Paul Reardon owns Blue Steel Bikes which specializes in custom steel and titanium frame building in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Working in the bike industry for over 30 years, he talks about getting into frame building, being a race mechanic, and helping put on the Winson County Gravel Cup.
One bike at a time?! How did you decide to commit to the custom model rather than build production bikes?
There are a number of reasons we only do custom. I think the first reason is fit. If the bike does not fit, you won't enjoy riding it. There are so many factors involved in getting a bike to fit your needs. We are fortunate enough to work with Dr. Deb Slota of Bike and Body in Milwaukee. Every client gets a clinical fit from Deb. This is beneficial for everyone involved.
Desired ride quality and handling characteristics are all discussed at length in the initial consultation. We aim to build you the bike that will ride, and perform just like you dreamed of. From components to tubing selection, we discuss every aspect of your new bike. Thirdly, I think every bike should be special. I have worked in factories welding and I don't ever want BSB to be that soulless.
We do not do any production frames. One at a time.
If you want a small, medium, or large bike, there are plenty of companies that do that really well. It doesn't take much to come up with frame geometry and email it to someone to build 1000 frames in Asia for you. Where is the fun in that? Built for you, not ordered for you. After all, picking the color doesn't make it custom.
I also really enjoy working with the clients. Seeing what they want to build, and why. Every aspect of the bike goes through my hands, and that is what brings me joy. Watching a bike come to life, and then seeing that bike 10 years down the road, still going strong is what it is all about.
What are your favorite builds or projects that you work on?
Favorite projects? I think they are all favorites in a way. Each one is a project, and presents new challenges. We are always trying new things, sometimes they work out great, and sometimes they do not. I think that keeps things fresh and exciting and makes each frame something to remember.
What is the etching/anodizing you do on those frames? That stuff looks sick.
We offer a number of finishing options. All but paint are done in house. My lovely wife Liz is the art department, she works with the client to design any graphics on the bike.
We started anodizing a few years ago, a lot of trial and error to get to where we are today. It has been a fun and sometimes frustrating learning experience.
When we add the anodizing with the etching, it can produce some pretty cool effects. It is really enjoyable to watch the finish work liven up a frame. We also have been working with Adam from NYF Paint, he does some amazing work.
How on earth did you get into frame building? It seems like a wildly technical process that takes a steep learning curve just to make your first frame, no?
Oh boy. I have been working on bikes over 30 years at this point in my life. When I moved to Wisconsin in 2005, I went to welding school, and was working on and off in that field when I got a phone call from Darrel Anders, the owner of Blue Dog Customs in Viroqua. He was selling all his framebuilding supplies. I figured this was the next logical step in life. I worked on and off with Darrel for about a year, and he shared his knowledge on frame building.
Everything was built with files and a torch for the first 5 or 6 years. In 2016 I went to the United Bicycle Institute and did their titanium frame building program. This gave me the confidence to start to machine and tig weld frames, as well as build with titanium.
Ti gravel bikes are the majority of our business these days although we build a few steel frames here and there. Variety is the spice of life.
What about your riding? What do you like to ride and where do you like to go?
Well I am making an effort to ride much more this year as I didn't ride much the past few years. Being the location of La Cross and its proximity to Iowa and Minnesota, I have amazing gravel just a few miles away. Insert shameless plug for the Winston County Gravel Cup here.
I prefer gravel over all other riding, beautiful scenery and usually no traffic. It is my mental house cleaning time to relax a bit. I work as a race mechanic all summer and travel a lot, but I am taking my bike on the road this year.
Exploring new places, and finding fun people to ride with is not a bad way to be.
What kind of impact did the pandemic have on BSB and were you ever worried you'd make it through?
The pandemic just was a tough few years for a lot of small business owners. I am thankful for the other shop owners in the La Crosse area who worked together to get through the rough patches. We have a great community here. The parts shortage put a strain on things, but generally people were understanding and we made it through. We pivoted away from our mobile bike shop as repair parts were very difficult to obtain, focusing a bit more on the race mechanic aspect of our lives. Traveling all summer and spending time in the shop building in the winter has been a pretty good balance the past few years.
We always encourage people who are interested in having a frame built, or just interested in the process to give us a shout when in the La Crosse area. We would be more than happy to show you around the shop, and let you see how we do things. As always, frame inquiries are always welcome. We have a few more slots for this winters build season.