[Interview] Mike Ahrens – Ahrens Bicycles
Mike Ahrens is the man behind Ahrens Bicycles out of San Jose, California. His company setup may be a little different than others but all of his bikes are still made in the USA with expert craftsmanship. His focus on aluminum frames and components makes him rather unique in the industry. Find out his thoughts on mountain bike frame building and check some of my favorite photos of his finest MTB’s.
How long have you been a frame builder?
Mike: I’ve been designing frames since the mid 1990s. Initially I worked with Paul Sadoff at Rock Lobster Cycles in Santa Cruz to learn the business of handmade steel frames. As time progressed, the focus shifted to include aluminum as a base material.
What training have you been through to build frames?
Mike: My business is setup to outsource fabrication to skilled craftsmen including Paul Sadoff, Jason Grove and Russ Denny. My background is mechanical engineering and complex machine design where outsourcing is a common strategy. I’ve had great success with this strategy although it differs from many of my peers in the handmade bicycle world. This approach enables each person to focus on their respective expertise.
Why did you decide to start your own handmade bicycle company?
Mike: I started Ahrens Bicycles in 2001 after realizing there was a market for my frame designs. This decision was a small leap of faith since I had never owned a business before this point.
What inspires your frame designs?
Mike: My frame designs are inspired by a few different areas including aerospace, motorcycles, automobiles and of course other bicycles! On the aluminum side, I’ve worked hard to develop frame building components that ease the manufacturing process while providing performance gains.
What are some of your founding principles you live by for creating bikes?
Mike: Great question! My main goal is to provide very high-quality products that exceed customer expectations. I never cut corners during the frame building process, ever. I inspect every single component used on the frame for flaws and sub-standard parts are scrapped. My aim is to create customers for life and I believe this happens when you focus on quality rather than cost or delivery time.
What part of the frame building process do you enjoy the most?
Mike: I enjoy learning about each customer and what their specific needs are with their new bike. Are they concerned with fit, performance, or both? Open communication has been paramount to learn what’s driving their desire for a new bike. Once that understanding is solidified, I can focus on designing something unique that will exceed their expectations.
What do you feel is most important for clients to understand going into a custom bike frame build?
Mike: Custom frame builds take a long time. There are many facets to producing a handmade frame and these projects require a lot of patience. If you’re in a hurry for a new frame, buy a production frame, not a custom one! That being said, good things come to those who wait. In addition, custom frames with my company come with the fork and they come as a package deal since front end handling is directly impacted by fork selection.
Tell me about your aluminum frame components?
Mike: The aluminum frame components have been developed over many years to ease the manufacturing process. For example, all of my dropouts have hooded surfaces for chainstay/seatstay attachment to fit many frame sizes. They are similar to their steel or titanium counterparts, just using aluminum as the base material. Regarding rear triangle yokes, I’ve developed a family of parts that can be used for road/track, cross or traditional mountain bikes. I have plans to develop some yokes for the wider tires gaining popularity (27.5+, 29+, etc). There is a clear market opportunity here and I’m proud to say that many aluminum builders use these components on their custom builds.
Over the past year, I’ve tried to bring together aluminum frame builders/enthusiasts with a Facebook group and membership has grown from 20 people to over 300! This tells me that aluminum is still a popular material in certain circles. My aim is to collaborate with other aluminum builders moving forward.
What trail / where do you like to enjoy riding the most?
Mike: My favorite riding spots are in Santa Cruz near Wilder Ranch or UC Santa Cruz. I’ve been riding in this area for many years and always enjoy the scenery. A close second is Soquel Demonstration Forest since it has many challenging trails to test skills, patience and focus.
What has been your favorite bike you’ve owned?
Mike: One of my favorite bikes I’ve owned was a GT Avalanche hardtail. This bike led me to develop my own line of aluminum frames due to its lightweight and excellent handling. This is a bike I owned in the late 1990s and was popular at the time when disc brakes were emerging as standard equipment.
I have a tendency to try out different bikes and either give them away, or sell them cheap, to get other people into riding.
Favorite bike you’ve ever built?
Mike: My favorite Ahrens frame is my 650B hardtail built from Easton 7005 tubing. This frame was built right after Kirk Pacenti introduced his tire line at NAHBS many years ago. I outfitted the bike with a White Bros fork and loved the overall fit and handling characteristics. This specific frame has seen various forks and tires installed to optimize my riding experience. I’m 6’4” tall and the 650B wheel size has been very complimentary to my physical size and riding style.
Who do you admire as a frame builder / who would you want to build you a frame?
Mike: I admire Bruce Gordon as a frame builder and would very much like to own one of his titanium frames in the future. Anyone that has worked in this industry for 25+ years has so much practical knowledge that cannot be overlooked!