By David Schloss
Does the world need a $6,000 cruiser?
Paul Budnitz stands at an elevated work desk, peering at a 27” iMac. He asks me to wait for him a moment and chat with one of his three employees as he finishes off the last few sentences in his email blast announcing a brand new bike, the Model Number 5. It’s a beautiful step-through frame bicycle that I’ll soon ogle as he tells me about the massive split-tube cantilever he designed and how it took him several years to perfect the design.
Budnitz is best known for the company he founded, Kid Robot, which sells über-cool (and often über-geeky) vinyl figures created by world-famous artists. I first stumbled onto Kid Robot online and my house has more than a few collectibles from the company, including a Gorillaz set that is one of my prized possessions.
Budnitz Bicycles is a very small firm that turns out just a handful of bikes each year with graceful, sweeping lines. When the company launched Budnitz only offered titanium bikes (he’s since rolled out some steel frames) with price tags that often crested above $6,000. That cost earned him a bit of scorn and derision from some.
Regardless of the cost, the sweeping lines of a Budnitz are the hallmark of his bikes, and they instantly reminded me of the Merlin Newsboy, which in turn was an homage to beautiful Schwinn bikes, like the Paperboy. The No.1 now starts at $4,800, complete with White Industries and Paul Components parts, and a single speed belt drive. Configuring it with all the bells-and-whistles (14-speed internal hub, racing green paint job, pedals, handmade wood fenders, etc…) boosts the sticker price to around $8,900.
Costly, however, isn’t the same as expensive, as the former tends to connote a high value, while the latter can carry the stigma of paying too much for what something is worth. A Porsche is costly, for example, while a $15 hamburger at a vacation town restaurant is expensive.
In an era where mass-produced Taiwanese frames have a $5,000 price point simply because they come emblazoned with a Pro Team paint scheme and a theoretical Tour de France pedigree, it seems reasonable that a company could produce handbuilt titanium bikes with top-end components and appeal to a certain customer base without needing to be justified. While waiting for Budnitz, I sit and chat with Hunt, one of the company’s four employees. Hunt is a local who was working at a local bike shop when he heard that Budnitz was in town and the two were introduced by a mutual friend and soon Hunt came aboard.
Like many of the famous entrepreneurs of our time, Budnitz is involved in every aspect of the business. “I’m autistic,” he will later tell me, echoing something I read in every interview with him. He is plainspoken about the fact that he has Aspergers Syndrome and uses the laser-like focus that the condition affords to drill down into things.
“Many children with Asperger’s syndrome are overly interested in parts of a whole or in unusual activities,” says the WebMD.com page for Aspberger’s, “such as designing houses, drawing highly detailed scenes, or studying astronomy.” Or high-end cruiser bikes with sculpted tubing and top-end parts.
While I wait, Budnitz writes the last few sentences in his MailChimp email blast and then sends it out to the world. There isn’t a PR firm somewhere crafting a release and sending it to potential customers. It’s Paul and John (his in-house “Art, Design & Sales” guy doing mail blasts by hand in the same email marketing program used by countless other small businesses.
If Budnitz suffers from the social anxiety and awkwardness that’s the trademark of Autism he masterfully controls it, as the man who saunters over to greet me is just about as friendly and gregarious as any I’ve met in the bike industry. It’s instantly pretty clear that what-you-see-is-what-you-get. And what you see is a friendly, smart and passionate guy who loves bikes.
Many people would be too preoccupied with the release of a new product to sit and chat for the better part of an afternoon, but I get no indication that Budnitz has anything he’d like to do more than talk to me.
There is a social phenomena that’s called “The Swerve” (an excellent RadioLab podcast that includes this idea was uploaded in August, 07) that can be summarized as follows: people follow predictable patterns (going to work, coming home, etc.,) until something crops up in their periphery (a new coffee shop, an outfit in a store window) that causes them to deviate from their normal trajectory. That change—the swerve—causes marked change, whether it’s successful stores to neighborhoods or even full scale cities.
I get the feeling that Budnitz’s life is based largely on swerving.
I’ve read countless interviews with Budnitz and they all start the same: As a kid in Berkley he began programming on a Commodore 64, later he launched a company called Minidisco that converted Sony Mini Disc players for cinematographers, artists and audiophiles and then he founded Kid Robot, which has great notoriety amongst geeks and artists.
I actually start the interview by telling Budnitz that I want to skip a direct discussion of his early days as so many interviews I’ve read focused so much on the pre-Budnitz Bicycles era that they never seemed to get into the meat of why he created a bike company in the first place.
This is despite the fact that I’m pretty curious about his history as he and I are of similar ages (he is 46 and I am 43) and had some overlapping experiences, although in each case his seems to be the superhero (or arch nemesis) version and his bio reads like a bit of an urban legend.
Take this, for example, from his bio: “The son of a nuclear physicist and a social worker, Paul Budnitz was professionally coding safety analysis software for nuclear power plants by the time he reached high school.”
By comparison, I used to teach other kids how to program BASIC and LOGO on a Commodore PET and used my early Apple //e to create a student tracking database for a small private school. I made around $100 for my work and Budnitz had nuclear power plants running on his code.
As part of the process of creating his own art house films, Budnitz started tinkering with Minidisc players and modifying them to provide the recording abilities that he needed. This was right during the time that I was working at Sony and lamenting the fact the company was releasing the MiniDisc even though it seemed that it would ultimately flop in this country—because it lacked the built-in ability for people like Budnitz to do what he needed to do to create art with it.
The company he created ended up being worth $10 million and the movies he made with them won numerous awards. (And I ended up selling my MiniDisc player for around $200.)
In 2002 he stumbled onto small vinyl collectible figures and launched Kid Robot to design and sell them here in the States with proceeds from his previous venture. In 2003, he moved from a California garage into offices in New York City. By the time he left Kid Robot, the company would have more than 100 employees and financial investors.
From Kid Robot he made another interesting turn, deciding to launch a high-end bicycle company. He’s not exactly a custom bike builder—he doesn’t weld the bikes himself or assembles them—and he’s not exactly a manufacturer either like Trek or Specialized. But he’s designed the bikes (including the sweeping curved lines of his frames), he’s spec’d the builds, selected the partners and overseen the production of the bikes.
So instead I start with the simple question “bikes?” and wait as that conversation wraps inevitably back to his past by way of his current home in Burlington, Vermont. The headquarters of Budnitz is as unique and beautiful as are the high-end titanium and cro-mo bikes that the company crafts. Burlington is unlike many of the rural, bucolic cities in this rugged state and in fact, feels like an amalgam of some of the favorite places I’ve ever visited.
In fact, it seems to be an unusual choice for the home of a high-end bike company. Portland, ‘natch. Brooklyn, sure. Even Watertown, Massachusetts. But Burlington, Vermont?
Clearly, Budnitz Bicycles draws inspiration from the city it calls home in the same way that the PDX bike welders draw inspiration from the hipsters, artists, and hucksters that make up its bike scene. After spending time there I realize that Budnitz’s laser-like focus has brought him to the exact place that’s perfect to nurture his relatively nascent company.
The cycling scene in and around Burlington is pretty intense, Hunt tells me. To the south are the Green Mountains and the six gap ride. There are flats east of Burlington and along the lake, dirt near town and mountain biking in the hills. There are lots of brevets and randonneur rides are common.
The university of Vermont (or UVM as it’s called oddly after the Latin for “University of the Green Mountains”) has a cycling team and the campus had a famous naked bike ride that was shut down several years ago. There are even alley cat races in town.
Budnitz Bicycles is housed inside a massive Civil War-era factory building that butts up against the rail yard. There are train tracks mere feet from the entrance, which is down a road that curves toward the tracks so suddenly that it feels as at the end of it one should find a hobo with his belongings tied up onto a stick.
One side of the building houses the advertising firm JDK, which has offices in Burlington and (not surprisingly) Portland, Oregon. The firm recently helped Burlington create a 10-mile self-guided cycle trip that’s part sightseeing and part history lesson.
Founder and creative director Michael Jager (the “J” in JDK) has turned the additional space in the building into a cycling mecca. One of the tenants is Terry Precision Bicycles, the legendary bike company that’s been creating women-friendly bikes and clothing for decades.
The rear of the building—the part that’s oddly hidden from view—houses a cycling-focused cafe/espresso bar/meeting space/transit hub/hangout.
Maglianero Cafe is the central focus point of the space and it bills itself as being part of the “Modern Mobility Movement,” which hopes to effect, according to their website, “a meaningful groundswell of people around the world moving through their day and in their communities, commuting and traveling by more inspired and intelligent means, the bicycle chief among them.”
The entrance to Budnitz is actually via Maglianero, frosted glass walls being all that separate the company from a large and rustic common seating area of wooden tables. To the side stands an exceptionally good cafe where shots of espresso are hand-crafted with what baristas call a “naked” portafilter, a technique that takes much more skill than your average Starbucks barista can wield.
The cafe is segmented by ancient two-foot-wide wooden columns that hold up the multi-story space. A cafe is a gathering place for bicyclists and for urban planners of all kinds. A free shower (with towel service) is located in the bathroom and commuters use it en-route to work.
With a perfectly crafted macchiato on the table in front of me and a notebook in hand, I look up and frame my first question of Budnitz.
“Bikes?” I ask.
“They’ve always been a part of my life,” he begins and soon we’re discussing his childhood outside of Berkeley, California. “When I was thirteen I was into computers…I had a Sekai 2500 with bar end shifters. I used to program at UC Berkley. I’d screw around [with computers] until two or three a.m. and then ride home.”
Budnitz pauses for a moment and looks across the office into his childhood. “What were my parent’s thinking?” he asks rhetorically.
“I spent 20 years without a car. In New York City bicycles were my way of getting around.” He adds that he didn’t own a car until he moved to Vermont. “They don’t plow in the winter here,” he says, almost embarrassed to admit he drives the ten miles from his house in the rural outskirts of Burlington when there is too much snow to ride.
“When I lived in Brooklyn I would do forty mile rides and I started making bikes.” This is not a sentence most people would utter because the desire to ride a bike to the suburbs of Manhattan doesn’t usually spur one to become a bike builder.”
This is where Budnitz brings up his autism. “I have a tendency to focus when I get into things. It’s the definition of obsession. I researched. I rode every bicycle made between 2008 and 2010.
“I’d make a bike for myself and it wasn’t quite right, but everywhere we went people would say ‘that is so awesome.’” The near-perfect bikes were given to friends, and soon people were asking him to make bikes for them.
At this point, he was still running Kid Robot. When he gets to the part of the narrative where he leaves to form Budnitz Bikes he says “when I escaped Kid Robot…”
I stop him and ask him what he means by “escaped.”
“After seven or eight years I thought we were going to repeat ourselves. We had 100 employees, there were investors. There’s a push/pull between marketing, design and serving the investors. Some of the specialty toys were going mass retail.”
I point out that for most people, launching a toy business and growing it to a 100 person company making millions of dollars annually is the dream, not the oppressive condition to escape from.
I mention the story of the legendarily famous Mike Sinyard who formed Specialized after selling parts from a van driving up and down the coast, but in Budnitz’s version, he’d have left the company as it grew into what it is today. Kid Robot, I point out, is very well known in its market.
“I think it [is] like dominating a world of something niche like small gold fanny packs.” We both chuckle at the thought of a successful toy company being a tiny niche market, but he has a point, especially when comparing Kid Robot’s brand influence to something like the bicycling market.
Obviously one of the goals of a space like the one that Michael Jager created with this multi-use cafe cum bicycling mecca is to incrementally change the world one pedal stroke at a time. I get the feeling Budnitz doesn’t feel that collectible vinyl figures had the same power as bikes.
“I’m more into the brand, the integrity of a brand. How do we present it. You don’t have to do much advertising if you are what you do.”
I try to ask him delicately if this is a vanity business if he started Budnitz Bicycles with some big cash pile from his exit at Kid Robot. “I didn’t make enough money at kid Robot not to work.
“We had [100 employees] at Kid Robot. To me, it’s way more fun with just a few of us here. I’ve worked with everyone from Spectrum [the renown bike painters] to the founder of Niner. That’s the privilege of being a well-known designer.
“Our goal is to not make more than 200 bikes a year. We are pretty high tech here. Two weeks to two month waiting times, computers do all the work. Everything is automated.”
That automation, of course, would help Budnitz if he wanted to expand his reach, but he has consciously chosen a path that doesn’t re-create Kid Robot’s growth.
“I decided not to do wholesale. I’ve had a lot of people call and ask. But selling directly allows me to do things I couldn’t do at the price point, like White Industries hubs and Paul Components.”
Which of course brings up the price of his bike, and how he was famously attacked by folks like BikeSnob when Budnitz Bicycles launched as if the idea of a $6,000 titanium bike had been an insult.
“We get people asking ‘why would I want to buy a $6,000 bike?’ and they’re either not our market or they turn into it.
“The bike has been counter culture for so long that there is an element that’s offended by anything over, say, $600. The thing is that I was making bikes and this level of quality came because I wasn’t driving. It’s analogous to people who buy a nice car because they drive a lot.”
The bikes Budnitz creates are functional but they can also be seen as the luxury item for the hipster who has arrived but lives in an area where having a car isn’t practical or preferred.
“The argument that bikes shouldn’t be like this is completely ridiculous,” he adds. “We got some flack, but we won over a lot of people.”
Admittedly I’m a fan of the bicycle-as-rideable artwork. For a few years, I owned a Calfee Bamboo road bike that I tricked out with original Di2, and that was my backup bike. But I also believe that bikes are designed to be ridden so I sold that bike when my son was born because I knew I wouldn’t have the time to ride that piece of art and I wanted someone to enjoy it.
It’s my ride back later in the day from Budnitz Bicycles where I first get to see what the bike feels like. I’ve been handed their demo medium No.1 to take home with me. We’d previously discussed setting up a review using one of their bikes that was in the New York City area closer to where I live but Budnitz realized that a test bike for me was sitting inside the shop and so I ride away on it. (This is one of the advantages of being a small shop—there’s no need for me to fill out paperwork.)
As I ride up the hill back to my hotel I’m actually giggling a bit. My last few road bikes have all cost at least as much as this titanium dream machine, but they haven’t been nearly this pretty or this fun to ride. I jump off curbs and weave up and down the street as if I were a 12-year-old on a BMX bike.
As I walk through the lobby of the hotel another guest sees me waiting for the elevator, swerves over and says “that’s a sick bike, brother.”
The bike is light. The frame is just under four pounds and while the Avid mechanical disc brakes aren’t exactly light, the svelte titanium handlebars and high-end parts make the bike glide.
When I get back home days later from a family vacation I get a chance to really ride the No. 1. It’s pretty apparent to me that my perfect bike would have been a custom configuration of this model. My hometown isn’t flat enough to accommodate a single-speed. I can easily out-pedal the gearing on the flats and the hills require more torque than my old legs want to provide.
Similar to configuring a MacPro on Apple’s website, the Budnitz store allows for a huge array of upgrades and options. In an ideal world, I’d have opted for the Rohloff internal 14-speed hub.
The geometry of the bike isn’t quite right for me either, the stem is too long (I’ve got a short torso) and the handlebars a bit on the wide side for my shoulders, both things being customizable on actual orders.
But still, I can see how much fun this bike is. I continue to bop up and down curbs (finding out that I didn’t tighten the front skewer enough when I unpacked the bike from my car ride home) and feel that I could easily cruise all day on this bike. I can see the handmade titanium fork deflecting over potholes, absorbing bumps the way a good carbon fork can, only with much more panache.
Days earlier I had been in Hilton Head, South Carolina where I was navigating the island on a heavy rented beach cruiser. They’re two different solutions to the same problem, I realize, with the rental bike optimized for cheapness and the Budnitz for style and for performance. Where I had labored to get the thirty-pound cruiser around on my daily errands I could have flown around on the Budnitz.
Of course, most people don’t buy an expensive bike just to ride on holiday, but Hilton Head’s extensive bike path system (one of best I’ve ever seen in a vacation town) is a model for the optimum Budnitz riding environment.
It’s also the perfect solution (or at least it would be with an internal hub) for one of my most common riding styles—pulling a trailer with my two-year-old son. Currently, he rides in a Chariot trailer connected to a Litespeed, my first high-end bike. Because I still use the Litespeed for some travel (it has S+S couplings) and bad-weather road rides it still has standard road drop bars.
This No. 1 would be so much more efficient, so much more graceful and so much more fun. Epic rides with the trailer find me with lower back pain from exerting so much force while bent over, the casual riding position of the Budnitz would solve that. Meanwhile, the Avid mechanical brakes would vastly improve my stopping power—something that’s important when pulling my child behind me.
Having seen the brand-new No. 5, it seems natural to wonder how many Budnitz Bicycles models the world is likely to see.
“I did a snow bike,” Budnitz says, “I have a mountain bike—a single-speed with 650B wheels. I keep talking about putting that out. It has a cantilever twin tube design.”
Earlier in the conversation, Hunt had mentioned that the winter wasn’t terribly slow for Budnitz Bicycles because they get a good amount of business from places like Australia. A lot of the process is pretty hands-off: a customer starts to order a bike on the website and then they start to work directly with the team to build the bike.
Sometimes a customer will come out to Burlington to try out a bike and get a fitting done, and the company offers a travel credit for customers who visit and then place an order. But customers can work with local shops to get a fitting and then have their bikes custom made. (The upright riding position of these bikes gives a bit of latitude in the fit as compared to a road bike.)
The tubing for the bikes is custom made for the company. “Some are done in Washington State,” Budnitz explains “and some in Taiwan. In Taiwan, we work with a family business of about 35 people. They do Jeff Jones too.” This makes sense to me since a Jeff Jones mountain bike frame has some pretty crazy curves on the top tubes. (Yes, tubes.)
“[The company in Taiwan] actually built a machine to do my curves, just for me. They cost more to do it in Taiwan than firms in the U.S., but their tolerances were .5mm, which we need for the belt drive.” U.S. firms weren’t able to deliver that for him.
I ask Budnitz how he plans to stay below 200 frames when people like Sasha White at Vanilla have waiting lists that stretch for years and have spun off companies like Speedvagen in order to handle the demand.
“I could just raise my prices or make my waiting list longer.” When I mention that Vanilla had a several-year-long waiting list with no sign of their demand slowing down, Budnitz looks out across the store and thinks about something. I can’t quite tell if he’s calculating the elasticity of demand between bike prices and how high he’d have to raise them to slow but not kill off demand or if he’s thinking about the ride quality of Vanilla bikes and mentally comparing them to his own.
We turn back to talking about his success so far. In addition to being written up in magazines like Peloton he’s also been in Vogue.
“We get love from all kinds of areas. We still get some ‘who is this guy?’ but I stand behind the ride more than the aesthetics. Cantilever frames for me are about the ride quality.”
Sure I’m not going to race a Budnitz, and I’m not likely to do a century on it either. But that’s not a realistic picture of what most bike rides are like for me either.
Most of the time I’m cruising to a restaurant, headed to the store or out for a quick spin between work and home. These rides are as often in shorts and sandals as lycra and clipless pedals.
And that’s why the city of Burlington seems to both embody and fuel the Budnitz ethos because they city mixes the need for a practical daily errand bike and a commuter rider with the desire to pedal around the pedestrian mall on a beautiful piece of art.
Certainly, a Budnitz bike isn’t for everyone, but as the creator says, many of the people who start off questioning the need for his bikes end up being customers.
Or to put it another way, people who see one of his bikes tend to experience The Swerve.
Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog.