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On Biking: Geek turns into custom bike builder

Posted by Your Town  September 7, 2011 09:39 AM

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Marty Walsh has always had a thing for bicycles. When he wasn’t studying philosophy and Chinese at the University of Massachusetts or working at his local bike shop, Marty dreamed about bicycles he hoped to build some day. “I drew designs of bicycles on napkins, on paper, on whatever I could find. Nothing revolutionary, just things that were a little different and what I’d want to ride personally.”

In 2003 Marty started up Geekhouse Bikes in Boston when he converted one of his designs into a computer aided design drawing that became the template for his first working bicycle. Marty then located a manufacturer in Taiwan who could turn his drawings into actual frames.

Unfortunately, this foray into outsourcing did not go as planned: “Even though I spoke Mandarin, there were big communication problems. The bikes weren’t what I wanted and I had to keep sending the designs back. Also, they expected me to order 100 frames at a time. I like all kinds of bikes and I wanted to do different styles, not hundreds of the same style.”

A friend convinced Marty that he could learn to build his own bicycles. Marty was interested but hesitant, and for good reason. Building a bike is not the same as drawing a bike: “I had sold bikes and was a mechanic, but I wasn’t sure if I could pull this off.”

Marty decided to contact Mike Flanagan in Holliston, a frame-builder extraordinaire and the owner and founder of Alternative Needs Transportation, for some help in pulling this off: “I wanted to learn from someone who was involved in the lineage of the New England frame builders. He [Mike Flanagan] had helped found Independent Fabrication.

Mike makes beautiful yet functional frames. Marty and Mike, the aspiring builder and the master teacher, seemed like a match made in bicycle heaven. There was just one little problem. As Marty recalls: “Mike said he wouldn’t teach me, he didn’t do that, and to leave him alone.”

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Perhaps Mike did not know about Marty’s history of drawing on napkins. Perhaps Mike did not know about Marty’s tenacity. Perhaps Mike thought Marty would just leave him alone.

Not a chance.

As Marty remembers it: “I kept calling Mike and bugging him. Eventually I found an old frame from Fat City [a storied local frame builder] that had a crack. I asked Mike to help me fix it and he did. We slowly became friends.”

Still, it took a few more years before their friendship became a working relationship. As Marty recalls: “I kept calling him and bugging him, asking him questions. Eventually Mike told me he’d teach me to build bikes if I could do some painting or balance his books. I’m not an accountant, but I can do bookkeeping, so that got me in.”

Sometimes you’ve just got to ignore your teacher. Especially if he tells you to leave him alone.

By 2007, Marty had become proficient with a blowtorch and had made his first frame with his own two hands. A year later, Marty set up shop in Allston.

For much of 2008 Marty worked 80 hours a week. Half of his time was spent trading stocks, the other half trying to get his bicycle business off of the ground. “That fall I finally quit my stock trading job to do my bike business full time. The next day the economy cratered.”

Fortunately, Marty secured a small business development loan from the city of Boston just a few weeks later. “Now I had the money I needed to make the bikes I wanted.”

So about those bespoke bikes: each of Marty’s creations is custom, a one off. Everything is built to the customer’s specifications, from the geometry of the frame to the color of the tubing.

Marty is proud of the fact that his bicycles are locally built from sustainable products. “We only use U.S. made steel, which is 106% recycled. It’s more than 100% recycled because some of the steel is recycled twice.”

Geekhouse Bikes is also what Marty describes as “Environmentally friendly. Our paints aren’t solvent based. No fumes or volatile chemicals to affect us or the environment.”

Marty and his team of elves build about 100 bikes a year. “We have a 10-month backlog on orders. We want to keep it small, just me and two other guys. I don’t want to crank out hundreds of bikes a year. Everything we do is different.”

As to the origin of the name Geekhouse, all Marty will reveal is: “Company secret.”

What’s not so secret is that hard work and napkin doodling is finally paying off. Over in Allston, Marty is doing his best to keep Boston’s 100+ year tradition of bike building alive and kicking.


Jonathan Simmons is an avid cyclist. His book on cycling will be published next spring by Cadence Press.


To learn more about Geekhouse, check this link for an audio piece by Catherine Corman.
Readers: tell us about your favorite bike, custom or otherwise.

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