Frustrated with the experiential gap between the women and men on bikes around her she saw as a messenger, Natalie Ramsland of Sweetpea studied fit under Michael Sylvester (co-founder of the Serotta fit school) and went to UBI in order to learn to create the bike/rider experiences she wanted to see for women in the world.
Ten years on, Natalie works to expand her effect by stepping back from the torch. Working with builders such as Co-Motion and Land Shark for frame construction and Gladys Bikes of Portland as her public portal and fit-studio, Natalie is able to focus on bicycle design for her individual consumers- though, she’s certainly not done building.
BIKERUMOR: Sweetpea has gone through a transformation- it’s not just you in your workshop with a torch. Can you talk about what the current state of Sweetpea?
NATALIE: My business has changed since October. Gladys is my dealer- I had been selling complete bikes direct. A customer would call me and say “I live in Indiana and I want a custom bike” and either they’d fly out and get fit by me or they’d have a fit in their area and I would design the frame based off the fitting and work with the customer on colors, parts, all that, and with the mechanic on the build and get the shipping out.
But there’s a lot of meticulous and time-sensitive aspects to manage a complete build for a customer and I was finding that with two kids and 20 hours a week of childcare, less than that, it impossible to scale up what I was doing or even keep up, to be honest, with all of those direct orders. So moving to just focusing on doing bike fitting and design is allowing me to do more. I really feel like having identified the niche of bike fitting and designing for women has allowed me to know what I can let go of. That’s what the last couple of years have been about, cultivating more focus and figuring out which parts of I can let go of to keep the heart of my work in these years when I’ve got two young kids and a lot of distractions.
BIKERUMOR: Does that mean letting customers go?
NATALIE: That means focusing on fewer relationships. So having Gladys as a dealer means that they get to do the extensive conversation with the customer about the parts and the timeline and put all of that together meaning that I can move on to the next bike design. That’s made it a lot easier for me to do more the one part of the process that I feel do really well.
BIKERUMOR: Your website, as long as I’ve been paying attention, has been unique because instead of talking about the building process and the machine and digging into that, you talk about design repeatedly. You emphasize that, and I’ve always thought that was really interesting.
NATALIE: You could focus on any one object, but the magic for me is in the thinking about an individual scenario between bike and women. The relationship between the object and the rider, that it’s not in the bike itself that the magic is. It’s in having a thoughtful response to the relationship. That’s what interests me most because it differs from bike to bike. I’m always seeing different places to have the bike reflect who is going to be riding it and how they are going to be riding it.
BIKERUMOR: Do you have examples of that?
NATALIE: It happens in bike fitting. So I do bike fitting here. So someone could come in with a Surly and say it hurts after mile five or I have toe numbness and I work with that bike and that rider to optimize it. I also do semi-custom fit. So someone comes in and says “I think I want a road bike but I, say, have a couple thousand to spend, and I can’t afford a custom, what would it look like if I used this Soma frame,” and we would figure out what their riding position should be, how do we use a frame then to complete it with the right crank size, right seatpost setback, right stem, handlebars, stack, in order to make it fit as we had designed it around their body.
I do that, and I do completely custom fits.
Last night I had a pretty neat fit that was the partner of a woman who had had some pretty serious riding limitations after having a head injury so we put together this semi-custom for her around an existing bike model and it’s allowed her to ride, so this partner saw how much this benefitted her was “hey, I do a lot of biking too, I’d like to see what more I can get out of my bike.” She wasn’t coming to me with a critical issue, but we were able to make further optimizations which was really neat to me because often I feel like I’m doing harm reduction in those kinds of fits, like, how can I remove the pain? But it’s also fun to have those moments where we aren’t just removing the pain but we’re…
BIKERUMOR: So Sweetpea right now is all of this. It’s a fitting point of view. It’s an experiential thing, it isn’t just the physical bike.
NATALIE: Yeah, the physical bike is a part of what I do. What I love most in the world is agnostic in terms of the bike itself. I love optimizing the relationship between a woman and her bike, because it’s the joy of riding that means the most to me. That relationship is the focus of my work. But in order for me to accomplish that, having that trick up my sleeve where I can say “There is no bike out there that will be right for you, but I can build it for you.” I feel like that’s a really neat thing that I can do. So holding onto frame design is kind of key to accomplishing that mission.
BIKERUMOR: And you have complete control over it. You don’t have to hand it over to whoever else.
NATALIE: Exactly. Oftentimes the conventions of the bike industry don’t allow for the bike that somebody needs whether it’s wheel size or front end handling or the amount of clearance a person needs for doing the kind of riding that they are going to need to do.
BIKERUMOR: So my biggest question is: I know you messenged for a time. And you went to Architecture school…
NATALIE: But the key thing about that is that I was an Architecture school dropout. I didn’t complete the program. It was a grad program. Partway through I was like, wow, I love design. Yeah, I’m sure about that. I love making things. Definitely sure about that. But it was the culture of architecture that was not going to work for me. I love architecture but I love all these other things, especially bikes.
BIKERUMOR: Architecture as an emphasis. Design as an emphasis. Messengering. And you hung out with Michael Sylvester to learn fit for a few years, who I am a big fan of. So the question is: what motivates this philosophy towards interface rather than the physical machine? Was it a personal experience where you couldn’t find what you were looking for- did that drive you to seek out bike fitting as a way remedying that? Was it profound empathy for other people?
NATALIE: My spiritual development? No. It was being a bike messenger and seeing so many women just hauling ass, kicking ass, doing amazing things on bikes that were not of the same caliber as what men who were doing the exact same stuff. And then I began to see it everywhere. When I saw friends try to do cyclocross in 2004, 2005… it became apparent to me that when women were looking for bikes that they were making compromises that men frequently didn’t have to make.
They were riding hard and doing these things despite the equipment, not so much aided by the equipment. I thought, there is no reason why this has to be, there’s just traditions and industry standards. If this was approached in a manner of one rider one bike, you can create a bike that is worthy of the women who are doing the amazing things on them. That’s what I was inspired by.
BIKERUMOR: So you’re working with Co-Motion now. Are they doing the physical building?
NATALIE: They are. I have four different models of bikes that they make for me. I have the Little Black Dress, which is the road bike. Dress it up, dress it down, it can be a light touring bike to a recreational century rider. That kind of thing. And I have the BOOM BOOM which is my cross bike available in 700c and 26in wheels for smaller riders and those that need it.
The Farmer’s Market bike, which is an urban hauler, just a pick-up truck of a bike with an internal drivetrain, 700c and 26in wheels. And I have the A-Line, which is a really zippy step-through bike. Those are the four models that they make for me.
And I also just started offering last year a custom carbon option through John Slawta of Land Shark called the Trouble Maker. And it’s totally a Trouble Maker. I have one myself. I’ve never been particularly in love with carbon as a material but upon riding it I was like wow, I could get used to this feeling of being dangerously fast. My eyes are going to have to adjust to seeing the road coming at me as fast as it’s coming at me.
BIKERUMOR: Power transfer, man.
NATALIE: Power transfer! I’ve never been that- I’m not a big chainring girl. But that bike doesn’t know that. That bike doesn’t know that I don’t do that great in a headwind. That bike doesn’t know! It just doesn’t know those things. I realize that among my customers there were a lot of women who primarily were looking for that bike that was going to be the bike in their life that was going to do everything they wanted it to do and it was kind of a long term investment in their love of cycling, but there were still some women who were like “yeah, but I don’t want to have a heavy bike.” Not that they’re heavy, but steel will always be heavier than carbon all built up, so I wanted to offer that same level of fit sensitivity to a carbon bike.
BIKERUMOR: So the carbon stuff is custom geometry too.
NATALIE: Yep, and I can do 650c or 700c depending on what the rider needs.
BIKERUMOR: Is it tube-to-tube construction or do they have something crazy going on over there?
NATALIE: Yep, tube-to-tube construction and ENVE stays and fork.
BIKERUMOR: Do you do any of your own building anymore? If there is a special request?
NATALIE: I do so recreationally at this point in my life. I think until my tiny kids have all their tetanus shots and are big enough for a welding mask, my time to be in the shop is going to be a little bit limited. So I no longer can build as a business enterprise, but I see the time I spend in the shop as a way of continuing design thinking and trying out things as kind of a small laboratory of things that could become a line of bikes in the future or adapt the way I’m thinking about what I do offer. It’s important for me to keep my hands on the torch because it’s part of what allows to me to design. That’s the main thing.
BIKERUMOR: So Co-Motion is building for you- you’ve got control of the design and geometry, do you have control over the frame parts, pieces, or are they Sweetpeas that look like Co-Motions?
NATALIE: I’m getting lots of parts from different places for frame models. Fork crowns and blades and some dropouts will all be ones that separate from what Co-Motion does. But honestly, even when I was making everything that I sold in my workshop, I feel like I’ve stood apart at NAHBS from other companies, other small frame builders, who have really remarkable details and where the bike as an object alone on the floor is breathtaking. I’ve always felt like my aesthetic is simpler. My details are more understated, that’s just not where the focus is. The focus is how the rider and the bike fit together. At times I’ve been a little self-conscious about how, hey, my bike next to, say, a Pereira or a Vanilla, mine looks very modest. It doesn’t have anything blingy going on. But what I know is true is that the bike really resonates in motion with the rider the bike belongs to. The thing about the bike that I feel is most special is kind of invisible when you are comparing bikes on the floor because that’s not how it’s designed to be appreciated.
BIKERUMOR: So if somebody wants to have a Sweetpea at this point, they interface with Gladys directly.
NATALIE: Yes, We are in the process of cultivating a list of Sweetpea preferred fitters to make it easier for someone in New York to say oh, this person fits Sweetpeas, or in the Bay Area. Then in the next few years to have Sweetpea fitters and dealers in different markets do what we do out of here because we have people coming in from Hawaii and California and Utah- and they are always coming in here. What has always been true for me is that I have always had people willing to fly in to get a fit from me, but I want to make it easier. I don’t want to be that special. I think removing the barriers the thing that I can deliver is a priority.
BIKERUMOR: You’ve let go of the personal building and the complete control over every aspect of an individual bike so that you can have a greater effect.
NATALIE: I feel that if I’m focusing on that space between woman on bike, whether that’s fitting someone to a Surly or designing a new line of bikes or putting up a custom version of a bike that I already offer, that’s where my work is.