An Interview With Steve Hampsten, Part I

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The Hampsten name is associated with a lot in the world of bicycles. Sure, there was Andy’s career as a racer; there’s the tour company Cinghiale Cycling Tours; an olive oil company, Extra Virgin Olive Oil; and perhaps best known these days is the bike company, Hampsten. If it’s Andy’s reputation that brings people in, it’s dealing with Steve that seals the deal. He’s a warm and thoughtful guy whose desire to combine proven technology and affordability has made him a voice of reason to many who can’t rationalize a $10,000 bicycle.

I shot these photos during a Cinghiale Cycling Tours training camp in Los Alamos, Calif. The days were spent riding through Santa Barbara County and the evenings spent eating gourmet meals prepared in part by Steve and accompanied by local Pinots and Chardonnays.

PB—Let’s start with the most basic question about you and Hampsten Cycles. Where does Andy stop and you start? Specifically, how do you two dovetail your roles in the company?

SH—Andy sells bikes—mostly to his Cinghiale Cycling Tours customers—and he works with his customers in choosing the right size, model, and equipment. He helps with the fine-tuning of new models and provides feedback as we move along; he also has the unerring ability to shoot down my crappy ideas: “No, we don’t need a Hampsten mountain bike.” I’d say his customers account for a third of our bike sales.

Two of Andy’s big contributions to the company have been the Strada Bianca and what we now call our Travelissimo—our S & S-coupled travel bike. They are two of our biggest sellers and it’s a bonus that they’re bikes Andy rides himself and feels passionate about.

He’s involved with clothing design and special projects and he helped drive the recent Rich Roat/House Industries-produced Gavia poster. He has good ideas and strong instincts and he has the sense to leave the day-to-day stuff to me – I think we make a good team.

PB—How’d you get into what you’re doing and what’s your background?

SH—Well, Patrick, I started working in bike shops in 1976 and continued off-and-on for about ten years, was even part owner of famed J. Stone and Sons Cycles (I was a “Son”) in Grand Forks, ND, for a while. About 1982 I started cooking in restaurants in Madison and Seattle, focusing on French, Italian, and American food. In 1997 I started welding and working with steel and most of 1998 was spent building frames and forks at Match Bicycle Company. When Match closed down I continued welding, blacksmithing, and fabricating part-time until about 2005, but 1999 was when Andy and I had the idea that putting our name on the downtube might be a fun thing to do.

So I had been involved in batch-building lugged frames and forks and I spent some time at Ti Cycles with Dave Levy and I have a good idea of how carbon and titanium frames are built. I can braze steel and I can weld steel and aluminum but I don’t do any of it well enough or efficiently enough for it to make sense for me to be the principal builder. I could learn, I suppose, but I really enjoy what I’m doing now. Maybe someday, start brazing some lugs….

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PB—Hampsten Cycles is different from some operations in that you don’t build too many frames in house. Who are your current suppliers?

SH—This year we’ll build about fifty frames, most of which become whole bicycles. Of those, about 25%, or 12.5 frames, will be built in-house by Max and Martin. Of the rest, I’m getting aluminum frames from Co-Motion, welded steel and stainless frames from Independent Fabrication, and titanium frames come from both Kent Eriksen and Moots Cycles. We’ve done some one-off titanium and stainless frames in our Seattle shop but my preference is that we stick with steel here.

I’d like to see the overall numbers creep up and I’d like to see us do more frames in-house. I love the Colorado-built ti frames because they don’t have to be painted: order the frame and—boom—six weeks later it’s ready. Ditto with the frames from IF and Co-Mo; they have excellent welders and great paint departments and they make the whole process so painless.

But there is also a beauty in designing a frame for a customer and working out the details with Max or Martin and seeing this lovely creature birthed in my own shop, then sending it off to paint and having it come back perfect. The in-house stuff we do may not be quantifiably “better” than what we get from our suppliers but the welding, brazing, and painting is every bit as good. And given the little touches we can do to each frame in terms of tube selection, dropout and casting choices, and in the details – all this makes it more of a one-off.

PB—What draws you to a particular builder—what makes you want to work with someone?

SH—I think there is a look I go for when evaluating a builder as a possible supplier: simple lines, round tubes, perfect welds/brazing/bonding, and I’ve got to feel comfortable talking with them. Some of the people who supply us are friends of ours going in but with others it’s simply a case of dumb luck. As an example: I approached Independent Fabrication at a time when we were having trouble getting steel frames. I had always been a big fan of theirs but I didn’t really know anyone there—I had ordered a fork or two but that was it. Despite seeing plenty of examples of their work it never occurred to me that I might ask them to build for us—but once I did it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

PB—Is each of your suppliers building both stock sizing and custom frames?

SH—Nope, everything we do right now is custom, made for a particular customer. However, I am working on a line of non-custom, less expensive frames, name as-yet undecided, and our plan is to build all of them in-house—we should see these early 2010.

PB—What differentiates a Hampsten from an Ericksen or Co-Motion?

SH—I spend a good amount of time talking to and/or emailing my customers, after which I create a drawing in BikeCAD for that customer’s frame. I spec all dimensions, angles, tube diameters, etc, then I send the drawing to Kent [Ericksen] or Co-Mo or whomever for fabrication. Occasionally, I’ll have some discussion with Kent, Dwan [Shepard of Co-Motion], et al, on tube selection or other detailed aspect of the frame—and I gain a lot from talking with these guys—but I never get the sense that our bikes really look like theirs. I have the numbers I like to work with, they have their own—it’s not like any of us are doing anything radical in terms of fit or handling but I do feel that there are certain signatures one can look for from most builders or designers.

PB—Bill McGann of Torelli once told me he relished the opportunity to hire framebuilders to build particular bikes to his spec, rather than braze the frames himself because not building allowed him time to focus on big picture issues. He could spend more time balancing the quality of tubing, build and price for a model or thinking through the geometry of a particular model relative to its use. What requires the biggest investment of energy for you on a daily basis if it’s not the act of building?

SH—My day probably looks like that of many people who run a small business: I spend a good portion of time talking with and emailing customers, both potential and those with bikes or frames on order, tidying up details and answering questions. I’m responsible for all the ordering, paying taxes/bills/contractors, making sure my insurance and licenses are in order, keeping the shop and office clean—and I do most of the new bike assembly and repairs. In my “spare” time I try to work on new models and ideas for the months ahead, things that I want to present on the website and/or blog. I write all the text for the website, answer a surprisingly large amount of emails, and have occasional writing projects like this interview right here. I’m currently working on a new website and on the new “brand.” It’s almost a relief that I’m not the guy with the welding or brazing torch or half that stuff wouldn’t happen.

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1 comment

  1. Dan O

    Cool interview.

    I’ve poured over the Hampsten bikes on their website many times and spotted a few in the flesh here in the Seattle area. Very nice stuff indeed.

    My dream vacation would be a Italy tour with these guys. That won’t be happening anytime soon – but I can dream, can’t I?

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