James Romero brings craftsmanship to his Altadena custom bicycle business.
"Bespoke" is a term used in fine tailoring: it means a suit custom-made for the client.
It would seem to be an even more appropriate term when attached to a fine bicycle, also custom-fitted for the user. If it were, James Romero of BlackSwift Bicycles would be that tailor.
Romero, 31, appreciates craftsmanship of all kinds. The house he shares with his wife Andrea, a staff photographer for Sunset magazine, is decorated with objects from the past: a collection of movie projectors, an old but still working Coca Cola vending cooler (he says it cost his dad $10, and they found $7 worth of change in the machine's coin box).
He appreciates it as only an old-school craftsman can. In a world of mass-market goods, Romero is one of only a handful of custom bicycle frame makers in the Los Angeles area.
As unique as the client
The small garage of his Altadena home is where he constructs his made-to-order cycles, using high-grade steel tubing and top-of-the-line mechanical parts. It's whatever the customer wants, Romero says: mountain bike, touring, road bike, or what he calls "coffee cartel" bikes, i.e., it gets you to the store and back. Romero also adds whatever eccentricities the customer wants: the one he's working on now has wood fenders and rims and a headlight made from a 1900s-era kerosene lamp. Want a slot on your bike to store your spork? He's done it.
Pictured: Romero builds his bikes in his
compact and crowded Altadena garage.
A former metric century rider and BMX racer, Romero went to the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon, one of four schools in the world that teaches frame building, although he's been riding and customizing bicycles since he was a teenager. He started BlackSwift three years ago, and largely relies on word of mouth for his business.
Bike design is like counseling
He's also been featured in a new student documentary that looks at craftsmen ini the Los Angeles area, putting what he does in the same company as glassblowers and fine furniture makers.
Romero's process begins with the consultation: he meets with the customer to measure for fit and discuss color, features, and use of the bike.
"It's kind of like counseling," Romero said. "See what you ride and how you ride -- your new bike is going to be an extension of you."
Then it's off to the drawing board, where he draws a full-scale frame. Romero's frames start at $2,000 before the other hardware and custom features are added in.
Then from the drawing board to the shop, where he cuts and welds steel tubing to create the frame. Custom bicycle makers "always have a different flair" in their creations, Romero said: "between old guard and new out-of-the-box thinking". An expert can tell who made the bike just by the "flair" of the individual builder, Romero said.
Pictured: Romero starts designing at the drawing board.
A lineage and a legacy
Romero can deliver the finished bicycle in six months. "Most frame builders take a year or two," Romero said. "I figure because I'm new, I better get that turnaround quick.
"It's a niche that was there, and not everybody can make a living off it, but if you're good, you can get to where you want to be," Romero said.
"I want to be successful, but I don't want to be only successful. For me, it's part of a lineage. Every bike I build is a legacy for me -- so when I go, my kids'll know Dad did something."