Inside Naked Bicycles: 20 Years of Frame Building
British Columbia-based Naked Bicycles specializes in custom titanium bikes and pushing the limits of angles and geometry. We stopped by their shop to snap some photos, have a chat with owner Sam Whittingham, and learn more about his approach to framebuilding. Check it out here…
Nestled on a cute rural property on Quadra Island, British Columbia, is Naked Bicycles, a custom bike builder operated by Sam Whittingham, his wife Andrea, and right-hand man Sandor. Sam has been making bikes for more than 20 years now, and has created quite the reputation as a builder who takes the time to really understand his customers’ needs, while still pushing the limits when it comes to geometry and design. Sam and his small team were kind enough to let me poke around the shop for a while, and after taking a closer look at some of his creations, it’s clear that Naked offers an attention to detail and eye for unique design that has been dialled in over two and a half decades of experience.
Naked Bicycles is located on the same property that Sam grew up on. It has a friendly hobby farm vibe that stands in pleasant contrast to the high-end titanium bicycles coming out of their shop. Quadra Island is home to approximately 2,700 people year-round, and is accessed primarily by ferry from Campbell River on Vancouver Island. While only 35 kilometres long, the island is packed full of scenic gravel roads and has over 100 kilometres of mountain bike trails, according to Trailforks, which are all maintained and built by a strong group of volunteers, including Sam and Andrea. During our visit, Emily and I were sent out on a lovely singletrack ride around Morte Lake, which was packed full of smooth berms, switchback climbs, old-school tech, optional rock rolls, and other fun features. Find a few photos and our route further down.
On a recent route-scouting mission to Vancouver Island, I bumped into a Naked Bicycle owner named Lyle who had only positive things to say about his experience with Sam. Lyle said Sam insists his bikes are ridden, not just hung on a wall, and Sam clearly follows his own advice, as I happened to also bump into him way out on Vancouver Island’s west coast during my trip. He had just smashed a massive 200-kilometre day on his ENVE Grodeo rig (more on that below) and was gearing up for another big day back to Campbell River. While Naked’s elegant curves and unique designs might make them appear as show bikes at first glance, they’re meant to be ridden, and according to Sam’s customers, ride well.
After my visit to Naked headquarters, I sent Sam some questions to learn more about him, his business, and his approach. Find that below, plus loads of photos from the shop.
Tell us about yourself. What did you do before frame building?
I have a background in art and design, some engineering, and a whole lot of lifetime bicycle and mechanical tinkering.
What led to frame building?
There were a few of us working in a shop in Fairfield that put our heads together to see if we could figure out how to make bike frames. There was very little info to go on in those days, and it was quite an adventure to make those early bikes. Pretty quickly the others decided it wasn’t worth pursuing as a vocation. Somehow, 25 years later, I still haven’t managed to figure that out.
Was there a moment when you decided to build bikes full-time?
After about five years of building frames, when we took over the family homestead and my Dad’s old, large woodshop, it became obvious that there was enough work and I was getting enough experience as a builder to make a serious go of it. My wife Andrea is a key piece of the team puzzle and makes the whole machine run properly!
What has changed most since those early days of frame building?
There is so much more information out there now! Some good, some bad. There is a real maker culture now, where lots of people have the resources and tools to stick tubing together. This is exciting but can also make it difficult to know which builders to trust. No matter how many YouTube videos you watch, there’s no replacement for 10-20 years spent at the bench.
Who makes up the Naked Bicycles team?
There are usually three of us. I do most of the welding, design work, fitting, painting, bike assembly, and photography. Andrea, runs the business side of things, social media, and generally keeps the whole operation actually chugging along. We usually have a third in the shop with us. Currently, this is a fantastic fabricator named Sandor. He does a lot of the tubing and parts prep, frame finishing and anodizing, as well as general maker of special tooling.
Do you think there’s something specific that sets you apart from other builders?
I’ve always been very proud of our ability to listen to the client and create solutions. I think a lot of builders are driven by the craft of making an object. To us, that object is just a tool to give the cyclist the riding experience they are yearning for.
Tell us about your design philosophy as a frame builder.
Bike building, like music, art, or cooking, should strive to be as naked as possible. Remove everything that does not add to the experience. I guess you could call this refinement. Constantly asking the question: “Is there a simpler cleaner way to do this?” The blank spaces are crucial to let the real ingredients shine. You know, naked.
If you had to guess, where do you see bike geometry going in the next 10 years?
We are in an exciting time for real change in geometry. The forward geo of mountain bikes that we were a big part of over the last five years or so is starting to settle and be understood by the better builders and companies out there, or simply copied by the less experienced. The influence of this is spilling over into XC, gravel, and even road bikes now. It just makes sense. More stability, capability, and no loss in fun. The biggest job now will be educating the public on the numbers that actually matter, or can be used to design and compare bikes. The traditional numbers used to describe a bikes handling are pretty archaic and mostly meaningless.
Can we get a breakdown of your ENVE Grodeo and Builder Roundup gravel bike?
Our Grodeo bike was a real test of what the future of gravel/adventure bikes might look like. Basically, asking the question: “How far is too far in terms of tire size, frame length, stability, and features can you take a drop bar machine before you should just simply be running flat bars?” It is built with a very long 1150mm wheelbase, long and stable rear trail numbers, oversize 2.1″ tires, dropper post, boost spacing, and a zero-length stem. For the show we actually put a 50mm stem on so we wouldn’t offend the purists before doing some proper testing. Drop bars have so much reach to them already, especially when you add the extra extension to the hoods. The best handling actually comes from lengthening the front of the bike and removing most of the tiller effect by using a zero length or even a slight negative stem. This looks odd to our nostalgic eyes, but the handling is phenomenal, especially coupled with wide bars. In the styling, we wanted to pay homage to the original re-pack Schwinn Excelsiors that were the missing link to our modern mountain bikes.
What’s next for Naked? Where do you see things moving in the next few years?
The next few years are a moving target. We will keep moving the design and geometry needle forward and try to really refine the overall farm-to-table experience for our clients. Nothing earth-shattering at this point, just trying to help people have the best damn ride of their life in whatever small way we can. The bike industry and supply issues are such a mess right now it is difficult to plan on anything!
Although I was a little embarrassed I didn’t know Sam has held several world records on a recumbent bicycle at the time I dropped by (he’s known as “the world’s fastest human”), it was great to learn more about his path to creating beautiful bikes through Naked Bicycles. Sam has a calm, passionate confidence that shines through everything he does, and immediately reminded me of some of my favourite bag makers—a few of whom I’m lucky enough to call friends. He also has me very curious about these progressive, long-wheelbase bikes, which he insisted everyone should try out at some point. A big thanks goes out to the entire Naked Bicycles team. You can learn more about what they offer at NakedBicycles.com and follow along on Instagram at (@nakedbicycles).
A Quick Quadra Loop
Andrea sent Emily and me out on a quick loop at Morte Lake, which ended up being one of our favourite rides in a while. Sam and Andrea have both put in a lot of work on the local trails and it shows. We parked at the Main Morte Lake parking lot and rode counter-clockwise around Morte Lake, taking Tripod Connector, Ridge Trail, and Seven Sins to Deadfish—a super fun descent for all skill levels. Find our route and a few photos from that ride below.
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