I Like to Ride My Bicycle
Take a spin with Harlem-based custom bike builder, Ezra Caldwell
by Janice Chou
A recognized craftsman in the world of custom-bike design, Ezra Caldwell came by his calling honestly. After careers as a modern dance teacher, a prep chef and an artist and a four-year battle with rectal cancer, Caldwell gave into his mercurial fixation with the bicycle and setup shop in Harlem.
In love with the efficiency of the bicycle as well as its beauty, Caldwell is committed to pushing his designs beyond the traditional boundaries — from sizing a bicycle based on the needs of his clients, to designing a seat-less bike after his oncologists told him he’d be unable to sit on a bike seat. His notoriety has even reached the west coast where he has been commissioned by a renowned (but here anonymous) Hollywood director to design a bicycle. Caldwell has contentedly logged 80-hours into this sculptural masterpiece.
Back on the East Coast, Caldwell’s personal efforts to encourage riders feels even more auspicious as New York City ramps its bicycle-friendly efforts: adding over 217 miles of bike-lanes in the last four years and introducing the NYC Bike Share this summer, a city-owned bicycle sharing system modeled after Paris’s program Vélib’.
Caldwell and his blog, “Teaching Cancer to Cry” have become lauded in cycling sub-culture and inspire bike enthusiasts and recreational riders alike with his determination in the face of cancer and chemotherapy. Lets ride!
'When I build bikes, it’s sort of a tribute to this thing that already exists.' – Ezra Caldwell, on the already sublime design of the bicycle.
When did you start buidling custom bikes?
I started about four and a half years ago.
How long does it take you to make a single bike?
I timed myself once and it was 24 hours of actual work on the frame and fork. [But] it didn’t involve any of the design time, any of the time talking to the customer, any of the time packing off to paint and assembling it.
What factors go into designing a custom bike for a rider?
One of the nice things about a custom bike is that we can build it and measure [the rider’s] size and really dial the size of the frame in so it’s sized correctly.
Height doesn’t tell you a whole lot. You need inseam measurements, from the floor right up to your pubic bone. The height to the shoulder so that you know where the shoulder pivot point is. The length of the arm.
What materials do you use?
Steel because it’s kind of a sort of “people’s material.” It’s inexpensive and very durable.
As you design, are you more concerned with the mechanics or the aesthetics of the bicycle?
I guess my real love was maybe more of an aesthetic thing. The bicycle is on some level sort of the pinnacle of human achievement... It’s sort of the most elegant thing we’ve ever designed. It appeared over 100 years ago and is perfect.
How do you feel about the upcoming NYC Bike Share program?
I think that the quality of life in the city is just a lot better when people ride bikes. You get to know the city in a way that going underground and popping up somewhere else [does not].
One of the biggest obstacles cited by people when asked why they don’t get around by bike are parking issues and the room in the apartment to store them issues. So to have bikes scattered around the city that you can rent by the hour to cruise around is a great idea. The more bikes the better.
Photo courtesy of Ezra Caldwell