Monday, September 22, 2014
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Philly Made: Handmade titanium bikes for the serious cyclist at Engin Cycles

In an unassuming garage set back a ways from the Wissahickon Cyclery in Chesnut Hill, there sits an array of machinery so vast in scope that with it, a skilled hand could produce virtually any object that can be made from metal. One thing, though: If you touch anything, you'll have Drew Guldalian-the skilled hand responsible for all that machinery-to contend with.

Philly Made: Handmade titanium bikes for the serious cyclist at Engin Cycles

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In an unassuming garage set back a ways from the Wissahickon Cyclery in Chesnut Hill, there sits an array of machinery so vast in scope that with it, a skilled hand could produce virtually any object that can be made from metal. One thing, though: If you touch anything, you’ll have Drew Guldalian—the skilled hand responsible for all that machinery—to contend with.

“I don’t care if anyone who walks through the door doesn’t know Engin is back here,” Guldalian, 42, says, referring to Engin Cycles, his longtime passion and the reason for all the heavy hardware that’s found it’s way to his slice of Philly. “I’m not trying to have people come up to me just because they heard I can weld. I’m not fixing lawnmowers here.”

What he is doing, though, is churning out much-coveted handmade bicycles in virtually any style you want—so long as that style is completely constructed out of titanium, a material about which Guldalian is, well, passionate. So passionate, in fact, that this year, he turned all of Engin Cycles’ 35 to 40-piece yearly production run over to fully tailored titanium bikes after deciding to stop using steel in 2013.

“It does everything that steel does, but better. There’s one pitfall, though: It’s expensive,” he says. “But the moment I started working with the material, I immediately thought it was the best thing ever.”

With nearly 20 years in the bike business, that particular thought does not come lightly. Since starting Wissahickon Cyclery back in 1995 at the age of 23 after an unsatisfying run in the restaurant world, Guldalian has sold thousands—perhaps tens-of-thousands—of bikes, giving him a particularly rich perspective on both the best components and materials for whatever your riding style, and how to best fit a person on a bike once it’s done. By his own estimation, the depth of his knowledge about the noble two-wheeler is “extreme.”

“I forgot more about bicycles at breakfast this morning than you will likely ever know,” he says. That and his “awkward ability that allows me to close my eyes and picture you on a bike” more or less amount to an endlessly repeating bike building machine.

Ultimately, though, Guldalian didn’t start showing that particular ability off until he opened Engin Cycles quietly in 2005, following a period of economic expansion at Wissahickon Cyclery that left him with the choice to either make the store larger or start his own production shop. As a tool guy, the production side won out.

Self-described as “very mechanically inclined,” Guldalian started off by taking some courses and attempting trial and error builds before heading to Oregon’s famed United Bicycle Institute to learn how to properly build a frame. From there, it was a matter of Guldalian figuring out his own process and bringing to life the tweaks he always felt the average bicycle needed.

“Now, I don’t do a single thing UBI taught me, but it was great for a stepping stone,” he says. “It was a lot of trial and error, and a lot of intuition.”

That intuition, in fact, is what Guldalian says his customers shell out thousands of dollars for—not just strong, light bikes made from American titanium. After all, anyone can head out to a bike shop and purchase a bike made of any material from aerospace aluminum to carbon fiber, depending on your preference. What those bikes can’t offer, though, is an expert craftsman that has so perfected the fit and function of his own frame design that his customers are willing to shell out those thousands of dollars after a seven month wait period.

Which, incidentally, is not surprising, considering that Guldalian puts his customers through a sort of interview process to determine the best fit for their riding style, flexibility, and particular aptitudes and pitfalls. Additionally, the process, for its creator at least, helps to weed out people who aren’t serious about product, leaving more time to build for people who “get it.”

“It helps me cater to people who know exactly what they want,” Guldalian says. “It’s difficult to cater to people who don’t know about this on that level because there’s an experience to be had here and they’re not going to get it.”

For that reason, actual physical measurements of a potential rider are actually only a minor part of the build process compared to communication with them. And, ultimately, it is that aspect about Engin Cycles that Guldalian says he finds most rewarding.

“At the end of the day, I have a better client base because of the interview process. That, and I end up with 35 or 40 new friends every year.”

Not always, though. As a meticulous guy, Guldalian has some strong opinions when it comes to bikes and the parts that make them up, and he’d really appreciate it if you’d trust his advice on the subject.

“I admit that I am stubborn,” he says. “I will argue with people if I think what they want is junk. I’ve fired customers because of it. If they don’t trust me, they shouldn’t buy a bike from me.”

Those that do, however, usually end up better off. Very few Engin Cycles bikes are available secondhand, and in 10 years in business across 300 handmade bikes, Guldalian says he has had just one customer return a product. Most owners not only end up keeping their bikes, but actually ordering from Engin again as technology gets more advanced. Because, after all, it certainly isn’t because Guldalian’s bikes are breaking after a few years of wear and tear.

“I’m not going to claim to make a bike that doesn’t break—all bikes can break,” he says. “I just have a very hard time making things that have a life expectancy.”

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