Feb 5, 2016 – When I ended my last column... Read more →
Natalie Ramsland is wearing a floral print apron with yellow trim. She shouts through her respirator mask, “Only three dollars!” She has welder’s goggles on and miniature pigtails in her hair. On her workbench, a DVD entitled A History of Hand-Knitting shares space with tapping fluid and tubing blocks.
“Books on tape are critical shop tools,” Ramsland explains. And then she quickly adds, “Don’t take a picture of that!”
I depress the shutter anyway. She’s laughing. Then she lights the torch. At just over 100 pounds, she cuts a slender silhouette in a room full of heavy machinery.
It’s the quintessential frame-builder moment. Mad scientist tinkering away in the lab. Stalwart craftsman with old, sturdy tools. A flame, some steel, a mask, a jig. Behind her on a chalkboard wall, plans and calculations are outlined along with descriptors, names, and measurements. To the right, a massive yellow vice.
These are the tools of a coveted craft. It’s a working space. A space for imagination, creation and preservation. In this modest shop behind her home in northeast Portland, Ramsland is engaged in the art and craft of frame building.
It’s a profession that is regarded with nearly God-like reverence, especially in a cycling mecca like Portland, Oregon.
Only in Ramsland’s case, God is female. And nearly all the bikes that come out of her shop are built for women.
With a careful eye and keen attention to detail, she’s is a consummate craftswoman but, for her, building bikes is about more than just the chance to perfect her fillet brazes or make show-stopping lugs. Disappointed with the lack of options and secondary consideration that women receive from the bike industry, Ramsland is in the game with a mission to get every single woman on a rig that truly fits her body.
When Sweetpea was conceived five years ago, the idea was simple: “I want to build bikes for women,” she said to her husband over a plate of curry. Thirty minutes later, the two had mapped out the rough sketch of a business plan what would become a driving force in their life together. A few months after that, they took their wedding money, bought the essentials and opened up shop.
It’s a goal that has led her to challenge some of the conventions of the trade and think deeply about the structure of her business, Sweetpea Bicycles.
What happened in those first few years was a miniature revolution. A woman builder making bikes just for women? The old guard of the frame building world balked, claiming that without a few decades behind the torch, this tiny little woman had no right to walk so boldly into the spotlight. The media had a different idea and, entranced by the pluck and spirit of such a fresh approach, rallied around Sweetpea Bicycles.
The road since then hasn’t been without challenges, but together the Ramsland’s have grown an idea that started on a napkin in a Thai restaurant into a brand whose story and mission captivates not just cyclists, but entrepreneurs and everyday dreamers alike.
With Austin behind the scenes assisting with operations, marketing and strategy, the two make an impressive and effective team. “I feel lucky that Austin has the skill set that he does. I tend to be easily entranced by whatever is in front of me, but its conversations with him that have made me think of what I’m doing in a bigger context. To a large extent he’s responsible for us developing a business that is trying to create meaning in addition to just creating a product. I’m also really grateful that he doesn’t work with me during the day in my shop,” she says with a smile. “One person at the torch is plenty.”
A well-spoken woman with a sharp wit, Natalie is an interesting character in a world full of interesting characters (frame builders are certainly not without their eccentricities). In a world dominated by men, she’s not just an anomaly; she’s a quiet hero, though she’d never use that word to describe herself.
Ramsland just wants to get as many women as possible onto amazing bikes that actually fit. And she’s staying intently focused on that task, even if it means taking an unconventional path to get it done.
Determined and confident, she’s quick to question the traditional frame-builder obsession with parts, technique and process, in favor of focusing on people—specifically women—and their relationships to bicycles. Which is part of the reason you’ll be hard-pressed to find her slinging steel at a bike show in Portland or anywhere else.
“I don’t go to the shows anymore because, for me, the bike is most beautiful as an object when it’s paired with the woman that it fits,” she explains. “Sometimes that bike, no matter how perfectly executed for its intended purpose, is never going to stand up next to the shiny lugs and metal flourishes that another builder focuses on. I love pretty stuff like anybody else, but the real value that I think I’m adding is not as easy to see on a showroom floor in the midst of a lot of really, really pretty ponies.”
There’s a lot of building to impress other builders that happens at those shows,” she explains. “There’s value in that—because it helps to elevate everyone’s game—but it’s just not what I’m into. I don’t need to try to impress other frame builders; I’m not making bikes for them. I want to stay focused on the needs of the women who are my customers.”
Instead, Ramsland has spent her time finding new ways to get well-fitting, super beautiful bikes designed and produced faster so that it doesn’t require time on her three-year waiting list to get a fully custom machine.
The result is a series of bikes that she called the Lust Line (for when you just got to have it right now). Available in months instead of years, The Little Black Dress (LBD) and A-Line are designed around years of studying and perfecting a woman’s fit. The LBD is a high-performing, lightweight road machine and the A-Line is a sexy, hard-working mixte-style ride, perfect for hauling ass in high heels and skirts. In order to accomplish a faster turnaround time, they’re designed in size runs by Ramsland and produced by another Oregon-based frame-building shop.
“The only reason that I will add a bike to the Lust Line is if I feel like I can do something better than what’s out there. The A-Line is a perfect example of that. There are tons and tons of cute little mixtes that are really focused on the aesthetic. They do ‘the look’ really well but what they miss out on is performance.”
She wants to give women a mixte that’s worthy of an impromptu hill sprints—you know, in case the mood strikes.
This fall, Ramsland released a custom cyclocross bicycle called the “Boom Boom,” offering the power and comfort benefits of a custom steel racing machine with a reasonable price tag and turnaround time. It’s the most recent manifestation of the Lust Line evolution that is taking the business beyond a one-woman, one-bike-at-a-time frame building shop towards a new business model that will spread Sweetpea love (and lust) even further.
“I will always make the one-off, fully-custom, hand-built bikes,” she says, pulling the respirator away from her face and gesturing toward the steel frame in front of her. “These are the ‘Love Edition’ bikes. They’re artifacts. Objects of art. That process is very special. But I think my bigger challenge is to find a way to make gorgeous, well-fitting bikes accessible to even more women.”
The torch is reflected in her goggles as she replaces the mask and sets back to work at the minutiae of her craft. Behind the flame is the face of a woman who sees beyond her everyday tools, even as she’s transfixed by them. Sweetpea Bicycles isn’t just a frame-building shop with a pig-tailed proprietor—it’s a promise to female cyclists everywhere. And one that Natalie Ramsland is intent on keeping.
Feb 5, 2016 – When I ended my last column... Read more →