A conversation between bike designer Paul Budnitz and filmmaker Russ Lamoureux
Paul Budnitz created Kidrobot, has 13 of his high-end toys in MoMA’s permanent collection, and has now turned his eye to bikes. Here he talks with filmmaker and frequent peloton contributor, Russ Lamoureux, about bikes and their recent collaboration, a short film for Budnitz Bicycles called Le Grand Tour.
Russ Lamoureux (RL): Do you remember the first bike you ever had?
Paul Budnitz (PD): The first real bike I ever owned (I’m excluding Stingrays and suchlike) I got for my 13th birthday. It was a Sekai 2500 road bike, part of the new wave of very good bikes from Japan that appeared in the 1980s, with bar-end shifters and very nice, light steel frame. I grew up in Berkeley, California and I wore out a half dozen set of tires riding from the BART stop at Montgomery to Pt. Reyes and back over the Golden Gate Bridge with my friends.
RL: When you and I first met you were knee-deep in high-end toys. Designing bicycles doesn’t seem like the obvious progression.
PB: For about 10 years I lived in New York City, and my primary form of transportation was an orange and chrome 1967 Bottechia road bike with upright handlebars that I’d bought for $150 at a flea market. There were very few useful bike lanes in Manhattan at the time. My weekend workout was to ride in traffic from my home in Soho up to 181st street, then turn around and bomb Broadway all the way home.
About the same time that it began to dawn on me how dangerous this was, New York started putting in bike lanes. I got a little older and my riding habits changed. I eventually began to look for a really excellent bike, something very fast, light and well made, that was also elegant enough to ride up in a suit at a gallery opening or party at Kidrobot and not look out of place. Basically, I was growing up and I wanted a grown-up bicycle, too.
The problem was, I couldn’t find my bike. Fact is, most high-end bicycles are either mountain bikes or road bikes, and both are uncomfortable and ill-suited for city riding. And sadly, most modern mass-produced city bikes tend to be poorly made pieces of junk, made to last a few years and be replaced. So I did the logical thing (for me, anyway) and began to make my own bicycles. I got to work with some of the best bicycle builders in the U.S., refining and re-refining my designs, building prototype after prototype until I eventually ended up with Model No.1.
Budnitz Bicycles as a business was actually a bit of an accident. People kept asking to buy my bicycles out from under me. Eventually enough people were calling that I decided ‘What the hell,’ and started the company.
RL: The silhouette looks so classic, and I love the split top tube.
PB: You know how your film borrows stylistically from the past, but it’s obviously a modern film, set in the present, made with modern equipment? I love this because it meshes perfectly with what we’re doing with our bikes—we borrow some aesthetics from classic city bicycles but integrate this with modern geometry, hi-tech design and materials like titanium.
RL: The similarities hadn’t occurred to me, but I love that!
PB: Before the script for Le Grand Tour was even written, you and I spent a lot of time talking about French New Wave films of the 50s and 60s. When I saw the first cuts I was blown away by how much the aesthetic recalls Francois Truffaut films, especially Day for Night, and his later color work. How’d you pull this off?
RL: Everyone’s shooting cycling films on the 5D and the Go-Pro, and they all kind of look the same. The guys at Rapha do some nice stuff, but aside from their films I haven’t seen much that seemed to have a unique visual sensibility. We shot on 16-mm film. The camera is bulky and heavy and right away creates limitations. It forces you to really think about how you want to tell your story—you can’t put the camera anywhere you want. That’s the way filmmaking used to be. There’s also the texture of 16-mm that’s just so wonderful, and reminiscent of the look and feel of some early-’70s cinema.
PB: Le Grand Tour is a silent film, but you don’t really notice because it tells the story with so much ease. Were you ever worried that we might need dialogue?
RL: It was always meant to be a “silent” film, and I knew with the right guy in the saddle the joy of riding a bike would be obvious. It’s a trip that, thanks in large part to the bike, becomes transformative. Tail whips, riding wheelies, hopping curbs—even from a block away you know that guy’s having fun. Like an old Jacques Tati or Charlie Chaplin movie, we used physicality and music to convey emotion.
Speaking of borrowing from the classics, were there any specific bikes you were inspired by?
PB: There are some lovely bicycles from the 1920s that use a single-arc split-tube cantilever frame design similar to mine, and then the style more or less died out. I‘d been collecting pictures of vintage bikes, and thought these looked great. As I got more involved in bicycle science, I discovered that two arched and narrow top tubes flex when the bicycle goes over bumps. It’s like a bridge truss, and that’s what makes bicycles like ours so smooth to ride.
What I didn’t realize at first is that actually making a split top tube in a long arc is very expensive and very difficult. Our current fabricator actually had to build custom machinery to make our frames. Which is probably why these cantilever frames like ours are so rare. There are very few builders good enough to pull it off, especially in titanium.
RL: At first you only offered titanium frames — which isn’t cheap! What was the thinking there?
PB: Titanium rules. For a city bike it’s by far the best choice of material. It has all the amazing ride qualities of steel but only 60% the weight. It’s nowhere near as rigid as aluminum, nor as fragile as carbon. Best of all, brushed titanium frames never rust or corrode. I’ve got one of my original prototypes here and it’s still hard to tell that it’s not a new bike.
I look at Budnitz Bicycles the same way people traditionally look at classic cars. A very good bicycle is something worth investing in, something that performs incredibly and that you get to keep your whole life. I realize you can buy a bicycle for much less than one of ours, but it won’t ride as well, and it won’t look as good, and it won’t last as long.
RL: Titanium, disk brakes, belt drive—correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m seeing a theme here. Is low-maintenance an overarching philosophy, or were each chosen for different reasons?
PB: Setting out with the expressed goal of creating the world’s best city bike, I was always a slave to three masters: function, strength, and design. That created very specific challenges because I’m obsessive with details and I refuse to compromise. This is one reason why we ended up making so many of our own parts, including handlebars, stems, seat posts—even seat clamps. We actually make the only titanium riser bar in the world!
Disk brakes stop ridiculously well in the rain, they’re incredibly tough, and they just look beautiful. Belt drives are super-lightweight, silent, strong, zero maintenance, and they don’t get your pants dirty because there’s no grease. And they just look awesome too, which counts for a lot in my book.
The details are important. I wanted to get them right, and I think the bike is a joy to ride as a result. Just look at the guy in your film. He’s having a blast.
RL: Yes he is. That’s really the story of the film: the joy the bike brings. We decided to focus less on a brake lever or crankset and instead show the thrill of cruising a Budnitz.
PB: Where did you get the idea for Le Grand Tour?
RL: I was telling my writing partner how I wanted to do something like The Bicycle Thief, the classic Italian film. But in that film the hero gets his bike stolen, so it’s the thief who does the riding. Then we started talking about that guy, and how much fun he must have had tearing around Rome on a stolen bike.
PB: I love the accordion. That was a stroke of genius.
RL: Good poets borrow, great poets steal.
PB: Who said that?
RL: I did. So now that you are making steel bikes and getting into the world of color, how’d you approach the palette?
PB: We have four bicycle models now, No.1 through No.4. Each bicycle has a different function, and a different color palette to match. No.1, which we used in the film, is our lightest and fastest bike, and generally I offer that bicycle in brighter colors that match its svelte profile. No.3 is a bigger bicycle made for all-around city use, and it comes in more subdued, elegant tones. No.2 and No.4 or really fun bikes. Their colors reflect that as well. But I still like brushed titanium the best. It’s just hard to beat a silver bike.
RL: Any plans to collaborate with artists on bikes the way you did at Kidrobot? Will we be seeing a Frank Kozik or Paul Smith co-design any time soon?
PB: We’ve actually figured out how to laser-engrave on titanium tubing. So yeah, we’re going to do some artist editions, mixing engraving with amazing chemical etching and powder coating by our friends at Spectrum Powder Works in Colorado Springs.
RL: And beyond that?
PB: We spend so much time prototyping and testing new models before they’re released that there isn’t a lot that needs changing, though we do make small improvements when we find a new component or a way to shave off a little weight. This is why our models are numbered (No.1, No.2, No.3, etc.).
What’s fun about this approach is that we don’t have to spend a lot of energy promoting a new model all the time. Instead, we get to make movies. I’m really looking forward to the new films for next year.
RL: Me too!