Velosmith Interview with Rob Vandermark, an Excerpt


Our friends at Velosmith Bicycle Studio did an interview with Seven founder Rob Vandermark recently for a series they’re doing on bike builders. We’ve been working with Velosmith since they opened in 2010, and Tony Bustamante, one of the studio’s founders and owners, once worked with us here at Seven, too. Watch the Velosmith site for the full interview.

In the meantime, here is a brief excerpt:

Velosmith: In 1997, offering a custom bike was a relatively new concept for traditional bike shops. Tell us a little about those early years.

Rob Vandermark: That’s right. There weren’t a lot of options at that time. People were interested in high-end titanium and well-made steel but they didn’t really think that they were going to do true custom. There was no model for it yet. The four of us who started Seven had strong industry backgrounds in design, development, building, marketing, and sales – we had all the bases covered. So, we were able to find retailers who trusted us because of our reputation or past relationships. Within eight weeks of opening, we were shipping orders out the door.

Rob V. on the Trail

Where do you find inspiration for products and design?

RV: I’ve been frame building for 29 years and it’s still engaging for me. It doesn’t get old because the way I relate to the bike keeps changing. For the last few years, my inspiration has come from adventure riding. There was a time when I would look at other industries for inspiration – motorcycles, cars, wheelchairs – more than actually riding. Now, the pendulum has swung back to bike usage, bike riding, and all the niches that are happening in the industry today. It’s always about reconnecting to the bike in a different way.

Who do you see as your ideal customer?

RV: Because everything we do is custom, I see everyone as a Seven customer. It’s anyone who loves riding and wants a better experience while riding.

Signature Cycles: Behind the Scenes with Seven’s Rob Vandermark

With a singular focus on custom built frames, Seven Cycles is a company founded on understanding the individual cyclist and delivering every rider the optimum fit, function and performance. Seven’s passion for custom, along with their mastery of materials, innovation and design, has helped them become the largest custom frame builders in the world. We recently talked with CEO Rob Vandermark about the company’s beginnings, his eclectic and passionate team, and new directions we might see from Seven in next few years.

Though switching careers every two years has become a norm these days, Vandermark says he’s basically had just two paths of focus in his life – sculpture and cycling – which it turns went very well together. While he was a sculpture major in college, Vandermark saw a job opening at Merlin Metalworks where he first learned to build titanium frames. Vandermark says, “Merlin was the innovator in titanium mountain bikes and it was an exciting time in the industry. I love working with my hands, problem solving in three dimensions, and exploring all kinds of engineering conundrums so it was very informative to learn in that environment. The work combined my love of sculpture and bikes.”

After 11 years at Merlin, Vandermark decided to take his skills and experience out on his own. He started Seven Cycles in 1997 and from the beginning created a “custom only” approach. After 15 years and over 25,000 bicycles it’s that focus on the individual rider that Vandermark says keeps him excited. “We work with a blank slate for each bike. We get to know each rider, the way they ride, their experience of riding, how they want to ride in the future, what details they think of as customization. Every single bike is different and that’s why after all these years, every bike is still cool to me.”

Aside from his background in sculpture and design, Vandermark also had a fascination with the manufacturing process itself. “I’m interested in how people work in a manufacturing environment and how it can be an engaging learning experience. There are a lot of ways to make it fun to make stuff. That’s why we do custom bikes rather than 1000 of all one size. Making things by hand has become more and more rare, and it’s that combination of craftsmanship with engineering and functionality, that makes custom bicycles such a beautiful product to build.” When it comes to his team, Vandermark says the people at Seven and their personal connection to cycling have a tremendous influence on how they think about design. “We have a strong culture of diverse cyclists and the team’s way of riding informs a lot of what we build. We have a lot of commuters, a lot of green thinkers, everything from serious road racers to bike anarchists – and that’s intentional. People’s individual passions influence the company from our designs to even the way we build our bikes.”

Before starting Seven, mountain bike racing as well as criterium and road racing were personal passions for Vandermark. After over 20 years of cycling he says his focus has shifted to pure enjoyment and exploration on a bike. “I like riding in a versatile way. Trail riding, randonneur riding, even night riding are what I’m most into these days. I like taking a road bike and doing trail riding with it – traveling an old back road or finding a road I didn’t know existed. After over 20 years of riding, you start looking at ways to continue to push what cycling can be for you as an individual.”

Looking to the future with Seven, Vandermark says he sees opportunities for the expansion of custom frame building, both in terms of how people define customization and in making custom bikes more accessible for people. He says Signature Cycles has been a long term partner with Seven in that process. “I’d like to make custom bicycles less intimidating as a concept both for riders and for shops. Signature Cycles embraces custom bikes in a way very few other retailers do. Paul and his team are very good at communicating the value and the subtleties of what a high end handmade bike can offer. It’s a leap of faith for some people and I wish more shops had that commitment to helping riders understand the difference custom can make. The whole Signature team is also committed to doing PERFECT work. They won’t accept anything less, and that keeps us all doing our absolute best work, all the time.”

Though Seven was better known initially for their work with titanium, as the company and cycling trends have evolved their approach is to be “material agnostic”. It’s all about applying the right materials in the right application and this philosophy allows Seven’s design team to stay adaptable and fresh. “The bike isn’t just a tool for fitness, it’s also a tool for independence. We see that in the shift towards commuting. The high end market seems a little less race-centric. There’s more interest in utility, exploring, experimentation. As more people get into club rides, longer distance rides or dirt road riding, there are some new ways to think about road bikes. Carbon road bikes are super light and high performance but not very comfortable so metal becomes a great material again. A lot of those bikes also have a retro-classic style now and I think there’s room for a whole new approach in that category.”

External Links

Signature Cycles gallery of Seven custom bikes.