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Bespoke Bikes

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Will Scharen, a long-time musician and teacher, connects a bike he is building to a service rack in his Ashland shop. The pandemic, in part, nudged him into turning a hobby into a business. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneWill Scharen at his Ashland bike building shop.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneWill Scharen fills the tires of a bike he is building in his Ashland shop.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneWill Scharen fills the tires of a bike he is building in his Ashland shop.
Musician shifts gears to a new career building custom bicycles

It might be no surprise to learn a trombonist is an expert at tubing, but Will Scharen has taken the interest to a whole new level. He builds custom-made bicycles.

The Ashland 45-year-old quit his job in late 2020 as operations manager on the administrative team of Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra to launch a new business, Scharen Cycles. It was a major life change, nudged in part by the pandemic.

He began building bespoke bikes in 2013, a year before he auditioned for second trombone with RVS. He was hired and still plays with the orchestra.

“It was a hobby,” he said. “But I always had dreams and aspirations to build professionally. I built almost exclusively for myself, friends and family.”

Not long after he joined RVS, he took a part-time position as orchestra librarian. He did that for two years before being offered a full-time administrative position in 2016.

He wore a lot of hats on the job. He was responsible for ordering office supplies, communicating with the management for guest artists and coordinating their schedules while in town, and coordinating equipment needs and schedule details for RVS’s three venues in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass.

“I also handled content management for the RVS website and many other details as part of a small staff,” he said. He continued to build bikes during that period.

The pandemic proved to be challenging for arts organizations around the globe, and RVS was no exception.

“Though I admire how the organization made the most of the situation, it should be no surprise that we were all struggling to figure out what to do for many months,” Scharen said. “I was already on the edge of not being able to sit at a desk job for eight hours a day, and the pandemic pushed me over the edge. I needed to be out doing something, being more active.”

Playing music live was not an option during the period, nor was teaching in person, although he had started to offer lessons via video conferencing.

His six-year bike-building hobby had him thinking about whether to try to sell his frames commercially.

“Starting a business was such a daunting concept, and it took the pandemic to give me the guts to go for it,” he said. “I quit my office job at the end of October 2020 and started my new business in January of 2021.”

He’s been riding since he was a young child. In junior high, he began to get into riding more seriously and started racing mountain bikes in high school and into college.

“Eventually my thinking changed, and now I strongly believe that recreation and utility are the most important uses of the bicycle,” he said.

Shortly before moving to Oregon, he attended the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, an annual trade show for bicycle fabricators. The show was in Denver, where he lived at the time.

He didn’t know what to expect, but curiosity motivated him to attend.

“It completely blew me away that individuals could build bicycle frames for a living,” he said. He was energized and inspired by what he saw. “I wanted to do it too.”

His first stop when he arrived in the Rogue Valley was United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, where he attended a two-week intensive course in frame building. UBI is a renowned training school for both bicycle mechanics and frame builders.

“I took the class focusing on steel brazing, steel being the bicycle frame material and brazing being the method of joining the tubes.”

Brazing is accomplished with a gas torch, used to melt a filler rod of either bronze or silver alloy into the junctions of the steel tubing, creating a chemical bond. Welding is also a technique used in frame building. It’s different in that it uses the same material as the frame as filler.

“Welding is a valid method of bicycle frame construction, but I like brazing because it’s an older technique — classic even,” he said.

Scharen’s work since college has mostly been in music and teaching, although he did work as a bike mechanic for two years at Marty’s Cycle in Medford. Skills honed there are useful in his new occupation.

Custom bike craftsmen are called frame builders because they build the frames, forks, stems and cargo racks. They are the parts of a bike they build from scratch. The rest of the bike is composed mostly of parts that are purchased rather than built.

Scharen primarily uses tubing and brazing alloys that were developed specifically for bicycles. “However, I also use a type of steel originally designed for aircraft frames,” he said. “Many of those parts are modified by me before or in the process of being turned into a bike frame.”

When it was still a hobby, Scharen built 10 bikes in the years through 2020. So far in 2021, he has built five. “I’m hoping to be able to build 20-30 bikes a year,” he said.

It’s cheaper to buy a brand-name bike off the rack.

“By far, most of the world’s bikes are manufactured in China and other places with inexpensive labor,” he said. “I do have to charge more, but there are several reasons to buy a bike from me.”

Among the reasons he cited, number one is owning a unique product, unlike any that can be bought off the shelf.

“I can take into account your fit preferences and make your bike the perfect size for you,” he said.

“Buyers can also choose custom colors, from basic to wild. And buyers like knowing the person who built their bikes. I’m happy to chat about my design philosophy with them.”

He says customers also like buying locally, supporting local business.

Scharen focuses on crafting gravel bikes and hardtail mountain bikes.

“I have built road bikes and commuter bikes, too,” he said. His goal in the next year is to build himself a cargo bike, a sturdy bike designed to carry heavy loads and often two or more people.

“I have not yet built an electric bike, but I probably will soon. They are very practical for so many users.”

It takes him 30-40 hours to build a frame, which start at $2,200 with a single-color powder coat. Frame and fork start at $2,600 and complete bikes start at about $4,500.

“Depending on options, they can be cheaper or much more expensive,” he said. “The last two bikes I built for clients were a $3,000 single-speed cruiser and a $6,500 Cinder, the name of my gravel bike model.”

Scharen’s bikes are different from most store-bought bikes.

“They are on the cutting edge of frame geometry for a specific kind of use,” he said, “namely, riding in the mountains.”

As an independent builder, he can adopt new technology as it’s developed, whereas big companies may not be able to for a year or more.

“Also, very few production bikes of high quality are made from steel anymore, and almost none is brazed,” he said. “Most mid-range to high-end bikes manufactured today are made from aluminum or carbon fiber composite.” A small percentage are made from steel and titanium, he noted.

Scharen is gradually building up his Ashland shop by adding tools of the trade. His initial investment was a frame fixture, a large, adjustable tool that holds all the tubes of a frame in place in order to join them. In the building process, he uses an oxygen-acetylene torch, hand files and a bench vise.

“I keep collecting more tools,” he said, “but the wish list never seems to get shorter. Eventually, I hope to have some heavy machines like a vertical mill and a lathe.”

He markets his business through social media and word of mouth, and plans to attend trade shows. He also recently partnered with The Handlebar, Ashland’s newest bike shop.

“They are going to carry the Cinder, my gravel bike,” he said. “They have a demo bike on the floor there that you can see or test ride.”

He says he’s not busy enough now to be a full-time bike builder, but is optimistic about the future. “My plan is for Scharen Cycles to be my primary occupation,” he said.

He still plays trombone with the symphony and looks forward in January to joining RVS for the next Masterworks concert.

“It will be the biggest group of players we’ve had on stage since February of 2020,” he said, “and also the first time that single tickets will be for sale again.”

In early January, he will play with an Elvis tribute band at Seven Feathers casino. And he regularly meets with a Renaissance quartet that plays on period instruments.

But these days, the sound of metal on metal and the sizzle of the brazing torch are music to his ears as well.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.