Monday, August 12, 2013

Symond Cycles

Arkie Profile: Joel McCourt

I recently had the good pleasure of visiting with Joel McCourt owner/operator of Symond Cycles. What is Symond Cycles? Well now...I'm glad you asked. Joel designs finely crafted purposefully built custom steel bicycles. Yup, that's a mouth full. But all so very true. So hang out for a sec and find out more about Joel and what he's up to at Symond Cycles.

Custom Built

Going custom is a unique process from the first time you shake hands until the last time you shake hands. You can be involved in almost every detail of the build or you can come up with a basic plan and let Joel fill in the blanks. The final product will have more of "you" in it then any factory built bicycle you can purchase. Doesn't that sound fun? 

About Joel 

I've always said Joel is one of those guys you wish you ran into more often. I have my own way of determining when I like someone. I say to myself, "so and so is someone I could sit down and have a beer with or so and so is not someone I could sit down and have a beer with." Joel is in the first category many times over. After spending some time with him at his shop I quickly got to see a very serious passionate person who is pouring himself into the 'old ways' where a handshake still means something. Where building a relationship with the customer and providing top notch service is the life blood. Where helping to solve problems and collaborating with the customer is worth its weight in gold steel.

The Interview

WHF: Can you speak to what inspired you to start your own frame building company?
SC: Like many, I grew up around bicycles. The efficiency of the machine intrigued me from an early age and I loved working on my bike under a tree in our yard. This ultimately led me down the path of becoming a professional bicycle mechanic. At some point in my cycling involvement I realized these bicycles we ride are made by people (as silly as that might sound) and I wanted to further my knowledge. So, I decided to take the necessary steps to become a frame builder. I have also thoroughly enjoyed working and creating with my hands — seemingly, a dying art in my generation.

WHF: Tell us about the name and that super cool head tube badge.
SC: Naming a business that is effectively “you” is tough. I wanted to avoid using my name b/c I desire this business to be more than just me and give a nod to those who have influenced my journey. My education is deep with a background in graphic design and also architecture — I say this only to illustrate how much I toiled over my name and creative for this endeavor.

Symond = Si McCourt & Raymond Bascom
These men were my grandfathers. They both lived through the great depression and were in WWI. Their spirit and ability was always impressive and my intention is to honor them with this name.

The head badge is both symbolic and aesthetic. There are many people in the frame building community that think head badges are unnecessary. I disagree. Could the same artwork be done in a sticker? Yes. But I feel it provides a unique finishing touch to my work and shows that I take this profession seriously. It would be cheaper and easier not to have it…

Symbolism — the eagle represents freedom. Both the freedom you feel as a child when you first rode a bicycle and the freedom my grandfathers put their life on the line to defend. The breastplate is a graphic representation of the three branches of the military where my grandfathers served. The background shield is a simple abstract bicycle wheel. I am a bit of a wheel geek so I put it in my creative as a tie to my appreciation for one of man’s best engineering achievements. Think about it — some thing made of 30+ pieces that is within .0001” in 3 dimensions and can support many many many times its own weight. WOW.

WHF: Can you tell us the top challenges you have faced thus far?
SC: Speed. Everything I do is with a hacksaw and files. This is not a complaint, just my reality. I enjoy the work and am looking for my niche. Perhaps being a truly 100% hand crafted frame is interesting to people? I do have plans to tool up more but am growing slowly. Also, paint has been the hardest thing to self teach.

WHF: Can you tell us the top satisfactions you have experienced thus far?
SC: My client responses have been very encouraging. I cannot think of anything that fills me with more pride than knowing I interpreted someone’s idea into reality. Along a more tactical note, my paint is getting better and better and I love that I have built most of my tools.

WHF: Do you have a favorite build?
SC: It is a tie between the S&S coupled & internally routed wire Ui2 travel bike and my latest road bike. Both have their merits. It would be hard for me to choose between the two.

CMT Travel Bike.

Latest road bike.

WHF: Tell us about steel. Are you planning to work with any other materials in the future?
SC: If all one cares about is weight there are arguments against steel. However, those arguments are pretty thin considering the advances in steel since the 80s. I have seen some 12 lbs fully functional road bikes made from steel. Ultimately, steel is a wonderful material to work with and it has great ride quality that is significantly tunable to one’s height, weight and goals. The true magic with steel is riding a “lively” frame. A rider experiences this when their frame is built for them and their needs. Lively refers to an appropriate amount of frame flex where the amount of give and stiffness are balanced (not to be confused with equal). The ultimate goal is to build a bike that rides well for my client — not the masses. Think about the 54cm road bike at your LBS; if a lady that is 5’ 8” & 130lbs and gentleman of similar height but weighs 250lbs want to ride a bike, that road bike will most likely be dimensionally close. However, ever consider the ride quality for each rider? My point is that mass-market bicycles are designed for the 90th percentile. This is not a bad thing. Bikes must be safe for everyone, but a custom tailored bicycle takes all of you into the equation yielding a ride a cut above what most are used to.

As far as other materials and processes — for now steel will be my medium of choice. I have no plans to change. That said, I am very interested in technology and other materials. We shall see…

WHF: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
SC: Great question. I see Symond Cycles being one of two things. 1) Still a very 1 off custom design house servicing client that desires every excruciating detail accounted for — very small scale. 2) Providing custom bike frames with more scale but still crafting beautiful functioning machines. This would require some employees. I like the idea of creating a family of employees. I admire Chris King for his ability to create his company, which creates some of the highest quality bicycle parts available and the atmosphere reminds me of a large family. That is my little pipe dream…

WHF: How can interested customers get in touch with you?
SC: Many ways…

It all starts on paper. Each frame starts as a drawing. Tailored to fit the customers goals, needs and desires.

A key component is this work table that weighs a boat load and then some.

Once the plans are approved and the green light is given the ball starts rolling. This holds the bottom bracket in place and Joel will spend many hours working around this fixed point. 


Not your average bottom bracket. Makes me think of baby birds in a nest.

Something super interesting about Joel is he made many of his tools. This holds the lug in place so he can file. 

A closer look.

This is a 'fork bender'. Yup, you guessed it. It actually bends the fork tubes to spec. 


I was like a kid in a candy store or a grown man in a bike shop.

Precision, the name of the game.

I love the look of the lugs. Not sure why, just do.

In action.

Before and after.

Before and after.

The final steps involve paint. That takes place behind this door.

Joel even built his own paint room. 

Powered by this monster compressor. 

When the dust settles you will have one sweet custom steel machine.

Final Thoughts

It's really cool to see someone chasing their dream. Joel is competent, honest and passionate about his craft. So if custom steel interests you give Joel a shout. He is happy to show you the shop and walk you through the frame building process.

Some other services at Symond Cycles. Do you have and old frame you'd like to see resurrected with shiny new paint? Do you have a dream wheel set you would like professionally built? Joel is your man and Symond Cycles is the brand. 

I've started a Symond Cycles savings fund for my own custom steel machine on down the road!