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.
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.
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.
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.
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." 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.
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." 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.
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.
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."Be sure to keep up with Matt and Rad Bikes on their Facebook Page.
Photos by Mitch Fleming