Buffalo, New York sits at the northeastern corner of Lake Erie, where the Niagara River begins its journey downstream to the famous falls, and is best-known for chicken wings, football and massive winter snowfalls. Like many Great Lakes cities, the heavy industries that built Buffalo struggled and left during the 1980s, leaving the city to redefine itself, which it largely has done over the past few decades.
Adding to the cliched urban renaissance tales of craft breweries and downtown arts districts is Normal Bicycles, which opened in 2018 in Buffalo’s Foundry District. Normal is an ironic brand name for a company that handcrafts bicycles from locally-sourced hard maple wood. It’s a material that helps Normal stand apart from the crowd of carbon fiber and metallic bikes that emanate from Asian factories.
Jess Vreeswijk Kudla started Normal Bicycles with her husband Chris, and they combined separate backgrounds in project management (Jess) and mechanical engineering (Chris) with a mutual love of bicycles and cycling to create a winning brand.
A husband and wife bicycle building team? That’s a bit unusual too. So what explains the run-of-the-mill brand name?
“The company is named after the street that we lived on when Chris first started working on designing the bikes, Normal Ave. It’s also a bit of a joke since wood is not normal at all,” says Jess.
Wood has many desirable qualities for bicycle construction – among them stiffness, light weight, and compliance (otherwise known as comfort). These attributes of wood have been incorporated in the construction of bicycle rims, and for the first five decades of the 20th century, shellacked wooden rims with handmade tubular tires glued to them were de rigueur for track racers that entertained large crowds at Six-Day races in major American cities, among them Buffalo.
But before you start believing that wooden bicycles are a trip down nostalgia lane, consider the high-tech, cutting-edge approach that Normal Bicycles takes to constructing bikes from this traditional material.
Hard maple wood makes up the majority of Normal’s frames, but some high-tech bits put this new company squarely in the 21st century. A thin sheet of carbon fiber lines the insides of the hollow wooden tubes, and the connection points for the components are made of aerospace grade aluminum alloy with titanium fasteners, for good measure.
Chris’ background as an engineer in the aerospace and automotive industries means that the latest technologies are in his design wheelhouse, and CNC cutting machines combine with a craftsman’s intuition to produce bicycles that bridge the gap between traditional and novel approaches to construction.
Normal offers complete bicycles, framesets only, and fully custom bicycles in their portfolio. Unusual for a small, new company, they can produce your frame or complete bike in as little as two weeks. After a deposit is received, the customer can watch their bike being produced at several waypoints in the process: photos are taken and posted at an individual portfolio for each new order.
What’s truly novel (and very cool!) is that once the bike is delivered to the customer, a QR code on the bottom bracket allows the customer to access this portfolio – essentially an online photo album of your newborn bike, preserved for (electronic) eternity.
The complete bikes are centered around the Urban Scout frameset, built to tackle the concrete jungle and available in single-speed or geared iterations. There are also adventure bike offerings, and the full-custom option allows you to design a bike that suits your specific needs and body measurements.
One thing that all Normal Bicycles include is a design ethic of rugged durability and a protective marine coating to keep out the elements – important considerations for use in a city that sees more than its fair share of snow, sleet and freezing rain.
As the Normal Bicycles website puts it, the bikes are born in Buffalo, after all.