Sweetpea founder finds strength in her frame(s)
by Heidi Swift, Special to The Oregonian Saturday March 14, 2009, 7:00 AM
There is no draft behind Natalie Ramsland. It's true -- I know from experience. Ride behind her, and you might as well be riding by yourself. At 5-foot-5 and 104 pounds, she is possibly the smallest frame builder alive.
Luckily, Natalie isn't getting paid to ride lead-out -- she gets paid to build handmade, custom bikes that fit people like a glove -- and in this line of work, her diminutive size emerges as an advantage. She understands, firsthand, the unique challenges and frustrations experienced by cyclists whose dimensions fall outside of "average."
In 2005, after six years as a Portland bike messenger riding bicycles that "almost-sort-of fit" (and watching many hard-working, tough-as-nails female cyclists do the same), Natalie hung up her radio and enrolled in the frame-building program at the United Bike Institute in Ashland.
Armed with an arsenal of new technical skills -- welding, filing, brazing -- she cut her teeth building bikes for friends and family. Eventually she used the cash gifts from her wedding to open the doors to Sweetpea Bicycles, determined to address a need that was not being met by mainstream bike manufacturers. She was going to build bikes that actually fit people -- even small people and especially women.
Customers quickly came to appreciate her as a female frame builder in an almost entirely male-dominated industry.
"I really liked the idea of getting a bike made for a woman by a woman," repeat customer Cecil Reniche-Smith recalls. "Cycling is such a testosterone-poisoned sport -- both artificial and natural -- and I have encountered so much sexism in bike shops over the years."
Natalie attributes much of her success to friend and colleague Michael Sylvester -- a renowned bike-fitting expert who's worked with international pros like Giro D'Italia winner Ivan Basso. Sylvester was recently hired by Trek to develop and oversee their custom-fit program.
About 90 percent of Natalie's customers opt to work with Sylvester on the fit, though it's not required. Tyler Cheung, a New Englander, flew in for his fitting after working up the nerve to ask Natalie to build a bike for him (he was worried she wouldn't want to build a bike for a guy). "It would have been easier to get fit locally," he says, "but I figured, I might as well do a Sweetpea bike right from the beginning."
The initial fitting session involves a few hours with Natalie and Sylvester using what's called a "fit bike" to determine the specs for the Sweetpea-to-be.
Use of a fit bike is commonplace in the frame-building world, but Sylvester takes the process to a new level. "You can use a fit bike like a hammer," Natalie explains, "or you can use it like a scalpel." Taking the latter approach, they hone what Natalie refers to as "the invisible craft" of the perfect bike fit, a craft that is both scientific and holistic.
During the process, she considers not just the shape of the frame itself, but also the ways that standard components (like wheel size and crank arm length) are going to affect the fit and function of the frame, as well as factors like injury history, riding experience and cycling goals.
Sweetpea bicycles are ready and willing to take on some of the hardest rides in the world (Reniche-Smith plans to ride hers over 700 miles in less than 90 hours in the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris Randonee) but are just as happy to enjoy an easy spin through the neighborhood for a steaming mug of Stumptown coffee.
Natalie's goal -- "to get everyone on bikes that they love" -- leaves her thinking of new ways to tackle the challenge. Her soon-to-be-released road bike line called The Little Black Dress is for those who can't afford or can't wait for a custom bike (see sidebar).
In the meantime, you'll find her behind the glow of a welding torch, building bikes that are as sweet, scrappy and strong as the women who inspire them -- and the woman who built them.
-- Freelance writer Heidi Swift; email@example.com
• Read her blog The Everyday Athlete