In 1919, a talented young bike racer from Flanders named Henri “Ritte” Van Lerberghe showed up bikeless to the starting line of the Tour of Flanders. The First World War had just ended, and Ritte traveled to the race straight from the frontlines. He borrowed a bike from a local, and in the typical Ritte style, attacked the pack almost immediately. Ritte built up such a sizable lead by the finishing town that instead of heading to the velodrome for the victory lap, he decided to veer off course and stop at a pub for pint. One beer turned into three or four, and despite the fact that he now felt more like hanging out with the locals than winning the biggest race of the year, Ritte was coaxed back on his borrowed bike and wobbled across the street to complete the finishing laps on the velodrome. Ritte had won Belgium’s greatest race and had fun doing it.
This story, taken from the Ritte web-site serves as something of a statement of purpose, business plan and call to arms for their fans. Spencer Canon is on a mission to make cycling less serious and more fun, and on the way he has created a coveted brand of bikes in Ritte’s honor. His Company, Ritte Van Vlaanderen, meaning Ritte of Flanders, has quickly gained a huge following on the web, and sold out each run of bikes.
In person Spencer is Schleck-thin, surprisingly serious and thoughtful for a guy who put “Where’s the Pub at?” on the back of his bibs. He is also a very strong, committed racer. A proud cat 3, “The heart of the sport” he says, but he soon may be in danger of a forced upgrade.
Ritte’s offices are located in Bergamot Station an industrial park with spaces for light manufacturing and artists that sits right next to a clutch of trendy art galleries. I took NYC racer and real book writer Warren St John of BH/Comedy Central. Warren commented that it was “like walking onto the set of sitcom about a bunch of buddies in bike building business”. Prototypes for future models were being painted on bike stands and beautiful custom bikes made from brushed stainless steel lay against the walls. The staff was suitably young, fit and enthusiastic. They were planning their trip to race Valley of the Sun that weekend in Phoenix. To do this they would have to miss work on Friday. In this office we got the feeling you might get in trouble for skipping the race and showing up to work. As we left the office Warren reflected on Spencer’s career like this: “How would you like to have a job with all your friends designing your dream bike, take three hour lunch rides for testing them and knock off early to get to the race”
NYVC: What led you to start a bike business?
SC: I grew up racing. I started at twelve when I lived in Dallas. I loved bikes and I dreamed of being a bike designer when I was a kid. I had this plan to get an aerospace engineering degree. But the closer I got to High School graduation I realized I was just terrible at math and would never cut it in an engineering program, so I ended up getting degrees in philosophy and sculpture and then went to grad school for philosophy because I figured I’d never get a job in sculpture, as if there would be tons of jobs in philosophy (laughs).
NYVC: Sounds like an ideal background for a bike designer.
SC: The whole time I had never lost my love for bikes; when I finally sought a more practical career path and went into advertising I learned not only how to design and market a product but also how to find voids in a marketplace. Eventually that’s what allowed me to weigh in with a bit more confidence when I entered the cycling market, though the real beginning was actually much more haphazard. It started with a kit design. I wanted to make a kit for my friends and myself. We were racing with a different, much larger, club at the time and we had that desire to define ourselves as a group. So when I sat down to design a kit in Illustrator, I put some thought into what makes a kit cool or not. I realized a kit with no logos would just look like it came off a rack but that there’s something indefinably cool about a kit that looks like it belongs to a pro team. So I set out to design something that would imitate that look. What I needed was a fake company to make the title sponsor of this fake team’s kit, and while I was trying to come up with some appropriate sponsor name, the Ritte story struck me. The story of Ritte, who stops at a pub instead of going directly to win the Tour of Flanders, allowed me to understand my own views on the cycling world. Up to that point I had never really articulated to myself what it was that I didn’t like about racing culture, but that story really resonated with me and contained in a nutshell what I believed was the antidote to the problems I saw in racing.
NYVC: What was the problem?
SC: The problem was, even back in Dallas in the late eighties, the road scene was full of angry type-A, puffed-up egomaniacs, and you’d go to a race and guys would roll around posing for one another, each pretending to be cooler than the next, desperately needing one another’s admiration in this really odd way. It made for this awful atmosphere of dysfunction and insecurity. I was 15 or 16 and I hated that.
Then I’d see mountain bikers and they seemed to be just having fun, if the racing scene had been more fun for me as a kid I think wouldn’t have dropped out when I got my car. When I came to LA I started riding and racing again and it was the same, the same guys – just a lot tanner.
NYVC: What do you think has changed in the past 10 years?
SC: When I began racing again the road scene was just as exclusive and cliquey as when I was growing up. But there were other biking scenes growing in popularity, like cyclocross. Cyclocross and mountain biking are traditionally more laid back and fun, and the crossover between these cultures and road racing helped change people’s attitudes. Add to that the track racing scene and all the fixie-riders we have here, and LA has become a nexus for lots of different cycling cultures.
Take a rider like Jack Lindquist. He started as a bike messenger, then moved to the track and then the road, and now he seems to be in all the scenes at once. He’s serious enough to be a 2016 Olympic hopeful on the track, but he’s anything but your typical bike racer. And there are a lot of guys like that now; road guys who tried cross and that led them to mountain bikes; fixie guys who tried track and then went onto road. The previously hard divides are now more fluid and to me that’s a huge positive. Because when you put a bunch of fun people in the mix with a bunch of assholes, then the assholes realize really quick that it’s much cooler to have fun. One of the things I love about the Ritte brand is that we encourage all those cultures mixing together.
That’s my long explanation of why the story of Ritte resonated with me. So in the beginning of all this, when I showed people just the mock-up of the kit and they read the story, they were so energized by just the idea of it that I pre-sold all the kit orders easily and it was just a matter of months before people wanted it to be an actual team. So we started forming a team, and me being who I am and wanting to keep creating something, I started looking into what it would take to create a bike. So I met with a manufacturer at Interbike, a small company with a good engineer. They had the original frame model already designed and had been producing it for a year. It was perfect because they wanted my input as a racer to help make the design better and they allowed me to order in much lower quantities than if I had gone directly to a factory. I soon realized there were enough people who wanted them, and that first bike was a fantastic bike. I started selling them directly for as cheaply as I could then began to find mentors in the cycling business to help me make Ritte legit. Since then, experts in bike design, engineering and production have come on board to help create bikes even better than the first and that are all our own.
NYVC: You obviously had a gift and a lot of experience for the marketing and design. Did you feel like you had to play catch up on the engineering side?
SC: Well I don’t pretend to be an engineer and I never will. I’ve been criticized for not being a “true” frame designer, but that’s just naÃ¯ve. I mean, do you think Mike Sinyard sits down at Solidworks and engineers Specialized’s frames? I do, however, understand geometry, materials, and how to feel out a bike. I’ve learned a lot about bikes over the last 25 years and now I’m learning even more. I may have started as an outsider, but those who ride our bikes know that our process works.
NYVC: What is your design process then? And how does that differ for the bikes you make in California like the Muur and the Steeplechase?
SC: For the new Bosberg, I designed the tube shape and geometry and then handed that to engineers to turn my raw ideas into something that works. I and others then test each prototype to see how it performs. The most important thing in a racing bike is a solid feel, which is the right ratio between stiffness and compliance so your wheels stay firmly planted on the ground. If it’s too stiff, it will bounce around everywhere and beat you up. Also, though you want a comfortable ride in a straight line, that comfort can get in the way of performance under load, like around a corner. For example, I test each prototype down Tuna Canyon [which has a winding -20 degree descent] and I can tell if that bike is tracking correctly, if the chainstays or seatstays are too thin or if front end is too flexible. You can’t find that stuff out if the bike is not under extreme load. I was really lucky that the original frame I sourced was so good; it became an excellent platform and allowed me to build on what they did without having to backslide. My goal is to not go backward in performance, something I think many companies do while trying in their rush towards constantly updating their product.
All carbon monocoque frame manufacturing has to be done in Asia for the foreseeable future. If you want a light stiff bike you have to make it there, and those bikes have become the necessary tools for racing. I really like our Asian made frames and these types of bikes will always be part of the Ritte lineup. But I don’t like just handing everything off to Asia and not seeing the result for months; I like being more hands-on. That’s why we started the custom program, RitteLab. We set out to create frames with the feel of steel and the performance of carbon and I think we succeeded with the Muur. We recently had the Muur, Bosberg and one of our all stainless frames tested, and the results showed definitively that it’s possible to build a high-performance racing bike with the wonderful ride qualities of a traditional steel frame.
There are different bike buyers: there are racers who want the lightest, most high-tech thing and there are people – racers and enthusiasts – who just know what they like. They want the romance and like knowing who built their bike – you know, a funny old man with 30 years of steel shavings worked into his skin – they want that mystique. They can’t see it and it doesn’t necessarily make the frame ride any better, but the owner knows it’s there, they feel a soul in the bike. We’re lucky to have Russ Denny as our builder. He’s been building for 30 years and that guy knows how to weld soul into a goddamn frame. He’s also kind of an industry outsider like me, so it’s a great fit.
NYVC: Do you think people fetishize the craft in old world frame building techniques, as people often do for technologies once they are antiquated?
SC: I think people think the Asian factory-made bikes are soulless. But I’ll tell you it takes an incredible amount of skill to make a good carbon frame. Just because it’s a 30-year-old Chinese woman with no idea who Tullio Campagnolo was, laying up that carbon, it doesn’t mean that frame is built with any less skill than if it were built by French woman or an Italian kid.
We come from a culture that, not long ago, to have a bike made by a master, made in his workshop, was the epitome of a bicycle. There were no other options for a serious cyclists. Pro racers had Serotta or Peggorietti make their bike and then paint it with the logo of their sponsor. That’s not the reality now. The reality is the best bikes are made by that 30-year-old woman in China. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect those masters. I respect both forms of frame making. And I like the fact that we can still create an alternative to a mold-made frame if someone wants it.
NYVC: In 15 years from now, when bikes are made by robot fabricators, people will be saying yeah, sure they’re fast, but there was something about those Asian bikes made by those Chinese women you just cant find in the robotic bikes..
SC: Yeah exactly, it’s funny. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people use term “hand made” to differentiate between small and large manufacturers, they are both hand made. You just don’t like the hands making the factory bike because that factory bike doesn’t have the romantic heritage, or the name of a storied company on the downtube.
NYVC: But on the other hand, one of the things people like about your bikes is the story, though ironically the brand has no heritage and you are one of the few bike makers who is completely transparent about how the bikes are made and your most effective advertising seems to have been send ups of the cycling world. You seem to be doing the exact opposite of everyone else in the industry. A brand like Masi, which is a brand that used to mean the finest in Italian craftsmanship and is now just a license you can buy and stick on a generic chinese carbon bike, then attempt to sell it’s technology as being from a grand tradition on the back of the Performance catalogue. If you had gotten a hold of a bike from another factory, like a Giant or Cervelo frame, and done the same thing to it, do you thing the reaction would have been significantly different?
SC: No, probably not. I tried to create a brand that cut through all the parody brands out there. The bike industry is focused on two things: This is our heritage and this is our technology, and as we know, heritage is great but doesn’t say anything about your bike now. And maybe a few brands like Specialized and Trek can claim truly cutting edge technology because they have insane R&D budgets. But just about everyone else is using the same technology and the only difference is the decal affixed to the chain stay with the acronym for some apparently mind-blowing technology that makes that chainstay so unique, which is utter bullshit and drives me crazy.
I believe that product and the marketing of a product are inseparable because so much of the worth of a bicycle is imbued by its owner. The owner will attach a lot of significance to their choice, it becomes part of a personal myth, and so the branding of the bike and the physical product cannot be separated. Branding is my background, and I love bikes, so it came more easily to me. I can paint it to look great and make ads and videos to wrap it in a story, but the bike still has to perform and no story can cover that up. I think that our brand is well-known enough for the time being, so I spend all my time now thinking about our products and making sure they performs to meet the expectation that is created by the brand.
NYVC: Where do you see the company in 5 years?
SC: We would like to reach a size that is comfortably self-sufficient. We haven’t had any investment yet, but it would certainly make things easier, both in development of new bikes and in the ability increase production and support more dealers. But beyond that, I want Ritte to not only offer the best possible racing bikes, but to positively affect the cycling culture – to put a bit more fun and honesty into it. I want a culture that is less cynical and snobby, less serious about the wrong things. I want cycling culture to be more open and fun. And I want Ritte to play a role in making that change. That sounds naÃ¯ve and maybe it’ll never happen. But I figure I have to follow some road and it might as well be one that motivates me.