A Fast Boy Cycle was featured the first week The Spoken went live, and after all the ornate lugs, flash paint schemes and bold logos that we see here, each bike by Ezra Caldwell is like a breath of fresh air. His bikes purvey an understated subtlety that belie his skill, artistry and innovation.
Ezra, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for the readers of The Spoken. You’ve had a helluva time over the last three years, undergoing treatment for cancer and simultaneously maintaining a high level of creative output. To start, can you tell us a little about your frame building? Where did you learn to put a frame together? I learned to build bikes over an 8 day period with Whit Moyer down in Austin, Texas. I learned to braze, and just enough about frame construction to go home, set up a shop, and start getting myself in trouble.
Your basement is currently being fitted out as a combination metal and wood shop. Your wooden fenders are quite well known, and we’ve seen a few custom crates and racks on some of your customer’s bikes. Have you had any formal woodwork training? I’m not sure I’d call it formal. My father (who was VERY informal… naked a lot of the time, in fact), was a woodworker, so I grew up around a wood shop. I think I started working on a table saw when I was about 8. I made a lot of cross bows when I was a kid. They worked! So there was this interest in engineering in there as well. Objects that DID stuff, not just furniture. I always liked moving parts. In my adult life, I spent a good chunk of time working as a cabinet maker. Kitchens mostly.
We’ve recently seen evidence of your culinary expertise on your blog: beautifully shot time-lapse video of home cooking incorporating gourmet ingredients. Is this an amateur pastime or have you worked as a chef in a past life? I worked for a few summers as a prep chef when I was a teenager. Later, I lived in the north of England for a year for grad school, and worked a couple nights a week as the chef at a Thai restaurant. That was a bit of a coup. But mostly I’ve just always cooked for myself and whoever happens to be living with me or just stopping by. I’m not too intrigued by the restaurant scene… It seems pretty high octane. I’m more interested in being a really good home cook.
There’s also mention of a previous career as a dancer. How did that come about, and how did that transform into frame building? Yeah. It’s true. I danced professionally for a few years, and then taught for almost ten. For a lot of that time I had a company and was making work. I went to art school (university of the arts in Philadelphia). I thought I was going to study industrial design. I was pretty disenchanted when I realized that the industrial designers weren’t that involved in the engineering side of making stuff (or really the MAKING side of making stuff). Mostly just how it looked. How it felt. So there was a lot of CAD work, and some molding of models out of plastic. Someone dared me to take a dance class one night. I did. It seemed like much more fun than the visual arts core classes I was taking, so I switched majors the next day (“you want to switch majors!?” “Yes, if that’s possible.” “have you ever danced before!!?” “Yeah… I took a class last night.”). I stopped to catch my breath almost 15 years later and realized that I sort of hated dance. When I finally ran away screaming, building bikes seemed like a safe harbor. Can’t remember how I connected THOSE dots.
Is Vermont your home state? Is that how your dog, Putney, got her name? The travelogue photography we’ve seen from there is spectacular. How long have you lived in New York? What’s the best thing about living in NYC? Yeah. Putney got her name from my home town. As a hick construction worker teen I said I’d never live in a city, but ended up in Philly for art school and then dance took me to New York. I can’t really imagine leaving now. I live in a great neighborhood in Harlem. The open mindedness and diversity of a big city is addicting. Great food shopping. Not having to own a car!!
Across your frame building, cooking, woodwork and photography, can you define a common denominator? Well. I’d love to get pregnant, but I don’t feel too hopeful. I guess I’m just trying to make up for it.
Let’s get back to the bikes. You seem to specialize in a niche of commuters, tourers and porteurs, with the occasional roadie and mixte thrown in for good measure. There’s a consistent binding theme of reliable, refined simplicity, understated paint schemes, cork grips and leather upholstery: How did this design ethos develop? I’d love to just shrug and say that it’s always been what I liked, but if I look back that’s clearly not the case. My first serious bike was a Cannondale 2.8. This aluminum ass hatchet that I loved. Maybe if you’d asked me back then whether or not I found it BEAUTIFUL, I would have said, “well… no. I guess not”, but I’m not sure! What makes something beautiful to people is pretty tangled up in how they use the thing.
I don’t ride bikes for exercise any more (takes most of my energy to get out of bed!), so what I find beautiful in a bike is different. Maybe I’m talking myself into a corner here. I’ve always been a bit of a minimalist. My favorite artists are those that practice restraint, not those that seem eager to let you know about their virtuosity. I remind myself constantly not to stand too close to the bike I’m building, but to stand far enough away that I can take it in as a whole. It’s easy to get seduced by the details.
What stage is the cancer treatment at? With the basement coming along swimmingly, what’s in the pipeline for Fast Boy Cycles? I’m currently in remission. I guess. I finished a six month round of chemotherapy in May. That followed a pretty brutal evisceration of a surgery that has left me shitting in a bag for the rest of my life. The latest development is that I’ve got some tumor markers that are spiking and we don’t know why. Nothing is turning up in petscans. Tumors have to be pretty sizable to show up in petscans, though, so we’re left guessing. Under these circumstances, it’s pretty hard to think long term about the business.. And yet, cancer could call my bluff and start just leaving me alone. I could live forever! So I can’t exactly ignore the longevity of the business either. It’s a weird spot. I’ve been making these nose bikes lately. All along I’ve liked the idea of specializing in cargo bikes. So I’m taking the time to develop my version of a cycle truck/postal/butcher’s bike type thing. A light and lithe, but capable rig for a town where people don’t have garages to roll big long-bikes into. I’m actually a little obsessed. It could get problematic. “Ezra, I’d really love a simple beautiful single speed rando bike with wood fenders..” “Um… how about a NOSE BIKE?!?”
Keep up to date with the latest happenings around the Fast Boy Cycles workshop via the website, blog and Flickr. Photo of Ezra on the Assless Bike: evanistan.