“Michael Brown doesn’t just build frames for people who love riding bikes, he builds them for people who can’t ride bikes.”
Photos by Duncan Elliott.
Pittsburgh based Michael Brown doesn’t just build frames for people who love riding bikes, he builds them for people who can’t ride bikes.
Handmade frames have always held a special mystique, the feeling that they can draw out a different kind of ride, different kind of rider.
But inside the Maestro Frameworks workshop this is more than just a feeling. Since 2011 Mike Brown has been welding two extremes of the cycling world together. As well as making Keith Bontrager’s favourite handmade bike, he’s made headlines with builds for riders who usually find it impossible to find a bike that works for them.
When he was a boy Mike Brown didn’t especially like bikes. He was active and athletic, but they “just weren’t for him”. He went rock climbing and skateboarding instead, and “spent a lot of time in the ocean”.
And it might have stayed that way if he hadn’t suffered a bad rock climbing fall at the age of 23. The injury kept him on solid ground and encouraged him to re-evaluate his relationship with the bicycle. What followed was a remarkable transformation. Relocating to Pennsylvania he took up road racing, then steered towards the still fledgling sport of mountain biking. (He’s proud to have been owner of one of the first mountain bikes on the east coast.) He also became more than a little handy with a wrench and eventually opened up his own bike shop. It was here that he acquired his nickname, courtesy of “a gentleman who raced on the Puerto Rican Olympic team”. That gentleman was Edwin Torres, who competed in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. “I built him a set of wheels and he called me the master mechanic. The Maestro.”
And so the Maestro was born. But not too long afterwards, the ‘Maestro’ went dormant, when Mike took a full time engineering job in the natural gas industry.
Then, in 2009, he quit. “I just wanted something to do,” he says. “So I decided to build bikes.” He makes it sound so simple. (There is, in fact, a beautifully simplistic logic to everything Mike tells me. A kind of undulating rhythm, like cycling in oral form.)
As it turns out, actually learning to build bikes isn’t that simple. For a start you need the right teacher. After a long search Mike found his Sensei in Mike Flanigan of Ant Bicycles, one of the original founders of Independent Fabrication. The one-on-one full-time tuition they discussed was still untrialled, and Mike moved from Pittsburgh to Boston to build bikes non-stop for two months. “Build ‘em, ride ‘em and then break ‘em,” he says, to study the welds. The price tag for the teaching alone was $30,000. So was it a dilemma to invest that much money? “Yes it was, but at the age of 54, 55 … you have to give it a go. You have to follow your dream, no matter what it might cost.”
Mike set up his workshop in Pittsburgh, equipping it with vintage hardware, including a World War II Nichols Mill (“I think they just work better. I like the way they feel”). After a little practice he began turning out bikes. It wasn’t long before Mike began to attract high praise, most notably from Keith Bontrager who described a Maestro-build as his “favourite handmade bicycle on the market”.
But then something unexpected happened. It started with a visitor, Vince Eberie from Austin, Texas, who had been visiting the Bike Heaven museum just down the road from Mike’s workshop. Vincent’s dwarfism made it impossible to find a bike with geometry that suited him. He was inspired by one he saw in the museum, when somebody there mentioned Mike’s name. He wanted a single speed like his friends, so Mike built him one with 24-inch wheels.
“It was great, to see the smile on his face. And to get the email saying, ‘Hey, I put on 35 miles the other day … I never could do that in my life’, is really cool.”
But it was Mike’s next special project that caught all the news. Ukrainian-born Pittsburgher Mike Trimble has no arms, a birth-defect caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Adopted by a U.S. couple when he was seven, Mike graduated with a degree in Political Science and now lives independently, but had never been able to ride a bike. He had a bike, a cruiser, which a sports teacher had adapted for him but wasn’t right. Despite approaching a number of other bike shops and builders he had been turned away again and again. And then he found the Maestro.
Where so many others had been nervous, Mike didn’t think twice. In the end, instead of building him a bike, Mike decided the best solution would be to modify Mike’s existing one.
“My philosophy was ‘let’s give it a go’.The whole idea was to get him on a bike and see how it went, and after that work on improvements. And that’s kind of what the new bike’s going to be. The improvements.”
The new bike that Mike is only now building from scratch will include an eight-speed internal hub and a coaster brake. A friend of his, also an engineer, is working out a way Mike can gear shift with his stump.
To watch the footage of Mike riding on youtube is a beautiful thing. Something that can rival any Tour de France clip for get-out-and-ride inspiration. It’s no surprise the story got picked up on the news, though how it happened was pure serendipity. Mike and Mike were simply cruising around the Pittsburgh Pirates’ baseball field, where the wide, flat sidewalks make for a good first test-ride.
After a little while they realised they were being watched with interest by a couple, also on bikes. The man who eventually introduced himself turned out to be the assistant editor at the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette. The small article Mike was expecting turned out to be a double page spread, which triggered both a flurry of online attention and a flurry of orders from more people, far and wide, who needed his help to saddle up.
San Francisco-based Josselyn Crane has one arm nine inches shorter than the other. She now rides with custom-made Maestro handlebars that allow full piloting control on the left side, afforded by a double-pull handlebar and grip shifter. He’s also in the process of building a rig for a man with one leg eight inches shorter than the other.
Making these dreams come true is, for Mike, quite a lot like dreaming. He spent some time sat on Mike’s cruiser in the workshop, visualising the solution, arms tucked behind his back.
The trick, he says, is re-imagining the bicycle, without corrupting the essence of it. Many people who saw the article on Mike Trimble rang him to say the better solution would have been a three-wheeled recumbent. “But that wasn’t the idea,” he says, incredulous. “Mike wanted to ride a bike!”
Last year Mike received a brown envelope from the City of Pittsburgh and, suspecting a sinister bill, left it on his shelf for some time, afraid to open it. “I thought it was back taxes!” When he finally did, it turned out to be a letter informing him he had been nominated to receive the ‘keys to the city’ (quite an honour) for his work making special bikes.
So if you’re ever in Pittsburgh on 6 December don’t forget to celebrate Michael Brown Day. If it’s not snowing you could go for a ride around the smooth, wide sidewalks that circle the Pirates’ ground. Mike still doesn’t know who nominated him. The list of suspects is probably quite long.