I COULDN'T GET Natalie Ramsland, builder of Sweetpea Bicycles, to let me on one of her beautiful bikes. I tried several methods. I told her I needed to ride a Sweetpea for, um, reporting. I showed up to the Sweetpea fabrication shop (which is just a humble studio in Ramsland's backyard) and paid many a compliment to the two finished bikes on the wall, a pale pink men's bike and a butter yellow one. Alas.
Sweetpea bikes are at once delicate and sturdy. They are quietly unassuming. Ramsland pulled out a couple of bikes and I told her politely that I was sure there were details I was missing and, gee, I'm sure I could understand more if I could JUST RIDE ONE.
But in all cases, Ramsland politely declined, gently turning me away from bikes that were already spoken for.
The hallmark of Sweetpea is building bikes perfectly fit to their riders. Ramsland does not take static measurements of women and work from a formula to determine the fit. "Those formulas are biased for male European bikes," says Ramsland. Instead, the graduate of Oregon's United Bicycle Institute, who apprenticed with a master bike fitter for three years, gives her mostly female clientele a flexibility test and then puts them on a size cycle, which is essentially a dress form for bikes. "I want the way a specific body [relates to a specific] bike to be invisible," she says.
Ramsland is perhaps wary about letting me go for a spin on a Sweetpea because the bikes' actual owners have been waiting years to ride the cycles. With her waitlist topping three years, last spring Ramsland developed a semi-custom bike design line called Lust. With a Lust bike, Ramsland personally fits customers to bikes, but ships the labor to a different Oregon crew that builds Lusts to a custom geometry. The result is a cheaper-than-hand built Sweetpea delivered in 10 weeks. "People have been buying them like gangbusters," says Ramsland.
The irony of bike building is that while Ramsland spends nine hours a day working on bikes, sanding every detail until she has metal scrapings under her nails, she doesn't get much time to actually ride her bike. That's a big change from ye olde days (four years ago) when she dominated Portland's streets as a bike messenger. The years of grueling daily rides left her with a profound understanding of the need for comfortable women's bikes. Or as she says, "I have a lot of empathy for a long day in the saddle."
The one-woman bike-building business' slogan is telling: "This is the bike that will love you back." In addition to custom fits, Sweetpeas comes with extra-plush handlebar tape and comfy saddles.
When she does get out and about during the workday—usually shipping shirts to fans or hauling boxed-up bike frames to the post office—Ramsland rides Two Bite Curry, a city bike she built with beefy mountain bike tires that contrast sharply with the feminine-looking frames that grace her shop walls. But the tires remind her of the first messenger bike she fell in love with: a white Trek mountain bike she bought with 300 bucks she saved during high school. What sold her on the bike was the grip shift. "I went gaga for it," says Ramsland.
Sitting on her Northeast Portland patio during a dreary spring day, Ramsland seems happy to have transitioned out of biking miles every day as a courier. "A whole week will go by and I'll realize I haven't worn wet socks," she says.
After two hours of cajoling, I let Ramsland go about her Saturday in peace. I ride away on my Bianchi, with its too-low seat, trying to remember whether I even gave my bike a test ride before plunking down $350. What can I say? I wasn't thinking as deeply as "grip shift"; I liked its red fenders.
My socks growing increasingly wet from the drizzle, I head to Saraveza for a beer that (I hope) will drown the cold, empty ache of longing in my heart for a Sweetpea Little Black Dress model in pumpkin orange.More Bike Issue articles here!
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