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Hand-built bicycles pedal into the mainstream

Everyday bikers saddle up for custom-made frames at Portland's two-wheeled version of the Detroit Auto Show.

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Mike Flanigan, a custom-bike maker, owns and operates A.N.T., Alternative Needs Transportation, in Holliston, Mass.

Natalie Conn/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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In the basement of an old shoe factory, a blue glow radiates off hand-operated lathes and antique milling machines decorated with toy planes, plastic T-Rexes, and green-haired dolls. Mike Flanigan, the founder of Alternative Needs Transportation, or A.N.T., cuts tubes of steel, grinds them in a cascade of sparks, and welds together a frame that incorporates old-fashioned European couriers with the whims of modern commuters.

Mr. Flanigan and hundreds of other bike builders have been putting in some late nights for the upcoming North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Portland, Ore. Flanigan has packed four bicycles for the trip: Three display models and a fold-up one fitted in a suitcase for riding around town.

The three-day event is the two-wheeled version of the Detroit Auto Show. Among enthusiasts, it's a meeting ground, an idea lab, and a showcase for the intricate craftsmanship of hand-built bicycles. Wooden fenders, ultralight composite frames, and classic steel racing bikes loom large. And as more builders create custom, hand-built bicycles, there's a fit for every rider – quite literally.

"It started as a niche for the people that were really hard-core into frame building," says Jonathan Maus, who edits the online news site, "Then, this show happened and every year, it gets bigger. You've got all the biggest companies in the bike industry that want to show up. The industry would be happening without this show, but it's hard to imagine everyone coming together."

From around the world, torch-wielding workers from mini-assembly lines come out of basements, garages, and industrial buildings to talk shop and ogle the near-perfect expression of human engineering and machinery. Like the bicycles they fit for different customers – each with a unique set of inseams, arm lengths, and flexibility – no two bikes are created equal.

One builder, Brano Meres from Slovakia, has been building frames from bamboo. Others focus on tandems or frames designed for women. Designs range from practical to whimsical.

Two years ago, Sacha White of Portland's Vanilla Bicycles built a tricycle for his daughter with wooden handlebars and carved-rubber rear wheels, the "best of show" winner. He's hoping the cottage industry will take on a neighborhood subculture with builders making bicycles locally while adding regional features.

"What I'm trying to promote is the world of high-quality craftsmanship," Mr. White says. "People are really into sustainable and green, and everybody wants to bring things to a more local level. I really want to be able to connect with people in my community."

Much of the popularity of custom bicycles has been driven by an increased interest in cycling, which follows in the slipstream of Lance Armstrong. Others say it's part of the Al Gore effect and the cost of gas. Add to that the ethos of the D.I.Y. generation that prefers products that don't arrive premade in a box.

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Though artisan frame builders struggled to compete with the improvement of factory-made frames in the late 1980s, Richard Sachs of Chester, Conn., who has been building frames for over 30 years, says expensive, hand-built rides have always garnered a niche following.

"It's a tailored luxury good," he says. "That's the way it has to be looked at from a business standpoint. It's a self-indulgence."

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