Builder Spotlight: Joseph Ahearne

What inspired you to enter the Constructor’s Design Challenge competition?

I was in it in 2009, and the criteria for the bike this time is basically what I build all the time anyway. I’ve had a bike in mind, and this just gives me an excuse to build it.

The design criteria are aimed at inspiring new solutions and flexibility – how is this influencing your thinking? Are you taking it back to square one?

This is the kind of bike I build frequently anyway. It’s not the type you can sit down and design just like that. I’ve been trying to come up with “the perfect commuter bike” for 5 or 6 years. I’ve made iterations, found out the things I want out of a commuter bike, what I want it to do. I didn’t rethink it any more than any successive generation of a bike. I’ve done this enough that I’ve refined it pretty well.

The competition stresses fresh and modern – how will that affect aesthetic decisions?

I built it straight-up functional; I added some aesthetic flair to the function, so to speak. I always value function over aesthetics, but if I can make it look cool at the same time, that’s a bonus. I didn’t take that part of the criteria too much into my thinking; I built the bike for myself first, not someone else.

What does true flexibility in a modern utility bike mean to you?

The ability to ride loaded or unloaded, and have it be equally fun and useful either way. To take it on any road or trail as needed, but also I don’t want a bike that if I’m not carrying 50 pounds or 200 pounds it feels like a pig. I’m not into it being more cargo than commuter.

At its heart this is a competition – how do you feel about the competitive aspect? Will it drive innovation?

I just want it to be a great bike. I don’t personally care if it wins something. It’s the best I can build, and it satisfies me. I know it’s a bad-ass commuter bike, so it wins my game.

With bikes, innovation seems to be incremental – shaving weight, finessing shifting – but this competition is asking for BIG innovation – do you think that’s possible?

I know people can try it – there’s some weird frame designs out there. The bike has evolved so much; the range between road bikes, mountain bike or extremely different styles… the angles and lengths… the differences are still minimal. It’s still gonna have two wheels, pedals and some kind of drive train.

In a way, indie builders are the R&D lab for the cycling industry for utility bikes. Where do see yourself and Oregon Manifest fitting into this innovation?

The things builders create and take to shows, they show up on the market, but there’s a 2- to 3-year transition from custom builder to Asian manufacturing to the market. It used to frustrate me, but it’s the way it’s going to happen until the U.S. stops taking $5 overseas-made bikes and upcharging them to $400. I know I’m never going to get credited for my ideas; it makes me less interested in participating in the bike industry. I go to fewer shows, and take less interesting bikes.

Why do you think innovation is important for the everyday citizen cyclist? How can it change why and how people ride bikes?

On a really small scale, maybe. I don’t have grandiose ideas. The more bikes become transportation – letting people do the things they need to do on a bike, so they can leave the car at home – every time they choose to take the bike, that builds more visibility on the road. When you see 3 people on bikes maybe you’re not inspired, but if you see 300 you are. If we can tweak people’s interest – “I didn’t know a bike could do that!” – that can make a difference.

What about this design challenge is inspiring you the most?

It gives me a reason and motivation to make a bike that I think is a good one and that needs to be out there. It’s easy to get bogged down in custom builds, and people only ask for things they’ve seen me do before, not to experiment. This is a chance to build something different that someone will see and say, “That’s cool – build me something like that.”

What do like best about building custom bikes?

That I get to conceptualize an idea, think about it, completely formulate it, build it, modify it, ride it and see if it’s worth a shit or not – then redo it or build it again. Not a lot of people get to start at the beginning and see it through to the end and test it – that’s the most satisfying part.