I first met Soulcraft’s Sean Walling in PDX, at the 2008 North American Hand Built Bike Show, a.k.a. NAHBS. Walling’s bike brand was very well established by then, riding the crest of the hand-built boom. It helped that he had been in business since 1999, long before the world of handmade bikery became a “thing.” And that was just by dumb luck – or bad luck.
In 1999, when Walling was the head frame builder at Salsa, he saw a fax come across the machine at work. This was back when Salsa was a brand as filled with lore as any in the bike world – nearly as much as Fat Chance, or perhaps Gary Fisher when Gary wasn’t a name owned by Trek.
The fax said that Salsa had three options for it to stay alive in an increasingly competitive business, the third of which was to fire everyone and move production to Asia, which is what the company ended up doing.
That’s when Walling and fellow Salsa ex-employee Matt Nyiri (who’s since moved on from Soulcraft) decided to start making their own steel frames in Petaluma, California. And this pair, with a good decade of bike building understanding already under their belts but zero business experience, actually thrived. Despite long odds, too. They worked out of Walling’s studio apartment, literally welding frames in Walling’s kitchen, and Walling told me at that NAHBS meeting that there was a bit of anger to their work, which helped fuel them. In fact Soulcraft built a mountain bike model named the Option 3 (still available) because of that infamous Salsa fax, where the company’s advisors directed it toward the “nuclear” option.
You can call Walling salty, a veteran, a survivor, and someone very passionate about building mountain, cyclocross, and road bikes. Chat with him once and you realize that even if he has strong opinions, it’s because he knows what works. Also, he doesn’t suffer fools. For instance, find this in the FAQ section of Soulcraft.com:
Do you build prototypes based on customer’s designs?
No. Not ever. No.
Or this, which is just as awesome:
Man walks into a restaurant. Seriously. Walks into the kitchen and up to the chef and asks, “So where do you buy your meat?” Who would do that? Especially if you didn’t know your rump roast from a porterhouse. Usually people choose a restaurant based on reputation and let the chef worry about the ingredients. But when it comes to bicycle frames, everyone wants to know what tubing is being used. This would make sense if customers had any knowledge about tubing beyond what they’ve read in magazines or in chat rooms, which is usually being written by someone who’s never built a frame. I always tell people to choose a builder they trust and not to worry about the tubing. Good builders know that you choose tubing based on what you’re building and for who rather than trying to use brand A over brand B. I don’t mind people asking, but before you do, ask yourself a couple things: what answer am I hoping for and why? Would there be an unacceptable answer? Do I trust Soulcraft to choose my tubing? In reality, the brand of tubing is one of the least important aspects of building a frame. I’m happy to tell you what I’ve used after I’ve built your frame, but I think it’s a subject that’s been hyped way too much and builders need to be trusted to make the choice for you.
Like I said, Walling knows his business. And he also knows that there are way too many poseurs in Bikelandia who want a Brand XX to hang on the wall rather than ride, which he can’t stand. And FYI, in a sense, that’s one reason why all Soulcrafts are both custom (average six-month wait) and, for the world of custom, not that pricey: $1,700 and up.
There’s one fact about Soulcraft that is somewhat universal to small builders (remember, Walling is just one guy), which is that people often want to know what takes so long. Do the math. One guy. Everything is made by hand. The geometry is done by a formula, but that formula is based around perfectly fitting your proportions (short legs, long arms, or vice versa; torso length, etc.). If Walling makes 120 bikes a year that’s about a bike every three days, including custom powder-coated paint. Any faster, and now you’re talking about a custom bike made in a hurry. Silly, right? Making it in the U.S.A., unlike Walling’s ex-employer, isn’t about faster. It’s about better.
More info: Soulcraft Bikes