Ever since we first wrote about Normal Bicycles – a designer and builder of wooden bike frames on the East Side of Buffalo – I’ve been itching to take one for a ride. Yesterday that dream came true. Owners Chris and Jess Kudla invited me to come test out their Urban Scout Belt model, which turned out to be one of the smoothest bike rides of my life. Honestly, I’ve never ridden a bike that substituted a chain with a Gates carbon belt drive. In a city that has fairly flat terrain, this is the ideal bike to get around town. Since there is no chain, there is no need to shift gears, which might sound odd, but at no point during the ride did I feel the need to shift up or down. I just wanted to keep riding!
Of course Normal Bicycles does offer a number of different types of bikes, from the belt drive model to the Urban Scout Eleven that is equipped with an SRAM 11-speed drivetrain. The lightweight maple wood frames are based on two universal platforms, which allow Chris, a former chassis design engineer at Honda, to build out bikes that are perfect for commuters, or the touring road adventurers.
When I first encountered the Urban Scout, my brain immediately sized up the model and computed two things – beautiful, yet heavy. But when I went to pick the bike up, I was astounded at how light it was. It turns out that the frame is based on a lightweight, heavy-duty, hollow carbon fiber tube, which is then wrapped with layers of super thin wood veneer. The building process allows for zero waste – an attribute that both Chris and Jess are extremely proud of. They are also happy that all of their bikes pass the strict ISO Standard for bicycles when it comes to durability.
Normal Bicycles got its name because the owners live on Normal Avenue in Buffalo. After vetting hundreds of adventurous names, the one they chose was the one that was closest to home.
At this point, Chris and Jess are able to crank out a bike a week. The models range from $3250 to $4400, which might sound like a lot of dough, but when you take a closer look at the world of hand crafted, custom bikes, this is actually a great deal. These bikes are built to stand the test of time. They are also works of art.
The reason that Chris and Jess invited me to take a ride on the Urban Scout was for one simple reason. While these bikes might look stunning, they are actually much more impressive when they hit the road. It’s like being one with a bike.
I have a couple of bikes, but none of them come remotely close to performing like a Normal Bicycle. It’s two completely different worlds.
In 2018, Normal Bicycles came away with the “People’s Choice Award” at the Philly Bike Expo, which was super impressive because the competition was extremely steep.
Hard maple makes up the majority of the frame, and a thin layer of carbon fiber lines the walls of the hollow interior.
Next, they are heading to the American Handmade Bike Show in March, which is where they feel the company will be taken up another notch. That’s because every time these bikes go out on the roadshow, Chris and Jess come away with more industry connections, more notoriety, and more orders. The bikes essentially sell themselves.
At this stage of the game, Chris and Jess are weighing their options. The more orders that come in, the more the temptation to grow the business. The only problem is, the passion for building each bike, one at a time… that’s really what makes Normal so special. Eventually, they might consider making more frames for other custom bike builders who will then add their own unique spins on the bikes, which means that they would have to bring on more workers to “crank out” the orders.
All of the connection points for the components are aerospace grade aluminum alloy connected with titanium fasteners.
At the same time, there is something to say for the proverb, “Slow and steady wins the race.” How does one balance between being a super boutique custom bike outfit, where Chris’ heart and soul goes into each bike, and the need to grow a business? Those are some of the growing pains that Normal Bicycles is going through at the moment. Don’t get me wrong – these are great problems to have… it’s going to be interesting to see the different roads that Chris and Jess will take in 2019. Happily, I plan to follow them on this exciting and passionate adventure.
Photo credits to Derek Rocco