What's a home builder to do when he can't build homes during a recession? Build bicycles instead.
Aspenite Billy Taylor started building "townie" bikes with a passion in October when work slowed down. He hasn't stopped since.
Taylor has now assembled some 70 bikes, most of them extremely colorful and all of them retro-chic.
"It was sort of a hobby that turned into an obsession," he said.
Taylor generally takes vintage 10-speed road bikes from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s and retools them into single-speed bikes designed for leisurely rides around town. His rebuilt bicycles are generally Fujis, Peugeots, Raleighs and Centurions, the work horses from an era when cycling's popularity exploded. A classic 1972 Fuji informs people with simple lettering on the top tube that it is "The Finest." It was, indeed, a top-of-the-line racing bike in its day, said Taylor.
Most of the bikes that Taylor has customized were tucked away in garages or attics and some were exposed to the elements in backyards. He has rescued them at garage sales or by answering newspaper and online ads. As word of his hobby spread, some people offered him their old bikes.
He strips off the crank sets, the brakes and cables, and de-greases the drive mechanisms and bearings. Usually he must strip the finish off the frames as well and repaint them, but the Fuji's appearance was too classic to alter. He spiffed it up instead. Any bike that declared itself to be "The Finest" deserved respect. He customized it by shortening the original handle bars and wrapping them with elk hide grips. He added an old Brooks brown leather saddle and a short wood rack on the back. A new wheel set completed the classy white-and-brown look.
Most of the bikes aren't so subdued. They use varieties of reds, yellows, neon greens and pinks in some combination. And every bike gets a bell.
Some real gems have found second life thanks to Taylor's hands. He rescued a 1968 Royce Union with a rusted frame. A unique bike by Browning, the gun maker, also transformed into a retooled classic.
More often then not, it's not gems Taylor starts working with. He turns an ordinary old bike into something extraordinary. A run-of-the-mill Centurion, for example, was transformed into "the Lance bike" that he hopes will pique the interest of seven-time winner of the Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who has a home in Aspen and trains there. It's got a shiny yellow look "since he's always the man in yellow," Taylor said, with a black-and-white wrap for the top tube.
It takes anywhere from four hours to a full day to build a bike. "My very first one, I spent way too much money," he said. He quickly learned to be more frugal.
Billy's son Michael helped unearth his dad's passion for bike building. Michael spotted a Raleigh fixer-upper and had a vision for a townie bike. Billy used his skills as a home builder to help make it happen.
The passion was unleashed. "I'm a bike freak anyway," Billy said.
Taylor, 55, specialized in building custom homes, such as award-winning neo-Victorians with special touches in the Washington, D.C., area. He's approached bike building with the same mindset. Instead of building "cruisers" - a laid-back style of leisurely bike with a saturated market - he concentrated on a custom niche.
After helping Michael build his bike, Billy decided to experiment with a few more models. He learned he couldn't stop after a couple once the creative juices started pouring out. Soon he ran out of space for his colorful custom bikes.
"He's filled up two friends' garages and our basement," said his wife, Knansee.
The Taylors liked the bikes from the start, but the bike question was whether they would sell. The first big test was a sale three weeks ago at the Limelight Lodge in Aspen. To the Taylors' relief, there was a "mob scene" with people lined up to check the custom rides at the start of the sale. They sold 10 bikes. Most models are priced at $590 or $690. Those requiring new wheel sets go for $890.
A portion of proceeds from each sale go to the Buddy Program, which the Taylors have supported for a long time. The Taylors' next sale will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, then again on Saturday and Sunday, June 20 and 21. Both sales will be in the front yard of Jill's Carpets on Main Street.
Another sale will be held, rain or shine, at the Red Brick Building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 5.
The Taylors also are in the process of setting up a website for long-term sales.
Taylor is convinced he isn't just spinning his wheels with the custom bike business. He hopes it becomes an entrepreneurial success emerging from the recession.