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Naked on Quadra

A Look Inside Sam Whittingham's Shop at Naked Bicycles

Words by Bryce Borlick. Photos by Alistair Thompson, Bryce Borlick and Sam Whittingham.
June 4th, 2013

When we were planning our trip to Quadra, the anticipation of getting some brown pow had me pretty psyched but what really fascinated me was a little framebuilder located out in one of the quieter coves. “This guy Sam Whittingham and Naked Bicycles, you gotta check it out” is all my buddy told me, in an almost cryptic way. And sure enough, Sam’s not only an accomplished framebuilder, but he’s taken home multiple trophies from the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, and he holds even more bicycle land speed records. When you start looking into it all you start to wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes. So, needless to say, I was stoked when Sam offered to show us around his home trails and crack some cold ones for a little Q&A.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

The modest shop where it all gets done.

NSMB: So where did this all begin? Where did you begin?

Sam: Quadra Island is where I was born. Andrea was born across the water in Campbell River. The shop that I build bikes out of was my father’s woodworking shop 20 years ago. It is a fantastic place to live, work, and ride. I have access to hours of wicked single track straight out my back door. We are definitely secluded here but many of our customers seem to like the adventure of coming for a visit and a bit of a holiday. No plans to move at this point.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

The singletrack out back.

NSMB: But your profession as a framebuilder was hatched when you were living in Victoria. How did that come about?

Sam: I always had it in my mind to build bikes but had no idea where to start. It wasn’t until I had a part time job at Fairfield Bikes in Victoria about 16 years ago that I really started to make a plan. They had an old jig gathering dust in the basement. A few of us shop monkeys started tinkering and making a few frames. I just kept going after that.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Honestly, this was posed and Sam’s probably rolling his eyes inside that mask. But it’s a cool painting setup anyway and check out that custom job.

NSMB: Went for professional training at that point? Or just went for it?

Sam: I’m mostly self-taught. I asked a lot of questions early on and still do. I love discovering new ways of doing things. I think what I love about working in any craft is that I continue to learn every day. Always trying to make the next bike better than the last.

NSMB: So a bit of trial and error, probably with plenty of error. Thinking back, what was the first bike you built that you’d consider a success? Any idea where it is today?

Sam: My best friend in university, Neil Carson, has the very first bike I ever built. I didn’t even have the money for a tubeset so Neil financed the materials and paint. I got to practice and he got a new bike. He still rides this bike almost daily and it’s still going strong 15 years later.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

I could spend a full page explaining what’s going on here and I still wouldn’t do it justice…

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Details, details…

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Naked up front, Ventana out back, 650b. Happy belated birthday Barb!

NSMB: Nice! The timelessness and durability of steel does give it great longevity. Quite a contrast to some of the industry ‘innovations’ that get phased out before they even get dialed in. So does that mean fewer repeat customers, or more? Ever had a dissatisfied customer?

Sam: Most of our customers have become good friends and many have become great friends. I try very hard to bring peoples’ bicycle dreams to reality. Building bikes has become the fast part. Working with each client and developing a good working relationship is the real art. Because we build a small number of bikes, and all of them custom, this is the real service we offer. Every once in awhile mistakes happen, this is human nature. This is sometimes my fault and sometimes the customer’s. If the relationship is already healthy then we resolve it in the most common sense way and move on. I don’t believe the customer is always right just as I don’t believe that I am always right.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Like a row of psychedelic nickels.

NSMB: And that really is a personal touch that’s vanished from many areas of our consumerism, not just bikes. We barely have any connection to the origin of many of our goods, let alone a relationship with the people making them. So with that level of service and customization, you must end up with some eccentric people wanting eccentric bikes. Anything in particular?

Sam: The most unique project currently is a 29+ hardtail using the new 29 x 3″ massive tires and rims made by Surly. These tires open a whole new door of fun and ride potential. I can’t wait to shred some trail with these monsters!

NSMB: I don’t even know where to go with that. I still have some 3” Gazzi’s in the closet! What about the Gates belt drive? A one-off, or does it have some merit for Joe Mtnbiker?

Sam: The Gates belt drive is a great product. Definitely not a one-off. This is a brilliant solution for everyday commuter bikes especially. We are doing quite a number of these now. I run this on my SS mountain bike and love it. http://www.carbondrivesystems.com/

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Glam shot.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Money shot.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Action shot.

NSMB: Yeah you do seem to haul ass on that. But I noticed that you didn’t attend NAHBS this year (North American Handmade Bicycle Show). Are you getting burned out on what is effectively becoming a tradeshow?

Sam: Bike shows are fun but they eat up a lot of time. We had some great success with awards and making a name for ourselves over the past few years but it feels like a good time to buckle down and get some customer bikes out the door.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Sam’s trophies aren’t really front and center in the shop. ‘Nuff said.

NSMB: So what kinds of customer bikes are rolling out your door these days?

Sam: We build a pretty broad mix of bikes but some models seem to be extra popular. Our curvy single speed hardtail 29er is definitely a leader. Probably because this is what I really love to ride. I have spent a lot of time tailoring this machine to be fast, flowy, and fun. Especially in our gnarly west coast single track. I do a lot of road adventure bikes and cyclocross bikes as well. Bikes that are built to be your faithful companion no matter what kind of riding.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Coupled bikes – the frames can be disassembled for easier travel.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Nothing like some pink.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Custom paint work.

NSMB: And what’s your typical price range, if you don’t mind me asking? I’ve never had a custom frame made so I really have no idea.

Sam: We usually build about 50 bikes per year and price ranges from $2000 for a simple frame or about $3500-5000 for a complete bike and of course going up from there depending on choices.

NSMB: That’s a lot more reasonable than the price I had in mind. I’m guessing that’s for steel. Do you make many aluminum frames? Titanium?

Sam: Steel is definitely the main material we build with. It still remains the strongest and most versatile option. We are building with a lot with the new super high strength stainless alloys. This has similar properties to the very best steel alloys but without the need for paint. We also build with Titanium which requires much more care in welding. The process required to weld Titanium is about 3 times as long as for steel.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Titanium cyclocross machine.

Naked Bicycles, Naked Bikes, Sam Whittingham, Quadra Island, hand built, custom, steel, BC, Bryce Borlick

Who needs Ti when you can get your steel rigid SS under 20 lbs?

NSMB: Why is Ti harder to weld?

Sam: Ti is a wonderful material but VERY temperamental. Steel requires basic equipment and pretty simple cleaning before welding and such. In contrast, Ti requires perfectly cleaned material inside and out. Also there can be zero oxygen present in the weld area while any part is over a certain temperature. This requires an elaborate setup of purging lines and heat sinks to deliver purge gas (argon) to the weld area. Titanium also is much more prone to warping while welding and so has to be done in stages to allow cooling.

NSMB: Just wait until customers start asking for carbotanium…


That’s it for Part I of our interview with Sam Whittingham. Stay tuned for Part II, where we get into Sam’s pursuit of speed and his title of “Fastest Man on Earth”…

  • shirk

    Great stuff. Sam has produced some amazing custom bikes. His Hors category bikes are mind blowing.

  • pete

    I could drool over those all day. Nice work on part 1, Bryce, can’t wait for the second installment.

  • cam

    I want one of each please.

  • xy9ine

    i love sam’s aesthetic and mind-blowing metal manipulation skills. great to see old-world craft isn’t completely dead, and local production (if only on an esoteric / micro scale) can be (somewhat) viable.

  • Bryce

    yeah it was tough to whittle the pics down to just a few.

    The Naked weblink is at the end of Part II,
    http://timetogetnaked.com/

  • auzz-man

    There’s just something about a singlespeed hardtail with clean lines that is undeniably sexy.

    I want one, even if I have to go to a big wheel

    • swhittingham

      Hey Auzzie-Auzzie-Oi-oi-man………

      Big wheels are my favorite for hardtail as I build with shorter stays than your typical 26er so you get the best of both worlds. If someone can give me a good reason for 26 or 650b I can certainly do those too. That’s the beauty of custom. Anything you want…………….. as long as it makes sense.

      • auzz-man

        Thanks for the reply, Sam. I’m very interested in what you offer, just need to make the cash first (student). I’ve been looking at hardtails over the last couple years but I think I’ve found what I want here.

        I guess it’s time for me to step out of my cave and try a 29′er

  • swhittingham

    Thanks Bryce and Alistair! Great article. Come for a brew and ride anytime.