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Zak Pashak & Detroit Bikes

David L. Stanley talks to Zak Pashak, who is building thousands of bikes in Detroit.

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David StanleyI am so lucky. David Stanley (pictured on the left), a regular contributor to BikeRaceInfo, asked if I'd like him to interview Zak Pashak, owner of Detroit Bikes. I answered, "Of course!" Below is his write-up of his talk with Pashak in April of 2019 — Chairman Bill

David Stanley is an experienced cycling writer. His work has appeared in VeloVelo-news.comRoadPeloton, and the late, lamented Bicycle Guide (my favorite all-time cycling magazine). He blogs regularly for Dads Roundtable. Here's his Facebook page. He is also a highly regarded voice artist with many audiobooks to his credit, including McGann Publishing's The Olympics' 50 Craziest Stories and Cycling HeroesAnd there is his masterful telling of his bout with skin cancer, "Melanoma: It Started With a Freckle"

Detroit Bikes are beautiful; graceful and elegant, they are perfectly designed and constructed for their task. They are sturdy and well-appointed. They are also steel. You will not see a Detroit Bike on the roads of the Giro d’Italia this May. If Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) steps up on the top step of the Tour of Flanders next year, most assuredly, he will not be hoisting a Detroit Bikes U.S. Chro-moly A-type over his head in a victory salute.

Rest assured that a Detroit Bikes bicycle could take the abuse. If a Detroit Bike can survive thousands of kilometers of urban commuting through the canyons and rockfall and scree that pass for roadways in the cities of the United States, a Detroit Bike would probably survive the 2.3 km Trouée d'Arenberg of Paris-Roubaix. But that has never been a part of Zak Pashak’s vision for his three year old company.

Zak Pashak

Zak Pashak

Located equidistant from Detroit’s Motown Museum to the east and Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum to the southwest, the Detroit Bikes’ 50,000 square foot factory can crank out 150 hand-built steel frames and assemble 800 bikes every day. Built to order from US made steel and shipped to the customer 99% assembled in an extra-large box, Detroit Bikes even throws in a logoed floor pump with the purchase of a flagship model.

These are bikes designed to be ridden. To work. To the gym. To the pub and coffeehouse and grocery store. They may hark back to the 50s and 60s, with their sweeping top tube and upright handlebars, but the Shimano Alfine 8-speed Internal Gear drivetrain and shifters coupled with the custom rear rack covered in birch are pure 21st century.

This is all part of Zak’s vision. We spoke at lunch at Clarkston, Michigan’s Union Station over sandwiches and locally made beverages. (The beverages become important later on in the story.)

“Streets are best explored on two wheels. That was true when I was kid riding around Calgary neighborhoods, and it’s more true today. We like cities but a lot of the design around cities is stupid, wasteful, and expensive. We have to stop mortgaging the future of the world for the automobile. We are at a societal crisis. There’s just too much driving.

“Scooters are good, right? They’re fun, they’ll get you to some places. And I like Uber, ridesharing is great, mass transit, trains and buses and all are fine, but we like our independence. For cities, there is nothing like a bike to move people and stuff around. Denmark, India, Brazil, Holland, China, Belgium, in an awful lot of developed countries, cycling is a key way to get around. It’s not anything special, like the cycling factions we have in the States, it’s just a way to get around town. And because everyone rides, and drivers see bikes everywhere, I think a lot of the animosity between drivers and cyclists that we see here is not there.”

Ambassador bike

A Detroit Ambassador. Simple, elegant, and useful.

If you think Zak is a little different from the typical US bike guy, you’d be right. He didn’t grow up doing USA Cycling races or going big-air on his mountain bike or riding RAGBRAI. Zak wants to change the world, at least his corner of it, and cycling is going to be his change agent.

“Bikes can change everything. They can get water to places in Africa that don’t have water. They can deliver healthcare providers and gear,” said Zak. “They can deliver Chinese food and entertainment centers from IKEA all over Chicago. We finished a massive assembly project for BikeShare NYC. We assembled 3,000 bike share bikes and shipped them to New York. You don’t think that’s going to make a big difference in people’s lives in New York? Of course it will.

“And for my company, it was a godsend because the NYC Bikeshare work put us in contact with Ben Serotta. Ben’s a genius with bikes and having access to his genius has been irreplaceable with the designs for my bikes. He’s thoughtful and generous with his time. He’s the real deal.

“Detroit Bikes is working on a couple projects that will have a huge impact. We’re designing and building an e-bike. It’s a tricycle for First Responders. What’s the big problem for first responders in a crisis? Access. You can’t get places in a car in the city, even in good times. But throw in a gas explosion that collapses a building, a shooting, or an earthquake or fire, and all the mayhem that goes along with catastrophe? Our bikes will get them, and all their essential gear, to the spot long before most ambulances could ever do. The spin-off for us from that could be a military application. Maybe even an autonomous bike? Who knows?”

“You’re from Calgary. Why Detroit?” I asked.

“Our Detroit tie-in is so strong, it’s a key part of our story. My wife had started a new job in marketing for Carhartt. When we got to Detroit, I got entranced by the Detroit story. This place, nearly destroyed in the riots 50 years ago, a hammered-down Rust Belt city, and to see Detroit rising up again, the comeback has been incredible. It’s all about people refusing to just lie down and quit. Detroit represents a lot of the spirit and attitude of Detroit Bikes. That’s why the name. It fits.

“Building bikes in Detroit is a natural. Detroit knows how to work. We’re not a bespoke builder. I don’t want to be a bespoke builder. I want to get people on bikes.

“That’s not a knock against folks who do bikes like at the North American Handmade Show. Those folks are amazing. They’re the most interesting, open to conversation people in the industry. I’ve been to the show a couple of times and they totally get what Detroit Bikes is about.

“Yeah, so we’re not a one-off custom shop. We’re a craft builder. On the upper tier bikes, the US Steel bikes, everything is done right here in Detroit- US made steel, all the assembly, wheel-building. Everything that can be built here, is built here. And for a pretty fair price.

Detroit Bikes

Doing the work in Detroit

“We do have an entry level tier. We call them the Assembly bikes. We source a Chinese frame, bring that over, and do all the assembly here in the plant. It’s about 1/3 the cost of the US Steel bikes, and rides well, comes with the same warranty, and the 30 day, no questions asked return policy.

“Economics drove that. We wanted to be known as the builder of US commuter/utility/city bikes and we sell them consumer direct. But even at $1,200, consumers wanted a cheaper bike, so we figured out how to do it and still sleep at night.

“The numbers don’t lie. Our US made steel tube set costs me around $70. Just the tubes alone, before my folks put on a welder’s mask and fire up a torch. I can source a completely built frame from China for $30. Sounds a lot like the problems facing US auto manufacturers, right?

“How did the auto industry get started?” Zak asked. “It got started by tinkerers in the barn. How did the US craft beer industry get started?”

He hoisted his Michigan made Atwater Brewing pilsner and pointed at my Michigan made Starcut cider.

“It got started by a bunch of folks who were convinced they could make better beer, that people would want a better beer experience, that people would be willing to pay a fair price for that experience. That’s me and my team at Detroit Bikes.

“Jim Koch over at Samuel Adams comes to mind. He loaded up his beer, took it around, and since it wasn’t Schlitz or Bud or any of the generic football game swill, what happened? People wouldn’t talk to him. And now he’s pretty much acclaimed as the founder of the craft beer market. What’s that mean in money? Craft beer is about 25% of the beer market, that’s about a $115 billion market and craft has about $30 billion of it.

“Same thing happened to me when I knocked on bike shop doors. I wasn’t Trek or Specialized or Giant. I’d love to sell through shops, support the local, right? But those folks, most of them, weren’t keen on my bikes. Not for a second. Koch’s beer had a story and at first, nobody wanted to hear it. Detroit Bikes has a story, Hand-built and assembled in the heart of Detroit, durable, great riding – but I need people to hear that story.

“I had to come up with a different plan. We do assembly, like I said. We do a lot of fleet sales. I’ve sold fleets of logoed bikes to hotels all over the place. Detroit Bikes are the fleet bikes at the Detroit Athletic Club here in town, a slew of boutique hotels provide their patrons with our bikes for use. They’re built by us. We’ve done Faygo Soda bikes. Carhartt bikes.

“We’ve got a really cool project on tap. Zingerman’s. We’re building Zingerman’s Pickle bikes. Their branding all over, that great font they use, and it’s covered in pickle art. I mean, who doesn’t love a good pickle?

“I love the whole Zingerman’s Deli thing. I travel a lot, and everywhere I go, if I’m around food people, they know Zingerman’s and Ann Arbor. Their branding, messaging, customer service, it’s the best I’ve seen. I’ve taken a lot of cues from them. I’d love for Detroit Bikes to be the Zingerman’s of the working bike.”

We paused in the conversation, sipping on our beverages, as we both pondered the idea of what a $60 million dollar, 250 employee bike business would look like in downtown Detroit.

“We’ve got a new product, we’re doing a Kickstarter to introduce it. It’s called the Sparrow. It’s on the website, Ben Serotta advised us on the geometry, it’s only 22 lbs, aluminum frame, city wheels and rubber, single-speed, I’m very proud of this bike. It really is a perfect city bike and the price? $329. Pretty good for what I feel is the best city-utility bike out there.

“I like Kickstarter for new product introductions. Lots of eyeballs out there on Kickstarter. Lots of writers and vloggers looking for ideas. It’s a great way, if you do it right, to drum up early buzz for a product. You buy a Sparrow, you’re going to have fun on the bike. You’ll be a like a kid again. A kid who can ride to the pub.

“I want people to love their bikes. I want their rides to be fun, to be safe, to get them where they want to go with a smile. I don’t that’s too much of an ask. But it does take numbers. A critical mass, no pun intended.

Detroit Bikes

A Detroit bike being put to work. Real work.

“I want to change things. I like safe riding. I can’t ride as much as I’d like in Detroit because it’s just not safe. If we get more folks on bikes, more things like Detroit’s Slo-Roll, drivers start to see bikes out in the city, maybe even get on one themselves, riding in Detroit, in all cities, will become a safer endeavor.

“I like alternate forms of transport. For me, it’s not about the bike, per se. I do love to ride, but it’s about creating a positive wind in the world. There are a lot of negative winds out there pushing us, pushing the country, the world, in the wrong direction. I want to generate some positive wind to push us back and my bikes are a way to do that.”

Author’s note: I met Zak on-line in a Facebook group for people involved in crowdfunding projects. Being a bike nerd, I wanted to hear the Detroit Bikes story.