Doing the Doggler: An Overnighter with Hudski
Having met at the 2022 Sea Otter Classic, Evan Christenson and Hudski Bikes co-founder Brian Szykowny recently linked up for a spontaneous overnight bikepacking trip together aboard a pair of Hudski Dogglers. Find Evan’s story from their trip through the Marin Headlands, a peek inside Hudski HQ, and a lively gallery of images here…
It’s all pretty simple when you ask Brian Szykowny, co-founder of Hudski Bikes, what their mission statement is. “I just want to have happy employees and make people happy when they ride our bikes.” Happy is an understatement for how I felt just minutes into our overnighter, straight into fast singletrack and screaming with excitement.
Brian planned a hefty loop, featuring fast rutted singletrack, long loose climbs, plenty of poison oak, and non-stop 360-degree views all on the hottest two days of the year so far in Marin. Will Hudson, the other co-founder of Hudski, couldn’t join us, as he was out driving a rally race in Oregon, so Brian and I spent some quality one-on-one time together, and I quickly got to know the company, the people, and the neighborhood behind it all. We peel off the singletrack and begin our climb into the headlands, the Golden Gate at our backs, the Pacific stretching off to our left. So far? Mission success.
We start at Hudski HQ, an old auto body shop in San Rafael that’s still memorializing OSHA hazards, service prices, bumpers, hoods, and paint scars from its history. One neighbor works on vintage Jaguars, the other fixes crashed McLarens. The shop serves as a warehouse, office space, bike shop, and storage for Brian and Will’s past projects: shotgun-slugged brass bowls, water inflated steel, big stainless drums, all to be used as lighting fixtures. In the back is the old paint booth, no longer holding cars, now being used by Brian for his other business.
I had a, “Wait, you’re that guy!” moment just after Sea Otter when I realized Brian was the Swiz, also known as Swiznooski, a somewhat internet famous painter in the road cycling community. He started painting bikes while working for Specialized, just doing it to show finished 3D printed prototypes to product leaders. His first different design was the FlowShiv, a time trial bike with satisfying, multi-colored lines depicting airflow. Soon after came the time trial bike he painted in the back of a moving truck, splattering colored paint to show drag in a more abstract, beautiful manner. A lot of his designs went viral, the rusted carbon race bike, the first Red Hook Crit bikes, and the pork chop bike being just a few of them. Now, no longer working for Specialized, he’s mostly painting one-off bikes for friends. Apparently, a limited-edition artist series is on the way for Hudski as well (I’ve already got my spot in line!).
For Brian’s intern project at Specialized, he co-designed the Power, a radically shaped saddle, with no nose, a wide cut-out, and a forward-leaning focus. That saddle revolutionized the way people looked at how to design the most important contact point of the bike, and soon after, most manufacturers started following suit. I remember the wave of enthusiasm sweeping my road team after its launch. I quickly borrowed a demo at a shop and never returned it because I loved it so much. The Power Arc, the follow-up Brian also designed, is what I’ve used for every single one of my miles the past four years, from road races to the Baja Divide, and it’s the closest thing to a favorite saddle I have.
Next, he worked on the Venge VIAS, another radically different design, featuring proprietary brakes behind the seat tube and fork legs that were hidden from both wind and wrench. Brian worked on the cockpit design, and it was one of the first bikes to have fully internally routed cables from front to back. The bike eventually flopped as a result of it being so hard to stop and work on.
Fast forward a few years, and Brian eventually left Specialized to launch Hudski with his long-time best friend, Will Hudson. The two met when they were 18, and while at a July 4th parade, they broke away from the party to ride around on their parent’s old Sekai 10-speed road bikes. “We hit this hill, which by now would be nothing, but back then was impossible, and we raced each other up it, giving it everything we had. We collapsed at the top, panting, and that’s when we caught the bug. We’ve been riding ever since.” The pair cemented their friendship in 2005 while bike touring around Europe together for six months, mostly in Scandinavia. “We spent more time in saunas than camping!” and eventually ending with a surf trip in Spain.
Hudski was a longtime backburner idea for the two, named as a conjunction of their two last names. (I also finally learned that the word “Doggler” is supposed to be a term of endearment. “Wassup doggler, how’ve you been?!”). They initially brainstormed a carbon fiber Dutch cruiser for their first bike, but after getting a prototype and riding it, they decided they needed something different. After several iterations, they finally landed at a flat bar, aggressive gravel bike, because it made sense to them. It’s what they wanted to ride, so why not sell them?
The Doggler, to me, is the perfect balance between low-entry and high-quality. It’s a relatively affordable bicycle at $2,100 (I too can’t believe I just wrote that, but here we are, in 2022), and yet the parts list has no room for any meaningful improvement. I rode a mismatch of the three options: first-generation geometry, a size up, with 650b x 2.6” tires and their city handlebars with a seriously generous 70mm of rise and 27 degrees of sweep. The bike was big, fast handling, and seriously easy to rally. I’ve never been so quickly up to speed and fully comfortable descending a loaded bike as I was with the Doggler, and I still had plenty of options to carry more gear if we were riding for more than one night. Brian and Will didn’t set out to design a bikepacking bike, but they landed on a sweet spot. I was sad to leave it behind at the end of our ride.
We left for our loop a bit later than expected. I tagged along on a set of errands, including a stop at the local hot rod shop, on our way to Hudski HQ. Our tour ran long, and I still hadn’t eaten breakfast by the time we were ready to roll out at 2 p.m. Brian planned a rolling, dirt-filled 50 miles to get to camp, but after our second snack stop in the first hour, it became obvious we weren’t going to make it. We adjusted course, aimed for Mount Tamalpais, rallied the descents, and put our heads down for the hot, exposed climbs.
The Marin Headlands are a perfect backyard to base a bike company out of, with beautiful roads, the epicenter of urban commuting just across the Golden Gate Bridge, and legendary mountain biking all within a short pedal of the shop. We rode over hallowed ground all weekend, the first dirt trails to ever be mountain biked, and laugh at the irony of how those first mountain bike trails are now mostly illegal, instead reserved for horses and hikers in many places. Nevertheless, Brian pieces together an amazing route, and we only touched asphalt to leave his house and get back.
Within the Marin Headlands is a surprising variety of humanity. The trails are filled with data-driven athletes, retired artists, hedgefund managers on extended lunch breaks, surfing hippies, Instagram models, high school mountain bikers, ranchers, and then the two of us, Brian with his pit-stained tie-died shirt, and me, still without a shower after two weeks on the road, trying my best to wheelie the loaded Doggler without knocking over a jogging mother in the process.
We were mostly shocked by the wildlife peeking out from behind the redwoods. We saw a snake, the biggest alligator lizard I’ve ever seen, seven deer, 100 vultures and hawks, and while riding without our lights on at night, Brian shrieked when a turkey ran under his bike (though we eventually turned our lights on to find it was just a stick). We rode late into the night without lights, climbing the entire time, until we got to camp at about midnight. We saw a Starlink launch on the way up, and later a waning gibbous moon rising over the city added to the surprisingly long list of amazing experiences in our brief two-day ride.
The wind was powerful atop Mount Tam, and it howled off the Pacific all night, keeping the two of us up. We didn’t get to camp until midnight, and Brian and I, in a delusional state, made shadow figures with our spoonfuls of chili and tried to guess what they were, mostly seeing just mountains and faces. We had a groggy morning, slow to wake but fast to pack, trying to leave before we got caught at our somewhat questionable camp spot, and rallied the long way home out to Bon Tempe Lake and up a final climb to Panoramic Highway, the aptly named, impeccable road full of sweeping bends, smooth asphalt, and big views. Brian lives just off of it, and I felt a bit of envy as we rode back into his driveway.
Bikepacking with a stranger is no easy feat. I’ve always been impressed by the comments sections on various routes from people looking to ride long, multi-week trips with total strangers, and I’m always curious as to how it plays out. Bikepacking, and the extremes it can provide, has the potential to unite and divide people, especially someone like me, with a big ego, endless idealism, and a particular style of multi-day riding. My relationship with my girlfriend has been tested and bettered through the extremes of bikepacking.
In the case of Brian and Will, their relationship was forged in the process of a long multi-month ride. Brian and I met at Sea Otter a few weeks ago. He’s a bit older than me, running a business, stressed about making it out of the office to ship bikes and then on the road to his grandmother’s funeral just after we finish. He squeezes in our ride because we’re both curious, and as we watch the final glow of the sunset over the pines and rolling ridges, he throws his long, lanky arms up and yells, “I would definitely not be here right now if you didn’t come up!” Our ride wasn’t full of trials and tribulations. It was full of laughter, stupid jokes, and long stories. Our novel friendship was never hanging in the balance, but only exposed like those long Marin fire roads and defined in those two days. We came away friends, looking forward to riding together more in the future.
Having gotten to know Brian and seen their bikes in action, Hudski excites me. A new brand with an excellent track record in bike design, born from a need of self-expression, making (relatively) cheap, high-quality, super fun bikes, all in the pursuit of unbridled joy is a good thing for both the bike industry and the consumer. I hope Hudski succeeds in that mission statement of bringing people joy, and know that certainly our two days together brought me tons of it. I really loved our ride together, and feel good knowing that if all else fails, at least I have a new friend.
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