What magic has seen Alchemy Bicycle Co build it's way to the top of the bespoke cycling world? We ask its founder
As Colorado-based Alchemy Bicycle Co. expands its peerless reputation for handmade frames to the UK, founder Ryan Cannizzaro recounts the brand's meteoric rise and how the team's passion for beautifully designed bikes only grows with the company's fortunes.
I've always been an avid cyclist," says Cannizzaro. "Just getting out on the open road has always been the best part of my day." This passion for cycling provided ample motivation to steer Cannizzaro towards the niche industry of building high-end bespoke bikes. "Throughout college I toiled on a business plan to start my own bike manufacturing company. Two years after I graduated I was able to open the doors of Alchemy."
The doors in question were those of a 900 square-foot garage in Austin, Texas, Alchemy's first home when Cannizzaro minted the brand name. Getting underway with chromoly and titanium designs, Alchemy set out to be a little different from other companies, focusing on the rider benefits of bespoke frame building and establishing a steadfast commitment to made-in-the-USA quality, rather than importing from abroad.
"We know the elevated ride quality of a bespoke bicycle. It was also important to keep our production in the US, as being able to control the production process from start to finish gives our frames a more refined level of craftsmanship.
"We built our brand with no marketing budget; it is simply the way our bikes ride and the consistent quality of our craftsmanship that have built the brand. Many custom builders are focused on the outlandish paint schemes and using crazy standards, and while our in-house painters at Ethic Paint Works can create anything you want, our focus has always been to build dependable bikes that ride even better than they look."
While the Alchemy's reputation for creating the finest custom-geometry steel and titanium frames grew, Cannizzaro was mindful of the opportunity that carbon fibre could offer; a chance to show that made-in-the-USA carbon frames could out-ride the biggest mass-produced brands in cycling.
"We've always known carbon to be the material that could take us to the next level. However, we didn't want to be another bike company sourcing cheap carbon frames out of Asia. Creating carbon bikes from the ground up in-house allows us to manipulate the ride qualities of the bike beyond what we can do with other materials."
The turning point for Alchemy came in September 2010 when Cannizzaro hired industrial designer and composites expert Matt Maczuzak, who had total belief that Alchemy's carbon frames could be as strong as any player in the world. "We invested heavily in assets knowing Matt could make the best USA-made carbon frames with the right resources," says Cannizzaro. "It's still in incredible to me how differently we can build the same frame for two different riders, looking for totally different things in a bike — be it a race bike or an all-day adventurer, Matt can engineer a frame to meet either demand. Or both!"
When first moving into carbon, Alchemy cannily teamed up with Enve, whose forks the brand was already speccing on its frames. Initially using Enve's round tubes, Alchemy was soon providing the Utah-based company with moulds to create its own exclusive custom-designed tubes.
"Alchemy was established just one year after Enve, so our relationship with them was born from the beginning. We became good friends with the lead engineer and founder of Enve, Jason Schiers, and Enve has been a great partner ever since," says Cannizzaro.
One defining characteristic of Alchemy's carbon frames is their exquisite ride quality, something Bicycling Magazine's Bill Strickland described following his testing of the brand's Helios frame. "I am aware of the road and our motion and all the sensations of the ride in a way that feels more thorough but is at the same time somehow simpler… Alchemy built me a bike that did everything I'd imagined it might—including casting me into those fantastical states of wonder… making me dream of riding more, of riding farther, of riding fresh roads and old roads in new ways…"
The key to this suitably alchemical transition from raw carbon to a stunningly good bike is Alchemy's Techne-craft manufacturing technique. The whole frame is built on a special jig that maintains the desired geometry and the finished tubes are mitred exactly for perfect tube-to-tube matching which all but eliminates the need for joint filling compound – the culprit for the deadened feeling of many mass produced frames.
Each tube junction is then lovingly wrapped in layers of carbon, laid up to create the customer's requested ride characteristics. The result is a truly special, one-off frame and an exceptionally beautiful finished product; the pride of place in any cycling aficionado's collection.
Alchemy soon became known for its superior carbon frames, the US industry praising the brand for its extraordinary use of carbon fibre. The Arion aero road bike earned the Best Carbon Fiber Frame and Best Carbon Construction awards at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) in 2012 and 2013, a reflection of the innovation that has seen Alchemy's reputation soar to the top in so short a space of time.
In October 2012, Cannizzaro moved operations from Austin to the thriving cycling community of Denver, Colorado – "Four seasons, loads of sunshine and the Rocky Mountains," muses Cannizzaro on the reasoning behind the move. The new 12,000 square-foot headquarters even features its own on-site coffee house – Chroma Café – fuelling the ground-bean cravings of cyclists from far and wide. As part of the move, four families relocated from Texas, while another four – from Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire – moved to join Alchemy in its new base.
Despite the disparate backgrounds of its staff and the individuality that Alchemy encourages, the brand has become known for its straightforward identity: maintaining a grassroots earthiness far away from the pretension of other brands, while appealing to real connoisseurs of handcrafted bicycles.
"Everyone we recruited was hired to ensure complete control of our supply chain using different expertise from within the group. We use each person's expertise to reach the end goal," says Cannizzaro. "The move also meant we were able to bring tube production and paint in-house."
Indeed, carbon production flourished in this new environment, with everything from CAD tube design to CNC mould cutting, laying up and heat pressing all brought in-house. With this increased production capacity, the brand has also branched out into stock frames. Fitting all but the trickiest customer, stock sizes are ideal for those wanting a handmade frame in a hurry and a boon for retailers, who can hold stock of a handmade frame to fit all.
"It allows us to produce at a faster pace," says Cannizzaro. "Matt is able to cut carbon and create frame tubes that are pre-mitred for stock sizes, rather than need to cut down every tube for a custom frame. We're able to speed up our production and the end customer saves some money."
Though a large proportion of Alchemy frames are made from carbon, metal also remains a key part of the business and one that Alchemy has recently worked hard to strengthen. "We spent a few years developing our carbon frames. Unfortunately, during that time, we lost some of our metal market share, but all of our retail partners were asking us to reinvigorate our metal line as we did with carbon.
"We took the feedback and completely redesigned our Eros and Chiron frames. We used Matt's expertise in design and ride characteristics and completely sourced and designed our tubes based on ride quality. We also have one of the best welders and metal fabricators in the industry [Jeff Wager, previously of US custom builders Serotta]. We rely on his expertise to execute Matt's design. It has worked out extremely well and metal is back on pace."
Alchemy is also known for the reputation of its painters. Upon the move to Colorado, Shane Haberland moved from Serotta, followed by former colleague Nick Hemendinger when Serotta closed in 2013. More recently, the team recruited Phil Harwood from Independent Fabrications. "With this type of expertise under one roof, we decided to form Ethic Paint Works and make it a part of Ethic Industries," says Cannizzaro. "We have some of the best painting talent and we might as well offer it to the industry!"
With the rugged backdrop of the Rockies close to Alchemy's Denver HQ, it was only a matter of time before the mountains called: "We're in Colorado – the only thing that compares to the road riding is the mountain biking. We knew to expand into mountain bikes we had to have a product that stood up to our road products."
That meant creating a whole new frame platform; an engineering challenge, but one that the Alchemy team relished. "The frames are our most technological to date. They use years and years of experience to make the ultimate mountain bike performance and quality."
When it came to the company's all-important first full-suspension MTB – the Arktos – Alchemy enlisted the help of David Earle in the creation of a new rear suspension platform, a man whose CAD workstation had already produced a host of industry-leading designs including Santa Cruz's VPP system – found on the original Blur and Nomads as well as the Intense range; Yeti's 'Switch' system; Mountain Cycle's Turntable linkage to name but a few.
"Our relationship with David Earle was key to establishing our mountain production as a game-changing move. We didn't want to rely on an existing suspension design. Our exclusive rights to the Sine Suspension by David was key to expanding in the mountain market."
The new Sine Suspension (a naming nod to the shape of the leverage ratio curve) features variable response throughout the travel to absorb small bumps and maintain climbing traction, helping to prevent mid stroke wallow while permitting the full 150mm travel when needed.
Despite having just begun production, the Arktos has already made a big impression, the beautiful design scooping the People's Choice and Best Mountain Bike gongs at the 2016 NAHBS show earlier this year.
With Alchemy transferring its high-end carbon expertise to benefit mountain bikers, reinvigorating its metal lines and bolstering its stock carbon collection, the brand is certainly on an upward trajectory, but what does the future hold? For Cannizzaro, the answer is simple: "More bikes, better technology, same craftsmanship!"