You can’t make carbon-fiber, full-suspension mountain bikes in the United States. This is a simple truth. The sky is blue, water is wet and the odds of you ever buying a cutting-edge, plastic-fantastic, dualie crafted here in the states are somewhere between slim and not-a-damn-chance. Cue the math. Back in 2014, 99 percent of the 17.8 million bicycles imported into the United States, came from overseas—the vast majority from China and Taiwan. Ninety. Nine. Percent.
And yet, look at this bike here—the Alchemy Arktos—a very sleek, very sexy, very carbon bike that was very much built here, in the United States. The people at Alchemy somehow made the impossible possible. How (and why) did that happen?
Breaking the Mold
Alchemy Bikes started life eight years ago. For seven of those years, Matt Maczuzak, Vice President of R&D, has been wielding the protractor and welding torch. The Denver, Colorado-based company still has a few ti frames in their line, but composite bikes like the all-mountain Arktos model, have quickly become the bulk of their business. Everything is done in house—cutting the molds, molding the frames, painting the bikes. Raw materials roll in, complete bikes roll out. Built in the USofA, soup to nuts.
So, how the hell do you do that when the rest of the bike industry has shrugged off the very idea of building in America as too expensive a proposition?
“Well, it’s about investing in the engineering and design up front. We spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how do we build this thing as smartly and efficiently as humanly possible. It’s the way we mold it and the way we process it afterwards.”
Fabricating a frame isn’t cheap. Building a composite, full-suspension bike frame—what just might be the most labor-intensive, hand built sporting goods’ product on earth—is a whole new level of pricey….which is why most full-suspension frames (carbon and aluminum alike) are built in Taiwan and (increasingly) China where labor costs have traditionally been low. How can a bike company pay someone in North America or Europe a living wage to build a carbon bike without the bike becoming ridiculously expensive in the process?
“Labor is the big differential,” admits Maczuzak. “Technology is equal here and in Asia, so what you are paying for is labor. We pay our employees very well, we have very highly skilled people working for us and that makes a difference. If you go to an Asian factory you’ll see that they break down one process into 50 different steps because it is no longer a skilled labor. One person does one little task and the next person in line does another little task. We have very skilled guys who handle it all the way from the mold to paint. To make that work, you have to design a process that lets you do it this way while still being efficient.”
Okay, if this can
be done, why isn’t it done more often?
“Because it’s so easy not
to. It takes a whole lot of blood sweat and tears to get to this point. It’s much easier just to call up somebody in Taiwan or China and say, ‘Here’s my design. I’ll pick up my bikes in nine months.’
Labor costs in China are still significantly lower than those in North America, which is why you are undoubtedly reading this story on a smart phone or computer built in Asia. Wages and energy costs in China, however, are beginning to rise. Don’t expect carbon bikes to start popping out of molds from Texas to Toronto, but if the cost of building in China continues to rise, bike brands will need to start investigating their options all over again.
It’s easier—a lot easier—to build bikes in China and Taiwan, but is there actually a downside to doing it overseas that way?
“Look, there are great bikes being made all over the world—and that includes China and Taiwan," says Maczuzak. "I’m not trying to say one thing is inherently better. But we grew out of a program where we did everything in house, so it was only natural for us to attempt to do this in house as well. And there are other companies giving it a go. Trek is making some great bikes in the States. Cannondale used to make great carbon bikes in the States. And you see a lot of the people in our group, the NAHBS [ed. North American Handmade Bicycle Show] builders, doing it. The Alchemys, the Crumptons, the Argonauts…it’s growing this movement of companies doing composite here in the states. So, it can be done and you’re starting to see more of it happen organically."
Is Alchemy hoping to spark something bigger here? Something like a movement of building more composite bikes in the States?
"That'd be great," says Maczuzak. "But I can't say that we’re not setting out to do that. We just want to build the best bike we can ourselves. But if we helped start something bigger than that, that’d be a nice perk. Absolutely."
Okay, let's get down to brass tacks here. The Alchemy Arktos frame sells for $3,799. How does that price compare with what you'd pay for a carbon super bike made overseas? You can currently expect to pay between $2,200 and $3,500 for a carbon full-suspension bike from Taiwan or China. Devinci's latest Troy frame, for instance, has a 2017 price tag of $2,239, whereas Yeti's SB6c frame sells for $3,500. The mean average is about $2,850. I realize that a data set of just two bikes isn't a representative sample size, but still, it's a starting point. Most riders currently expect to pay about $3,000 for a carbon dualie frame. Is a 25 to 30 percent up charge (based on that average price) worth it to you if it means you're getting something that's been made in America?
No one, not even the Alchemy guys, is suggesting that all bikes made overseas are of the same quality. Nor are they saying that bikes made in the U.S. are of inherently higher quality than bikes built in Taiwan or China. So, what are
the actual benefits of buying a composite bike made in the USA? Alchemy has the technology and capability, so they’re doing it, but why should a rider looking for their next bike actually care?
“Well, we like making bikes in the United States, because we have complete control of everything going on,” says Maczuzak. "I’m the guy designing the molds. I’m cutting them on our CNC machine and I’m putting the bikes into production. I’m there every day in the shop, watching every bike come through. It’s not a USA versus Asia thing for us. It’s just what we know and what we do best. The only advantage for us is that we have our hands on what’s coming out of our factory. We have control over the product that has our name on it. If riders are into that too, we have bikes for them.”