…Often hidden away in old warehouses and deep in hidden courtyards exists a secret culture of talented manufacturers making all kinds of sexy bikes and bike accessories in Berlin.
We met a few of Berlin’s best bike builders young and old to get a feel for what they do, their thoughts on cycling in Berlin and much more.
“I learned frame building from an old master, Heinz Paupitz, who’s now dead. He was a very famous frame builder in West Berlin, born in the 1920s and told us all the secrets of frame building”.
Ostrad offer bespoke, fitted steel frames: “All of our bikes are made by hand from steel with Reynolds tubing.”
“We build mostly racing bikes, randonneurs and touring bikes.”
“We build around 50 to 70 frames per year”, says Schauer, “and a new frame with fork costs around 1200 euros. A complete bike is between 1800 and 3000, but it depends on the parts”.
We asked Schauer about his views on cycling and cycling safety in Berlin:
“When I came to Berlin in the 80s, it was a dangerous time to ride a bike. Since then, it’s got so much better. You have space for bikes on the roads, separate traffic lights for bikes. There’s still a lot to do, I know, but it’s so much better than 30 years ago. I ride every day around 30km from my home in Kaulsdorf to the shop and back”
Check http://www.rahmenbau-berlin.de/fahrradrahmenbau/rahmenbau.html for more information about Ostrad’s beautiful custom frames.
The next day we found ourselves in Kreuzberg talking to Max & Norman at 8bar, a company that started online in 2009 offering customisable fixed-gear and single speed bikes.
8bar’s shop is unadulterated Kreuzberg cool. Minimalist looking frames hang from the ceiling and cool bikes populate every available inch of the store. There’s a ton of cool other swag for sale: cycling clothing, accessories, merchandise and high-end parts to further customise your ride.
Max and Norman were happy to give us a detailed insight into the 8bar story.
“The company started in 2009. Stefan’s (8bar founder) father had a small workshop and Stefan started building bikes for friends and figured out that people had issues buying the correct parts for their bikes…you buy something online and the parts don’t quite fit together. He had the idea to offer a complete bike that you can customise, as you want it, on the website. You could choose all the parts separately.”
“We had a smaller shop round the corner before this, from about 2011, and we’ve been in this shop (in Wrangelstrasse) for three years.”
“We develop the frames here, and the production is in Asia. We always get prototypes here and decide what we want to change before putting the frames into production. We build the wheels here and assemble the bikes sold online in our other Berlin workshop. We assemble bikes in this shop for our customers in Berlin.”
“(The store) started during the fixed gear boom, which was pretty big in Berlin. We were all into fixie riding. Then along the way, we got different interests, so the next frame was a single-speed cyclocross frame. Then the road scene got bigger. We realised we wanted to train on road bikes. Then we all got a little older and thought travelling with the bike and bike packing would be fun. Our customers are changing. Before most were in their 20s and 30s, now many are in their 40s and 50s”
8bar offer a small range of different models. As Max says: “single speeds are still the most popular bikes now, but the fixie scene is getting smaller and the Mitte bike is getting more popular. You can use it with fenders, racks, lights, as a travel bike or as a road bike, it’s a 3-in-1 bike and you can set it up different ways, with different forks”.
8bar’s bikes range from the affordable to the stratospherically-priced: “prices start for a single-speed around 900 to 1000. The most expensive bike would be a carbon road bike, depending on parts, but that could be up to 5000.”
Asked about cycling in Berlin, the boys were mostly positive: “I have the feeling that when I go to work by bike, people in cars watch out for cyclists. Sometimes they’re angry and quite aggressive, but I also drive (a car) in the city, so I see both sides. There are also cyclists who ride like shit”.
Norman echoed Max’s sentiments.“We rent out a lot of bikes too. Most of our customers feel very safe riding in Berlin compared to their cities, especially when you meet people from Eastern-European countries. We have more bike lanes than a lot of other cities. Overall I think it’s pretty good, and it’s flat. It’s really good for fixie riding.”
Why did fixies get less popular? “Mainly because of the laws: you have to have two brakes by law. If you get caught, you have to pay a big fine. It can also affect your driving license. It got a lot stricter because there were some bad accidents people with breakless bikes were involved in.”
8bar see themselves as a true part of Berlin bike culture. “In the very beginning, it was good for 8bar to be in Berlin because there was a big fixed gear scene in Berlin and it was good for us to be here.”
“We host a crit (criterium: fixed gear street race) on Tempelhofer Feld with teams from the UK, Italy, the Netherlands. We want to share something with the city and give something back”.
Be sure to call in to the Kreuzberg store or check out their website if you’re interested in outfitting yourself with one of 8bar’s cool bikes.
Fern is a newer company building bespoke bikes in an repurposed old factory building in Lichtenberg. Fern concentrate on building bikes to take you as far away from civilisation as possible. (Fern is the German adjective for far, distant or remote.)
Enough of the linguistics. Framebuilder Florian Haeussler was keen to share his time and let me have a look around Fern’s workshop. Fern is made up of two people, Florian and Phillip. As Florian says: “Phillip is my sidekick, he takes care of management, which I’m not so keen on.”
“I founded Fern 5 years ago, a little bit by accident. I studied industrial design and built a travel bike for the final project of my master’s degree. During my studies I did my first big tour down to Istanbul and discovered a whole new world. By that time it was clear that this was something I wanted to do as a designer, design bikes. I started to assemble my own custom bikes for travelling, but the only thing I could not change was the frame.
After my diploma I worked in the car industry as a designer for a couple of years. A couple of years later I gave a frame builder friend a call, by accident really, just to ask a question about bikes. He told me that he was leaving his workshop in Potsdam with all his tools and he wanted to stop frame building. This was my chance to get started as a frame builder. I thought, this is a once in a lifetime chance, you have either take it or leave it, so I decided to buy everything.”
Eventually Florian moved into a small workshop in Leipzig. “I started there, in the basement, building frames, in about 2009/2010. At the same time I was taking classes in welding and brazing.”
“At some point, I had my two first ChaCha prototypes built up. We went on a trip with them around the Black Sea and ended up in Istanbul. The first two prototypes survived. I was super happy because I wasn’t even sure they would last. The bikes performed well.”
4 weeks after coming back to Leipzig, Haeussler had to vacate his workshop. It was then he decided to move to Berlin: “all my friends were in Berlin, so I decided to move back”. He soon found his current place in Lichtenberg, and clubbed together with some other friends to get enough people to fill the vast space. It was here he started building professionally.
“We make 4-5 main models, but basically they’re more like a starting point. Every bike we build is totally custom. Most people want to buy a 26” wheeled ChaCha, but it’s custom everything after that.”
“The ChaCha is the basic model. Then we have the Chuck, which is more on the off-road side, with bigger tires. Still a travel bike, but more for lightweight touring and bike packing. We also have a bike that is more like a modern Randonneur. Everything is handmade”.
Fern’s bikes are not for penny-pinchers. Asked about the starting price of the bikes, Florian says: “it’s tough to say, because everything is custom. In general, the bikes we sell are in the range of 5000-6000 euros. It’s easy to spend more. It’s also possible to have something for 4000.”
“We sell a maximum of 20 bikes per year. This is the most I can do, since everything I do here is by myself, handcrafted. It’s impossible to build more than 2 bikes per month. I would like to scale it up a little bit and we also thought about having production bikes made for us, but I don’t really want to do that. It would save so much trouble and money, and you could have good quality…but it’s a totally different story to building here by hand”.
Why spend so much money on a bike? “You could buy a production bike and it would do the same thing. You could ride around the world on it, but compared to production-line bikes, what I do offers a completely different level of handling and ride quality.”
Before we got out and let Florian get back to creating another piece of two-wheeled art we asked him about his feelings on riding in Berlin: “it’s not good. There’s so much to do, especially about having decent bicycle lanes. It’s a f*cking nightmare. The cycle paths are often super dangerous to ride on, so it’s sometimes safer to go into the traffic than cycle on the cycle paths.”
Helmet or no helmet? “Always a helmet. Always!”
Find more on Fern bikes at http://www.fern-fahrraeder.de/
Occupying the same Lichtenberg space as Fern is Meerglas, a one-man firm also building super high-end, hand-made steel frames and bikes.
“I’ve been making frames here for 3 or 4 years, professionally for 2 years,” says frame builder Thomas Becker.
“I build traditional randonneur bicycles, track frames, or anything really.
“I’m into making self-made lugs and bilaminate frames, which is a pretty special way to build frames – super labour-intensive”.
“I started by studying mechanical engineering, then dropped out. Then I started an apprenticeship as a bicycle mechanic at a firm called Pedal Power, who build tandems and cargo bikes.”
“I had a dream of being a frame builder, and thought to myself, if I want to be a bike frame builder, it’s not a bad idea to know everything about bikes, not just the frames.”
“I learned everything about building wheels, and a little bit about frame building. Also working on a lathe.”
“Then I travelled around the world with my girlfriend on bicycle for a year, and came back to Berlin and did a ‘Meisterausbildung’ (master apprenticeship) in frame building .
“I came to this workshop 6 months ago from my old one in Friedrichshain. I wanted a better workshop, so here I am.”
“I don’t build many frames, I’m quite slow,” Tom laughs. “One bike could take me one month to build. I even make the stems myself.”
As you would expect from such a small-production one-man firm, Tom’s frames are suitably expensive: “My frames start, for a Randonneur – that is frame, fork, stem and front rack – (with paint) at nearly 3000 euros. I measure how you sit on the bike using a bike-fitting machine, and fit the bike for you. That way I know the exact position you need to have.”
On cycling in Berlin, Tom had plenty to say: “it depends if you know the right routes. You have these special cycle-lanes, next to big streets. If you follow them, it’s good.”
“If you know the cycle-routes or small streets behind the big streets, you can cycle safely, but that needs years of experience…it takes years to learn these routes”. He added that “the feeling between Berlin car drivers and Berlin cyclists is sometimes very aggressive, like war. It’s not only the car drivers, but cyclists too.”
Want some absolute frame porn? Check out http://www.meerglas.org/
Pedal Power is not your run-of-the-mill bike firm: their entire range consists of cargo bikes, tandems and associated accessories.
I visited their facility in a quiet corner of Lichtenberg to get the lowdown on their range and history from founder Michael Schönstedt, also the man who still develops and designs most of their bikes, with help from an international staff of 12.
“I started the firm alone as a normal bike shop, originally, 25 years ago. Then about 18 years ago we started developing and constructing our own tandems and transport bikes.”
The origins of Pedal Power’s cargo bikes is an interesting story in itself. Asked on how they got started with cargo bikes, Schönstedt says: “It was born out of necessity. I was also working as a social worker, working with groups of disadvantaged teenagers, day and night, and we had to buy and move around loads of stuff – food and groceries. At one point we said, let’s build a cargo bike. We had a metalworks we could use, so we built two. That’s how it started.”
All bikes are assembled in their Lichtenberg workshop, and most are built there too, although due to demand, it’s impossible for Pedal Power to build all frames in-house: “We don’t build all of the frames here in Berlin, it’s just too much work. There’s a firm we’ve worked with for a long time in Taiwan who build for us. We’d like to build everything here in Berlin, but it’s sometimes just not possible.”
Pedal Power’s bikes aren’t cheap, starting around 2,000 euros and going up to around 7,000 at the top end. They offer a vast range of bicycles, from ‘simple’ cargo bikes and tandems, to bikes that can carry 3 or 4 people and cargo bikes that can carry up to 300kg of weight.
All bikes on offer are available as ‘e bikes’ with motors to assist the rider: “you can get every model with or without a motor. We’ve also developed a system enabling you to run a normal crank set, and remove it later if you want to and install a motor in its place, without modifications.”
The firm is also involved in some interesting projects that Schönstedt was keen to tell me about, including a self-driving cargo bike being developed in conjunction with the university of Magdeburg and and Pedal Power’s involvement in a government initiative designed to encourage people to ride cargo bikes by offering part-reimbursement after buying one.
He claims that these days the popularity of the tandem bikes has outstripped the tandems, although their range still features a wide selection of both, as well as bikes designed to transport small children. One of the few firms building cargo bikes in Germany, and certainly the only one in Berlin, Pedal Power ship bikes all over the world, even providing cargo bikes for DHL to use at London’s 2012 Olympics.