“Fuck cancer, I’m Ezra,” are the words emblazoned on the masthead of Ezra Caldwell’s blog found on the website of his custom bike building company, Fast Boy Cycles. Caldwell is the man behind the New York-based operation that works under one simple premise: building custom frames to fit the client’s personal likeness. Fast Boy has already caused a sensation among bicycle enthusiasts with their custom racks, fenders and handlebars.
Like most entrepreneurs, Caldwell’s faced his fair share of disappointments, notably being diagnosed with rectal cancer in July of 2008. But just as Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like riding a bicycle – in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”, these words couldn’t be more true in the story behind Fast Boy Cycles. For Ezra, a former art student, dance teacher and now a highly sought after custom bike builder, the road to doing what he enjoys is one that came full circle.
We recently got to sit with Ezra at his workshop based in Harlem and discussed his philosophy on bike customizing, entrepreneurship and teaching cancer to cry. In this interview, Ezra shares the details on how he got started in the industry and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.
Read the rest of the story after the jump.
So how did Fast Boy Cycles come about?
I started out teaching dance in New York for about 8 or 9 years and bikes were essentially how I got around in the city. Initially students of mine wanted to ride bikes around the city and I was sort of the person they knew that [had some knowledge] about it. So they’d ask me to put them on a bike and that became more and more of a regular thing. I started assembling bikes for people, styling them and more or less finding a frame that was appropriate for people who wanted something a little different and more than just the off the shelf offering. That eventually led into making these wooden fenders that I sold for a while. So when I decided to stop teaching, I had no idea what was going to come next but I felt it was going to be something bike related, whether it was to open a shop or who knows what.
What got you into bicycles?
The short answer is I come from sort of a bike advocacy background, I’ve been trying to get more people riding on bikes. The people who come to me the most are bike commuters, they’re people who use bikes to get around, not exercise. When I used to go to college in Philadelphia I realized that just about the best way to get around the city was by bicycle, and when I moved to New York a few years later, that continued. It’s just about the best mode of transport in the city.
I also think that bikes are THE elegant machine. I think that they’re remarkably beautiful objects. Mechanically beautiful, in terms of engineering they’re sort of the most efficient thing out there. Those things appeal to me [about bicycles] as well, the aesthetics and pure objective.
How long have you been around them?
Mostly all my life. When I was a kid, a bike was like freedom. You learn to ride a bike as a kid and suddenly, it’s independence. Whether you’re in the country, the suburbs or wherever bikes [usually] mean freedom. You can cover distances that you can’t cover walking. It’s a funny thing that happens when these kids grow up and have cars, they suddenly rediscover the idea of exercising on a bike but instead of using it to get places they put it on the roof of their car a drive somewhere to ride it and to me it’s a totally backwards way to use a bike. And I think what’s happening in today’s climate is that people are starting to come back to realize that a bike is ultimately about freedom.
What got you into the industry of building customs?
Well I originally went to an art school thinking I’d study industrial design. I went there thinking that I was actually going to get to design and make stuff, but when I got there I realized that the design department was more about what things look like rather than how they functioned. I came to find that it wasn’t exactly what I thought that industrial design was. I think that bikes have both the components of “how does it look” and “how does it work”, which makes them great place to explore because frankly, they’re so simple. I mean anyone can maintain a bike and anyone can see how it works. Particularly with single speed bikes.
Tell us about some of the custom bikes you’ve built.
I have built some fix geared bikes, but mostly single speed. As a type of bike, it is quite elegant. You don’t have to have brakes because it’s in the drive train. So you can have these completely spare and simple bikes. But as there’s a pendulum swing in anything, there’s a reaction to that minimalism and I feel like the next cool bike that everyone’s starting to crop into are these bikes with full fenders and front and rear racks and kickstands, you know? The more shit you can bolt to it the better. (laughs) There’s always that swing and I’ve been involved in building both. I just finished building a bike for Glen Hansard (from the movie Once). I just built his second bike, it’s like a Swiss Army, Postal bike type of thing. It’s really this big solid thing with super relaxed angles and built in rear rack and a bolted-on front rack and a chain guard. So the aesthetics [of the bikes I build] really do jump around. That was actually a real fun project to work on. I also just built a bike polo specific bike. I designed it for a friend and it had a few interesting quirks. The first being that he’s six foot five and weighs like 225 pounds or something, so a really big guy. That presented certain design challenges in terms of the geometry and all that. The type of steering you need when playing polo is quite different from the type of steering you want riding down the street. It’s a very fast sport but the top speed you’re reaching when playing bike polo is never all that fast, they’re getting up to maybe a 20-mph sprint at some point. It’s a lot of stop and go, so you’ll have to do a of slow-speed turning. The bike also had to be able to take mallet strikes without denting the tubing, so in strategic places the tubing is particularly thick. It was an interesting project.
What was the most fun you’ve had ever working on a project?
I’m ashamed to admit, but the most fun I have is working on a bike for myself. (laughs) That’s a real coy answer to the question, the truth is whatever bike I’m building is almost always the most interesting bike I’ve worked on. Whatever I’m working on at the moment always feels the most fascinating. One of the things I don’t like, is working with clients who feel like they already know a lot about bikes and want to micro-manage the project. That’s not a whole lot of fun. What’s more fun are the people who give you a lot of rope and just let you play. I feel like the people who say,”this is what I need it to be able to do, and just surprise me with the rest” usually come out with the most interesting bikes.
How did being diagnosed with cancer affect your outlook on life and business?
Well.. it certainly came as a surprise. It arrived with very little warning, I was symptomatic for a little over a month or so before I was diagnosed. Basically from one day to the next, it changed the practical details of my life. I went from being able to work 40 hour weeks to being laid low by chemotherapy and have daily radiation for the first six months of treatment. In some ways the most symbolic thing was that it was rectal cancer, so the doctor said I couldn’t ride a bike. I’ve been so used to riding a bike, I couldn’t even figure out a way to get anywhere in the city without one. So that was a big thing because here’s something I just recently decided I wanted to do for a living and be my livelihood, and I couldn’t even ride a bike. So I kind of pressed the doctor a little bit about what it was about riding a bike that was a problem. The doctor wanted me to be as active as I could be but he didn’t want me to put pressure on that particular location and be massaging the tumor and have it spread.
So I told him, “what if the bike didn’t have a seat?” He looked at me and said, “so you’re gonna stand all the time?” After I said yeah, the doctor sort of rolled his eyes at me and said,”that’s fine, do whatever you want to do,” So I built this assless bike, this bike is specifically designed to not have a seat. I didn’t feel like just taking the seat off of a bicycle that I already had because it just looked so wrong and it just looked like I had my seat stolen or something. So this bike was how I got to appointments, chemotherapy treatments and radiation anytime I felt well enough to ride. Happily, I’m able to ride a normal bike again.
Did having cancer change how you design or build bikes?
Not so much. It was just another specific solution to a specific problem. Naturally the vast majority of people riding bikes aren’t dealing with ass cancer. It reinforced to me that I could do things that were pretty out of normal and out of the ordinary and it still would work. It sort of gave me permission to do things pretty outside the realms of bike normalcy and be brave enough to do it. Designing a bike is sort of like designing a font, the alphabet already exists and in the same way, the way people build bikes, a double triangle frame construction, what maybe 98 percent of bikes out there are.
What are your biggest hopes?
My greatest hope is that this continues to be really interesting to me. I love bikes and I love building things. I think the opportunity to make really beautiful objects is alive and well in bike building. I just hope the process of building bikes and the process of dealing with customers and all of that remains interesting to me. I like the idea of getting people riding bikes. I like raising people’s awareness, getting them to want a bike but it’s hard to do that when not everyone can afford a $4,000 custom bike. I can see down the road getting more into a commercial road of bike building, working on designs for bikes that I think are practical, beautiful and can be mass produced just so they’re more affordable. But for now I just want to put my years in and be a really accomplished builder.
Interview by: Gerald Flores
Images provided by: Ezra Caldwell