Interview: Matt Craig and his Rad Bicycle Company

Apr 2, 2015
by Brice Shirbach  
Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com


The small town of Pinckney, Michigan is located roughly halfway between the state's largest city, Detroit; and its capital city, Lansing. Michigan is well known for its industrial and manufacturing lineage, and Matt Craig's personal roots mirror his home state's closely in that regard. The arcing narrative of his own life and the challenges he has faced are similar to that of many an American and others the world over. The product of a working class family, bikes would play a prominent role early and often in his life. Over time, Matt has gained a certain degree of enlightenment through a variety of means; sometimes through adventure and oftentimes through lessons learned the hard way.

Craig, 29, owns the aptly named Rad Bicycle Company, and there a few things that appear to set his apart from the bevy of other small batch and hand built bikes available to consumers. For starters, Matt's extensive knowledge of machining, welding and robotics gives him an instant edge over much of his competition. Matt has also put himself in the unique situation of having virtually zero debt over his manufacturing equipment. But most importantly, Rad Bicycles holds a great deal more meaning to Matt than simply a means to an end. It's a confluence of his passion for bikes, love of family, and the desire to do business the right way and to have his business help him continue to live the right way.




Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com
Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

How did you first get into mountain biking?

"I have ridden bikes my entire life. I’ve always been fascinated with them. I would take them apart when I was a little kid and try to modify and get my hands dirty with them. When I was in high school, I bought my first nice BMX bike. I would travel every week to skate parks and was pretty heavy in that scene for a while. I’d go to Colorado and Ohio and just ride new stuff as much as possible. That was my life throughout high school. I was into hanging with friends, sessioning different things and the whole lifestyle that came with it. There’s a real positivity that comes with it. When you’re a bit scared and staring at a ledge or handrail, but you’ve got 5 buddies who are just as equally nervous, you get each other psyched up to go after it.

I also worked in bike shops my whole life and as I was finishing high school, our shop was sold to a new owner who was pretty mainstream and corporate minded. It was myself and an english dude and we didn’t want to be a part of this. We didn’t think that he really understood what bike shops were all about. So we started a small repair shop when I was 19. We leased a little space and purchased the Park Tools mechanics kit for around a $1000. We did close to $70,000 of business when we were open; and that was just in repairs alone. It got tough with the winters though, especially as I wasn’t really involved in the mountain bike scene at the time. I would plow roads just to pay rent at the shop. We closed the doors in 2006 before we got into a crazy amount of debt and cut our losses.

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

Later that year, I didn’t have much direction and wasn’t going to school but I had some money saved up. So a buddy of mine and I decided to ride some bikes from Michigan to California, and that experience really opened my eyes up to a cycling lifestyle outside of the BMX realm. Prior to that I always thought lycra was lame and weird. We got comfy in our lycra and had a hell of a time riding across the country. We came home in really good shape and I purchased an $800 Scott mountain bike. I started to ride with my buddies and from there we began racing sport class locally. We had a group of about 6 of us and we really got into it. We made some jerseys and that’s all that we did for about 4 or 5 years. Then some of them began to move to Colorado and Oregon and there weren’t too many of us left around here. I was pretty bored; racing and riding just isn’t as fun without some buddies."

How did Rad come about?

"Growing up, my dad and grandfather were always heavily involved in manufacturing. They were both tool and die guys their whole lives. When I was 13 my grandpa was building Harley Davidson saddlebag brackets. He’d pay my cousin $1 per piece to bend them. So my gandpa would stamp ‘em, my cousin would bend ‘em and I would weld the assembly rods. I’ve always been around that. It affected the way I looked at bikes. The first thing I see when I look at a bike is the welds. I want to see how they were made. I always thought that robots have to be welding these things. But I did a lot of research when I started Rad and I think that 90% of bikes are still hand welded.

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

I always told myself that I can do this and that it couldn’t be too hard. I’m 29 now and started Rad Bicycle Company when I was 28. I got really excited and purchased a bridgeport and a welder. I’m really fluent in CAD from my full time job. I put together all of these fixtures and began to machine parts over the course of the first year. I realized that the more tooling I had, the easier the process would be. My dad is a huge motivating factor for me and is always telling me to just build the damn thing. He thought that I could just bend some tubes and put these things together, but I realized the science involved, so the first year was mostly spent problem solving and piecing my own equipment together. I wanted to dial in the process to be able to run small production batches. The biggest challenge with my first bike build was taking the concept on paper and making it a real thing. It was mind blowing trying to figure it out.

I built the frame jig within the first year and I was really proud of it. But it wasn’t qualified and there was no true zero point. Obviously the bottom bracket is the zero point, but it didn’t incorporate any scales. My first bike took me 5 hours to set up. I have this crazy adjustable frame jig that allows for me to do anything I want, but I just had a bunch of loose tubes with new geometries and no real bike to set my frame to. It took me a while to do that. After that struggle I realized that there was no way that I could put together 2 or 3 frames a week doing it that way. The only thing our company has debt to right now is an anvil frame jig. It’s pretty cool to be in the industry and not have debt. I was fortunate enough to purchase equipment from my grandfather. I think I spent a total of $6000 to get all of my equipment in there.

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

I had other things to work through as well. I relied on my tube source to figure out which end of the tubes goes into the bottom bracket and which end goes to the seat post. That was a horrible idea because I ended up welding it upside down. The whole evolution of Rad was the result of my preoccupation with the design and construction of a frame. I’ve always had a love of bikes and growing up in a manufacturing oriented culture, I knew that I could do this over time.

I love my job; it pays well and I learn a lot every day. I’m a weld tech engineer at a stamping facility. We have a dozen robotic cells, one laser bore cell and 10 resistance welders. Being in this industry, I’ve always wondered why these people aren’t using more robots to weld. We pump out thousands of automotive parts. But people are really into the hand welded aspect of this stuff. But I want to use robotics to tig weld frames. Its a bit of an investment, but I think that no one is really doing that and I think that I could show people just how high quality tig welding can be with robotics. But first, I think I needed to learn the process by hand before I got into that. That’s where I am now. I want to do this for a few years and perfect the process by hand before I look into this big of an investment. But I really want to bring manufacturing back into the U.S.

Every frame that I’ve built so far is a one cut deal. It’s perfect. I have a lot going on in my life with my full time job and shared custody of my kid. But I am still able crank out 3 frames a week despite working 70 hours a week. I’m proud to be able to apply my knowledge of welding and machinery to a passion like this. I’m doing it in a way that a lot of others aren’t."

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com
Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

What kind of an impact has Pinckney, Michigan had on your direction as a company?

"Right now, I’m building bikes for the kind of riding we do locally. We don’t really have any mountains or the need for an all-mountain bike. I have a ton of buddies out west who want to spend some time on an all-mountain hardtail, so I’ll probably build some things up for them. Unless I find myself out there, I’m not sure that is something I will ever get into. Right now, I cater primarily to people in my community.

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

There are 3 frame builders in Michigan, and all of their bikes are $1700 at a minimum. That’s still a lot of money for the average person. Those guys aren’t really selling to average Joes. My primary goal is to keep the frames under $1000. I want to get people on my bikes who just love to ride. They don’t have to be out there to build a $10,000 bike. But, I still want them to feel confident racing on one of my bikes. Eventually, I see the direction of this company putting out a line of fat bikes, a line of 29ers and a line of gravel road bikes. Depending on the demand around here, I might even get into the 29er+. There aren’t many people out there offering up a small, medium or large hand-built frame that are still affordable and something you can feel good about."

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

Can you discuss some of your own personal struggles in life and how Rad Bicycles is helping you better manage some of those challenges?

"It all kind of goes back to the BMX stage of my life. To be quite honest, I wasn’t just sitting politely by a curb on my bike; I was hammering beers while hitting jumps or grinding rails. I But the big issues kicked off in 2008 when I got a DUI. I lost my license for a while and I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I was young and not into taking ownership. It did force me to ride my bicycle quite a bit more. That’s when I really saw how valuable commuting was, and I’d continue to do so even when I got my license back.

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

Recently, during my year-long developmental stage I realized that I had a more serious issue than I was initially willing to look at. I got married and we had a kid. I was a great dad, but not a particularly good husband, and that was a huge struggle of mine. I was trying to put real energy into Rad Bikes and manage my family life, which was tough and eventually led to a divorce which was really shitty. I began drinking quite a bit and ended up with my second DUI and lost my license again. With my first one, I was young and I just didn’t think much of my screwup. But after the second one, I woke up to my responsibilities of being an adult and a father. He’s the number one thing in my life, and I realized I needed to stop running around and acting like this. I have a drinking problem that I wasn’t ready to admit to until my second DUI. It was a wake up call. As much fun as having a few beers after a ride is, I have so much more focus now and all of this has resulted in me truly launching this company from the ground up. I have a clearer view of the bigger picture. We all have dreams and goals but sometimes other things can cloud our view; going out and drinking and trying to live a life for other folks. I just realized that if I wanted to build something the right way, I couldn’t go out drinking every night. I had to sacrifice living a selfish life and focus on this positive and awesome thing I have going on.

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com
Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com

I was never great in school and didn’t have much direction growing up. My job, riding my bike and my kid have been the best things in my life so far. The divorce was my own fault; I was trying to force Rad Bikes when it just wasn’t the right time for me to be doing that. I needed to focus on my new family. But, that’s in the past as well as my DUI. I went to the AA meetings and I learned a lot there. You see 50 year old men there that have nothing. I have so much and I don’t want to find myself in their shoes down the road. So it’s been really important for me to focus my energies on something positive and not fog things up with substances and such. I think that anyone can do anything; you just have to get rid of the shit that makes it tough to see that. The only way for me to make this my full time job and create a sustainable existence is to continue down this path."

Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com
Photos by Mitch Fleming http www.mitchfleming.com


Be sure to keep up with Matt and Rad Bikes on their Facebook Page.

Photos by Mitch Fleming



42 Comments

  • + 20
 Steel is Real...now take my money I need a fat bike frame that'll work with Vee's new Snowshoe 2XL tires...
  • + 4
 Is steel being real really still relevant when you have four inches of tire underneath it? Just playing. Good on him for putting something out there that his market deserves. I'd love to see his 29ers and gravel bikes, should he start producing them.
  • + 13
 Thank you sir for being a working class guy building working class bikes. Steel is real.
  • + 7
 The fact the guy wants to start applying robotic welding to bikes is monumental! I know industry is going more to carbon and away from aluminum but this could further drive down the cost of high end frames yet alone the consistency that a robot has. I've seen robotic TIG welding first hand and my welding can't hold a flame to the consistency and puddle spacing that they have.
  • + 2
 And so the robots steal yet another job from their sometimes more feebly minded creators. It is really interesting the task robots can and cannot do.
  • + 2
 In some ways yes but you will never put good welders out of work. I've been in the trade for 15.5 years now and irregardless of the economy I can get a job welding any where at any time. I'm not threatened by robotics in the slightest. (Plus worst casenario I just break the damned thing and go back to work.)
  • + 1
 I didn't think about things beyond manufacturing such as repair work and custom work etc. You are right sir. Interestingly there have been movements against "advancement" in industry where people reject things like cloth because the machines that make it faster (and thus more cheaply) were putting people out of work. Mohndas K. Gandhi was the leader of one such movement
.
  • + 1
 I'll give the fact that when I used to work at Sapa Ano welding bikes this technology would have scared the crap out of me. But now I see it in reality take the lesser skilled entry level jobs into welding. So training people for the more intricate and difficult jobs will take more use of trades programs and apprenticeships wich is not a bad thing in the slightest. I remember one shop I was in got a robotic welder to replace about 8 other welders from the lesser department and what was kind of sad about the whole scenario was all the welders in that department were so excited about seeing this thing doing their work.... They all got laid off a week later.....
  • + 9
 " I really want to bring manufacturing back into the U.S. "
YES!
Huge props, Matt, from the English dude.
  • + 1
 So buy a bike fully made in the US
  • + 5
 The bikerumour write-up a month ago was less a personal life backstory interview of the builder and more about his philosophy of building the frames using as all USA supplied materials....

www.bikerumor.com/2015/03/05/upstart-rad-bicycle-company-offers-affordable-hand-built-frames

"As a supporter of USA-made product, Craig is focused on keeping all steps of production as close to home as possible. All his frames are painted locally, the chromoly frame tubing comes from a Michigan steel mill, and the laser cuts for yokes and bridges are done within 20 miles of Craig’s shop. Frame components like BB’s, dropouts and head tubes are purchased pre-fabricated from Paragon Machine Works (Richmond, CA)."

That his LARGE size fat bike frame is 4.6 pounds painted is what really impressed me into wanting one. That's lighter than many aluminium fat bike frames in that size, and hell even lighter than a lot of regular aluminium XC hardtail frames have been.
  • + 3
 Can't wait to see what else he does. I'm holding off on the fat bike for now, but I'm patiently waiting to see his Gravel and Plus bikes. I'd love to see a Gravel bike that fits 29x3.0 or B+ tires, or a short chainstay B+ hardtail that'll fit 29" or Bx3.25 tires but still maintain a 142 hub and 73mm bb.
  • + 5
 i love people that source everything locally, it so awesome.
  • + 1
 I like that he has the brake mount set up that way. On my Salsa Mukluk the cable makes a huge Z shape before going to the brake caliper. When the temp gets to -3 F in Minnesota the cable seizes up and doesn't retract. Getting hydro's would fix the problem, but those can seize a bit too. Joe Breeze says brakes mounted this way squeal less too. I don't know why it's not universally accepted. Maybe you'd hit your heel on them if your chainstays are short and you pedal like an idiot?
  • + 2
 I think the brake mount setup should be credited more to Paragon, since that's where he gets his dropouts....if you're cable has too many curves to get from the chainstay to the seatstay-mounted caliper, why don't you run it down the seatstay, rather than the chainstay???
  • + 1
 The first gen frame is manufactured with downtube cable guides. I'd be zip tie-ing all the way down the fatty top tube. The new one has different routing
  • + 3
 Great interview, great dude, and great company! Let's get another one of these after you get your tig robot!
  • + 1
 It's only a kickstarter campaign away my man
  • + 2
 Dudebro, seriously....how did you go from 20's to fat bikes? That's like Jordan reppin' Hanes.

Totally respect your metalworking skills, though.
  • + 2
 Should work on a through axle for those bad boys.
  • + 1
 Great article, It makes me feel awesome seeing so many great things coming out of Michigan.
  • + 2
 Really enjoyed this article, nice one PB
  • + 1
 Yes, replace a human welder with a robot. What an innovator................
  • + 1
 keeping the price under a thousand bucks for a hand built steel frame. The man has a heart of gold.
  • + 1
 Lets talk 26+ all mountain steel HT and I might have some money to throw at a new frame.

... Instigator!
  • + 1
 1. Make an ultra sleek looking badass steel frame 2. Put in fatbiketires 3. Ruined it ! Now its a clown's bike
  • + 1
 have to agree. Like an anorexic chick with a big ass.
  • + 1
 He looks kind of like that guy from the newer Mythbusters...
  • + 1
 --- still dont get the fat bike thing...
  • + 2
 Nope. Sure don't.
  • + 9
 Dont buy one and be happy
  • + 15
 I thought the same thing...until a few weeks ago when I had the chance to demo one on some local trails. I had a an uncontrollable smile across my face. I felt like a little kid just monster trucking that bike around. And I was floored just how nimble it actually was. A fat bike would never replace my regular bike but it could supplement it. Just like a dirt jumper or a single-speed or a cyclocross... bikes are like Pokemon - gotta catch them all!
  • + 1
 Well a fatbike does bot mean a heavy bike. The tires are full of air and one tire weighs as much as two normal ones, so it is basically as heavy as a FR hardtail Smile
  • + 3
 Wont beat a dead horse, but if you live in 6 months of snow you might get it
  • + 2
 I spent 39 years in south Dakota. I moved to the PNW 3 years ago and haven't looked back. Stop wasting money on retarded things and spend the money on a moving truck! Just not here...
  • + 1
 Well, at least he used a bear and not a lizard.
  • + 1
 Awesome! Still not a huge fat bike fan but his bikes are baddass
  • + 1
 Oh hell yea! Will be in contact.
  • + 1
 I want one.
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