JOHNSTOWN -- In the eyes of many bicycle aficionados, it would not be hyperbole to say the world's best handmade bicycle in 2019 was manufactured by No. 22 Bicycle Co. in Johnstown.
"Yes, No. 22 really is that good," said Patrick Brady, the head judge at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.
A No. 22 "Aurora" model titanium road bike won the coveted Best in Show award at NAHBS in Sacremento, Calif., on March 19. NAHBS is the world's largest trade show for handmade bicycles, and featured bikes from 210 different companies.
The Aurora submitted into the show -- a bike fulled loaded with features and colored in a yellow, purple, pink fade pattern that makes full use of the company's cutting-edge titanium anodizing methods -- won several of the smaller awards at the show and was a finalist for both the best overall road bike and the bike with the best finishing work, but didn't capture either title.
Instead, No. 22 co-founder Bryce Gracey said he was both stunned and elated when he was called onstage as one of the three finalists for Best in Show.
Images: Photos from Johnstown's No. 22 Bicycle Co., March 31, 2019
"You don't enter into Best in Show," Gracey said. "It's completely up to the judges, so it was a shock.
"We were up on the stage for numerous categories," he said last week. "We were up and down those steps about five times, but then when it happened -- we were over the moon."
"This is the preeminent show for our industry in the world," said Gracey, a native of Canada. "To be given the validation of Best in Show, which is the most prestigious award, is just, like an incredible honor amongst our peers."
Brady described the decision to choose No. 22 in a blog post at redkiteprayer.com.
"When I saw No. 22’s entry for Best Road Bike on Friday morning, I knew I was looking at something special," he wrote. "The fenders on the bike were attention grabbing, an anodized billboard that dazzled with lustrous color where nearly every other bike was black in the same location. It’s tantamount to taking off a black shirt and putting on Aloha wear."
Brady rhapsodized even further about the Aurora's fenders. "Fenders are an item that are rarely able to contribute anything other than function," he wrote. "So a fender that makes a bike prettier is really unusual. The fact that these fenders were crafted from titanium and rolled to the right circumference for the tire size and then also curved to wrap around the tires is challenging on an order that is hard to fathom."
"And then they were anodized, but not a single color; it was a gold-purple fade, which I’d never seen before," Brady wrote. "The final touch was crafting hardware that was anodized to match. In the early 1990s, no one was able to anodize much more than a few square centimeters on a bike frame."
No. 22, which is the atomic number for titanium in the periodic table of elements, manufactures titanium bike frames at its Johnstown plant, where it employs six people. The company then assembles its different styles of titanium bikes using component parts from other companies like the high-end Italian bike parts maker Campagnolo. The Aurora entered into the show featured many component parts from Campagnolo.
Gracey said the Aurora entered into the show was an homage to the high-end titanium bikes he fell in love with in the 1990s, many of them built with Campagnolo parts. On the Aurora's downtube, important dates in the history of Campagnolo are included in the bike's finishing.
Brady said a bike like the Aurora is why it's important for NAHMS to give out annual awards, as an incentive to push handmade bike manufacturers to continually up their game.
"This is a bike no one could have produced in 1999," he said. "Just 20 years ago. Increasing the amount of work that goes into a frame was the opposite of what the custom bike world was doing in the late ’90s. Builders were looking for lugs that required less time to clean up, that looked good with a minimum of fuss."
No. 22 Bicycle Company couldn't have made it either when the company first started production in Johnstown in 2014. The company was created out of necessity, when Saratoga Springs-based bike maker Serotta shut down in March of 2014. No. 22 had been designing bikes and having them built by Serotta, which had changed its name to Saratoga Frameworks shortly before it closed.
Gracey and his partner Mike Smith called up former Serotta designer Scott Hock, a Johnstown native who had returned to his home region to work in Saratoga. They made Hock the director of operations, and built him a handmade bike manufacturing plant inside the old Johnstown Knitting Mill, seven blocks from Hock's home. The company started out with three employees and made about 50 bikes in three different styles in its first year.
Now they have six employees and make about 300 bicycles per year, with eight basic models, with model names Reactor, Drifter and the Great Divide.
About 60 percent of the bikes the company sells are pre-made stock, a product category they only started offering one year ago. The rest of the bikes are custom made to specifications, within reason.
Hock said No. 22 will often have customers who need bikes made to fit their bodies, customers with special physical attributes such leg-length discrepancies or fused vertebrae. They'll also get customers who ask for color finishing schemes that may or may not fit the company's style. Hock said since his company produces a limited number of products every year, each example of a No. 22 bike needs to exemplify the company's standards in the eyes of anyone who sees it.
Images: Photos from Johnstown's No. 22 Bicycle Co., March 31, 2019
"We still want to uphold the No. 22 brand and the designs that we've developed over the years, and if something is too far outside of either of those we have said no," Hock said. "We don't want to say no, but we want to be a strong brand."
"With the anodizing, we've had people ask for green and then blue and then pink and we've said, 'No. Sorry, that's now what we want to do,' " he said.
The bikes aren't cheap either, averaging about $7,500 for a stock made bike, with greater degrees of customization in the finishing or features adding to the price.
More advanced anodizing finishing techniques are one way in which No. 22 has evolved its offerings from when it started in 2014. Anodizing is a process by which titanium is oxidizes, and can be manipulated to change the spectrum of light reflected off the metal, creating a shining finish that, unlike paint, never rubs off.
Hock credited No. 22 production manager Kevin Chamberlain, who moved from Iowa to Johnstown in 2016 to work for the company, with upping its anodizing game. Chamberlain has a background in art sculpture and jewelry design.
Chamberlain said he combined his knowledge of anodizing in the jewelry industry with techniques he learned as a graduate student at the University of Iowa and methods learned from a friend of his familiar with anodizing methods used in dentistry to open up the anodizing possibilities at No. 22.
"It's a really difficult process, and we were really able to kind of crack the code," Chamberlain said. "We can get the full viberance of the rainbow, except red, but we can get greens, pinks and have it be really consistent. It's easy to start, but incredibly difficult to master. Anodizing is adding layers of oxidation, and the layers reflect the light in a different way, so it's like a prism. So there's no color in it or pigment -- it's all done with electricity. It's like magic."
Hock said his goal is for the No. 22 brand to be recognized as the best in the world.
"I want to be on bike shop floors, and for when people think of titanium bikes the first bike they think of is No. 22," he said.
With that said, how the company grows from here is an important challenge for Hock. He said No. 22 has won other awards at NAHMS in the past few years, and it typically results in a spike in sales in April, which he's preparing for now. He said when he worked at Serotta, he was the company's 43rd employee, and not all of them cared about the job as much as he knows No. 22's small staff does.
Gracey said the largest handmade bike manufacturers might make 1,000 bikes per year, and he could foresee No. 22 growing to that size, but he doesn't want to add staff until they've perfected their process to its highest level of efficiency.
One way No. 22 has grown is it recently launched another company within itself that makes carbon bike forks, an important part in the bike-making process.
Gracey said the new company's name is No. 6, the atomic number for carbon. He said about half the carbon forks No. 6 will make will be used in No. 22 bikes, but the rest will be sold to other manufacturers.
"When we came up with No. 6, I couldn't believe that name hadn't been used yet!" Hock said. "It's perfect."