I used to collect cool bike catalogues when I was a kid. I think it was probably part of my parents’ secret plan to keep me satiated, as the barrier to entry at that time was next to astronomical for working-class parents who had just arrived in San Francisco.
In 1998 I wanted an Ibis BowTi, the next year I lusted over a Gary Fisher Mt. Tam and by 2000, my desires moved onto an Independent Fabrication Crown Jewel. They didn’t exactly say no, but they did get me a Mongoose from Costco, and eventually and cautiously, a Specialized Stumpjumper FSR XC to compete in the high school racing league.
Fortunately, bike shop owners took pity on this kid and gave me all the catalogues I asked for. These were the pre-internet days where print ruled, InterBike sounded like a really badass party out in
Mars Vegas and bike shops carried boxes of this stuff. I distinctly remember seeing a copy of Mountain Bike Action with Palmer racing Kamikaze on a flaming Specialized FSR with an orange Manitou X-Vert Ti fork and the original Mavic Deemax.
I was in 8th grade in 1998 and my list, mentioned above, clearly proves I had no clue what I really wanted. What’s cyclocross? A LeMond Poprad?
Somewhere in that shoebox of catalogues was this one from SyCip Designs. I don’t remember where and how I got it, maybe it was from Pacific Cycles on Geary (RIP). But I do remember The SyCip one because it was beautifully designed and quirky with a sense of humor unlike any other catalogue. (Ok, those Gary Fisher catalogues were pretty cool). The seat stays were welded with a penny on top and the fact they were then based in San Francisco, my newly-adopted hometown, certainly made an impression on me.
Sycip 25th Anniversary Edition
Sterling Silver badges for the 25th Anniversary bike
No. 1 of 25, this is Jeremy's personal steed
Just look at that finish!
A vintage Look Fournales Suspension Fork recently removed from a customer's bike
Frames ready for the painter.
Repurposed Sriracha bottle for oil.
Tubes for the next build.
Leftover tubes by the cutting machine.
Tools and signs.
Raw custom stems, sans paint.
OId frames hung from the ceiling.
Perks of having a dad who happens to be a badass frame builder: A custom titanium bike.
"I'm anything car related, too. My dad used to race cars so we kind of grew up around it."
A fixie with a custom White Industries six-bolt crank for integrated bottom bracket disc brake.
The BB-mounted disk brake was made for the Portland NAHBS show when fixie riders were being ticketed around town for not having brakes.
Laser-etched logos on the Brooks saddle
One piece stem bar combo
Cork grips and Formula hydraulic brake to match chocolate brown finish
Top it off with a gold Chris King headset for extra flair
Fast forward to May 2017 when I was invited to PaulCamp and Jeremy Sycip was there. He was one of the first builders I chatted with in the back of Paul’s shop.
Maybe it’s that thing where Asians gravitate toward each other, but I think it had more to do with the fact that Jeremy is just a really, really nice guy to be around and that he is an extremely talented builder using aluminum, steel and titanium.
“I have a hard time saying no to people,” said Jeremy Sycip. “That’s why there’s a copper still (for a local distillery) in here, there’s a bunch of stainless welding over there and I just got done doing two of these motorcycle racks for Shimano for their support vehicles,” His shop is just a stone throw’s away from Annadel State Park where Jeremy frequently shreds on one of the many secret trails there. Below is a just part of our far-ranging interview, edited for flow and clarity.
How did you get started?
Let’s see. I was in art school. My brother Jay and I both went to the Art Center at Pasadena. He actually graduated in illustration and I was there doing product and transportation design a little bit. I was there from ’90-’91 I think. But we were both into riding, so we used to ride all over down there. I actually worked at a bike shop down there, B&H Cyclery in old town Pasadena, part-time in the evenings. Maybe a year into design school, design classes and rendering, I was like hey, this is kind of not what I want to do. I wanted to make something with my hands more. I didn’t want to just be a designer, so I started calling. I remember calling a couple bike companies up here, because we grew up in the Bay Area.
I started calling everyone. I think I called Bontragers, Salsa. At the time those were like the guys that had a small enough company where I could maybe get a job at, or like be an apprentice. Anyway, talked to Ross Shafer at Salsa. He was totally into what I wanted to do, like trying to build bikes, so he referred me to his good friend Paul Sadoff, who is Rock Lobster. So Rock Lobster basically said, “Hey, if you want to come down here, you can check out what I do. If I like you and you know how to work with your hands, basically I need help once in a while, so then you can come on down.”
We just hit it off. He taught me how to do a couple things, and I was able to do it, and so I kind of learned a little bit from him that way, and then I took a class at UBI. I remember I signed up for a frame building class later that year, and it was taught at the time by Albert Eisentraut, who was also a frame builder in Oakland.
I didn’t know who he was at the time, but come to find out he’s like the grandfather frame builder of US frame building.
I learned about tubing material. I learned how to size people up. We went over like geometry, lugs. Those are all very traditional lugged frames, which was what I wanted to learn how to do anyway at the time.
After doing that class I felt like I knew a little bit more about what I was doing. Not that I knew what I was doing, but then Paul actually hired me to work with him, so I worked with him on and off for maybe four or five years, just anytime he needed help.
The following year my brother graduated from art school and he wanted to get into the bike as well. So we started the company and that’s how the Sycip name in the biking industry came about. That was late ’92.
Where was your first shop?
First shop was in Fremont. Then it went to San Francisco. I had two different shops in San Francisco. The first place I actually shared with Curtis Inglis. He was working in Chico with Retrotec and wanted to move down to the Bay Area. So we found a garage shop together South of Market, between 5th and 6th street, totally in the ghetto.
We shared a shop, we lived, it was a total bachelor pad. Curtis has a funny picture of us giving our landlord cash, and our landlord is like going, I don’t know what I’m getting myself into because we had no background. We had just started our business, kinda, and he was leasing this place to us. It had four or five bedrooms upstairs. Then there was a garage and a workshop downstairs. There were like five guys that lived there. Eventually we were kind of outgrowing our space, so Curtis moved to Napa where he grew up and I moved to a bigger shop in the city. I was on Pier 33. It was one of the last piers I think that was still used for work.
Then we moved up here to Santa Rosa in 2000. Maybe it was 1999 or 2000. We moved up here, and the whole reason for moving up here was because we were actually sending our bikes up here to get powder coated. Eventually we bought out that business, and then we sold the business (when Jeremy’s brother Jay moved to Portland to work at Chris King). Ironically, the powder coater I’m using now is in San Francisco.
Let’s talk about your design philosophy. Any particular things you do that make your work unique?
A lot of it is, well, what I get asked the most about is probably the wishbone stay, and the coins that I use on my bikes.
The pennies, that came about right when the V-brakes were coming out in mountain biking back in the ’90’s, mid ’90’s. I remember when V brakes first came out, they were really flexing the stays. A lot of people were making brake boosters and things like that. A bunch of people were doing that (boosters). So instead of using one of those, I went to a 19 millimeter stay, and made a wishbone kind of just to differentiate our bikes from other people’s. We did that and that really helped the flex of the seat stays because of the diameter, and also I think the wishbone helped that a little bit.
I was doing some research maybe a year later, because I had to make my own caps to cap the stays, and after a while I was like hey, a penny fits right on here, I tried one out and it worked.
It just kind dawned on you, or you just happened to have some pennies?
I just decided to try it, and it worked. It didn’t melt, and then I found out after doing a bunch of them, that certain years don’t work, and certain years do work. Now I know 1980 or newer doesn’t work.
That kinda stuck. That just became part of the design in the bikes. The cross bikes now have a thinner stay, a 16 millimeter, so I use dimes to cap those off.
As far as design philosophy, that’s just one of the things that we started doing with our wishbone. Other than that, everything else, I usually talk to the person one at a time. Each customer is pretty individualized. I don’t really do any production stuff anymore, so everything is made for that person. A lot of times it’s talking to that person, getting their body measurements, seeing what kind of riding style they do, and we design the frame together.
How many bikes do you make annually these days? Typical turnaround?
It’s around 100-150. I try to average around two to three frames a week. Right now it’s about a three to four month turnaround. About four months or so for a TIG-welded single color, a little longer if it goes to custom paint.
What do people mostly buy now? Road? Gravel?
Definitely a lot more gravel these days. Bike packing, touring bikes.
How would you describe your product in four words?
Functional. Durable. Aesthetically pleasing.
One thing people don’t know about you.
I speak a couple different languages and I’m actually not Filipino. I grew up in the Philippines, but I’m half Chinese, half American.
First thing you would do on your first day as captain of a pirate ship.
Attack another ship. Take over. Or look for another ship. Sail.
Favorite place to eat in Santa Rosa?
Gosh, sometimes if I’m in the mood for a burger, I go to Toad in the Hole, which is across the street from my old shop. It’s an English pub. Simply Vietnam is a really good Vietnamese restaurant here in town. Then if I feel like eating something really kind of unhealthy, I always go to Quickly (you know those tapioca ball drinks)? They always have those popcorn chicken, or all the little squid balls and stuff.
Are you a morning person or a night person?
Night person. I have a hard time waking up in the morning. I want to just sleep in. I was actually watching Stranger Things last night until two in the morning, like a couple episodes.
If you were an animal in the wild what would you be and why?
I would say a bear just because they’re kind of like top of the food chain, a little bit, but they also could look cuddly and cute.
I think another reason, I guess I should share this, too, another reason why I think I kind of like bears, is because I actually had a close encounter with one.
It was a pet.
My wife’s family is from Montana and her grandfather’s neighbor had a pet bear that we used to go visit it. I used to be scared going there. It was behind a chain link fence, but one time the owner came out and he was feeding him like snacks, like marshmallows, and he was like oh, come on in, and literally he opened the chain link fence.
It was huge. I mean, its head was like this big. His claws, his paws were as big as my head. Her name was Buffy, so super nice bear. They raised it since it was a cub.
It seems like there are plenty of new builders looking to jump into market these days, any advice?
I would say one piece of advice is to always listen to your customers and to be nice, humble. I’ve met lots of frame builders in the past that think they know it all and it ends up being kind of their downfall, or like they don’t listen to their customers and kind of want to build what they think they should be riding.