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This is how he works: a torch in hand, the flame passing over metal in rhythmic waves as he peers through goggles at the elemental fusion of steel on silver alloy on steel. The creator of YiPsan Bicycles, Renold Yip, Hong Kong-born and now Colorado-based, is in his garage in Fort Collins crafting a bike with his hands.
Words & images: Bryan Schatz
At this point, he’s already dragged the teeth of a hatchet across steel tubes, filed down their edges into curved angles, and has placed the bottom bracket, the top, bottom, head and seat tubes into a frame jig (basically a metal block with adjustable clamps). The tubes are attached by steel, casted lugs. He’s coated the joints with flux, which looks like a white putty, to chemically clean the metal, and he’s tacked each connection in place and has brought the frame’s front triangle to an alignment anchor. He’s already taken readings of each tube, and after seeing that they’re all within 3/1,000 of an inch of where they should be, has decided they’re good to go. And now Yip is brazing the joints. A thin coil of silver alloy is wrapped around his arm, which he’s feeding through his fingers and then along the edges of the lug castings that envelop the frame tubes. The torch heats the alloy until it’s molten, and in turn the alloy fills the space between the lug and the steel, fusing them together. This is the physical expression of what began simply as a conversation with another cyclist seeking a handcrafted machine.
A custom bike is tailor fit to body dimensions, but it’s not just that, says Yip. It’s also fit for purpose. “You need the body dimensions, but equally important, then are you going to ride the Tour de France as an amateur? We need to fit that application. Are you going to ride cyclocross in Boulder? That’s another application. We also need to match the rider’s abilities.” Yip tells his customers five months after they agree on a CAD design of the bike. Then he orders the raw materials, and after months of labor, a bike that is birthed into the world.
While Yip’s garage is filled with tools, workbenches and industrial material, the feeling is more akin to a painter’s studio, a workspace filled with creativity and contemplation. It’s devoid of the f-bombs, rock ’n’ roll, and flying wrenches that populate many a mechanic’s garage. Yip is an intellectual. A man of ideas. To him, a bike is not simply an object, but a repository of tales. Each outing is a chapter in the history of rider and ride, the story’s passages filled with anecdotes of scaled mountains, traversed plains, foreign land made familiar from the vantage point of a bicycle. Yip, who has slender features and rectangular glasses, speaks softly but deliberately. He says, “A durable item like a bike can last longer than your life, the story that goes on as the years go by is way more interesting than just the object itself.”
Generally, the radio website, B100.net, projects news from Hong Kong into the garage as he works, but today it’s classical piano, because, he decides considerately, I wouldn’t like listening to news in a language I can’t decipher. So instead we discuss world events in our common tongue. As he brazes the frame, he tells me of his native home: “Hong Kong is going through some changes. They just celebrated sixteen years since the handover from the British, but people are starting to see some changes they don’t like. ‘Redifying,’ they call it. More communist-like.” He used to listen to Chinese radio stations, but in the new political climate, they can no longer acquire licenses to broadcast what the rulers consider anti-government messages, so he listens to stations that have moved online. “Less rules,” he explains simply. This, it should be noted, is also how he works: alternating discussion topics between the alchemical and philosophical implications of craftsmanship and the simple but wondrous joys of bicycles, to “real-world” issues—politics, culture, society, class, justice—all the while wielding a torch or a hacksaw, or perhaps computing measurements to within fractions of millimeters.
It’s exacting work. But then, it also isn’t, he says. Steel tubes are never perfectly flat and straight. Like wood, metal has grain patterns and natural bends, and to a certain extent, it’s going to do what it wants. A craftsman must work with the materials he has. Yip informs, “Old-time builders will say, ‘You can do only as much as you can do, because a frame has a life of itself.’ The metal expands and contracts, each tube juggling for space, especially after being heated.”
That Yip invokes the ruminations of “old-timers” is no accident. Yip builds lugged bikes exclusively (lugs being the socket-like sleeves that form the joints); the same way bicycles have been crafted since back in the late 1800s. He keeps things traditional, “old-school,” as he says, with only hand tools and time to aid in the construction process.
“It’s definitely not the most efficient,” he allows. “If you gave me a thousand orders now I would be in trouble.” It’s true, none of his methods can be considered “efficient.” But this is about craft, not speed, quality and not quantity—the opposite of mass production in both spirit and invention. Yip makes approximately 15 bikes a year.
“I don’t believe in having a machine to cut the tubes and form the angles. If that’s the case, why even do it? Just have a robot do it.” And anyways, every person, and therefore every bike, is different. There’d be no point to set up a machine in a certain way because he’d have to change it all the time.
With the front lug now fused with the head tube, Yip rotates the frame on the bike stand and brings the torch to the bottom bracket lug to repeat the brazing process. As the area heats up, the flux first turns clear and oozes before crystalizing like an emerald. The metal tubes glow red, and the molten silver runs. He rotates the frame as he brazes each crease so that the silver is subjected to gravity, filling in the space between tube and lug until each point of connection is fused. The tighter angles require more patience. It takes longer for the molten silver to fill them in, so the passing of the torch must be gentle, careful not to overheat and burn, instead to let the heat spread, drawing the silver into the tight spaces.
It could be said that Renold Yip was destined to work on two-wheeled machines since birth. His father, a longtime motorcycle enthusiast, named him “Renold,” after the high-quality motorcycle chain he ran on his bikes back when they lived in Hong Kong, the home Yip eventually left at the age of 32. He went on to the UK to earn a degree in Manufacturing Engineering, which helps him to this day in his chosen profession, and then immigrated to the U.S. in 2002. At that point, he became a journeyman apprentice of sorts, living in various U.S. cities and working in bike shops with “masters” of different skillsets necessary to becoming a bike builder. For nine months he ran a neighborhood bike repair shop out of his home in Snoqualmie, Washington. From 2003-2006, he worked at All American Bicycles in Damascus, Maryland and attended the United Bicycle Institute to learn frame building. When he and his wife settled in Colorado he worked at Lee’s Cyclery, learning the ins and outs of bike fitting, a crucial step in custom design bike building, before launching YiPsan Bicycles. Now he builds his award-winning bikes (“People’s Choice” and “Best City Bike” from the North American Handmade Bicycle Show) out of his garage.
The bike he’s building today is a randonneur. It will run wide tires for road and packed dirt, and while he adheres strictly to the tactics of traditional bike building, he does not deny the many advances in bike technology. This bike will have hydraulic disc brakes, electric shifting (the frame will have holes allowing for an electric wire to go through the inside), an integrated fender, lighting and racks, and will have couplers. That is, this bike, without losing any of its rigidity or strength, can be separated into two pieces and will fit into 26×26” luggage—the better to avoid high transportation fees on flights to faraway touring trips. In both design and construction, it’s the most complicated type of bike Yip builds because of the variety of equipment it needs “to fit together and function harmoniously.”
But Yip also notes, “None of this is really difficult or technical. It’s just an accumulation of all the processes.” Basically, it’s complicated, but not if you separate each step and take them one at a time, which as he explains each step, sounds extremely complicated. Contradictions such as this are common with Yip. For example, he can take great pride in the work he does, but he also says: “Why should I be particularly proud that I made this bike? I think we humans often overinflate ourselves; in the end we’re not trying to serve others, necessarily, especially in the first world. If you really think about it, I’m being quite selfish to choose this as my profession. But at the same time, the funniest part is that I think the public is attracted to this kind of narcissism. I have to self-regulate my pride.”
After the front triangle is done, Yip cleans off the crystalized flux and returns the triangle to the frame jig where he builds the back end. Only after the frame and forks are completed will he begin building racks. The racks, to a large degree, are where his artistic side comes out. He uses a manual tube bender to place curves in the metal, complimenting function with fashion. One customer, for example, wanted her bike to take inspiration from sunflowers, so he built a steel and wood flower-petal mosaic into the bike’s basket rack.
Finally, a custom paint job finishes the product. Sounding somewhat disappointed, or perhaps just amused, Yip says, “People will never notice a bike made by me without paint. People notice a bike because of paint, and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, so who made this?’” Only then do people notice all the subtle gestures that make his handcrafted bikes unique, and frankly, superior to mass-produced bicycles that fill bike shops. Paint, it turns out, is very personal. It’s the first impression.
“In the beginning you focus on the technical sides, but function and art really go hand in hand,” says Yip. “However cool the technical aspect is, if the bike looks like shit, they won’t ride it. Likewise, if the thing looks a million bucks, but doesn’t suit your needs, you’re not going to ride the damn thing. It will be a garage ornament, hung up on a pedestal. But then you never ride it, and ultimately that would be sad.”
Yip wants his bikes to build character over time through battle scars—the paint becoming chipped and scraped, evidence of wear. It means it’s been out there. You’ve taken it through England or France or on long rides closer to home. When Yip begins to craft a new bike, he’s not simply envisioning it in a completed state, but rather, sees that moment as the birth of what will hopefully be a long life. “In the long story of this whole thing, the owner should have memories of this, and when they pass it on to a relative or a stranger, there will be inherent history. I think that is more attractive overall.”
From Issue 26. Buy it here.