Today we feature Matt Chester. From a life being lived as simply & uncluttered as possible to a design & build philosophy that echos as much, Matt seamlessly marries Life to Art and back again.
Working in titantium, Chester delivers on the promise that less is more. He builds single speed & fixed gear works of Bauhaus inspiration, ("that art may unconsciously blossom from the labor of the hand"), bikes that are made to be ridden first and nancied over later. These are his words...
1. How old are you?
I’m 31. A puppy.
2. Where were you born?
Atlanta, GA. In Piedmont Hospital.
3. What's your earliest memory of a bicycle or something bicycle related?
I know that I had a red tricycle, and of course a Big Wheel with the great spinout lever. I completely trashed the plastic wheels on that one. I lusted after a Green Machine more than anything at that time.
4. What was your first cycle?
I remember going to the Lionel Playworld on Highway 41 in Marietta, GA and getting some sort of black BMX-y thing thanks to my folks. I wish I’d talked to my mom and dad before writing all this. [smiling] My dad and my Uncle Joe got me riding without training wheels at our old place on Norton Court in Smyrna, GA.
5. How about first "high-end" cycle?
I had a nice 531 Trek road frame at one point (it seemed pretty dang good to me) and I got Rick Hunter to build me a custom fillet brazed MTB frame before I had even thought about building myself. I broke the derailleur hanger off the Trek and donated it long ago but I still have the Hunter, converted to station wagon duty with an Xtracycle. I haven’t had many bikes.
6. Did (does) your family (parents, siblings, etc) ride also?
No. My dad rode a lot for transportation growing up and I’ve seen him on a bike a time or two. My mom has never learned how to ride a bike. I have one brother and he really didn’t ride much either. Life is quite strange, eh?
7. Did you like to tinker with bikes back then?
Oh sure. I had the usual train wreck experiments with a flat blade screwdriver, claw hammer, crescent wrench, and lots and lots of 3-in-1 oil. [laughing]
8. Did you ever work in a Bike Shop... if so, where/how long?
Nope. I’ve hung around them enough though. I’ve always had friends that were great mechanics and wheelbuilders.
9. Have you ever done any organized racing?
Absolutely! Mostly long distance off-road stuff. I’ve done lots of 100 mile MTB races, a few 24 hour events, stuff like that. Always on a singlespeed and now (since 2001) on a fixed gear. Things like the Great Divide Race and Trans-Iowa are definitely my cup of tea. I can’t get past the high entry fees for most events nowadays, so I’m drawn to the “fend for yourself” loosely organized get togethers. I’ve never raced on the road and I’ve only fooled around on the track a little (Dick Lane back in Atlanta).
10. How about cyclo-touring?
Yep. I like to travel by bike in an ultralight, minimalist fashion…like Ray Jardine espouses for hiking. I haven’t done it as much in the last few years but I really enjoy dirt road exploring. Long fireroad rides are my favorite! “Jobst-riding”, I suppose some would call it… although I always commando camp.
11. What job(s) did you have before frame building and also-do you have any other job currently besides frame building?
I’ve been really fortunate in having some interesting jobs. I was a bike messenger for years in Atlanta, on a totally ghetto fixed gear Schwinn World Sport. I built body panels for the Downing IMSA/WSC sports car team when I was in college. I’ve worked on the radio for the better part of a decade. I even had a cool job when I was in high school… I worked at two different movie theaters getting high centered on popcorn and soda. [smiling]
I guess one interesting aside about me that lots of folks don’t know about is my motorsports career. My goal, from about the single digit age range until I got into bikes for real, was to be the first professional American rally co-driver (navigator) and I was very, very focused on that. I lived abroad for a while (in Kenya) to hone my pace note skills and raced pretty seriously in North America for the better part of ten years. I built up a good reputation the hard way, starting at the age of 18. This led to better and better rides, some sponsorship, lots of great traveling, and ultimately a factory seat with Mitsubishi co-driving for my long-time friend Lauchlin O’Sullivan. We won the 2WD overall championship in the US (the prestigious Woodner Cup) in 2002 and got a few rides in a full blown Lancer Evolution 4WD beast racing for Rhys Millen’s team (Rhys is Rod Millen’s incredibly talented son).
Racing, and finishing on the podium, at Pikes Peak in 2002 was quite an experience in my life. I was offered the seat with Mitsubishi for 2003 (this time in a full blown Open class Lancer Evo) and I turned it down as there wasn’t enough money to pay me properly and I was very environmentally conflicted about cars for some time by then. So, I quit cold turkey in October 2002. I haven’t been back in a rally car since and I doubt I ever will be. I would not have been able to fathom that plot line ten years ago, that’s for sure.
Bikes are much cooler and a far more responsible avenue to pursue. I do some other work now in addition to framebuilding. I DJ a couple of times a week on the local radio station here in Sandpoint (KPND). I do some other fabrication work on the side too. I build titanium rescue litters for a local search/rescue equipment maker. I also do a little stainless welding. There aren’t many folks around here with good experience welding really thin wall high-end stuff, and that’s the modus operandi as a bike builder. Jim Kish taught me that it was good to have some other stuff going on besides framebuilding. He’s right. I enjoy building more because of it.
12. When did you start building?
13. Who would you say is your greatest influence in designing & frame building?
That’s a good question. I would have to say Charlie Cunningham. I have a real penchant for flared drop bars and I’d say I’m somewhat of a specialist in rough stuff drop-barred rigs. I like Charlie, even though I’ve never met him. Reliability and utility have become much more important to me as I continue building. I like sparse simplicity and bikes as useful cohorts rather than deities to be fawned over.
14. Did you apprentice... if so, with who?
No, I’ve always been a lone wolf and learned things the hard way sometimes. Gary Helfrich was nice enough to mentor me some before he quit the business altogether. Jim Kish was also a big help to me. Ron Sutphin at UBI still answers questions of mine to this day, he is a very kind and pragmatic person. Rick Hunter was an unknowing influence in me getting started in this business. My best pal Brian Smith (who is the brazer for Serotta now) taught me a lot about bikes in general and I still love talking to him when I can. He’s responsible for my love of riding skinny 700c treads off-road.
15. What's your idea of the "perfect cycle" regardless if you built it or not?
From a functional standpoint, my favorite bike is a do-it-all entity. A cyclocrossy frame with clearance for 700 x 35c – 45c tires, a fixed gear in the high 50’s or low 60’s as far as gear inch, flared drop bars set high with a comfortable cockpit, and a single front cantilever brake with good salmon colored pads. From a fabrication standpoint…“perfect” doesn’t exist. There’s always something that can be done a little better. Wabi-sabi though!
16. Shooting a guess... how many frames would you say you've built?
Oh 200ish. I don’t know. I’m not a good record keeper. [smiling]
17. Any cycles out there that you secretly wished, "Darn, I wish I'd built that!"?
No, I don’t really think that way. If I like something, I’m genuinely happy for the builder and the owner who was a patron of his/her craft.
18. Your idea of the perfect client?
Someone who rides a lot with a happy, relaxed air. A positive, content soul. The rest falls into place if that is there.
19. What defines a nightmare client in your experience?
I’ve been pretty fortunate in that respect. I’ve certainly had my moments of irritation with folks (and venting after the fact), but seeing someone as a “nightmare” has as much to do with you as it does with them. We are all mirrors and what we see in others is what we see in ourselves. There’s far more than the external and it is easy to get wrapped up in: “what’s up with THAT guy?” I’m more concerned about me being the “nightmare” with my wait times. [smiling]
20. Any words of advice to up & coming frame builders?
Understand that it isn’t a utopic existence. Nothing is. You’re in for suffering no matter what, just maybe a bit more with framebuilding. [laughing] Seriously, you better really really really want to do it. It is easy to make mistakes when you start, or even later on. It is easy to get discouraged, especially with the meager paycheck you do [not] get. It is very wise to start out with either another reliable source of income or adequate resources to live on for a few years. I screwed the pooch in that respect and I am finally getting out of debt, years later.
Be humble. Don’t run your mouth. Listen. Seriously, the only thing I say when the older frame guys are talking is: “ .” Nothing. Even if I don’t agree. Keep that ego in check. Patience. This is not the career path for you these days if you’ve got graduate degree student loans, a new spouse and baby, a mortgage, and grand expectations. Hobby? Sure. Job? No. I enjoy living very minimally and sort of on the fringes. It isn’t for everyone though. I don’t even have a dog, much less a significant other or a child. That said, I love what I do. [smiling] I hope I’m not coming off as negative!
21. What do you find most funny or peculiar (in a kind way-not brutal) about the cycle-buying public... what don't they get or aren't they seeing?
I think there’s been a fundamental shift in our society thanks to the internet. With such easy access to volumes of information, there’s been a real rise in somewhat baseless neurotic obsession about equipment/tubing/whatever and a real decline in common sense and self-sufficiency. People don’t figure stuff out on their own as much anymore. This transcends cycling and is prevalent, well, in everything.
Pick a topic/object and you’ll find an online “community,” a review, or out-loud surmising about it. Gas is thrown on the fire with people having only a pedestrian (if that) understanding of the subject matter posting as “experts.” It ends up creating a ton more work for a lowly common-sense framebuilder…who has to address all this stuff. The questions or edicts from the ill-informed usually come in a stream-of-consciousness fashion and then must be answered thoughtfully one by one. It takes a lot of time…all thanks to our supposed advances in technology! [laughing] I’d rather be in the shop.
The funny thing about all those histrionics is that fundamentals, things that really make a marked difference in your cycling experience, are completely ignored or are talked about like some hidden black magic that can be attained by pure luck with random stabs of consumerism. Fit. Good position. Being comfortable for long distances. It is amazing that it can be such a hard sell. The external bolt-ons are under such a hyped up microscope that the big picture, the beauty of riding a reliable and comfortable bike, is blurred in the background. It is like running full speed to grab a dollar off the ground and not seeing millions of dollars in piles just ten feet further.
I’m not really a wanting person, but it seems like what is being pushed in the mainstream (and I’m not just talking about cycling) is kind of a raw deal in the long term. Usage over time is the number one variable when it comes to “value.” Lots of poor, short sighted values out there and a big queue of people to buy them. [shrugging] What can you do? I’ve mostly just quit buying stuff. [laughing]
22. What do you think of mass-produced bikes (without naming names)?
All bikes are great. But, the attitude that has been pervasive in the computer world is very evident in modern bike marketing. The wheel is being reinvented at such a rate that there are so many pitfalls with goods that are supposed to be “better.” The public has become somewhat of an R&D department and they are paying retail to do so. It is very short sighted in my opinion, and quite frankly it will just benefit the guys answering the FBQs on this blog as people get tired of hassles and just want to ride. That said, there’s lots of neat inexpensive stuff out there in the singlespeed and fixed gear market. Being in that niche, it benefits me in the long term as people ride a basic machine, fall in love with that type of riding, and decide that they want something better that is fabbed specifically for them.
23. What cycle don't you have anymore that you wished you did?
Can’t say that I’m pining for anything. I’ve really had less than 10 bikes total since I started riding seriously.
24. What cycle do you currently ride most, even if it wasn't built by you?
I ride a titanium fixed gear specific (front brake only…like a scorcher) cyclocrossy bike I built myself. Until I put together my Xtracycle a few weeks ago, it was my only bike for a good few years. I’ve never been a multi-bike kind of guy. I like having just one and doing everything with it.
25. When did you last ride your bike and for how far?
Haha, well I’m pretty injured right now from a bad fall a couple of weeks ago…so my riding has been pretty tame. I can handle a trip to town and back right now, which is about 13 miles round trip. The last real ride before I got hurt was a 75 mile road/dirt road ride in pretty mellow terrain with about 50%of the ride in the rain.
26. What's your idea of the perfect ride?
I ain’t picky!
27. Could you ever see yourself being Car Free... just using mass-transportation and your bike to get around?
Yep, I’m living that way now! My trusty old ‘81 F-150 has a For Sale sign on it as we speak. Sandpoint is the first town I’ve lived in since Atlanta where it is really feasible to be car-free and run a business. I lived in Leadville, CO and Salida, CO before and it was a little tough since there were numerous necessary things that weren’t available in town. I might have been able to do it in Salida, but no way in hell as far as Leadville (no regular argon delivery for one). I’ve learned that the wise hermit stays in town.
Like I mentioned before, I just built up an Xtracycle for cargo duties. So, now I can haul bike boxes, cases of fruit, booty from the farmers market, attractive local women in charming displays of social consciousness, etc. [grinning] Things that a motor vehicle were used for before. I’ve lived a low car usage existence before, but this will literally be the first time since I was 14 that I have not owned a motor vehicle.
My vacation this year will be riding the fixie ‘crosser 600 miles to the Cascade Cream Puff 100 mile MTB race, racing, and then probably riding home. That is if I heal properly from my current malady. I had visions earlier in the year of doing the Great Divide Route Race and then riding home from that, but that was just not feasible with the other work I have in town at the moment. Too much to do anyhow!
I’m not anti-car per se. But, a friend of a friend had a really good quote about internal combustion: “Cars make great screwdrivers…unfortunately too many people are using them as hammers.” Classic.
28. Why do you think so many folks have romanticized bicycles & bicycling?
I don’t think I can put it into words. I guess they wrote lots of catchy tunes about it in the 1890’s and it just sort of snowballed. [laughing]
29. Any (other) passions or hobbies in your life?
Sure. I try to practice meditation everyday. I sit, stand (Zhan Zhuang), and walk. Sometimes it takes precedence over cycling. Occasionally I do a little yoga, but Zhan Zhuang is what I do indoors. I don’t have a TV, so I like to read. Mostly Zen and Taoist writings as well as some cycling history, mountaineering, sailing, and music related books. I like some poetry too, but true aficionados might roll their eyes at my limited knowledge.
I do like other sports too. My number two sport is probably swimming although I also enjoy running, hiking, snowshoeing, XC skiing (as good as Bob Brown is…that’s how bad I am…flailingly bad), etc.
I like independent film too. Errol Morris is my favorite director and has been since I was in high school. I am a huge music buff with a real interest in mellow indie rock, garage, instrumental math rock, pre-’72 Jamaican music, jazz of all eras, real country music (any song with pedal steel in it is good!), bluegrass, ambient, and some really off-the-radar strange stuff. I could go on for a while. I like following baseball and college basketball somewhat. And, I do like to write of course. I’ve got a few projects going on in that realm.
30. If you could say one thing to Lance Armstrong what would it be?
Good on ya, man. Go for the Hour. I guess that’s two things. I need to follow the instructions, huh?
31. In a pinch... McDonalds or Burger King?
Neither, I’m a reformed junk food junkie! [laughing] I’m a raw vegan now. How’s that for a swing?
32. What kind of shampoo did you last use?
I don’t use the stuff…I guess a little Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint now and again. I don’t have a shower, so I use a washbasin – monastery style.
33. Favorite libation: wine, beer or fire water?
Another goose egg from me. I’ve got the straight-edge! [laughing]
34. Even though there seems to be a real tradition to it-what do you think of folks who spend more time setting up their cycle with just the right color saddle, bar tape, bags, hoods, etc than actually riding or at least commenting on the ride?
Haha! Nothing weirder than any of the other nonsense we do in the First World. I like looking at that stuff and I probably would rather hear about the vintage stuff than training minutia, tire weights, or suspension fork analysis. It is pretty outside my sphere I guess. Most of my customers are too busy riding and other friends are doing the same or they’re riding hoopty dumpstered specials, usually quite ably!
35. Did you go to college... if so, what was your major?
I did, I half-assed my way through Georgia Tech with a degree in Materials Engineering. Ironically, my specialization was composites!
36. Your favorite music while working (if any)?
I’ve been trying to take my meditation practice a little further by being more mindful of what I’m doing and truly doing one thing at a time. That means cutting the music off. It is hard. I have a lot to learn. When I do have audio going, my favorite band in the whole world is the Radar Brothers. I listen to them a lot. I guess it is generally indie stuff (Stereolab, Sea and Cake, Belle and Sebastian, Silver Jews, Pavement, Low, Bedhead) or ambient music (Stars of the Lid, Eluvium, Labradford, old Brian Eno, and Folke Rabe – my favorite).
Needless to say, I keep it pretty low key. I like listening to a lot of that on my walkman when I escape for a night ride under the stars. I listen to the radio a fair amount too. NPR mostly (I never miss “This American Life”) but my favorite is listening to baseball on AM radio though.
37. If you had it to do all over again... would you be building cycles?
Yep. No question. I would be a lot smarter about financial things assuming I’d be able to use the hindsight I’ve attained! Sometimes I long for the simplicity of my bike messengering days or think “what if?” about my rallying career. There are other avenues that I think of on occasion too. That’s normal though. We all have some mental chitter-chatter. I like my life.
38. What's your favorite lunch food during a work day in the shop?
I always have around ten bananas for lunch when I’m home.
39. When it's all said & done-what kind of legacy will you hope to have left behind?
I hope that I’d have been a kind, compassionate person. You are not your job.
40. How can folks get in touch with you to order a custom cycle?
That’s the easiest question yet!