We Love Aluminum Frames, and You Should Too

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eTap-equipped MKI road at NAHBS. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Frame holding jig in the finishing booth. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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A few of Andrew's origin frames. The steel one in the middle was the one he build while attending UBI in 2009. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Andrew prefers to operate the foot switch bare-footed for better feel and control. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Mise en place. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Pre-weld markings. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Spent welding rods. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Head tube on the welding jig. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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A bunch of triangles made while practicing welds.. and finishes. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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A JET horizontal mitering bandsaw plus the must-have, multi-use gallon bucket. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Rear triangle alignment jig. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Custom frame oven designed by none other than Andrew himself. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Frames. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Welding time. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Andrew seen through the yellow curtain. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Andrew, with a MkI road, and Manny. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

A custom aluminum frame is somewhat of a unicorn these days. Stroll down the aisles at NAHBS and it’s obvious that the dominant materials for frames are titanium, carbon, and steel. And those are all wonderful materials in their own right, but I have a soft spot for aluminum.

As a kid I drooled over a Klein Quantum Pro with that badass orange paint job, or the flaming red Cannondale CAAD Cipollini rode. There’s a certain beauty to fat tubed, smooth welding frame that just screams come at me bro.

Well, Klein’s gone now (RIP), but my hope of finding a good aluminum bike is not.

The Low Down

Sure, you could go with a big name factory option like Cannondale’s CAAD 12 and Specialized’s Allez, but if you want custom aluminum hand-crafted by an expert, Andrew Low of LOW Bicycles is your guy.

Growing up with interests in model airplanes, guitars and cars, Andrew started building roll cages for off-road vehicles while pursuing his degree in fine arts in Colorado. After moving back to his native San Francisco in 2005, he got really into bikes, and eventually got the idea to make his own frame.

Years of researching tools, saving money, and welding practice finally yielded two frames by the summer of 2010. From there, Andrew “started to take those around town where bike messengers were hanging out.” The LOW frames were an instant hit, and that was the origin of LOW Bicycles.

Today, besides offering four different track models, LOW is dipping into the resurgent aluminum road and cross market with their new MkI road and cross frames—all made in their 500 square foot shop so tidy you would think you just walked into a boutique car shop. Here’s what he has to say for himself.

The Interview

Andrew Low. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Andrew Low. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Why aluminum? I like the look of oversized tubing as opposed to steel frames but I also wanted to make racing bikes and aluminum is a great material for that, dollar per dollar it’s the most effective material for racing. It’s really versatile in that you can make a really stiff bike and you can make really comfortable bike contrary to popular belief.

It’s just how you shape the tubes.

Aluminum is softer than steel and it’s not as rigid and brittle as epoxy which you find in carbon fiber.

How many frames do you make now? 12 frames every four weeks, and we stop 4 weeks out of the year. So that’s about 120 bikes a year.

Describe your bikes in five words: Beautiful, aggressive, well-designed, well-made, fast.

Why #thismachinekillscarbon? Because if you get on our bikes you won’t feel any disadvantage because you’re on an aluminum bike. I came up with that hashtag myself. The full quote is “this machine kills carbon and your preconceived notion of superiority.”

That’s what we’re setting out to do with our road bike. It started happening now in the industry where big brands are investing into high-end aluminum bikes. Specialized with their Allez which is a beautiful bike in my opinion. Some people are starting to realize that barring from buying the highest end carbon frame you can get just as good if not better performance out of aluminum. One of my bikes will ride much better than a similar-priced carbon bike. You’ll feel the difference.

Uphill or downhill: Downhill.

Favorite riding place: Riding in Marin is awesome, riding through traffic is fun. I used to love riding the city loop

Shaped aluminum tubes ready to be cajoled into a frame. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Shaped aluminum tubes ready to be cajoled into a frame. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

One thing people don’t know about you: I am working on getting my pilot license.

Favorite music: Bands that I grown up loving: the Ramones. Jonathan Richmond, jimmy Hendrix, Lou reed, a lot of stuff from late 70s, early 80s. I play the guitar.

What are you most proud of? That I’ve able to keep this going for five years. Most businesses fail within the first year. I am proud that it took off to begin with. We have a shit ton of struggle keeping the business going. But I am just really proud that I did something people like. For me that’s awesome. It’s validating.

Andrew hard at work. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Andrew hard at work. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

How long does it take to produce one frame: About 30 hours per bike.

Morning or night person: Both. I don’t sleep that much. I go to bed late and wake up early.

Anything else you’d like to add: Buy my bikes!


Ocean Beach Is Not an Easy Dance Partner

Windsurfer, Ocean Beach, San Francisco.
Windsurfer, Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Photo: Nathan Weyland/Element.ly

Since El Nino arrived, I’ve developed a disappointing relationship with Ocean Beach.

I don’t need to tell you about the paddle out on a winter day—diving under the heavy blows of crushing surf, dragging your board by the leash, lungs gasping, across the sandy bottom. The roar of a freezing sea ringing in your ears.

Sometimes, the reward is worth all of this punishment, the better surfer you are the more likely this is to be true. I’m a novice. Most of the time it seems I would have been better off staying in bed.

Waves, the ubiquitous object of pursuit, are only part of the Ocean Beach equation for me. I believe Ocean Beach is not a windy four-mile beach break, but rather a wormhole, a gateway to another universe.

I spent four years in the Coast Guard, mostly aboard 378-foot Cutter class ships that traversed the Pacific from the Bering Sea to the coast of Ecuador. The surface of the open ocean, a constantly changing landscape where the boundary between sea and sky blurred and disappeared, thrilled me. It had been six years since I felt that feeling the first time I made it out at Ocean Beach on a windy day.

Waves breaking on the outer bar, Ocean Beach, San Francisco.
Waves breaking on the outer bar, Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Photo: Nathan Weyland/Element.ly

William Finnigan writes “Ocean Beach in the Winter is a wilderness, as raw and red-clawed as any place in the Rocky Mountains.” It is that and more, like a distant but related planet. The only other object that made this trip through the wormhole was you’re board, you’re tiny cutter. Clinging to this lifeline, paddling the peaks and valleys of this watery wilderness, is enthralling to the point of addiction.

The frustration comes with my ineptness as a surfer. By the time I make it out, my arms are useless noodles hanging off my shoulders. Mustering the energy to chase after sloppy peaks rolling in to the south or north of me is challenging. When I do get myself in the right position, my nerve usually fails. Dropping in on these heavy, overhead slabs of foaming water, knowing the price of failure is a solid thrashing followed by another paddle out … I usually pass at the last second, clutching my board and letting the precipice slip by along with any chance at glory.

This is surfing at Ocean Beach for me during the Winter. Not really surfing as most would know it, just a guy with a board in the open sea, pelted by wind spray and whooping at the top of his lungs, unable to hear himself over the roar of the waves.

Kite surfer on the dunes, Ocean Beach, San Francisco.
Kite surfer on the dunes, Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Photo: Nathan Weyland/Element.ly

Cameron Falconer Knows the Best Tools Are the Simplest

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Fire it up. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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A couple of bikes. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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A little bit of smoke from the welding. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Di-Acro Model 4 hand-operated bender awaiting orders. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Disco ball, a must have for every office. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Cutting metal. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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A beauty shot of Cameron's personal Falconer. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Cameron's favorite tool: his hand-made chainstay subassembly fixture Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Cameron welding away. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Shavings from the milling machine. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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The workshop whiteboard Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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A well-used lathe. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Frame welding jig. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

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Cameron working away inside his shop in San Francisco's Bayview district Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

While many bike frames are made with exotic materials these days, Cameron Falconer, of Falconer Cycles, uses good old-fashioned steel.

Located in the Bayview district, a stone’s throw away from the original Trouble Coffee company, Cameron is one of a handful of frame builders that calls San Francisco home, not to mention the dude’s quite a fixture in the local cross-country/cyclocross racing scene.

Instead of complicated tube shapes, which which have become the norm, Cameron is out to build simple and functional, TIG-welded steel bikes. They are precision-made tools that are meant to be used/ridden/abused day in and day out. That’s no BS.

It’s been three and a half years since Cameron got into building bikes full time. We met up with Cameron recently while he was working on a special non bike-related project for a buddy. But what the heck, we chatted anyway.

Five words to describe your bikes:
Simple. Practical. Forms follow function. Tools first.

Best part about the job:
The best thing is being able to do something creative and be able to constantly refine what I do in trying to improve it. I find it pretty rewarding, to see people riding my bikes and enjoying it.

Once I deliver the bike to somebody it’s theirs and they can do whatever they want with it quite honestly. They can cut it up and make pry bars, bongs out of it. That’s not really my business but I prefer, much prefer people to ride them. And they do. It’s always really nice running into somebody and having them do something cool and having a cool experience on something I made. That’s what keeps me going.

Cameron Flaconer. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Cameron. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

First thing you would do as a captain of a pirate ship:
Assumed I already only have one leg, I would make everyone brush their teeth, hygiene is important.

Uphill or downhill:
There’s no preference there, I like them both.

Describe your idea of a perfect holiday:
Ride a bike at somewhere interesting with people I like on mountain bikes … Bunch of real high places in Colorado. Oakridge, Oregon. I’d love to go to the Alps, never been there. A lot of places are just in the big mountains, pretty unique spots.

What’s it like at the transition from being a welder at a metal fabrication shop to a bike builder?
There were some challenges. I already knew the frame building trade from work at Ed Litton and a few other friends. I think you just keep getting better at what you do so I would never claim to say the stuff I made is perfect.

Design inspirations:
Ed Litton whom I worked for, Rick Hunter of Hunter Cycles whom I’ve raced for and still race on a team supported by him. I started racing for him in 1997. He’s been a super big influence on me. Sean Walling at Soulcraft. I am really lucky to have a lot of my friends around here who do this for a living. They’re really good folks and we help each other out, so there’s definitely a lot of cross-pollination going on.

As far as inspiration goes most of my inspiration are people who do stuff that I think is really well executed and really simple.

The local frame-building scene here is amazing. There are tons of talented people doing it.

How much would you charge to wash all the windows in Marin?
Let’s say there’s an average of 15 windows in a building, and how many buildings are in Marin County anyway … 100,000 at least? So a couple million windows give or take. Assumed that’s a few year’s work I would guess, it’ll be pretty monotonous so I want to see $150k a year to do that. Half a million would be cool. Someone would have to pay for my gas too.

Thoughts about the new wave of axle, bottom bracket standard and disc brakes? Does that affect you in anyway?
Yes it does. It matters. Thru axles are generally a good thing, particularly with disc brakes. The boost standard that’s coming right now is also potentially a good thing for real strength. Most of the new BB standards I think are a waste of time… Other than the new T47 standard. That’ll be a good useful standard.

In my world I think it is going to be adopted by a lot of people. There are benefits for people like me for sure but I don’t see it as a necessity in particularly for steel builders. If you’re building titanium where you need bigger diameter tubes there are some definite benefits to it. In steel, there are benefits as well. You can run different cranks and such. It’s easier.

Dummy axles. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Dummy axles. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

Hardest part of the job:
It would be being responsible for every aspect of it. You’re the CEO but you’re also the janitor. So whenever something goes wrong or right it’s your fault. Whatever responsibility there is in here is all mine and it can be a bit much sometimes.

What would you cook for your friends:
Same thing I cook most nights probably. Big pile of vegetables and some sausages.

Chosen superpower?
My girlfriend asked a question like that the other night. We were watching a skateboarding video at a friend’s house and she was like if you can speak every language or skateboard like these guys … and both my friend and I were like we want to skate like these guys. It’s like defying gravity. I see it as nearly a super power. I would love to be able to get on a skateboard and do super high-level skateboard tricks. It’s totally outside of my world. I am the world’s worst skateboarder. It’s close enough to be a super power for my taste.

Guilty pleasures? Not really. Honestly I don’t watch whatever housewives, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or anything. I don’t even watch TV.

Favorite cocktail: Good proper margarita.

Getting ready to weld. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Getting ready to weld. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly

If you get to be any animal what would you be?
Maybe a marmot. Because they get to hang around in the rocks in altitude at beautiful places and sleep all winter.

Anything else you would like to add? Any tips for those who are looking into building bikes?
As far as people wanting to learn how to build bikes, don’t have any illusion to it … it’s a hard way to make a living and certainly not the best way to make money. It’s rewarding in a lot of ways but it sure as hell isn’t easy.

The stuff I make, I feel like if you’re buying from somebody you’re buying the tangible representation of what they think is important. So you should buy a bike from someone you get along with the best, regardless who that is, and whose world view in regards to cycling best matches yours.