Low rider

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

Cyclist - - Lead Out | Me And My Bike - Words JAMES SPENDER Pho­tog­ra­phy DANNY BIRD

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’

Fly­ing colours

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

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