It feels inappropriate to try to introduce Burnsey, the entity behind Oddity Cycles.
I would leave the introduction with that if I thought my editor would let me get away with it because it’s completely true. I just can’t describe his irreverence in a way that will do it justice.
He came to cycling through the single speed pirate racing scene in Kansas City, one where how hard you shred is as important as your shenanigan-proficiency. After quitting his day job, Burnsey turned to bike building full time, with an emphasis on self-expression and fun. Four years into taking the leap, his technically complex three-dimensionally curved frames and forks have attracted admirers throughout the builder community, as well as a following of passionate fans.
In this phone interview, Burnsey discusses the inspiration for his unique approach, as well as the parallels between being a tattoo artist and building bikes…
BIKERUMOR: Yeah, so I’ve been trying to dig up facts before calling you up because I hate walking into things blindsided. I gotta tell you… you don’t talk about yourself much.
BURNSEY: I don’t like to talk about me. It’s not about me.
BIKERUMOR: This interview should be great then.
BURNSEY: Yeah! No facts. It’s just all going to be fiction.
BIKERUMOR: All fiction. I’m down for that. What I was able to find was that before you did Oddity full time, you were a tattoo artist and an ice climbing instructor and a search and rescue professional. Then an architect, which is what you quit to build frames.
BURNSEY: The sitting at that chair and staring at a computer, designing stuff for other people that I would never get to build. I was bored out of my mind.
BIKERUMOR: I’m totally sympathetic.
BURNSEY: That’s my history in brief. I was a climbing/mountaineering guy for… ever? As long as I could remember, that’s what I did. Lived out of a ‘76 Volkswagen van, traveled the country climbing rocks, and then I decided I needed to make a living. One of my climbing buddies was the big dog of an architecture firm. I have a background in art, he saw it. “You like to build stuff and you’re good at art, so why don’t you try out architecture.” Thirteen years later, I was still doing that. I probably designed 300 Chipotle Mexican Grills. Yeah, we don’t need to talk about this.
BIKERUMOR: So you were doing this – when did you start frame building?
BURNSEY: Oh gosh, I think it was yesterday… I built my first frame out of twigs and some duct tape… no. I don’t know. I was working as an architect by day, tattoo artist by night and trying to make it as a dad, I have two kids.
I was promoting some underground races. I had a blog called Single Speed Pirate. I haven’t updated that for a while. I transitioned out of the climbing world into biking when I had kids because the time… I lost all that time. I wanted to be out in the woods so I found mountain biking through an old climbing buddy of mine, taught me how to ride single speed mountain bikes in Kansas City. That led to racing single speed bikes and realizing that I didn’t have any money to buy bikes. I would try to get sponsorships and started that blog. Soon with the blog and the sponsorships and riding single speed and racing, I gathered this crew we called the Pirate Crew. We would do night rides and underground races. We would build these rogue trail systems and we would have night races. There were no rules. Costumes were encouraged. It was really just a bunch of shenanigans.
I’m rambling. I’m trying to paint a picture.
BIKERUMOR: It’s never a direct route.
BURNSEY: I was just curious I think. I’d always built things. I’m a visual learner and I see things in my mind three-dimensionally and comprehend things and want to make them a reality. Growing up, I made skate ramps for the local skate shop that they would use for local competitions. When I grew up, it turned into custom furniture. And then, working as an architect, designing it for people, but not necessarily building it… getting burned out on designing it and not being a part of the creation. And then back again to my youth of skating, and then the lifestyle of a tattoo artist, and as a vagabond climber – you have this “fuck you” attitude where you don’t necessarily agree with what everyone else thinks is right or traditional or the way it should be.
BIKERUMOR: I mean you can’t right?
BURNSEY: I would hope not. I would hope not. So building bikes… I was just burned out on my job and I was obsessed with bikes, like I would be on eBay every day trying to buy the cool PAUL brake levers or old rasta Kooka cranks. It was a rarity but I could never afford it. Buying parts, selling parts, building all these bikes that I thought were my ultimate dream bikes, not ever thinking I could afford a nice custom frame. Buying like a Surly 1×1 and throwing the pimpest used parts from eBay on it and thinking I was the coolest cat around. But eventually, that led me to a point where I was done with the architecture gig. I was burned out.
Well, why can’t I just make a bike? I love the look of classic cruisers and clunkers and old school bikes and always wondered how I could make those perform like a current updated bikes.
BIKERUMOR: It’s really evident in your tube bending, the post-war influence, the cruiser influence.
BURNSEY: For sure. That stuff gets me stoked on bikes. I’m not that fast anymore, I have some sponsored athletes and friends that I ride with that can kick people in the balls for sure. They are on these bikes that look like some old school frame with updated geometry, and now they’ll all be out there racing like a single speed plus bike in cut off jean shorts and their flannel shirt. And next to these guys are these guys on their bazillion dollar plastic bikes and their full skinsuit with their fancy sunglasses and shaved ass cracks and the whole works. And it’s kind of like, for me, it’s like you guys are way too fucking serious about this. Take a step back, man. It’s just a bike. It’s just… riding bikes. Why are you so fucking hung up?
That really gets at me. To me, the whole skin- let’s wear lycra and shave our legs so if we fall down and go boom our scab doesn’t hurt as bad. Man, if you can’t walk out of your house in what you just painted your living room in and ride your bike and have fun, then what the fuck are you doing?
So yeah. How did I start building bikes? We’re still lingering on this.
BIKERUMOR: Dude don’t worry. I talked to Steve Bilenky yesterday. I asked one question. An hour later, he STILL hadn’t answered it.
BURNSEY: Dude I love that guy. I hooked him up with a little Oddity cycling cap that my friend makes in Kansas City. He’s sporting my hat at the show. I took a picture of him. Like, this is better than any trophy you could ever have, this picture of Stephen Bilenky wearing my hat at this bike show, just in his overalls with his beard, not giving two fucks about what people think.
BIKERUMOR: Dude, you have a lot of fans. You’re not in a vacuum. I don’t know how much community you have, but you’re pretty popular.
BURNSEY: Well, thanks for that. I don’t know if I’ve earned that as I’m always learning, striving to make every bike I build the best bike I’ve built.
We do have a great community here. I share a shop with Black Sheep Bikes. James has been a mentor for me. I actually worked for them for a time, while also doing Oddity on the side, which he was totally down with. You know, we ride bikes together a lot and, of course, we’re hanging out all day in the shop. Todd from Moonmen Bikes who is also a rad dude that’s super inspiring and probably makes the most amazing bikes I’ve ever seen on the planet, he’s a local guy also, used to work for Black Sheep. We’re a tight-knit community. I feel like in Colorado here, our frame building people, everyone I know that builds bikes that’s fairly local is so giving and open, if you need to borrow a tool or need help with something, they’ll do it. If you have questions about design, they’ll help you. Nothing is a secret here.
Everyone’s in it because they love bikes, whereas, you know, I studied a bit under Carl Schlemowitz of Vicious Cycles in New York. He’s a great guy and has a solid thing going there, and I love Carl, but it seemed to me that the East Coast builders are super secretive.
And what’s really funny, not about Carl specifically, I think in general, probably 90% of custom builders all look the same. Like, so many bikes out of a hundred frame builders, 90 of those builders are going to, to me, looks exactly the same as the next bike. It seems like they are buying kit tubes, and they are putting this thing together using whatever technique that they’ve learned, and they are getting this super fancy paint job to cover up whatever botched technique they’ve used to hide what’s underneath. It’s all just straight tubes and pre-made stuff and they are just buying this kit and calling themselves a frame builder and they are super proud of this bike they built, which is only distinguished by this $600 paint job that someone else did for them.
BIKERUMOR: I think $600 is conservative.
BURNSEY: Yeah… probably, probably. So, for me, if my bike’s going to be this straight tubed diamond frame, then I’m going to buy it from someone else. Why am I even doing this? What is unique about my style? What defined Oddity? I want someone to see one of my bikes on the trail and know without any word mark or head badge, that’s an Oddity. Not “oh, what is that?” It should define itself simply as a raw frame.
People hide the joinery under paint… so people don’t know what they are getting. For me it is important as the shape of the tube, which is as important as the look of the bike and the fit of the bike and how the bike performs.
BIKERUMOR: It’s interesting that you built in steel because the builders that share that philosophy are super drawn to titanium.
BURNSEY: I build in titanium as well.
BIKERUMOR: But not exclusively.
BURNSEY: Not exclusively. My roots are roots of just dirtbag single speeders. None of those guys could afford a titanium frame. I could never afford one. I’m not going to short change my roots by selling a frame that none of the people I want on my bikes could ever buy.
I don’t know. The shapes of my bikes – I get a lot of people saying “ohhh that looks like a Black Sheep.” I feel like the new kid on the block trying to make his way and I have the utmost respect to those guys and if people want to compare what I do to theirs, that’s flattering.
But at the same time, it’s a bike. I didn’t invent anything. Nothing I do I’m ever going to claim I invented. It’s bullshit. Bikes have been made for a hundred years. Like truss forks and curvy tubes and different shapes of things. You can look back at the sweet old school cruiser bikes with truss forks and yet people are, like, dogging you on social media on how you copied. It’s a bike. I didn’t invent it. They didn’t invent it. It’s a bike. If you like it, cool. If you don’t like it, you know, eat a bowl of dicks.
I’ve been thinking of putting this post up on the ‘grams that’s this collage of what influences my bike builds. And it would probably just be one picture of an old Schwinn cruiser, and then a middle finger. Those are the things that influence my design the most.
BIKERUMOR: You absolutely have to put that up. It’s funny because that theme – there’s something about that kind of bike and the way that it’s hit so many people emotionally. Like, “This is the bike where I learned bikes were fun. And this is where my heart defaults to.” And I’m like, hey, that’s pretty cool.
BURNSEY: Yeah. It is cool. I mean, I’m stoked on every bike. I just want to do it up different. I want people on the trail to just double take. Almost every customer I have will text me for call me and go, “Hey man, I’m on the trail, and everybody is always asking me ‘What is that?’”
And I’m like “That’s why you pay me the big bucks.”
Just, building bikes is a medium of self-expression for me. Just – I don’t want to do it like everyone else. If someone tells me I can’t do it, I’m probably going to try it.
BIKERUMOR: That’s an invitation to definitely try it.
BURNSEY: Yeah, I’ve had beefs with old school builders because I don’t do something as traditional or because I wanted to go by my nickname instead of my full name. Like “you can’t be on our website if you’re not going to use your real name.” You know? Okay… so you going to tell that to Madonna and Prince?
BIKERUMOR: You’ve been doing this for four years now? I think I saw 2012 somewhere. In the larger scope of things, that’s a pretty short period of time. It might not feel like that.
BURNSEY: It does feel like it. It still feels like every bike is like the second bike. Like, “I learned so much from that last one. What can I do better?”
I didn’t have to build that first bike just for me. I just wanted to build that first bike to see if I could. It was a challenge, it was more, “CAN I do this,” and then, I built my first bike with Carl at Vicious Cycles. Even then I felt like I had to kind of challenge Carl because he was uncomfortable with a lot of the things I wanted to do with my first frame. Little things – I was this green, new, almost feeling like a kid, you know? Even if I’m in my early 40’s now. I was like, I was like this little kid trying to push Carl’s buttons. “ I can’t take no for an answer, Carl. Let’s try this. Let’s figure this out.” He’d never done a 29 plus. We did our first 29 plus together. Bent seat tubes and s-bend stays. He’s got this amazing shop, great tooling. Just playing with stuff trying to make it happen.
BIKERUMOR: And this was your first bike?
BURNSEY: Yeah, it was my first bike.
BIKERUMOR: Holy crap, man. That’s ambitious. Not just to have those ideas but to try to implement them on the first shot, as someone who hadn’t done them before.
BURNSEY: Yeah, it was super rad. Carl was an awesome first mentor to me and still a great friend. It was cool to do that and learning to weld from him. Transitioning from the tattoo machine, how you hold it, how you’re pulling lines and drawing with that machine or tool, is very very similar. Really, it’s almost to me the same as holding a torch and stacking those dimes and welding up a bike frame- it came really naturally to me in the beginning.
BIKERUMOR: So you build this first bike just to see if you could with Carl. Did you think this was a one shot thing, like, to give it a shot and get it out of your system. Or were you going to build frames from the beginning?
BURNSEY: It was something – my intent along the way, and I explained this straight up to anyone to anyone who ever showed me how to do anything about building bikes. It was my intent to leave architecture and do this, because I was such an asshole and coming home from work… I just needed a break. It was like, I couldn’t drink enough beer or smoke enough weed to make me pleasant to be around.
Right after that, we moved to Colorado. Just sold my house in Kansas City, then ten days before we were going to close on our house in Colorado, these crazy floods came through and wiped out tons of shit. There was a natural disaster that put a lot of people – changed a lot of people’s lives out here. Took out houses, took out entire roads. We ended up losing this house we were buying.
BIKERUMOR: Bummer, dude.
BURNSEY: So we moved out. We ended up having to rush to find a rental and we ended up in Estes Park in the winter. It’s this touristy area. It’s a beautiful place, but you’re kind of on an island in the winter cause you’re up in the mountains and it’s snowy and all the shops are closed because they are so tourist-oriented. And the canyon getting down to Boulder or Denver- the roads were gone. So we were stuck there and I had this kind of garage shop going, trying to build bikes. No heat, living in this rental house.
BIKERUMOR: And you were doing this full time?
BURNSEY: No, this was when I was still part time building. Like, building my first several bikes. It was a real struggle. But that’s when I met Todd and James of Black Sheep. I came down with some of my Pirate Crew, which now these guys are called 8 Lumens.
BIKERUMOR: Oh THOSE guys.
BURNSEY: So the old Single Speed Pirate Crew – we kind of started this team called 8 Lumens that was kind of a fuck you to the lycra-wearing, leg-shaving, super agro train-everyday racers. We’d turn up to race on our single speeds in cut-off jean shorts and whatever we wore to work that day, and some of these guys could just crush. So that was pretty sweet. The 8 Lumens crew now, we’ve got tshirts and the Fuck Yeah socks that are popular, but it’s still that same mentality as Oddity.
We came through Fort Collins and stopped by Black Sheep randomly. “Hey, we hear you guys ride bikes on Thursday nights and we wanted to check out your shop.” Walked in, and it was really amazing to me because I have a logo on the side of my truck that’s just like my head badge as a sticker. And Todd from Blacksheep was like, “Oh man, I was just checking out your website today!” And my mind exploded. Like, these guys at Black Sheep have heard of me!
BIKERUMOR: There are people who give a shit. It’s awesome.
BURNSEY: It’s crazy! People who like cool stuff! So we hit it off, sat around for like three or four hours drinking beers with Todd and James and then that night, the crew of us went out in a snowstorm and rode bikes for several hours and hit it off. From there, I kind of gained this internship here at Black Sheep and then started working for James and eventually, once Todd started his own thing and moved out, there was this space that opened up for Oddity to move in and split the shop space with Black Sheep.
BIKERUMOR: So you were literally building out of his shop for yourself at that point.
BURNSEY: Yep. Yeah.
BIKERUMOR: That’s awesome. When you’re trying to figure shit out, you can roll over to the other side of the shop.
BURNSEY: Yeah, James is like an encyclopedia of bike building. Like, “Hey James!” So if I have a little issue, instead of spending an hour on the internet, I can get James’ opinion. It’s interesting, and I think this is typical for most builders, that although we all end up with a fairly similar end result as far as we create a bike you can ride, the process by which we do it tends to vary quite a bit. The methods and process, the tools, a lot of the tooling- you can’t really buy every tool you need to build a bike well.
BIKERUMOR: Well, with the stuff you’re doing, I’m sure that the curvy stuff is tricky to deal with. Not all bike specific fixtures work for that.
BURNSEY: No. None of them do. Most fixtures are made for kit tubes and straight lines. I’d even made some fixtures previously that I can’t use anymore because they are made for that type of bike. And in straying from that, that look and that style – that stuff’s just collecting dust at this point.
BIKERUMOR: I have to talk about curved tubes. You’re talking about having to build your own infrastructure, your own tooling infrastructure. It’s not an easy path. How are you accomplishing this? What’s your tube bender? I don’t have to publish this part… I’m just personally curious.
BURNSEY: No no no. As I told you earlier, nothing is a secret- even if I tell you what tube benders I use, the learning curve for how to use them and how to apply how it works to what you’re doing is so complex, that even wrapping my own mind around it and explaining it to someone else to try to do it – it’s hard to comprehend.
BIKERUMOR: You do some pretty sophisticated 3D stuff. Some really complicated 3D bends. It’s not easy stuff.
BURNSEY: No. Ha. I have a friend named Cjell Monē. He has MONē bikes. He’s a totally rad dude and he was in the shop a year or two ago building some stuff with James and he’s like “Man, you make some crazy stays. That shit’s crazy.” Cause I”ll do like five bends in a seat stay and then you have to do the same exact bends that match that are totally opposite for the other side. So we created this hashtag that’s like #staycrazy. So that kind of exploded.
So until it was, I think it was two weeks ago, I hadn’t built a bike with standard seat stays that ended in the seat tube like a typical bike. I kind of forgot that that was even a thing. My seat stays always go past the seat tube and terminate in the top tube or down tube or something different. And so I built this kind of normal looking frame recently and I was like “wow, that was really weird and so easy!”
BIKERUMOR: HA. You’re blowing my mind right now. That’s hilarious.
BURNSEY: And then I’m like, I built this little BMX bike for my kid one day, and I have all these kind of kit tubes from way back when I didn’t know what I was doing, and I’m going to build this straight line little diamond BMX frame. And I got to work Monday morning, like 8 o’clock, drew the frame, cut the tubes, put it in the fixture, welded it up, and then sandblasted it and rattle-can painted it – in like six hours.
BIKERUMOR: And you were like, wow.
BURNSEY: This is so easy! I could probably make a bazillion dollars just selling these straight tubed diamond frames and crank them out. Instead, I just torture myself with curvy tubes. It’s like, here, spend 40 hours building a frame, instead of six, because you’re stubborn.
BIKERUMOR: You’re stubborn and you have to sabotage yourself… for your art.
BURNSEY: Yeah… yeah. For me, it IS art. It is functional art. It’s just like tattooing. When I used to explain tattooing to people who weren’t into tattooing, I would describe it as: okay, you want to buy a painting. You have money, you want to buy this piece of art for your wall. You’re not just going to walk into Walmart and buy one of their pieces of art that’s in their art section. You’re going to search and go, “I love Van Gogh, I love his stuff. I’m going to buy that for that style.” It’s the same for tattoos. You search for an artist whose style you like, and you have them design a tattoo. For me, it translates from there to bikes. You come to me because you like this style that I do. And I don’t have, okay, this style bike is a road bike, and this one is just for 29ers, and this is my cruiser.
Every frame I make can be adapted, because it’s my style, into the customer’s want. So if a customer wants a road bike that looks like a fat bike I built last year – albeit, I’d have to change some of the shapes for performance purposes, but the general look of the bike I think can be whatever you want it to be. You can make a road bike look like a cruiser. You can make a mountain bike look like a clunker. You can make a BMX bike look like a mixte. You can do stuff that’s not normal. People I think look at a frame and are like “yeah, that’s definitely a cross country mountain bike design.” But they are missing the big picture. There are certain angles and forms a bike needs to perform correctly to fit the customer. But how those are all linked together with different shaped tubes and styling, it does affect performance, but it can also be visually more aesthetic, more different, odd, something more creative.
BIKERUMOR: I think it’s interesting that people forget that bike frames are three dimensional.
BURNSEY: I totally agree. This is my opinion, of course, everything I said is smoking coming out my ass, but it’s valuable to me that the doors are not closed to people’s imagination and what something could be versus what a piece of paper tells you, or somebody’s bullshit rules. You can’t race that because it’s THIS.
BIKERUMOR: That’s not a race bike because it doesn’t have a race bike aesthetic.
BURNSEY: Yeah. I don’t know, there’s all kinds of ways to find your path and express yourself or rebel or go with the flow and to me a bike can, I don’t know, be what you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be what the last guy did.
BIKERUMOR: I think it’s interesting that you come from tattooing and you’re describing bikes this way, because you’re describing this aggressive self-expression which when you’re being tattooed, when you’re covered that way in somebody else’s artwork, that is what that is. And you’re applying the muscle memory from being a tattoo artist, but also that philosophy of self-expression and you’re just rolling that over to bikes.
BURNSEY: And, you know, architecture, and engineering, design… it just all kind of comes in to form this kind of perfect circle of making it all work, I think. I mean, it works for me, anyway.
BIKERUMOR: It makes total sense. So what are you bringing to the show this year?
BURNSEY: Just some bikes.
BIKERUMOR: (laughing) I kind of just want to leave the interview at that.
BURNSEY: That’s how I answer so many questions. “What’s the geometry, like, what are all these numbers.”
And I’m like “well, just go ride this thing. It’s a bike, and you ride it, and it goes from here to there and if you’re smiling when you’re done, or during the whole thing, then I’ve succeeded.”