Jeffson: custom steel bicycles Kiwi style

Unless you’ve got a house in Guangdong province, Tianjin or Taichung, the chance of stumbling across a bicycle manufacturing facility is minimal at best. So it was a pleasant surprise to do just that when on vacation in Rotorua, New Zealand. Heard of Jeffson bikes? Nope, neither had I until last month.

New Zealand’s export industry was worth NZD43 billion in the 12 months to October 2011. When disaggregated by product category, NZD31m of “toy and sporting good manufacturing” – a miniscule percentage of total exports – infers no meaningful bicycle manufacturing sector exists. If it did, surely bicycles wouldn’t be bundled in with Buzzy Bees.

Tourism and agriculture (with emphasis on dairy farming) aside, New Zealand also has a reputation as a fine boat-building nation; ostensibly a natural fit for people living on an island, but against the odds when considering the Commonwealth country’s relative industrial youth and small population. Though sailboats, luxury vessels and lightweight kayaks share composite technologies and techniques with modern-day bicycle fabrication, no NZ-based, marine-focused, company has branched out into domestic production in the world of two-wheeled action sports. [Kiwi Neil Pryde took off to Hong Kong decades ago, long before the first Neil Pryde bicycle was conceived].

Avanti is by far the most well-known New Zealand bicycle brand, with excellent penetration in Australasia, scattered development in Asia and a recent entry into the UK market with Bristol-based distributor Paligap. However, no tangible contribution to NZ’s manufacturing industry is realized given fabrication of Avanti bicycles takes place elsewhere.

In the last two decades, Reiker bicycles has been the sole representative for scaled-up NZ bicycle manufacturing, though most Kiwi’s wouldn’t be able to recall this brand unless they took a hard look at their local postie’s bicycle – the Timaru-based company is official bicycle supplier to New Zealand Post. Reiker has also been a frame-maker of choice for many young track cyclists, such is the brand’s loyal following amongst the tight-knit cycling community. Even so, it would be a surprise to find a Reiker bicycle on the floor of a local bicycle shop.

This virtual bicycle-manufacturing desert lends Rotorua-based Kiwi Bikes, home to Jeff Anderson and his ‘Jeffson’ brand of custom bikes, an oasis-like aura for those in search of boutique enlightenment. For 30 years, Anderson has been fixing, welding, brazing, building, wrecking and riding steel bikes with scant self-promotion until recent years – halfway through our initial meeting, it’s pointed out that I just missed bumping into resident pro cyclist (GreenEDGE) and customer Julian Dean – which makes walking into his shop feel like a discovery.

Tucked into a corner in the back of a modestly sized and fitted-out retail store – which sells Cannondale and GT, amongst other brands – is a tiny workshop replete with jig, lathes, fillet-brazing equipment, lugs, home-made tools and frames in various states of dismemberment. It’s here that ‘Jeffson’ steel frames are created, far away from the contemporary custom-frame epicenter of New England. And yet, Anderson revels in this relative isolation; local customers I spoke with clearly treasured their exclusive access to his experience and skill.

A brief statement on Anderson’s website encapsulates the “better to have loved and lost” mentality which compels him to continue refining his craft through a series of unique but temporary relationships: “every frame I build feels like a piece of art when finished, and often I feel sad when the customer takes it away.”

As I had transitioned into vacation cruise mode prior to my unexpected encounter with Anderson – there were actually three separate meetings in total; the last being over coffee and beers at Brew early Friday evening – my trusty (mostly) dictaphone was ditched in favour of free-flowing conversation and photos.

Image courtesy of Kiwi Bikes