Tom Eblen: Lexmark engineer peddles customized bicycle frames

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 3, 2014 

If you want a cheap bicycle, go to a discount store.

If you want a well-made bicycle, go to a local bike shop.

If you want the bicycle of your dreams, go to Alex Meade.

Meade, a mechanical engineer at Lexmark, has developed a national reputation for his side business as a craftsman of custom-fitted, handmade bicycle frames. He makes about six bicycle frames a year in the shop behind his Ashland Park home. He also makes frame-building tools for other bike-makers around the world.

"I grew up on a bicycle," said Meade, 55, a California native who spent his youth in coastal Massachusetts, where summer tourist traffic made biking a family necessity because it was all but impossible to get anywhere by car.

Meade fell in love with road cycling after he moved to Lexington in 1989 to work for IBM, the predecessor of Lexmark.

"Kentucky is just such a wonderful place to ride," he said. "We have thousands of miles of bike trails we call country roads."

After moving here, Meade also took up the sport of randonneuring —long-distance group rides made within a specified length of time.

In 2007, he finished fourth among U.S. riders in the sport's most famous event, Paris-Brest-Paris in France. He completed the 762-mile ride in 55 hours, 49 minutes and became one of only 39 Americans to earn membership in the Société de Charly Miller, which honors the first American to ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 1901.

Meade started building bicycle frames about 15 years ago.

"It seemed like an obvious thing to do for a mechanical engineer interested in cycling," said Meade, who has a master's degree from Stanford University and a dozen patents.

His first project was a commuter bike, which he still rides on the eight-mile, round-trip commute to Lexmark almost every workday, year-around. He made a few bikes for friends, then others started approaching him.

All of Meade's bike frames are made of high-tech steel alloys, which are both strong and lightweight. Most tube sets are joined together by fancy steel lugs, the way all bikes used to be made. Lug construction is a slower, but more elegant construction method than tig welding.

One component that isn't high-tech is the bicycle seat. Like many long-distance cyclists, Meade prefers Brooks saddles from England. The design has changed little since production began in 1882: a thick hunk of leather stretched across a steel frame, providing a subtle trampoline effect.

Meade said customers come to him because they can't find what they want or need at a bike shop. Some are looking for a unique design or paint job. But most want a custom fit, either because they are very tall, short or have an unusually shaped body, or because they do randonneuring or long-distance touring.

Precise bicycle fit is the most important factor in biking comfort. Meade's construction process begins with a three-hour fitting and measuring session in his workshop.

The key is getting the right proportions in the triangle of seat, handlebars and pedals. Based on those measurements and other customer requests — fenders? racks? tire width? — Meade designs the frame.

"The average bike takes one visit and about 400 emails to design," he said with a laugh. "Everything's got to be completely nailed down before we cut any tubes or buy any parts."

Meade's hand-building process takes anywhere from 35 to 60 hours, depending on the frame's complexity. All bikes except those made of stainless steels need painting or powder-coating. Meade leaves that work to two local experts: painter Dean Eichorn and Armstrong Custom Powder Coating in Harrodsburg.

Meades' prices vary depending on design and materials, but he said an average frame costs between $1,900 and $2,700, plus wheels, components and other parts. That's in the neighborhood of many standard-sized road bikes made of carbon fibre, the most popular modern material for high-end road bike frames. For more information, go to Alexmeade.com.

"I don't make much money on this," Meade said. "It's a labor of love. It's not a way to support a family."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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