Counting the seconds as I barreled toward the 42-and-a-half degree banking of Manchester’s HSBC UK National Cycling Centre velodrome for the first time, I couldn’t quite banish the instinct that I was about to end my honeymoon with a busted face.
Manchester was the latest stopover in our freewheeling post-wedding circumnavigation of Scotland and northern England, a loosely planned route that proved highly susceptible to the suggestions of fellow pub-goers. Following the vague endorsement of “it’s a cool city,” we wound up penciling in two days on the itinerary, relying on our good record of finding our own fun.
Perhaps the single existing bit of intelligence we had on Manchester was the velodrome, a facility I had read about for years in the scene-setting of various bits of cycling news. We committed to having a look, hopping the light rail for an easy trip out to the track where riders like Chris Hoy got their kicks in.
This was nothing like the beloved concrete Hellyer Velodrome in my hometown of San Jose, California. The massive indoor track seemed something reserved for professionals, something we could never hope to experience. But I remembered from San Jose that Hellyer regularly rented bikes for beginner sessions at the track, and it wasn’t long before a couple of dirty backpackers in T-shirts wound up on the roster for a one-hour afternoon session at Manchester.
The banking loomed huge as I hit it as fast as I could, as a not-so-insignificant part of my inner voice continued to scream, “Is this really going to work!?”. Yet I felt the curve scoop me up as it had the dozens of riders I’d watched that day and dump me out on the next straightaway with smooth and seamless speed. The sensation of building altitude around a turn and accelerating on the descent was incredible.
After adjusting to the surprising scale of the whole experience, we wished we had more time. We hadn’t even gotten into the racing. It was sheer joy, and one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
Velodromes all over the world offer these sorts of sessions, and in this case, it was cheap. Around $25 U.S. got each of us a bike, shoes and helmet – the worst part of the process was the minor annoyance of setting up a user account for the facility.
We were lucky to sneak in for the session, but I’d recommend calling a few days in advance for advice on how to properly set up an account. It was a hoot, and a nice way to work off some of that ale.
eTap-equipped MKI road at NAHBS. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Frame holding jig in the finishing booth. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
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
Andrew prefers to operate the foot switch bare-footed for better feel and control. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Mise en place. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Pre-weld markings. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Spent welding rods. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Head tube on the welding jig. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
A bunch of triangles made while practicing welds.. and finishes. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
A JET horizontal mitering bandsaw plus the must-have, multi-use gallon bucket. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Rear triangle alignment jig. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Custom frame oven designed by none other than Andrew himself. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Frames. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Welding time. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
Andrew seen through the yellow curtain. Photo: Stephen Lam/Element.ly
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.
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.
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
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.
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.