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