Mat Amonson, founder of Airtight Cycles—which launched three months ago—makes some truly unique and stunning rides; we caught up with him at the Bicycle Fetish Day block party in Williamsburg, where he took home the trophy for “best handbuilt bike,” to talk shop.
Interview by Bike New York Director of Communications Sam Slaton, who may or may not have just signed up for his first welding class.
Photographs by Sam Polcer, Bike New York’s Communications Manager and the man behind the lens at Preferred Mode.
What led to you to start building bikes?
I’ve thought about this a number of times, trying to pinpoint the singular thing that got me started. I could justify it to myself in a lot of ways, but I guess one of the things that comes to mind is that I love to build and create things, and I love to ride bikes. I started rebuilding my own bikes, and basically just wanted to take it to the next level. You just go down this rabbit hole and it gets deeper and deeper. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. It’s “I need to learn about this part, and I need to learn about this part…” The components themselves are a whole world …. the tubes themselves are a whole other world … I’m an addict.
What was the first step?
The first step was just gathering as much info about contemporary builders as possible. Seeing who’s building what, where they learned to build, who they learned from, if they learned on their own, what materials they’re building with, how they build… just a broad spectrum of seeing what’s out there. And then I figured out that I want to focus on fillet-brazed frames because I was inspired by an old Reg Harris frame. So I stripped down one of those old frames and looked at the joints—and realized that it was so gorgeous, and so streamlined, and you have kind of unlimited geometry to build off of. You’re not locked into lugs. I’ve been doing some unique stuff with the rear geometry especially, so I like having openness. Some of my favorite builders who were out there were the old-schoolers like Yamaguchi from 3Rencho; a lot of the old Cinellis were amazing, and Zeus from Spain. And looking at contemporary builders who are coming up right now: Vanilla,as well as Icarus, who is a little newer to the scene. He does fillet brazed frames, but is incorporating handmade lugs and little sleeves and whatnot. It felt so current and, at the same time, so classic. This is how classic frames should be evolving into the present day. It doesn’t have to be cheesy, huge branding. Try to be a little reserved about it and then your frame will speak for itself.
You said value openness… so why the name Airtight?
There are a number of reasons. If something is airtight, it’s kind of a complete system. It’s built really solid. Also, the name conjures lightness, air, speed. Finally, there’s an artist I really love named Moebius. His illustrations and his abstract pieces are amazing. He had a comic book called “Airtight Garage” that was kind of an inspiration—but it had to work for the frames on its own.
What about the design of the graphic elements?
I started looking at all the graphics I could find. Digging through the web , books, old matchboxes… looking at every logo I could find, every bike I could find. I discovered that graphic design from the ‘70s was so far ahead of a lot of design that I’ve been seeing today. It was so simple but with so much depth at the same time. It inspires you to imagine the areas and shapes and dimensions around it, even though it’s super flat, with positive and negative forms. I love geeking out about all the little details. It’s kind of ridiculous how much time I spent looking at every variation of the main logos. Then I started testing it. It’s the Stanley Kubrick way: he would spend years figuring out what film he wanted to make. It had to be something that he knew that he loved and could spend years of his life diving into, but something he knew the public would respond to as well.
You’ve been building for two years, but officially launched three months ago. What’s been the most surprising thing?
Bikes are awesome in general. But getting to the people that geek out on another level, it’s so refreshing—especially coming from other industries in New York where it can be so backstabbing and cutthroat. In frame building, everybody is so cool. I’m always amazed. I went to a bike meetup/pizza party the other day, and I was like, Wow, I love everybody at this party. Everyboduy is so open to share any and everything they’re doing, you know? You don’t make money making bikes, really. You can survive, but it’s not a lucrative field. So you have to enjoy it.
Who among the local frame builders inspires you the most?
There are a number of people. Lance from Squarebuilt, for instance; I first met him at a show. He’s really genuine and open about everything he does. His brazing work is incredible, and he’s so humble about it. Most of the builders are. Then we have Johnny Coast making really beautiful frames; randonneurs and whatnot. Really nice guy. Opens up his shop for all of us to hang out. Then there’s this dude Jamie Swan who’s been building for, like, 20 years or something. He hasn’t made many frames, but that’s because he’s a machinist and geeks out about every element of the frame. He’s really amazing. He’s also a great resource in sharing a lot of knowledge in this community; he put together a bike frame builders list that we’re all on.
Can we start talking about the seat stays now?
This little decal here is of something called a Möbius Loop, which is a twisted infinity loop. I love the idea of loops and infinity. Our solar system, our planet, everything is loops and circles. All aspects of science revolve around symmetries that are asymmetric at the same time. I have a fascination with balance within imbalance. So if you look at the drive side of the frame… well, we have a drive side, which implies an imbalance.
It’s a little bit heavier.
Besides that, you’re putting all this torque on one side of your frame. You’re displacing it. Every single time you pedal, it’s bending it a little bit. If you tighten that triangle, this side of the frame is going to bend a little bit less. And if you stagger it, it’s going to distribute all the vibrations over multiple contact points on the frame.
Was the initial logic behind it based on aesthetics or physics?
I found it based on aesthetics, and thought, “That’s ridiculous, you can’t do that.” First of all, there are the brakes, which have to go on the seat stays, so I started to look for what other brakes were out there. But it did have to make sense physics-wise. It had to add to the frame, which it does. So then the question is, how much is it additive? It’s hard to calculate that exactly, but it feels great. You rode the frame—it feels like it wants to jump. Yamaguchi, his first world champion Olympic frame was asymmetric. It didn’t have a seat tube. The reason they let him do that was that the US team got beat a week earlier in the Olympics by this crazy new carbon fiber frame by Lotus, and they let him go back and in three days he built this insane frame that had never built before. And he was like, “this is gonna work.” They gave him room to do it, and it worked. They took first, three days later against the same riders. The proof is in the pudding.
That’s cool. What’s next?
To make more bikes! There are a lot of things that I want to learn, and I learn them through every single build. I’m doing different kinds of lug work. I love doing the Mobius frame, but I’m going to be doing some other types of frame that I am going to be experimenting with. And I’ll be making some of my own components. I’m making my own track ends. . I want to make my own signature pieces that I want to use in my own frames. I’m interested in doing some cranks as well; I’ve been talking with this guy who makes Stijl frames. He’s really interested in making cranks, and I’m interested in designing cranks. So we may work something out.
Were you surprised at how accessible the industry is?
I was definitely surprise at how giving, open and warm it is. It’s the happiest industry in New York. But also one of the hardest, and with the longest hours. You put in a 12 hour day, filing things, and at the end of the day you start to question it. “What am I doing, can I keep doing this, what’s going on…” After 12 hours, I’m fried. I’ve been enjoying what I’m doing, but you need to take some time for yourself. It’s good to have a partner. My wife is like, “You need to step away from the computer, you need to step away from bikes. Let’s go outside.”
… and RIDE a bike.
[Laughs] Yeah! It’s like, “Of course! Of course let’s go for a bike ride!” On my way home, my shop is very close to home. I’ll look for any excuse to take a turn. Sometimes I’ll go to Manhattan for something and show up at home 12 hours later.
How long does it take to build a frame?
It takes me about a week to build the frame. Some people can build faster, like Yamaguchi—he built thousands of frames for 3Rencho in the handful of years he was there. Just prolific. I get faster with each frame but I add new challenges so it ends up taking the same, ’cuz I’m adding something new. Like, now I’m going to do aerotubing, so I have to build new fixtures for that. And then I have to test everything out. So ultimately it takes about a month to have a complete frame if I dedicate 100% of my time and if the painter is ready and the components and the tubes are ready.
That’s still impressive.
My first frame took me 6 months.
What advice do you have for people who might be interested in frame building?
Be careful. It takes up a lot of your mind. It gets addictive. You can build a frame very cheaply, but it’s going to take you a long time. If you want to build faster, then you have to start throwing down some cash. Then you find that you’re almost supporting a child. You’re like, “I have to make all this money and work all these other jobs … because now I need this new tool.” But it’s fun.
Lastly, what is your favorite thing about bikes?
I don’t want to say this and be cheesy, but: It’s freedom. You can get on a bike and go anywhere. Just go. You don’t have to think, and plan, just go. That’s kind of amazing. When I was a kid, every neighborhood kid had a BMX bike, and we’d all cruise around everywhere. When I was 5 years old I would just take off on the streets on my own, and it was a normal thing. I’m sure my parents would have flipped out had they known. But it was freedom. A five year old or an adult can say, “I want to see what’s over there; I want to go for a ride.” You’re flying on two razor blades. It’s the most efficient vehicle for transporting humans that exists. If you look at the wattage for food or energy, the oil, etc. there’s still nothing that touches bikes. And the feeling is amazing.