Steel is real, carbon is king and titanium is for life. So what is aluminium? San Francisco framebuilder Andrew Low thinks he has the answer
wo years ago we showed at NAHBS [North American Handmade Bicycle Show] and did all our bikes in black,’ says Andrew Low, owner, founder and chief fabricator at Low Bicycles. ‘There was quite a lot of confusion – lots of frame flicking, listening for that tink or tonk, as people thought our bikes were carbon. They’re not, they’re aluminium.’
Even with a metallic finish, it takes a quick touch and squeeze of the top tube to dispel the suspicion that Low’s Mki Road bike is some kind of tongue-incheek statement about our perception of materials. The welds are so smooth as to appear drawn on, the polished metal grain behind the clear coat could easily be an optical illusion and there’s a homogeny of tubes normally only seen on carbon frames. The seat tube/stays/ top tube cluster is a case in point, with particularly smooth transitions between tubes in an area in which aluminium frames are usually lumbered with lumpy, toothpaste-like welds.
‘Not that there’s anything wrong with those sorts of welds,’ says Low. ‘They’re structurally sound. But they’re ugly! You want organic flow in a race bike I think, clean lines. So we’ve polished up our welds a little to get rid of the ripples.’
Of course, it helps if your welds are very fine indeed in the first place – not an easy thing when Tig-welding aluminium, as anyone in the trade will tell you. Yet according to Low, that’s not the reason small-batch aluminium framebuilders are rare.
Alloyed to the cause
‘I grew up in the fixie-messenger scene in San Fran, which was like a Mecca for that stuff back when I started building frames in 2010. Aluminium track bikes were the shit at the time. The Cannondale track bike was one of my Holy Grails, in that classic blue, so I just always wanted to build in aluminium. There’s this perception that aluminium is cheap so I thought to take that as a challenge to build something that can rival carbon bikes in performance, is beautiful but is accessibly priced for normal riders.’
Low spent the early part of his career building track and fixed-gear bikes, but branched out into road bikes because ‘no one in track has any money, and while I’d love to sell frames for $500, I just can’t’. Now he offers fully custom road framesets, including an Enve 2.0 fork, for $2,500 (approx £1,800). Pricey, yes, but compared to bespoke carbon, a veritable steal. But can it really perform as well as the black weave?
‘Carbon will always be “pro”, but to me the only difference between a properly designed and built aluminium race bike and a carbon one is about 300g. Aluminium has very high stiffness for the weight, but really so much of a bike frame’s characteristics comes down to tube shapes.’
Low explains his tubes are custom drawn for him by his Taiwanese supplier then further manipulated in-house to attain a bespoke ride feel. If all this is true, why does aluminium languish in the high-end bike stakes?
‘What do you mean, man? People say there is a resurgence in aluminium!’ laughs Low. ‘Really that’s PR nonsense. But at the same time aluminium has been improving in leaps and bounds in the material sense and building techniques like ours, and there has been a backlash against carbon among some consumers. Trouble is aluminium doesn’t capture the imagination like steel does. There are no master builders to look up to, no image of some guy in a wooden shed with a brazing torch. Which is tough as I consider what we do artistry as well, just perhaps without the mystique. Maybe we need to shoot some artisanal videos.’
‘If you look at a 747 painted one colour, its curves look different than if it’s painted another. I try to incorporate that into our designs. Yes I know, Easyjet right? I’ve had that a lot with this one’
As for the eye-catching graphics, Low says his inspiration comes from aeroplanes. ‘My dad’s a pilot and I’ve always been amazed by the effect paint has on a plane. If you look at a 747 painted one colour, its shape, its size, its curves look completely different than if it’s painted another. I try to incorporate that into our designs. Yes I know, Easyjet right? I’ve had that a lot with this one.
‘For instance the way we angle the top tube logo makes the bike look like its got its hackles up, like the top tube has this angry curve, even though it’s straight,’ he adds.
The geometric patterning on the Mki’s bare metal came about by accident: ‘I was polishing a raw frame and I accidentally left on some masking tape, and polished over it. Then when I removed it, it left this amazing clean line, like a stencil. So to get this finish I just did that all over, masking and polishing in different directions. Sometimes the cool discoveries you just stumble into.’
As far as custom bicycles go, Low might just be the coolest discovery we’ve stumbled across yet.
Andrew Low cut his teeth making track bikes – still a key component of his business – but has since branched out into road, although his creations still have an air of urban punkiness to them
Framesets from $2,500 (approx £1,800); approx $8,300 (£6,000) as pictured, including custom raw finish. See lowbicycles.com for more details