American Custom Bicycles in Steel, Titanium and Ti/carbon mix

Seven Cycles Blog » History


There Are No Bikes

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

6941319752_b9cb75a4a6_zThere are no bikes, but only riders, more than 30,000 of them. They came to us and told us about their riding, the roads and trails they wanted to ride, and we gave them a way to get there. It’s true that, in some ways, it was the bikes that took them where they wanted to go, but without the riders, there was nothing.

This is an important distinction to make. We have never built a bike with the express purpose of convincing someone to buy it. We have only ever built the bikes that people asked us to build. The rider comes first, always.

We get somewhat regular calls from people who ask something like, “Hi, I wonder if you have a 56cm road bike in stock that I can just buy.” And we say, “Sorry, we don’t actually have any bikes in inventory,” which is true.

There are no bikes until there are riders who want them, and what they want is very specific. We wouldn’t build the same bike for you, because you are different. We have built more than 30,000 bikes, and never two the same in a row. It is a lot more fun to do it this way.

The Big Ideas – The Rider/Retailer/Builder Partnership

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

CBS_SevenDisplayThe Big Ideas, as a series, is about this whole bike building project we embarked on in 1997 and the foundational ideas that make what we do possible. The first installment was about Single-Piece Flow (SPF). The second installment was about Just-in-Time manufacturing (JIT). Last we explored the 5 Elements of Customization.

We started with an idea, a different kind of bike company, one that offers a product and a service, an experience, and we found a build method that would support it, Single-Piece Flow. Then we backed it up with a manufacturing model that would streamline the process and hold down costs, Just-in-Time manufacturing. Then we created a language that would free rider’s from the constraints of production models, that would allow them to speak the language of custom, the 5 Elements.

Finally, we needed a way to connect all the dots.

Everything we’ve done so far, philosophically, has been about gaining focus on the individual rider, so how do we understand the roads they ride? How do we see and measure them effectively? We always want to be a local builder. The machine shop we get most of our small parts from is local. The builders who work here all live nearby. If we can’t be near all our riders, how do we get closer? How do we localize ourselves?

We needed partners in every cycling community, and the obvious way to get that was to work with bike shops who wanted to collaborate with us and our riders on custom builds. Seven riders are de facto bike designers. We are only building them the bike they tell us they want, and our bike shop partners facilitate the process.

We are the only builder who does direct, systematized interviews with each customer while also working with the shop. Together, the three of us create the custom experience, and THAT is how we get from the idea of fully custom bicycles on a short timeline to delivering fully custom bicycles on a short timeline.

These are our big ideas. They’re simple when you break them down, even though we are still refining them, even after 30,000 bikes have passed through our hands.

The Big Ideas – Just-In-Time Manufacturing

Monday, March 30th, 2015

The Big Ideas, as a series, is about this whole bike building project we embarked on in 1997 and the foundational ideas that make what we do possible. The first installment was about Single-Piece Flow (SPF).

This week we’ll talk about Just-in-Time manufacturing (JIT).

JIT is the idea that our own manufacturing inventory only arrives exactly when we need it to, that a rider ordering a bike actually triggers the process of the bike’s component parts beginning to move toward the bike builder’s work space. This is the method that supports the madness of Single-Piece Flow, and the myriad complications of building fully custom bikes on a short timeline.

We make it work by doing a lot of forecasting. After crafting 30,000 bikes, one-at-a-time, by-hand, we have a lot of data to crunch, so we do our best to see the future, the materials we’ll need to build the bikes our riders will want.

Another thing we do is keep all of our materials in their rawest form. All of our titanium tube stock, for example, is straight-gauge. If we need to build a butted frame, we butt the raw tubes to suit the order. We achieve three things this way. First, we reduce the amount of inventory we need to keep on hand. Second, we maintain control over the refinement of the materials, so that we’re refining them for their specific rider, rather than just turning out generic tubesets. And third, we maintain a tighter control over the quality of our materials. Smaller lots of tubing are easier to inspect. The best materials make the best bikes. This turns out to be a big deal.

Less inventory also narrows our¬† focus on process and adds a sense of urgency to every build. To succeed with JIT, we need to clearly define each design before we start to build. We need to solve the design challenges in advance, because our system depends on having a very low amount of material waste. Our ability to build the next bike literally depends on getting the bike in front of us right. That’s good pressure, and it produces great bikes.

Streamlining processes and tightening inventory makes US, craft manufacturing possible. This is how you can get a fully-custom, US-made bike for the same price as a high-end, Asian-made production bike (where labor and materials costs are a fraction of our costs). In a world filled with batch-made products, Just-in-Time manufacturing as a way to bring craft-made bikes to market is, for us, a very big idea.

The Big Ideas – Single-Piece Flow

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Last week we wrote about our customer interview, and that process came from our need to be able to build exactly the bikes our riders wanted. It got us thinking about this whole bike building project we embarked on in 1997 and the foundational ideas that make what we do possible. These are our “big ideas,” and over the next few weeks we’ll walk through all of them, from our unique build process to the way we collaborate with our customers, to the way we deliver our bikes.

This first installment is about Single-Piece Flow (SPF).

We always wanted to be a different kind of bike company, one that offered both a product and a service, in our case a bike and the experience of customizing it. We wanted to give our customers an experience that was about them and their cycling, not just about the bike. In a very real way, we didn’t want to be a bike company. We wanted to be a rider company. That’s where we started.

But that idea has to be more than marketing. It has to be manufacturing, too. It has to be real. How do we do that?

The simple answer is Single-Piece Flow, a way of building things that unleashes the potential for deep customization. Single-Piece Flow literally means building things one-at-a-time. By building each bike one-at-a-time we can focus on the individual rider it’s being built. Their name is attached to every order. All their personal information travels with the bike through every stage of design and build.

Building by hand, to order, never in batches, allows for the greatest level of customizability. Every order is unique, so we break it down into its constituent parts. We spec tubes specifically for the rider in front of us. One builder works on one bike, refining all the raw tubing, the dropouts, to match that one rider’s needs.

SPF is also where quality comes from. By focusing on one bike at a time, the builder is only ever responsible for one thing, the work in front of him or her, one set of details. The fewer hands touch each frame, the more responsibility each set takes. Typically only 2 or 3 builders work on a Seven, a machinist passing a perfect frameset to a welder, the welder passing that frame to a finisher and/or painter. This approach maximizes accountability while still allowing for a high-level of specialization by each builder, whether machinist, welder, finisher or painter.

The kind of focus and experience SPF demands isn’t cheap. Our team of builders has more than 300 years collective experience. We invest a lot in them, and that investment requires another big idea to sustain in a competitive world. Next time, we’ll talk about Just-in-Time (JIT) manufacturing and how it helps us put our capital in experienced craftspeople, rather than inventory.

Things That Last – Before and After Axiom repaint

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

We built this Axiom SL in 2002, for a customer who has since worked with us on two more bikes. This winter, he decided he wanted to update the look of this bike after 13 years on the road. He sent it to us to strip and repaint. This is what it looked like when we got it, not bad for its vintage, not bad at all.

We tell our riders we’re building them a lifetime bike, that they’ll still be riding it in decades. We think it’s one of the big selling features of a Seven, but in the excitement of getting a new bike, few really appreciate the value of the long term. You can’t blame them, they’re getting a new bike.

But now, 18 years into our bike building adventure, we are seeing bikes coming back for refinishes and repaints, and we send every one back out the door looking as good as it did when it was new. Many of these frames are a decade or more old.

There’s a story in this that resonates with these times: ¬†about quality, about not making disposable stuff, about caring for and fixing things instead of throwing them away and buying something new.

Here is the after shot of the bike above:

We hope we’ll see it back again in 10 or 15 years for another update.