DeSalvo Custom Bicycle. - Photo by Tim Tidball

Sculptures on Wheels

As any one of thousands of southern Oregon biking aficionados will tell you, there's nothing quite like cycling through the region's signature evergreen coated hills and river-forged valleys, especially on one of those bright sunny days when every nuance of nature's colors fairly explodes with vibrant energy. Sensual treats like these draw enthusiasts from all over the world, many of whom make a biking vacation to southern Oregon an annual affair.

Another less obvious attraction also lures serious cyclists to the Rogue Valley, either physically or virtually, via the Internet. Credit Ashland's United Bicycle Institute (UBI) to some extent for this particular attraction. Thanks in part to that internationally renowned trade school's nearly three decades of operations, the Rogue Valley now boasts "more custom builders, per capita, than just about anywhere else in the country," according to John Baxter, UBI administrator.

Just a little bit of research will uncover the handful of world class craftsmen quietly plying their trade in small, charmingly cluttered shops tucked away in forested hills, or situated anonymously in industrial parks scattered from Ashland to Merlin and points in between. Quiet they are in their lack of grand neon signs and gleaming showrooms; but in the lovingly crafted masterpieces they produce every week, these artisans make plenty of noise in the cycling world.


Though he apologizes somewhat self-consciously for the clutter that overwhelms what used to be a one-car garage, there's no mistaking the craftsman's pride built into every bike springing to life under the finely detailed touch of builder Jeff Lyon. Tucked in a notch of the Merlin hills, just below his modified A-frame home, the shop's roots hark all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. It was in Bill Philbrook's ancient shop in the town of Gillingham, England, that Lyon learned the trade that is his art, his passion. "I call it my religion," he says with the smile that rarely leaves a face sculpted by countless hours of wind and weather in the saddle of his own creations.

Born in Klamath Falls, he moved to the Bay Area and took up amateur bike racing while still in high school. He describes his reactions upon discovering that several of his fellow competitors had built their own bikes. "I became obsessed I guess you could say. I set about finding out how to do this. After some investigating, I realized the only place I could find anyone who would share any information with me was in England. I told my mom, 'See you in three months.' I didn't come back to visit for two and a half years," he says with a hearty laugh.

That was in 1972. When he finally repatriated some five years later, Lyon knew how to craft strong, durable bike frames of thin-walled steel tubes. If his bikes aren't as sound 50 years hence as they were the first time they rolled out the door, Lyon would feel he's failed.

Land Shark Bicycles

Just out of high school some twenty years ago, southern Californian John Slawta traded a scholarship to the prestigious Pasadena School of Art and Design for a 6x12-foot piece of his father's tool shed. That's where he taught himself the art of custom frame building and painting. Counter-intuitive it may have been, but not in hindsight. Tall, bespectacled, and possessed of a boyishly restless curiosity, Slawta describes how his fledgling company caught its first break — a big one. "A racing buddy told some guys about my frames. They came over; checked out that little shed and said, 'Go for it.'"

It was 1985 and those "guys" just happened to be the top seven professional racers in the country. It seems the factory of their co-sponsor, Raleigh Bicycles, was temporarily closed and they needed new frames. Slawta obliged them and never looked back. Aside from working part-time in a bird store before graduating, custom frame building is the only job he's ever held.

Since 1991, Slawta masterpieces take form in more spacious digs situated on a hillside lot on Medford's southern outskirts. Ever enthralled by new challenges, Slawta has perfected the tricks of working with carbon fiber, a space-age composite material that is both stronger and lighter than even the hardest steel. How light? Well, to lift a finished Land Shark frame, you'll only need one finger if you're any stronger than a new-born kitten.

That cutting edge material doesn't come cheap, but you'll own the highest high-tech bike on the block and it will sport a stunning John Slawta paint job in colors you choose.

DeSalvo Custom Cycles

He's not one for bragging, preferring instead to let his stellar handiwork speak for him, but Ashland's Mike DeSalvo garnered an impressive award last year at the fourth annual National Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) in Portland. Competing with exhibitors and entrants from around the world, a DeSalvo entry won the Best TIG Welded Bicycle honors. For a guy who recently marked just his tenth year of full-time frame building, the kudos spoke volumes.

TIG stands for "tungsten inert gas." It's part of a specialized and complicated welding technique that produces high quality, high strength welds of certain metal alloys. In DeSalvo's case, that alloy is titanium, a material once classified as "strategic" and thus protected by the United States military. By venturing into building strong, light, aircraft-quality titanium frames, DeSalvo discovered his forte. "It was a really fun process," he says. And he's clearly at the top of his game. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing," he admits.

Like his confreres, DeSalvo exudes a constant sense of wonder at it all. It's as if they can't fully believe they're actually being paid to do something so challenging, so fulfilling, so ... fun. Although competitors to some degree, the individual character they stamp into each and every frame seems to draw them closer rather than farther away from their peers. In a fraternal way, they treasure their place in a worldwide cycling family that shares a bond much stronger than distance, language or even personalities.

If your passion for riding leads you to the purchase of a uniquely crafted, custom bike, you'll find quite a selection of first class artisans right here in southern Oregon ready to create a sculpture on wheels that will be yours and yours alone forever.

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