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HIA Velo brings bike-building back home 

The Little Rock manufacturer says the heck with Asia, builds carbon-fiber bicycle frames in Little Rock.

click to enlarge BRAINS BEHIND THE WHEELS: Engineer Sam Pickman (left) was lured away from California by HIA Velo CEO Tony Karklins (right) to design bikes for Little Rock's Allied Cycle Works. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • BRAINS BEHIND THE WHEELS: Engineer Sam Pickman (left) was lured away from California by HIA Velo CEO Tony Karklins (right) to design bikes for Little Rock's Allied Cycle Works.

You may think it has nothing in common with the bike that Bicycling magazine has proclaimed the "hottest bike of 2017," Allied Cycle Works' Alfa, a sleek racing ride practically as light as air thanks to its carbon fiber construction.

But it does. Like AMF's old Roadmasters of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the Alfa is manufactured in Little Rock. The factory, on Brookwood Drive in Riverdale, doesn't turn out 3,000 complete bikes a day, as the AMF factory did on West 65th Street, but what it does is special this way: With the exception of billion-dollar bike-maker Trek and artisan builders, Allied Cycle's is the only carbon-fiber frame manufactured in the United States, and Trek is making 99 percent of its bikes in Asia.

Little Rock native Tony Karklins, who founded and is CEO of the manufacturing company HIA Velo, which created the Allied Cycle Works brand, says the company will have produced between 800 and 1,000 bikes by the end of this year and plans to double that number in 2018.

So not only does the Alfa model have a "Made Here" label on it, Arkansans also can take pride that it's made in Little Rock. That's thanks to Karklins.

"What separates HIA Velo from anybody else setting up a bike company comes down to Tony Karklins," says cycling journalist Patrick Brady. Brady, who writes about cycling on his blog, "Red Kite Prayer," came to Arkansas from California in May to see the operation and try out the Alfa All Road, the multisurface member of the Alfa family. "I don't have any reason to build up the legend of Tony Karklins — it doesn't do me any favors," Brady said, "but he's one of the most interesting people in the bike industry right now."

Plus, Brady said, he's smart. "He understands what it takes to make a quality bicycle."

So here's how you become a quality bike frame manufacturer in Arkansas: You raise close to $3 million from some well-heeled folks — they trust you because of your 36-year career in the bike business — and buy at a bankruptcy auction a factory that had been in business for 24 years (Guru) in Montreal. (The $400,000 loan you get from the Governor's Quick Action Closing Fund and the $50,000 grant for training helps, too.) Then you haul the factory to Arkansas in six semi tractor-trailers. You fly Specialized bike company engineer Sam Pickman to town from California and put him up at the Capital Hotel ("with all the upgrades," Karklins says); Pickman immediately buys a house in Hillcrest. Guru's mechanic, Olivier Lavigeuer, decides he'll join you, moves from Montreal to downtown Little Rock. Jim Cunningham, founder of CyclArt, knowing nothing about humidity, agrees to move from San Diego to Little Rock to create the amazing paint finishes on the bikes. You spend your first year in business putting in about 100 hours a week developing the frame, hiring and training dexterous workers to place the 351 small and weirdly shaped pieces of carbon fiber that go into the making of the frame. Then you hire another 25 to cure the frames, machine them, sand them, paint them, put them on a rotisserie so the paint doesn't drip and ship them out, either fully assembled with parts ordered by the customer or the frame alone.

The process — from bringing the factory to Arkansas in March 2016 to putting out five to six bikes a week now — has been accomplished at "hyper speed," Pickman said.

But the business is still ramping up, tweaking the technology and production time and proving that the investment was a good one. Karklins envisions a factory that one day will employ 250 to 300 people and sell several thousand bikes a year. But right now, marketing is taking a back seat to catching up with the orders that "clobbered" Allied after Bicycling magazine wrote that the Alfa "absolutely rips."

Why in Little Rock? Because it's Karklins' hometown, where he's been in the bike business since he was 11 years old, when he had a job at Chainwheel fixing flats. And because investors wanted it here.

"I knew it could be done very economically here," Karklins said. The factory space "costs $6,000 a month to rent here. That would be $50,000 to $60,000 in Southern California."

click to enlarge MAKING A CARBON FRAME: The manufacturing of the Alfa bike frame requires the placement of hundreds of pieces of carbon fiber into a mold that is heated, coated and heated again before it moves to the final stages of sanding and painting. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • MAKING A CARBON FRAME: The manufacturing of the Alfa bike frame requires the placement of hundreds of pieces of carbon fiber into a mold that is heated, coated and heated again before it moves to the final stages of sanding and painting.

Why bikes? "Because I was a troublemaker growing up," Karklins said. "My parents had been saving money for a minivan — they were both social workers — but instead they figured out a way to buy a small piece of Chainwheel so I could get a job. They knew I was going to get in trouble in the afternoons if they didn't plop my ass in Chainwheel. It gave me structure. So I grew up in bike retail in Little Rock."

By age 16, Karklins — who didn't even ride a bike before he began working at Chainwheel — had purchased a third of the business and become manager. "It gave me a home and it was really cool. The people were cool in the bike world. And I loved the equipment and I loved selling bikes. ... I loved selling bikes to people like you," he said, nodding to this reporter, "because I'd teach them about bikes and see that that customer would come back and buy a better bike and then a better bike and within two or three years be doing the Big Dam Bridge 100. I'd think, 'I did that to that person.' I love that."

The annual Big Dam Bridge 100 is in its 11th year. By the time it rolled around, Karklins had been in the bike business more than two decades: He'd bought and sold Chainwheel and brought the U.S. headquarters of the Spanish bike brand Orbea to Little Rock. He was Orbea's North American managing director from 2004 to 2014.

"Then," Karklins said, "I went off on this quest on what to do next." After visiting 20 bike companies that he thought should be in the United States, he decided he didn't want to do that again. "I had this sort of epiphany," he said. "Nobody makes anything here. It's really kind of sick." So, rather than marketing a bike made in Asia, Karklins decided to create and manufacture a brand here.

Bikes aren't manufactured in the United States for the same reason nothing else is made here either: It's cheaper to manufacture abroad. "It's hard," bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., "and after being involved in this project, we know how hard it is," Karklins said. To make it in the U.S., "we have to be smarter, faster and do it in a place like Arkansas," he said.

But if it's hard to build here, it's equally hard to be innovative when you don't, engineer Pickman said. The 36-year-old — one of the fastest amateur cyclists in the U.S. before he got married and settled down — began working at Specialized right out of college in 2004. Unlike at Specialized, for Allied he doesn't have to fly back and forth across the Pacific Ocean to meet with manufacturers, and he doesn't have to convince his company to invest to come up with something new. "You're handcuffed" at big companies, Pickman said. "You say, 'I want to try this,' and they say, 'Nah.' ...

"If you really want to evolve, take bicycles to that next step, you have to break out of that model. That's what drew me to this."

At HIA Velo, where he is hands-on during the whole frame-making process, Pickman can not only improve on the Allied brand; he can also improve on "literally every unit" of the Alfa the plant turns out.

"Our business model," Karklins said, "is to identify all the things that the big companies that manufacture in Asia cannot do, and that's exactly what we are doing."

The Alfa, which comes in 12 sizes and can also be custom-sized ("in case you have extremely short arms, or something," Pickman said), sells for between $4,000 and $10,000, depending on the needs of the buyer. Allied Cycle Works will fit the frame out with the gears and handlebars and seats, etc., of the buyer's choice; the buyer chooses the color, as well.

The bikes are competitive with those sold for $2,000 to $4,000 more, cycling writer Brady said. "The Alfa All Road — it's a bike that I put alongside the best from the biggest companies in the world." And, he added, he's reviewed thousands of bikes. "So this Alfa that I'm reviewing, I'm going to make it mine."

What makes the bike so good, Brady said, is the quality of fiber work going into the frame: "It is an order of magnitude more complicated" than other work he's seen.

Carbon fiber is both light and strong, which is why it's used in aviation, but the fibers run in only one direction. For strength, they must be laid into the frame form in pieces in varying orientations — Brady compared it to papier-mache. In addition to coming up with the strongest fiber recipe for each frame, Allied has partnered with polypropylene fiber manufacturer Innegra Technologies of South Carolina to add another layer of strength to the carbon.

For Little Rock cyclist Traci Howe, however, the reason she decided to buy an Alfa when she wanted to replace her old Orbea bike, was not just its quality, but because "I wanted a bike that was made here in America. I thought, 'How cool is that?' "

Howe, 45, who rides with the bike club CARVE (Central Arkansas Velo, no connection to HIA Velo), also likes the look of the bike. "There's a little symbol on the downtube," she said, referring to the eagle logo, and the word Allied in small print on another part of the bike, and that's it. Other bikes, she said, have their names all over them. The Alfa has a clean, sophisticated look.

HIA (which stands for Handmade in America) Velo (bicycle in French, deriving from the Latin for speed, as in velocity) owes a large part of its success to cofounder Doug Zell, Karklins says. Zell, the founder and CEO of Chicago's Intelligentsia brand coffee and a bike enthusiast, co-founded HIA Velo. The Times couldn't get an interview with him, but Karklins described him as "one of the most interesting persons I've ever encountered. He lives in Boston, Chicago, bought a house in Napa and now he lives [in Little Rock] in the Heights; he relocated his primary residence to North Jackson Street."

click to enlarge ALFA FAN: Traci Howe decided to replace her old Orbea bike with an Alfa because it was made in Arkansas. How cool is that? she asked.
  • ALFA FAN: Traci Howe decided to replace her old Orbea bike with an Alfa because it was made in Arkansas. How cool is that? she asked.

Zell, who founded Intelligentsia in 1995, sold a majority stake in the company to Peet's Coffee in 2015; Karklins knew he was looking for a new project. "I really went to him because I wanted his help in crafting a brand. That's hard stuff. I've been in other projects, you create a brand and present it to the world and it's like crickets. Doug was very instrumental in bringing the Allied brand together."

When Karklins took the first finished Alfa to Philadelphia to meet with the editors of Bicycling last year, he was nervous. "We were flying to Philadelphia with this bike that was going to be on the cover and no one had ever seen it." He took it out of its case, "and everybody went, 'Oh, my god.' It was the coolest, most genuine moment."

The bike — which had come off the line only three days before — was chrome red and classy. "The bike industry has been in this Nascar graphic thing: How many times can you put your name on a bike?" Karklins said. He'd once sold a bike that had its brand name on it 21 times.

The look of the bike was important because the old way of selling bikes had changed. "When I was with Orbea," Karklins explained, "the way it used to work was you would find the fastest rider and he would be in every one of your ads and your catalog. And then they'd all get busted for drugs. So we thought, 'Shit, we've got to come up with a new way.' "

The eagle logo on the bike is just like the eagle on the Intelligentsia coffee packaging, only its wings are lifted; it's in flight.

Zell is also the founder of The Meteor coffee shop, which opened in June at the corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Markham Street, in the same building as Spokes bike shop. Zell also bought Spokes, which is now known as Spokes at The Meteor; it will gradually coast away from the Spokes name. The Meteor is co-owned by Chris St. Peter, a lawyer and friend of Zell's from Chicago.

St. Peter said coffee shops and bike shops complement each other: "There's a general sense of community. Coffee houses bring people together and cycling also serves that purpose." So it made sense to him and Zell to combine the businesses. It also made sense to do it in Little Rock: Zell was involved in HIA Velo and Little Rock had a "vibrant" community of cyclists, St. Peter said. The historic building that Spokes is located in — the old Little Rock Paint and Wallpaper Co. — also seemed perfect. The Meteor has renovated the famous Little Rock Paint sign and will restore its neon.

St. Peter, who enjoys racing, was surprised at the number of bike enthusiasts in Little Rock. He participates in the once-a-week "Velo lunch ride" that sets off from the Brookwood office and heads to Burns Park over the Big Dam Bridge. It's as fast a ride as any St. Peter participates in, he said, with cyclists zipping along at 30 miles per hour.

Not surprisingly, St. Peter rides an Alfa, which he calls one of the best all-around racing bikes, "proficient in all categories," from stiffness of material to aerodynamics to comfort. "It's among the best bikes I've ever owned," he said. He hopes to be able to sell them in the bike shop when Allied Cycle is geared up to get ahead of its orders.

click to enlarge RED KITE PRAYER BLOGGER: Patrick Brady puts the Alfa All Road that he's testing alongside the best bikes in its class.
  • RED KITE PRAYER BLOGGER: Patrick Brady puts the Alfa All Road that he's testing alongside the best bikes in its class.

Arkansas may be flyover country, but it is in the early stages of becoming known as a destination for cyclists. There are a number of biking clubs in Little Rock — Mello Velo, Major Taylor Cycling Club, Arkansas Heels on Wheels, the Arkansas Bicycle Club among them.

"I had no idea that the cycling culture was so strong here," Pickman said. He finds it curious that Little Rock doesn't do a better job of selling its River Trail to tourists. Little Rock's cycling is known regionally, but not nationally yet.

That's not the case in Northwest Arkansas, where the Walton Family Foundation has poured money into creating bike trails. The trail system — which includes more than 200 miles of mountain biking as well as the Razorback Regional Greenway from Fayetteville to Bentonville — "scrambled my brain," said cycling journalist Brady. "It's colossal. And the cost of living there ... I could move to Bentonville tomorrow and all my money woes would disappear." (Brady lives in Santa Rosa, Calif.) "The imagination used in creating those trails is world class," he added.

The Big Dam Bridge, which opened in 2006, has undoubtedly contributed to Arkansas's biking and hiking culture. It has given Arkansas an identity other than the place where Orval Faubus called out the troops to keep nine black children from desegregating Central High, a reputation happily replaced by its being the birthplace of Bill Clinton. The Big Dam Bridge 100, the Tour de Rock and the Little Rock Gran Fondo may not be as famous as the Mt. Tam Century in Marin County or the Leadville 100 in Colorado, but they do attract cyclists in the thousands.

But Arkansas's noncyclists have a long way to go, noted members of the CARVE group gathered last week at the Clinton Presidential Center for an evening ride along the Southwest Trail to the Terry Lock and Dam. A woman named Sheila — this writer didn't get her last name before she pedaled off — said she's had bottles of water thrown at her from passing cars, once in the Rockwater riverside neighborhood in North Little Rock and once in the parking lot of the Two Rivers Bridge, which is dedicated to pedestrian and bike traffic. Sheila's companion said cars have gunned it behind him and passed with little room to spare; they do not understand, nor do they want to understand, road etiquette. One of Little Rock's rides, the Wampoo Roadeo Metric Century, honors the memory of cyclist Marilyn Fulper, who was killed by a driver who just didn't see her on the road. Upholstery tacks have been scattered on Highway 300 and Pinnacle Valley Road, a popular biking route northwest of Little Rock.

But if Little Rock could get its motorists educated, it would find that having a cycling infrastructure improves the quality of life in a city. It's a way to not just attract tourism or new business but, Brady said, to convince people who might otherwise move off to literally greener pastures to stay.

That bike trails increase the appeal of a region is an idea that seems to have finally sunk in at the Pulaski County Quorum Court, which in June turned down a $2.6 million federal grant to engineer a 65-mile trail between Little Rock and Hot Springs, part of a "rails to trails" program. A few justices of the peace said the grant's match — $520,000 to be split between Pulaski, Grant and Garland counties — would be better spent on highway improvement. A study's conclusion that the trail would be a multimillion-dollar boon to the economy by bringing tourist dollars and jobs to the county did not convince them. Last week, however, the JPs reversed course and voted 10-3 to accept the grant.

Central Arkansas Water is also studying putting a mountain bike trail around Lake Maumelle. "That would be huge," Karklins said.

In the meantime, Allied Cycle Works will build its business. Karklins hopes to get ahead of orders and have a showroom in six months or so. The company, which is working with distributors in five companies in Asia, has also worked out a deal to distribute the bike in Scandinavia. The United Kingdom and Spain are next.


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