Road tested: A conversation with framebuilder Bryan Kevan
March 21, 2021 § 5 Comments
Some people leave an outsized impact on your life. What started as a small interaction led to fundamental changes in my life, inspired and informed by Bryan Kevan, a brilliant guy with a heart as big as Patagonia. I had cracked a couple of seat stays on my way to Canada, and a series of fortunate events led me to Bryan’s place in Berkeley, where he repaired my bike, fed me homemade sourdough with peanut butter, and gave me a place to sleep.
The next morning he squired me from Berkeley back to my route in Marin. I learned that Berkeley isn’t near Marin. Really. At all.
The inspiration was seeing how one person can make the difference in your journey, between forging on and quitting. Between catastrophic failure and serendipitous encounters that bond real friendship in a few short hours. And of course I learned and continue to learn so much from this world-traveled, gentle, brilliant guy on a bike who also happens to, you know, wind his own carbon and build his own frames.
Because people with advanced degrees in bio-statistics always do that.
If you want to experience the depth and breadth of traveling by bike, I can’t recommend any nook on the web more highly than www.bryanmkevan.bike. His observations, his experiences, and his wonderful writing should make you want to grab whatever bike is handy and JUST FUCKIN’ GO. NOW.
Bryan’s framebuilding work is coming to fruition so I texted him and requested a few minutes to talk. He graciously agreed.
Seth Davidson: Why bike touring?
Bryan Kevan: First off, I want to note how delighted I am to see you off and rolling, really jumping into this bike travel thing. I remember you showed up last year looking for how to get to SF without freezing and I started talking about Afghanistan and Xinjiang and you were like “Yeah but how do I get to SF?” Leads me to say that it’s a but-for test, but for x y wouldn’t have happened, so many people I wouldn’t have met but for the bike, places I never would have visited but for the bike, it’s a connection that I share with some long-haul hitchhikers and I think it’s a similar ethos where they’re hitchhiking and wouldn’t have certain interactions and experiences but for hitchhiking.
Seth Davidson: How did you start designing bike frames?
Bryan Kevan: My interest in building bikes goes back to high school. I saw a Calfee bamboo frame, elegant Calfee, and said “I can do that, there’s some bamboo growing down the street. Why not cut it down, wrap with carbon fiber and see where we end up.” Creating is neat. The bike failed after five miles but I definitely opened the door. Then I went to college, and living in a dorm I of course didn’t have the space to have a carbon fiber workshop. It doesn’t really fit with a college experience. When Trump was elected for better or worse I needed a distraction. 3D printing had grown a lot, printing plastic for molds for carbon fiber became much more accessible. Materials, more suppliers selling raw carbon fiber fabric. I was living in DC, and built a carbon fiber bike that finally rode like a bike, and rode it a long ways. Then I took my Surly Pugsley touring, which made me West-LA-fit, cycling wise. I’m not sure that I would have continued the hobby without the pantheonic, heroes-and-legends cycling energy of that LA scene. It forced me to do the real-world testing, which is to say 22,000 miles to date on my full carbon frames.
Seth Davidson: What are you doing that’s different?
Bryan Kevan: I wind my own carbon fiber tubes, giving me total control over ride quality and stiffness. You’ll see builders who source their tubes from Rock West or other carbon fiber suppliers. I enjoy making my own, and can do so at a reasonable volume and consistency. The lugs are 3D printed in metal. Each lug has a little plug that bonds straight into the carbon fiber. Some of the first carbon fiber bikes out there, Trek 2300s and things, these had notoriously poorly-made bonded designs. Those had reputations for coming unglued. They weren’t done in titanium which bonds to carbon well. Aluminum has notorious difficulties with carbon because it corrodes and attacks the bonds. Every other combined material industry seemed to have this figured this out, but Trek didn’t in the 90s. When I wind my tubes I start with an insulating fiberglass layer and anodize the part, which creates a further insulating oxide layer. This oxide layer in turn has a porous surface ideal for adhesive bonding. My aluminum is a high strength aluminum metal matrix composite, aluminum alloy mixed with silicon carbide or titanium diboride ceramic nanoparticles. It’s never been worth it in the past to cold form this material like other weaker aluminum alloys, it’s too tough. But if you print it, you just mix the powders and you have the piece. As a small-scale bespoke manufacturer, printing enables me to try new materials and alloys that literally haven’t been used in bikes before. (Here comes someone in the comments with a picture of the aluminum metal matrix composite Stumpjumper…)
Seth Davidson: How do you design and produce a frame?
Bryan Kevan: The metal printing is a matter of good CAD workflow/design and patience. So I model my lugs in the computer piece by piece and send them to a company to have them printed. That’s the biggest expense of the process. The carbon is pretty low marginal cost. If I have a good mould, I can wind the shape. The tubes look good now, but there was a lot of development to get there. They took 3-4 years of development to get where they are. There is surface prep, cleaning the lugs to get a good bond, but assembly is like fitting together a puzzle. There’s no mitering involved because the lugs are printed at the exact geometry I want. There’s no welding (only at the microscopic level), no cutting tubes to make sure they fit together at a specific angle, ultimate assembly and alignment is a straightforward process. My goal for order to delivery is 6 months for this low volume and that’s reflecting my desire to make bespoke builds, commissioned bike frames. If I can make a handful of frames a year that are really cool, that create that bond between me and a customer, that’s a win. I don’t want someone to go out on an epic bike ride on one of my frames, tell me about it, and then not have me be there, present, listening to their experience. There’s a choice, how much do you want to engage with the Bike Industry, because that engagement is a big step and I’m not sure I’m there spiritually or financially. It’s nice to build cool frames for people I have a personal connection with, but building at scale, I’m not sure it’s in my plans right now.
Seth Davidson: How do you test your frames?
Bryan Kevan: The bulk of my testing is riding in the real world. I’m 22,000 miles into real-world testing. There are ISO standard strength tests but I feel that if I was unsure that my bike would pass an ISO test (1100N on the pedals for hundreds of thousands of revolutions) I shouldn’t be riding it. The tubes are great and have been tested for a crazy long time, a hundred or so times down Tuna Canyon. Many times up Las Flores, Fernwood, Sullivan, Latigo. That’s where these tubes were tested. Stiffness is great, good absorption. Real world performance testing speaks for itself. I’d like to put a bike through the ISO test to see where it is officially within the next year. But there’s no way to replicate all the forces you put on a bike frame in a testing fixture; the real world is really important.
Seth Davidson: How does your riding inform your framebuilding?
Bryan Kevan: That’s everything. Without the carrot of my riding experiences, everything from group rides to long tours, I feel I would find it hard to push myself to build better frames. Riding strong and regularly is a crucial piece of the creative process. I was training for a long bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan, that was the motivation for one build. Another bike was for fast road rides in LA. I build bikes for the type of riding I’m doing, and I have infinite control over how things are laid up. I can add a few layers of fibers in specific orientations, change the winding angle or pattern, to add more torsional stiffness. Even legendary steel builders don’t have that control. The riding gives me data and the flexibility of my workflow lets me put things into practice.
Seth Davidson: Are the demands placed on a touring bike similar to those of a gravel bike?
Bryan Kevan: I don’t know what qualifies as a gravel bike these days. I think of a touring bike as a Surly. Steel, Ortlieb bags, built to be jostled and have hundreds of pounds of weight on it. Durable in every sense of the word, can be fixed if you’re anywhere in the world. Not just if you randomly have a friend who knows a carbon fiber hobbyist in Berkeley. A gravel bike, I suppose, there’s more focus on performance and going fast, it’s not a requirement to go fast but … I’ve toured on gravel bikes, I’ve ridden a touring bike on gravel so I largely feel like the best bike that gets you from A to B given the circumstances is the one you should go with. There’s people touring on Citi bikes.
Seth Davidson: Bike touring or bikepacking? What’s the difference?
Bryan Kevan: My trips mix those two concepts so often. I used to say “bike tours go between mountains and bikepackers go up mountains.” I’m not sure that’s really true. Is it paved roads? I’ve had long tours on gravel before. Is it expensive bags that are called “bikepacking bags”? I’ve bikepacked with Ortlieb panniers. I use the terms interchangeably. If someone uses the term bikepacking with me to describe their trip, that’s the term I’ll use, or bike touring I use that. It depends on your definition. Who am I to say that something is or isn’t bikepacking? There’s a prestige that bikepacking has that touring doesn’t, or at least that’s been my perception, that bikepacking is more adventurous and out of the way but man I’ve seen some crazy tours where people are living on $2 a day and they’ve been out for two years and their entire blog is posted on a site that looks like it was made in 1998. That’s as hardcore as any polished Tour Divide report, or slick race video. I suppose there’s a wealth aspect to it? Expensive bikepacking bags and customized gravel bikes, touring is more ‘throw together your bike and just get on the road.’ But there are crazy expensive image-focused “touring” components too, like Rohloff hubs. I’ve never been able to come up with a good explanation. “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” Same kind of thing.
Seth Davidson: How did you get into touring?
Bryan Kevan: I jumped off the deep end, I went straight to Patagonia after college, had my Surly Long Haul Trucker, dropped into the Carretera Austral, a mostly gravel road that runs into the Patagonian wilderness connecting all the rural communities there. Three months later I was at the bottom of the continent. It was everything I wanted from a travel experience. I don’t like chasing buses. All these things that would never have happened but for the bike … things I couldn’t do in a car even if just saying hi to someone on the side of the road. Yeah, just after college straight to Patagonia. That’s where it all went wrong!
Seth Davidson: What was your toughest tour?
Bryan Kevan: Nothing really hit back like five months on the Silk Road in Central Asia. Plateaus at 14,000 feet, Tajikstan, my tracking beacon going dark on the Afghan border due to Taliban interference. Rode across Xinjiang before the extent of the mass imprisonment of Uyghurs was popularly known. I passed prison camps in Northwest Uzbekistan and was reached out to later by a journalist because a random picture on my blog was the only one in existence and they needed it for a documentary. It was wild. Suffocatingly vast. The deserts are vast. The steppes are vast. Vast dried up seabeds, the Aral Sea, just huge. There were weeks that were spectacular, high in the mountains, tiny little remote towns clinging to the edge of society but that was the one that really pushed me to the point where it was like, “maybe some time in West LA will do me some good.” I rode from Georgia in the Caucasus to Mongolia so across the Caspian, through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan a few times. Xinjiang.
Seth Davidson: What have you learned through long-distance touring?
Bryan Kevan: Meat on stick and meat in carb are universal human experiences.
Seth Davidson: How has touring helped you understand other people and their culture? How do people in rural communities react to the tourist passing through their town?
Bryan Kevan: In most rural places the nomadic lifestyle is part of the collective experience. I’m not saying there are a bunch of nomads, but that lifestyle is part of the collective experience. You meet people traveling the same speed as you. Life moves at the same pace as yours, whether it’s shepherds with a herd of goats, seasonal yurts in Mongolia, this has become a big piece of how I relate to others. There’s a lot of surprise when I show up. I’m an oddity. I try to find alternate routes and border crossings, where life happens about as fast as I’m riding my bike. Sometimes that shared pace is all it takes to make the connection. Kids will chase me on bikes and say hello. People who work on the farms will take notice and say hi. The main point being that I love rural areas and in my experience they love me back because the fact I’m on a bike is an indication that I am comfortable being vulnerable on their turf. That I’ve sought more knowledge of their world, and that has brought me, on a bike, to this place. That’s enough to make the connection with people around me, regardless of whether or not I speak the language. That’s all it takes. Humans are wonderful and react to surprising things. Especially on rural roads out in the middle of nowhere.
Seth Davidson: What’s the worst thing about touring?
Bryan Kevan: Putting cold, wet shoes back on in the morning.
Seth Davidson: Do you have any rules of thumb for touring?
Bryan Kevan: Yeah. When I’m approaching a town I prefer to camp outside and stock up in the morning rather than spending the night in a hostel. Spend the morning in town. Never cross a locked gate. The wi-fi always works better in the other corner of your room.
Seth Davidson: Road cycling is famously snobby. Touring is famously not. Why?
Bryan Kevan: I have a blank on this one. I’ve met some pretty snobby bike tourists in my life. Anything can be overdone. I guess I’m largely a roadie now. I hope to bring some of the let’s-just-have-fun-on-bikes ethos to roadie life and there are plenty of people who share that in the roadie community. I don’t think the vast majority of people who ride road bikes on the weekend are snobby. There may be some egregious examples, but when it comes down to it, it’s whether you’re a good person or not. If you’re a tourist and just going around and not having humility and respect for the place you’re in and not understanding you’re on someone else’s turf, it’s easy to turn this open-ended exploration into something that’s really exploitative and voyeuristic.
Seth Davidson: Josh Kato, after winning the 2015 Tour Divide, advised tourists to “Embrace the Fred.” What do you think about that?
Bryan Kevan: I ride my homemade bikes on the NOW Ride so … I suppose claiming some sort of SuperFred status would be the aggro roadie way to respond. What’s a Fred to a Framebuilder? I love people who are out on their bike enjoying life, I love seeing the roads clogged during the pandemic. I make a habit of saying hi if I’m out and about.
Seth Davidson: In 1958, three guys rode across the interior of Iceland. A 2015 Rapha team was unable to replicate the feat despite superior equipment, logistics, and data. Why?
Bryan Kevan: I think the Rapha team was on 30mm tires. Come on. I spent two weeks there but the weather can change on a dime. I don’t blame them at all. If a storm picks up on the highlands, you’re sunk, regardless of the state of the road. You just can’t bike, let alone walk upright. They have emergency houses just in case you need to shelter down for a few days. That being said I have a Brooks Cambium seat and I also have my Rapha gear. Oddly enough, the Brooks seat just wasn’t compatible with the Rapha bibs. It tore them to shreds. I guess I don’t really know what Rapha gear is doing in the highlands of Iceland in the first place if it couldn’t handle a Brooks saddle. Anyone is free to purchase a $500 thermal kit and prove me wrong, of course.
Seth Davidson: Is there a point where “easier” ruins the challenge of the thing, whatever “the thing” is?
Bryan Kevan: By choosing bike touring you’re already choosing the harder path. It’s not like there is a path of least resistance for touring. You choose it because the bike is how you slow down life and take time to smell the roses. But for the bike, it is difficult to be present. If you take an easier route through that mountain range, I don’t think that ruins the challenge it just means that you’re not feeling it that day for some reason. Your challenge is your challenge. Placing a hierarchy on experience is an aggro roadie thing.
Seth Davidson: You are an excellent and insightful writer. How did you develop your writing skills?
Bryan Kevan: I went to a liberal arts school, so I’ve been fortunate to have always been surrounded by thoughtful people and good writers and good communicators. I was an academic kid, and academia is intensely creative. By growing up in that world, you are exposed to the best writing, are influenced by great communicators and awesome mentors and teachers. So you emulate, look up to that, and then free associate on that try to add your own twist. I see wonderful influences around me my entire life, not just writers but creative people in general. I don’t want to call anyone out. You just take tips and inspiration along the way from that.
Seth Davidson: Who’s your favorite rider?
Bryan Kevan: Alexandera Houchin. She’s a Native American winner of the Tour Divide. She’s a great writer, has an awesome blog and a great piece on The Radavist about how D—K— was an problematic race title.
Seth Davidson: Who’s your favorite writer?
Bryan Kevan: I enjoy Steinbeck a lot particularly in touring settings. His writing has aged but I find myself returning back to him a lot in rural settings. Nomadism. Family Agriculture. It captures the spirit, if not a particularly modern way, of thinking about rural communities and things.
Seth Davidson: What do you think about Major Taylor?
Bryan Kevan: An absolute icon who should be mentioned in the same breath as other groundbreaking and transformative sports figures.
Seth Davidson: What drives you?
Bryan Kevan: Creation and the prospect of making something that wasn’t there before is enough to get me up in the morning whether creation of a route or a bike.
Seth Davidson: Greatest Tour rider?
Bryan Kevan: Lemond of course. Because he builds bikes and races them.
Seth Davidson: Who inspires you?
Bryan Kevan: I go back to my Patagonia Trip. Doug/Kris Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard because of how they fought for preservation and conservation in Patagonia. The parks they built infrastructure for down there are gorgeous. Kris eventually oversaw the handing over of the parks to the Chilean Government, all were private lands and donated to the government, dramatically expanding the national park system down there. Conservation done right and done with the finances it takes to conserve and maintain remote wilderness like that. They’ve always done right by the local communities. When I was there on my first tour and it became clear that these parks, the ones that were well kept were set up by Doug and Kris. In terms of someone who comes from privilege and turns that around and pushes it into conservation. Chouinard as well, of course was an old friend of Doug’s, who has eventually gone on to shape one of the most responsible, anti-plastic-waste brands out there in Patagonia. I have a frankly incredible tank top from Patagonia I’ve had on every tour I’ve been on, and you can’t find it anymore because I think it is made out of unsustainable plastics and was discontinued.
Seth Davidson: What are you up to now?
Bryan Kevan: I am in the frustrating, last-90% stages of these prototype bike builds. The overarching frustration is putting your project and your vision in the hands of somebody else, especially when money is involved. Printing ain’t cheap, and in a nascent industry like this, personal connections are important. And that’s what’s required with the 3D printing.
Seth Davidson: Riding?
Bryan Kevan: I ride from Berkeley, that’s basically it until I get these prototypes out. My last road bike is coming to the end of its life. The emotional connection I have to a bike I built and rode for 15,000 miles. I love that bike, it’s an important piece of the puzzle.
Seth Davidson: Near-term, far-term, dream-term tours?
Bryan Kevan: I live vicariously through others. I’m burned out on the multi-month things, it’s a lot. At this point the barrier to doing that is just growing higher, obligations, jobs, you just don’t have time to jump out alone for months on the road, and I’m honestly fine with that. Eager to get out for more 2-3 week things after COVID, though. Show up in a country, bike right away from the airport, little tiny bag, ride big and not carry a lot of weight on the bike. There’s a few guys at UCLA who I’ve captured from the racing world, and to see them approaching the end of college and eventually go out as well and find happiness through bike travel (You too, Seth!) is cool. YI get to sit here and see the cool creativity of others and not have to worry about pushing my bike through crazy wind and rain all day. I like my sunny, reasonable, 2-hour Morning Rides!