere near equivalent to that being produced in Taiwan and delivery was erratic and unacceptable,” he said. Today, Keiller’s company makes one all-Canadian frame and manufactures another frame in Taiwan, although they all come home to be finished.
Cunningham equally makes no apologies for reaching abroad for the best parts possible. “The most popular frame we sell is the Dedacciai scandium/carbon composite one. It allows a completely-variable frame geometry for a reasonable price. We send the tubing from Italy to Taiwan, where there is a fabulous welder that can put them together to my designs. His work is far beyond my capabilities in that area.” Think of it this way, he said: Why try to do in Canada what someone else is already doing magnificently somewhere else?
Canada may have forfeited much of the high-volume bike making to companies abroad, but there does appear to be a renaissance in custom building under way right here. Cunningham, for instance, builds ‘global’ bikes, but “they are then sent here where I will personally paint each one to the customer’s requirements. No two have ever been exactly the same and its something that there is an appreciation for to be sure.”
Back in Toronto, Mike Barry Sr., long-time co-owner of Bicycle Specialties (and father of the Sky Professional Cycling Team rider Michael Barry), agrees that the only way for Canadians to compete right now is with unique wheels – and, even then, it can be a tough slog. “The only way to compete is to produce bikes that are truly custom. Mariposa did that and when we closed at the end of 2007, we had a two-year wait list. I’m talking about steel bikes and they are just a niche market, anyway, these days,” said Barry. “It was very difficult to make a living making custom bikes. Although we had a long wait list, the production was very small and labour intensive. We sold other bikes and parts to make ends meet.”
Hugh Black of True North Cycle in Guelph, Ontario started doing custom work in 1990 and two decades later, he’s so busy building bikes he barely has time to talk about them. “It is nice to be able to produce a product that I can see through the entire process. I get to design, build, ride and deliver every bike I sell. A dream job if you like cycling and to be creative,” said Black, whose garnered a cult-like following among handmade enthusiasts.
The bulk of his business is repeat customers who can’t kick their True North habit and international customers who like what Black does to bikes, although the majority of his parts are sourced internationally. “I am among a handful of custom-frame builders in Canada right now. The ‘Canadian’ aspect is in the labour, in customer service, design, welding, painting and assembly of the final bike.”
So is that the best of both worlds: international innovation and Canadian creativity? You bet, said long-time cyclist, Ron Stadnik, 48, who bought his first handmade True North bike on the recommendation of better cyclists. “My initial reaction, when I rode my TN cyclcross bike in race that featured sleet, brutal headwinds and snow, was that I was never going to be able to blame the bike for my poor performance again.”And he likes the multicultural manufacturing. “Buying Canadian is important to me. With True North it’s beyond nationalism, it’s about being a locavore. It isn’t 100 per cent homegrown, but the [foreign] parts that end up being used are there because they’re the best available options. I wouldn’t buy a bike just because it’s Canadian.
“A hand built bike isn’t just a bike, it’s the builder that made it. I don’t have the faintest idea who owns Trek, but I sure know who Hugh Black is, the guy that was welding in his parent’s shed by the wood stove with the attendant kitties when I got my first cyclocross bike.”
Custom bike builder and teacher, Jay Filer, of Winterborne Bicycle Institute (Canada’s leading bike mechanic training facility) also backs custom bikes for their better fit, fabrication – and that added emotional ingredient called true love. “I’m a bit biased, obviously, but I feel the best bikes are coming out of custom frame building shops. And I mean the men and women that are out there actually building their bikes right on site. It’s a real labour of love and any frame builder who is building bikes will tell you they are not in it for the money, because in reality there isn’t a lot of money to be made in the custom frame building industry. They do it because they like it, and they pour that enthusiasm into their bikes.”
That, says Naked Bicycles co-owner Andrea Blaseckie is the difference between small and big bike companies. “It is a struggle to survive as a small business in Canada. It feels like the big companies have a leg up in many areas, but they are missing a few key things, namely personal and direct contact with the customer,” said Blaseckie, who owns the small B.C. custom brand along with Sam Whittingham. Their Quadra Island, B.C. shop produces only about 50 bikes a year. “Our customers become our friends. A bicycle is the end result, but it’s not a cookie cutter bicycle off the shelf. It shows their personality, it adapts to any physical issues and basically it becomes an extension of themselves. We don’t try to compete with the big bicycle manufacturers. There’s no point. As a small business you’ve got adaptability and creativity on your side.”
Adds Stadnik: “We could all ride Treks, but then we could all have our ceilings painted white and I kind of like the Sistine Chapel, don’t you?”
Paula Todd is a CTV W5 reporter and Toronto-based writer, who spends as much free time as she can find on her bicycle.