One of our favorite things about New Builder Row at NAHBS this year was Alex Clauss, a gregarious guy with a very interesting full suspension steel frame. The frame, with kinematics driven by the Internet Community Bicycle 2.0 project by mtb-news.de, features a spec of mostly German components. Its theme, “Armor of God,” tells a story of Alex’s history and is a statement on his personal philosophy.
During our 30 minute booth-side chat at NAHBS, we learned about this history. His passion for bicycles began as a child, from which he got a job at a bike shop and worked his way up through several component companies. Finally, he arrived at frame building at England’s The Bicycle Academy where he took a course that resonated with his interest in social welfare. It was in this course that Alex found his life’s calling. “The frame is the heart, the soul of a bicycle. By choosing the geometry, you choose the character of the bike. For me, frame building- it was pursuing the last step…”
BIKERUMOR: How did you get into frame building? What you told me chatting yesterday was a lot more interesting than what you wrote me before the show.
ALEX: Before I tell you how I started frame building I would like to tell you how I started getting bikes. I started building with bikes when I was really small, 10 or 11. I grew up in a really small village so two times per year, there was the fire brigade and they collected all the metal stuff to get money for it. These two times were kind of like Christmas for me because I was walking around grabbing all the bikes I could get, brought them in our yard and put them together. That was my beginning building bikes. I just did it. Sometimes I opened chains with a hammer and a pin. BAM! BAM! I started to open and close chains this way.
BIKERUMOR: I love it!
ALEX: And I grew up without a father, so I just [taught] it completely to myself. When I got a little bit older, 14 or 15, I had a good friend of mine who had a job in a bike shop. So I got a job in a bike shop. Worked there, finished school. In Germany, if you don’t go into the army you can do the same time working in a retirement house or something- you know what I mean?
ALEX: Yeah yeah yeah… you have to do it instead of the army. After this, I went to Majorca- being a bike guy, did some races. Then I started studying Mechanical Engineering for Tune. In Germany, we have to do a special kind of study. If you get a partner, they pay you for your studies. So I asked Tune because I worked for them two or three times before.
So I worked for them for three years. It was a good time! I had some real problems in school, I wasn’t the best, so my degree from school was really bad. So I just started at Tune – I was just a little helper. I just was at the engraving machine. First, was engraving some parts. For me, it was awesome, ja? And then I asked him to do a different kind of, they call it a University of Cooperative Education. They pay you, you study three months, and then you work three months. And in three years, you get a bachelors degree in engineering.
The most important thing was at Tune, for the first time, “I have a dumb idea.”
They said, “No! There are no dumb ideas! Bring it on! Bring it on. Say what’s in your mind.”
BIKERUMOR: What kind of dumb ideas?
ALEX: So we made these new skewers, with the carbon stick, that was kind of my invention. We did that together. What I want to say is that with Uli Fahl, the owner of Tune, I learned to be creative there. He let me know to have an open mind because before, I wasn’t very creative. I hated it in school to make paintings. But that’s what I learned at Tune. He gave me this open mind. I have some really crazy ideas for the future, I tell you, (*laughs*) about brake systems and other stuff.
After Tune, they were maybe about 200km from the town where I lived, so there was no way to stay there. I moved to another competitor. ACROS, the shifting systems. I worked there for one year.
After I worked with ACROS about half a year, a lot of stuff there changed. I got ill… I had a little bit of depression, to be honest. So I said to my wife, what can we do? Can we do without that money even though I really had good payment at just a part time job, three days a week, because I had another social biking project that started five years ago – which is still a small part of my occupation every Friday. So we decided to quit that job. I was thinking about NAHBS and I had been following TBA, The Bicycle Academy, then for a while and the idea of crowdfunding. In the beginning they just had this one bike course… you know the frames?
BIKERUMOR: Like the [World Bicycle Relief] bikes?
ALEX: Yes. So I liked the idea. I’m a really social person so building the first frame and give it away so another person can get it who really needs it because, to be honest, your first frame is never ever a masterpiece. Never ever. Even though I think mine was a really good frame…
BIKERUMOR: So this was a program?
ALEX: They used crowdfunding to get the TBA alive. They just sold the courses before. The cool story about how I had the money to do the course – there was a big, how can I say this? In the past there were no online shops so there were these big catalogs. Mail order. And this [mail order] company, they were out of business, so the rest of stock got sold really close to where I lived.
I bought a box of Campy dust caps. There were about 1000 pieces. I started to sell them on eBay, one pair for 20-30 euros. That’s a lot of money in that box! I asked an American guy who was doing a lot of Campy stuff on eBay – he offered me about 2000 Euros [for the box]. So that’s the money I used to start frame building. I still have a picture of this box at home.
Why I started… Now we are coming back to your question. As I told you, Tune and my background and started to fix bikes. I designed a lot of parts. I was involved with the cranks…
What I want to say is that the frame is the heart, the soul of a bicycle. By choosing the geometry, you choose the character of the bike. For me, frame building – it was pursuing the last step. You know what I mean? The last step. When I was at TBA, for me it was kind of mind-blowing. Yeah. The second day I brazed a bottom bracket dummy – it was so good! I felt so good with it! I can’t explain that. For me, [it was like] I was on drugs on this. Really! I almost left the last two days on this course. I couldn’t sleep! I found something I could maybe do for my whole life!
I really get bored sometimes after a few years, two or three.
BIKERUMOR: You’ve been building how long?
ALEX: Really building two years.
BIKERUMOR: When did you take the TBA course?
ALEX: It was three years and one month [ago].
BIKERUMOR: That’s wonderful. Have you been putting your focus into full suspension bikes? You’ve built other things, but you clearly are most excited about this.
ALEX: I love mountain bikes. That’s my background. I’ve done racing in the past. I’m looking to do enduro races. I’m hopefully getting slimmer…
BIKERUMOR: When you’re our age, you don’t really slim down like you used to.
ALEX: How can I say, I’m open for any kind of bicycle. The bicycle itself is the most efficient machine on the planet. For me it doesn’t matter. If I can build it, and it makes sense from the technical side, if you know what I mean… if someone comes with a totally crazy idea and I think it’s dangerous to ride it, I won’t do it.
BIKERUMOR: Why are you doing a full suspension bike?
ALEX: Because I love it! Before I had this Pinion hard tail for a long time. On my home trail, we have a small group, I was the fastest. Even if the others had full suspension bikes. How was I doing it? You get better using a hard tail. The background of this, do you know the Internet Community Bike, ICB? I think you already had an article on it on BikeRumor. It was crowdfunded, crowd-sourced. They asked the users of Mountain Bike News what they wanted. It was crazy- the whole process. The first time it was not just a single pivot, it was a four pivot. Really similar to Specialized stuff.
They asked the users a second time, what do you want? They chose a single pivot. And I watched this whole process. So they decided which travel they want, which geometry, and all that stuff. It was Christmas two years ago, I asked the designer – there was one designer who was doing it, all the design and construction, I asked him if maybe they would be open for a steel version. Because they asked the people what they want, but in the end, it’s just a compromise because they go to production in Taiwan. I asked to be a partner for a steel version. You can get a lot of customization, reach and stack, and if you want a premium tube set I can do it. It’s not a big thing. For now, I have five orders for the frame. And I will start it in maybe April or May.
BIKERUMOR: So this bike in particular…
ALEX: This is my personal bike.
BIKERUMOR: It’s biblically themed, named “Armor of God.” Why this theme? Tell me about everything on it.
ALEX: As I told you I had some problems in school when I was younger. I was really aggressive. In Germany, you go for Confirmation – I’m a Protestant. I had some background from my mother about Bible study in a way. When I was 14, I decided to be Christian, to be honest. Since then, people said to me that after that my person completely changed. So right now, I’m really relaxed, but sometimes I’m a bit impulsive.
BIKERUMOR: But in really good ways. Right?
ALEX: Yeah! If I see something that’s really not right, I can’t walk away. I have to help this person. It’s – it’s in me. For me, Armor of God is, here are the verses. The helmet, the breastplate… how do I say this? They have deep meaning. I could explain it, but I think it would take time. I made some notes because it’s hard for me to explain in English. You want the short version?
BIKERUMOR: Yeah! Let’s do it. I’m into it.
ALEX: So I think, and maybe you agree, life is a battle. So if you read the Bible, I believe that most of the stuff is meaning and pictures. What you see is what you want. That’s my opinion. So God gave us this kind of “Armor of God.” So the “Helmet of Salvation,” it stands for protection against bad thoughts. I had some depression, for me this one is the most important. Because we have this helmet, I know that God love me. No matter what I have done in the past, or will do. That’s my opinion.
So normally this is “Righteousness,” but instead we used “Honesty….”
BIKERUMOR: By the way, I like how this is in English. And this is a bike made for you, a German.
ALEX: Yeah, I wanted to have it be international. I am going to Berlin with this bike as well. I also like English.
BIKERUMOR: English is also shorter, so you can fit the text on the tubes. Right?
ALEX: Yeah, that’s right!
BIKERUMOR: So we’ve got “Righteousness” which is “Honesty” here… and it’s in English so it fits on the top tube.
ALEX: It stands for the perfection of God. Normally we are sinners, but he gave us his son, Jesus Christ, so I can get perfection as well. The breastplate is important because our heart is in our breast. If I don’t wear it, my heart is unprotected.
The “Belt of Truth” is to be yourself. The “Boot of Peace” is to bring the gospel to the people. Talking about it like this, right now –
BIKERUMOR: Which is what you’re effectively doing with this bike, which I think is interesting.
ALEX: So then we have the “Shield of Faith.” Sometimes there are a lot of pictures in the Bible for when the devil is sending his fire arrows. So the shield means you’re okay and you have to believe that.
And finally the “Sword of Spirit.” Sometimes, and I think you agree, in the world there is so much shit. I don’t have an explanation for that, even though I believe God has a plan. The sword says we have to invade where we don’t have an explanation – we can say the words that everything is going to be okay. But maybe not in this life.
It’s okay if people just show their bikes. In my personal show bikes, I want to tell a story, but not all the time fiction stuff. For me, this is a statement. I think there are a lot of Christian frame builders in the world but I don’t know anyone who says that. For me, it is important to be saying it- I don’t know if you agree.
BIKERUMOR: I love any sort of passion manifested and this a very passionate and personally meaningful statement. I love it even more because it is in the form of a bicycle.
ALEX: Yeah. I would say that I love bikes, I love people, and I love God. These are the three very important things in my life.
As I told you, I also have social bicycle project where I teach kids how to fix bikes because that was what infected me when I was a kid, so I want to give it back and see what’s going on with them. And there are refugees from Iraq now, this group is – it’s awesome to see the progress of these kids.
BIKERUMOR: You’re working with Iraqi refugee children to build bikes?
ALEX: Yes, yes.
BIKERUMOR: Holy shit, Alex. That’s so awesome!
ALEX: The oldest one is hopefully my first intern or apprentice.
BIKERUMOR: You’re killing me here, Alex. That’s so wonderful! I have to go back to the frame – why did you choose the spec that you did?
ALEX: It is mostly 100% made in Germany. Mostly. The chain is not. And the cassette. All the other stuff is German or German companies made in Taiwan. There are a lot of companies that you don’t see so often in the US. The shifting system or the brakes. They are really brand new, maybe sold 20 sets of these right now. They are supporting me. I love small companies.
BIKERUMOR: You come from them. You’re very fortunate to live in a part of the world where there are so many!
ALEX: But you have PAUL. I love PAUL. You have nice component companies here, but you don’t have a shifting system.
BIKERUMOR: Have you ridden this? Do you love it?
ALEX: Yes. Definitely I love it. I would love to have a little bit more travel in the rear because it’s just a trail bike. I’m really thinking of making my own bike, this is the same kinematic system as the ICB 2.0, the crowd sourced project. There are some regulations from them, which I can’t make. If I do my own project, I’m open.
Sooner or later, I will build a new frame with more travel. I’m thinking about making a downhill bike for my wife out of steel because she loves downhill riding.
BIKERUMOR: She does? That’s so rad. Nice catch, Alex!
ALEX: I met my wife in Munich while I studied. We had some same friends. We were out for dinner she said, even though she didn’t know me, “You can never have enough bikes.”
I was, “Whoa! What the fuck is going on!” Two minutes later I was sitting next to her saying “Hey! Hi!”
Ten months later we were married. Now we are married for seven years.