Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Waltworks Custom Bicycles- sweet frames handmade in Utah

Salt Lake has a pretty great biking culture- we’ve got sweet trails for mountain biking, lots of bike lanes for commuting, and pretty robust cyclocross and road racing scenes.  It is no surprise, then, that we’ve also got some nifty bike-related businesses.  Most of us have a favorite local bike shop, for example, and the Bike Collective offers a ton of great programs that are worth checking out.  And, since I have a deep affinity for all things handmade, I am especially psyched about Walt Wehner’s framebuilding shop.  He’s  been at it for about a decade, and he's got a big following, especially among hard-core mountain bikers.  The funny thing is that not many locals know about him at all.  If you dig bikes, keep reading, and you'll see why he's one of SLC's best kept secrets- and why he probably won't stay that way for long. 

Prior to moving to Salt Lake City two years ago- his wife Sarah took a job doing research at the U, which is coincidentally how I ended up out here, myself- Walt lived in Boulder, Colorado.  His first bike was a 29er, which he crafted back in 2003 or 2004, because he saw great potential in the style.  This was before 29” wheels had exploded into their current level of popularity.  The timing was fortuitous, because only two major companies offered frames for 29ers, and Boulder’s enthusiastic mountain biking community starting asking Walt to build frames.  While he's quick to point out that his early efforts weren't as well-crafted as his later bikes, I bet they were still pretty good- Walt's obviously a pretty modest guy who I'm guessing is his own worst critic.  Over the years, his clients have pushed the limits, and he’s built road bikes with disc brakes, framesets and forks for wheels with through-axles, and more. 

One of Walt’s major areas of expertise is in designing a bike to fit well and handle the way its future rider envisions.   He's got a whole bagful of tricks that he can apply to a bike's geometry, and this helps him to focus first and foremost on performance.  He works with a powder-coating company in Salt Lake City that can provide all kinds of colors and finishes, but he doesn't generally go in for heavily adorned bikes at the expense of poor fit or function.  He told me a story about some of his customers from the endurance-racing side of the mountain biking community: when asked about their choice of color, they flat-out told Walt that they didn't care.  I think that's a pretty apt summary of how well Walt is able to deliver on his promise of performance and handling.   

Walt’s focus on bike fit means that the process of designing a frame calls for a lot of back-and-forth with his clients.  They describe their goals and riding style, and they work together to develop a plan for how to make it happen.  To this end, Walt spends a lot of time on the phone with his clients, and he also maintains a really interesting blog at where he posts work-in-progress shots of his frames so that his clients can see how things are shaping up.  

 Walt has built between 500-600 bikes, which blew me away.  He said it comes down to about 50 per year for his clients, and then as many as 10 more for himself and his family members.  A recent project that I’ve seen him riding around the neighborhood on is a cargo bike with a large cargo platform on the front.  He designed it to be versatile, and it can comfortably fit people from 5’6” to 6’5” without requiring custom geometry.  It sells for $3000-$3500, and I have the feeling that it could get pretty popular.  But then, all of his bikes do- he’s never advertised, and all of his work comes from repeat clients and referrals.  And anybody who knows business can tell you that means he must be doing something right.

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