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Silicon Valley's Steel Bike Guru

59cm carbon monocoque road bike
Steelman Cycles
59cm carbon monocoque road bike

For years, exotic materials -- particularly carbon fiber -- and computers have been driving the drool factor for high-end bicycles; the kind of thing you'd think riders in the Silicon Valley couldn't get enough of. I mean, if there are bike riders truly on the cutting edge of all things new and nifty in cycling technology, they'd be right here, in the world's tech capital.

Instead, those in the know -- with platinum cards at the ready -- head to Brent Steelman and his tiny, decidedly un-high-tech machine shop in Redwood City, Calif.

Brent is the namesake owner of Steelman Cycles and he has become something of a cult figure for bike riders looking for the ultimate in "cool."

I went riding with Brent recently, touring his shop, and asked him what made his pricey, steel, completely handmade bikes such a cult favorite, especially as the high-end market has been in a steady migration to carbon fiber for years.

But first, I had to ask him about the irony of a guy making a name for himself in steel bikes, with a name like Steelman. "It's convenient, that's for sure," he tells me. "A lot of my customers, until they meet me or talk to me, think it's a trade name, but it is my God-given name."

His shop, in a non-descript industrial park, next door to a barbecue caterer, is filled to the rafters with tools, tubes, frames in various stages of production, and the machines he built to build his bikes. Talk to Brent and you see a subdued intensity and passion for detail. "I'm definitely known for quality, and I'm completely obsessed by it."

That obsession is paying off. His bicycles command an average price of $5,500. Venture capitalist Jim Breyer -- a key Facebook investor -- is a fan. Same goes for Kohlberg Kravitz Roberts co-founder George Roberts. And venture capitalist Bill Kirsch, who says "When you put yourself in the hands of Brent Steelman, you're working with a guru."

Another Silicon Valley investor, Richard Ginn, says, "A perfect bike is part art and part science, and Brent Steelman brings 'em both together to get a bike that's just right for each rider."

And that's the key. Brent, who estimates only 60 handcrafted bicycle makers operate in the US, only makes 50 bikes a year, and his customers can wait as long as six months for delivery.

No advertising; no marketing. It's all word of mouth. Walk-in visitors to his shop annoy him. He turns down customers he doesn't get a good vibe from. His measurement and fitting process alone can take 3 hours. From there, he moves to the steel itself, which come from various manufacturers around the world. His favorites come from Italy-based Dedacciai.

And each tube he uses has different shapes and designs, allowing Steelman to adjust even the most subtle aspects of the bike and the nuances of the ride itself.

"They vary in diameter, they vary in wall thickness, they vary in where the thicker and thinner sections of the tube are, vary in strength, hardness, shape," he says.

He prefers steel -- as do his customers -- because of the ride the material offers. Stiffer, a better connection to the road. You "feel" the ride differently than you do with carbon fiber -- in much the same way drivers feel differently in a Porsche than they do in a Lexus. Each weld is a precise work of art; each frame capping his obsessive pursuit for perfection.

Which makes it a difficult place to work. Steelman, who used to race bikes and has been building them since he was a teen, confesses that he has tried to have employees so he could increase his production output, but it just hasn't worked out. He's a tough taskmaster, and a hired gun rarely has the same passionate connection to a product that its creator has.

So Steelman toils alone, while his wife Katryn runs the front office. He rides to work every day; she occasionally joins him on rides as well.

His other venture: he raises chickens at home! He works for himself; enjoys a cult following; gets to ride when and where he wants (market research!); and has carved out a great place for himself in the ultra-competitive world of bicycle manufacturing. And his shop is next door to a barbecue catering shop! What did this guy do right in a previous life?

This would all be painstaking, if he didn't love it so much. He concedes he isn't "stress free," that he'll never be rich. But he's not doing it for the money. He does it for himself and his customers and his end results are breathtaking. He has an extensive photo library of some of his bicycles and if you're a fan, it's worth checking out.

He tells me, "I have the luxury of doing what I like to do, at the pace that I want to do it. How many people can ask for that? Or get that?"

(Note: Steelman and his bicycles will be featured on this week's episode of "High Net Worth.")

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