Paul Budnitz blames the film Breaking Away for ruining the bike industry. Sure, the 1979 cult-classic about a teenager in Indiana obsessed with Italian bike racing inspired many to dust off their two-wheelers — but according to Budnitz, it also prompted a new obsession with drop-handlebar race bikes. Which meant he could no longer find a comfortable, upright bike to buy for the kind of urban riding he was doing in New York City.
“Suddenly, everyone wanted race bikes,” Budnitz says. “And that basically effed-up bikes for decades. Drop bars are great if you’re going 20 mph, or if you’re touring … or if you just have a weird body type and like drop bars. But for most human beings, they’re just really uncomfortable. And they were wildly inappropriate for the type of riding I was doing back then, which was really just meandering along in traffic.”
So Budnitz decided to build his own city commuter. The son of a nuclear physicist and a social worker, Budnitz was writing code for nuclear power plants by the time he was in high school. He’s made feature-length films and hacked software and hardware systems for film-editing; he has an art degree from Yale University; he’s an entrepreneur and a designer with a keen eye for aesthetics. But Budnitz wasn’t building a bike to sell — he just wanted something beautiful, functional, and comfortable to tool around the city on.
“I finally had enough money to buy a good bike, and I didn’t want anything,” he says. “I wanted a bike that was singularly worth owning. A frame with some flex, larger tyres, my upright handlebars — and I wanted titanium for stiffness and flexibility in just the right spots. It didn’t exist anywhere.”
Building the Prototype
Budnitz, who had been rebuilding bikes for years, started designing in earnest. Rejecting the classic triangle-bike model for aesthetic reasons, he started experimenting with split top-tubes, inspired by the design of some 1920s-era bikes he’d seen. He also started incorporating curves for pliability, leaning on the rules of physics he’d picked up from his dad. He paired the curved, split top-tube with a stiff, beefy downtube for a powerful — but remarkably comfortable — ride.
“It was an awesome bike that was finally everything I wanted,” Budnitz says. “I did it in steel first, then titanium. I’d ride it around the city and people would ask me where I got it — then kept buying the prototypes out from underneath me! That was the Budnitz Model No.1.”
Drop bars are great if you’re going 20 mph, or if you’re touring … or if you just have a weird body type and like drop bars. But for most human beings, they’re just really uncomfortable
Bikes for Sale (More or Less)
Meanwhile, Budnitz continued working on a host of other ventures. The founder of Kidrobot — a collection of high-minded art toys — an artist with designs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the founder of Ello, a social network for creatives, and a recently launched communication tool called “Wuu,” Budnitz hardly needed another project. But in his spare time, he’d also crafted a lower-volume bike with a smaller back wheel and a larger front wheel, called Budnitz Model No. 2. People kept asking to buy that prototype, too.
“So just as a lark, I built a website with both bikes on it that said simply “SOLD OUT” on it,” he said. “I didn’t actually have any bikes to sell, but it got so much attention that suddenly I had like a year’s worth of orders to fill. And it took at least that long to get the first set of bikes out.”
And just like that, Budnitz Bicycles was born. That was in 2011.
Beauty is Functional
As he walks around his bike-building shop in the small city of Burlington, Vermont, Budnitz hones in on the details that make his bikes beautiful. He loves the titanium frames. And he loves all of the curves and cantilevers that make his bikes stand out from the crowd.
“Most people don’t make curved tubes like this because it’s expensive,” he notes. “It has to be perfect in order for it to work and to do what it’s supposed to do.” He pauses for a moment, looking closely at the bike he’s wheeled into his office. “The curves are gorgeous; the colour is gorgeous. The combination of matte-on-matte or shiny-on-shiny material; every single piece is meticulously thought out.”
He stops to ding the bell on the handlebars, then smiles. “Isn’t that just a great bell? It’s just a really great-sounding bell.”
Small details matter to Budnitz. He describes himself as a “crazy-finicky designer” who is “just interested in things.” His CEO, Jeremy Kent, notes that Budnitz (who has designed shoes for Nike in the past, as well as done projects for LaCoste, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Volkswagon, among others), has boxes of shoes arriving at his office all the time. Most of them get tried on and promptly returned. “I’m obsessed with products, not with shopping,” Budnitz confesses. “I don’t actually want to buy it. I just want to look at it.”
That “crazy-finicky” tendency translates well to his line of bikes. Every detail — from the cork handlebars, to the colour scheme, to the curve of the bars, to the style of fender — is completely dialed in. And the end result is gorgeous.
Building a ‘Forever Bike’
There are bikes on the market that are faster. Lighter. More technical. But Budnitz practically challenges you to find a more comfortable ride. Or one that makes you happier to take out for a cruise. All of his bikes — he has 6 models now, ranging from the Budnitz Model No. 1, to the mountain bike-inspired No. 3, to a drop-bar bike for longer commutes, to a fat bike — are completely customisable. He even designed an electric bike, which Kent notes is “bike first, electric second,” as it’s pedal-assist, with the motor in the rear hub. “It’s for the e-curious,” Kent quips. “And it’s still beautiful,” adds Budnitz.
I wanted a bike that was singularly worth owning. A frame with some flex, larger tyres, my upright handlebars — and I wanted titanium for stiffness and flexibility in just the right spots. It didn’t exist anywhere
Some of the bikes in the light-filled workshop are kitted out with custom bamboo elements, cork grips, and premium leather saddles. Most wear their founder’s titanium preference proudly (although the shop will produce any colour you want). “We’ve had people send in a colour of lipstick they wanted to match, a paint chip that matched their front door, the colour of a grey suit … you can get any color you want,” Kent says. “It’s based on how you buy a Bentley,” adds Budnitz. “Once you customise it, you identify with it. Once you identify with it, it’s yours. And then you keep it. Now that’s environmentally sustainable.”
As a result, most of Budnitz’s customers are looking for their “forever bike.” Kent notes, “They tell us: ‘This the last bike I want to buy, and I’m going to ride this bike for the rest of my life.’”
Components, Customisation, and Long-Lasting Construction
These bikes are built to stand up to the test. All feature a Gates Carbon Drive Belt, eliminating the greasy, messy, chain-plus-derailleur combo that can make commuting to work in a nice suit problematic. That’s paired with the internal hub of your choice, from a Shimano Alfine 11-speed internal hub with Di2 electronic shifting (or manual), to a Rohloff 14-speed Speedhub from Germany, to a classic single-speed.
You can order some frames in Cro-Moly steel — but Budnitz doesn’t recommend it. “When everything is made of titanium, there’s nothing to rust! … Except this tiny little screw in the brake grip…” Budnitz notes. (You can practically see his brain turning, trying to figure out a way to eliminate it.) And while many of the bikes feature components from other makers, Budnitz is slowly going from standard components to custom-made; a luxury available to a brand that’s small, and not necessarily interested in ramping up to massive production.
“That’s the through-theme,” Budnitz says. “All of my projects are inspired by the things that are missing in my own life. I love great art, and I love creating something that does what it’s supposed to do. Good things tend to be beautiful, because beauty just makes the world better.”
The curves are gorgeous; the colour is gorgeous. The combination of matte-on-matte or shiny-on-shiny material; every single piece is meticulously thought out
He pauses, then adds, “You know, bike people hated our bike at first. We got so much hate! Industry folks would geek out over it and say, ‘oh, you’re not using blah, blah, blah, because their measuring stick was some carbon-fibre race thing. And then we got featured in Bicycling magazine, and I was like, ‘yes! This thing is totally engineered, and it goes way beyond the effing triangle!”
He looks at the bike in front of us, all burnished titanium, curves, and cantilevers. “Maybe it’s not for everybody, but I don’t really care. It’s exactly what I wanted.”
At that point, Budnitz’s wife comes to the door of his office. I’ve made him late for lunch. So while Kent talks me through the mechanics of the Model E in the showroom, Budnitz slings a messenger bag across his shoulder, grabs his bike, and pedals off across town.