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Apr 30, 2019

A conversation with Tyson Hart, Founder Civilian Bicycle Company, Portland OR. 

Civilian Bicycle Company Website

Civilian Bicycle Company Instagram 


Automatic Transcription, Please Excuse the typos

Tyson, welcome to the show.

Hey, thanks. Good to be here.

Right on. So it was great meeting you at Nabs uh, you know, last month and I'd love to just let the audience know a little bit more about your background as a cyclist and then we'll get into the bikes you're building out of Portland.

Yeah, absolutely. You know, BMX was pretty big back then and I just really started riding BMX bike, probably bought at a box store before there was such thing as a box store and me and my little tramp cronies would just roll around the neighborhood. I grew up in southwest Portland where there's quite a bit of trail and hill, just a few miles from downtown and actually pretty close to Alvin rose dairy, which at the time had a BMX track home to one of the, the bigger cross races in Portland. So it's, it's Kinda cool to be riding cross every fall where I kind of grew up riding BMX bike on the track and things like that. Literally set my tent up where the, where the BMX course used to be, which is, is what it is. But it's, it's pretty fun to get over there. And oddly enough, I live back in southwest Portland. I've lived kind of all over the country, you know, during my tenure, but I'm back in my original zip code and not far from that dairy again. And it's, it's been great. I really enjoy live in live in where there's a little bit of nature and uh, and, and get out easily.

Nice. It just goes to show how pervasive, what a lifestyle and lifelong sports cycling can be, which is a lot of fun.

Yeah, absolutely. And, uh, you know, uh, we talked a little bit briefly before the podcast about my dirt first philosophy. I think that's where that was born. I really just enjoy least to build trails and the blackberry bushes, you know, forested areas around, around our neighborhood and just, you know, go out and hurt ourselves every, every weekend. And I still really enjoy just getting, getting in the dirt and riding mountain bikes mostly. Um, but yeah, I, I just continue to continue to really enjoy that style riding much more so than getting out on the long, the long road rides.

And then did you get caught by their racing bug?

I have. I really love cross and I think it goes back to that I'm just feeding into just getting and being able to play in the dirt as in the bud as a, as an adult and not feel weird about it. Um, in Portland has got such a huge crossing, uh, that it is, I've been racing crossword dozen years now or more and it's, it's just a blast. I mean there's, some of the races have, you know, a thousand plus racers, um, and 5,000 spectators or so and so it really feels like a bigger of that than a bunch of angry dads out there on know weekend warriors.

And then I also, you know, I do do some, there's a short track series in Portland, which I've been doing for the last few years, which is pretty fun if it's kind of like a glorified crossway. Um, but it's kind of like my adult softball league. I used to bend up, play softball, and just go up there on Monday nights during the summer. And there's a lot of bumps out there and it's, it's been a good time, but the communities are racing community here is, is awesome. There's just a bunch of really good people and everybody is, you know, mostly out there for fun. There's definitely some guys who get pretty serious about it, but, um, it's, it's fast and furious and it's just a, it's just a really good time. Um, you know, and it's kind of any kind of find anything you wanted to be a family man and you can get up there with your family and there's some kid races and things like that where if you're, uh, you know, young, single spear, you know, history, you can get out there and drink beer all day and uh, and you know, raise some hell. So it's, it really is a little bit of everything for everybody. It's a lot of fun.

Nice. It sounds like a great scene up there. Yeah, absolutely. So how did you get into bikes as a profession?

Well, uh, most or a lot of people know I'm a fairly long Manmohan bout six, seven. So finding a bike as an adult, it was always a challenge. You know, especially in geometry has gotten a lot better in the last, you know, senior years. But, uh, you know, coming up and wanting to ride bikes, you know, my dad's and kind of actually is a reality and so I would want to ride with him and trying to find a road bike that would fit well. You know, when things just went hot and wet longer and had to then, but didn't necessarily go longer in the top tube, just having a, a stand that look like a crank. It was, you know, however many, 130 millimeters stem and trying to push the seat as far back as I could. And um, you know, mountain biking, I just felt like an eighth just hanging over these 26 inch a wheel by except the time.

Um, so that's really what sparked my interest in it. I've always been a DIY person. And so trying to get a bike that fit, um, when I first started out, um, I really thought I would catered to kind of the ends of the bell curve. The tall on the small, um, as, as you know, most fabulous would probably tell you if the niche market. And so, um, I felt like that would just be a niche within a niche. And so I decided I was going to just make custom bikes, you know, for all really trying to focus and people who did have a hard time fitting but really just wanted to build a bikes for people that love to ride.

And how did you get the basic skill set for welding and framed building?

Um, I did take a class that ubi the, uh, I took the titanium class figuring that if I could build titanium, I think I really wanted to go into this field. Um, but I figured if I could, well if they paid him successfully, I could definitely do steal from everything. All my research that I did before that. Um, and so I took the titanium class many years ago down and Ashland, Oregon. Um, and I, you know, it's a great course and get you the basics as far as welding goes. It's, it really is just practice, practice, practice. Um, you do, if you pick up some tricks here and there. While I was at the class, it was taught by Jim Kish, Kish fabrications, who've, who build some of the most beautiful titanium bikes you've ever seen. Um, and he, I kind of just kept knocking on his door until he, he led me in to, uh, kind of apprentice with him, just kind of off and on. And it's like he taught me a few more tricks just off off the, off the clock I guess. Um, and I was in the same area we wanted at the time. And so we, the friended him and he was able to just give me a few more pointers and kind of get me set up in the right direction and he really, really helped me get started.

So when did you first start operating under the civilian brand?

Um, that was in 2005 at the time. I was, uh, I was working at Bob, uh, trailers slash strollers. Um, it's, it was time. It was called Bob trailers. Um, even though in trailers are about 1% of their business. And that's what drew me to their company because, you know, it's, it was the precursor to the bike packing. It was the bike, you know, uh, cargo trailer that they developed and it's pretty cool product. Um, yeah, they went heavy into strollers and that really drove their business and now they're owned by a bright tax much is a car seat manufacturer. So they, they've uh, they've definitely gone more down that road. But, um, I started with them and, uh, I was in Boise, Idaho and I started just kind of moonlighting, uh, building frames form, you know, myself and some friends during the 29 or 29 or single speed thing when that was really kind of taken off and the writing over there and he's real, real flowy and, and Kinda mellow as far as just right outside of town.

So a lot guys that was building four is just building a single speed rigid bikes that were just super bare bones. Um, really fun to ride and just, you know, get out there and just kind of crank up and down the up and down the foothills of Boise from there. Uh, you know, I, I, I dabbled in quite a bit of different things. I definitely built, I built a little bit of everything and building, you know, stuff through county bikes. Um, two more racy road bikes. Um, but I again, I gravitate towards there and, uh, so really mountain bikes and cross bikes is where I've really tried to tried to hang my hat and now, um, you know, that that gravel thing, uh, has taken off. And so, um, you know, tweaking my geometry and getting out in the gravel and understanding what that really means and being in that, being on the, on those roads for a long time has helped me develop, you know, my, my, my gravel bike,

the journey you've been on with civilian is not the typical small frame builder journey from 2005 to now. What, what went on in the middle there?

Not at all. Like I said, I was moonlighting, I guess they call it, the kids call it a side hustle now, um, at, at Bob and, and that was a great company to work for. Um, but I wanted to, I didn't, I didn't necessarily see a kind of, uh, a path for what I, my ambition and what I wanted to do there. So, um, I jumped ship and 2005, and I'm kind of hung my shingle and went for it. Uh, and you know, had a couple of good years. I was really getting out there. I was starting to starting to get a little bit of traction before the kind of financial, um, uh, the recession hit in 2008. So after that I struggled for a couple of years or a year and a half or so. I just wasn't quite, and getting the orders I needed to sustain myself and kind of started to look for other opportunities.

And having been above Bob, I've been overseas, I'd understood Asian production and what that looks like. And in fact, the owner of Bob came from the bike industry. Um, so I was in, I was doing a lot of factories that made components in different things for four bike industry and I that led me to applying for a just kind of haphazardly. I was like, I ski too. So I was like, oh, they didn't park city. That sounds pretty cool. I applied for a buyer position with them and a recruiter called me up like the next day and was, uh, asked me if I'd be interested in a brand manager for private label, uh, bike division that they had. They had a parts and accessories brand under there, a house brands called cutter, which was mostly parts and accessories, but they did put their sticker on a fixie and brought in a, I dunno, a couple of hundred of them and they sold them out of there like $500 fixie bikes, a super bare bones.

So they, um, they really understood power of kind of house brand. And, uh, my manager at the time came from Rei. And so they out, you know, a huge house brands, private label business. And He, uh, he and I during the discussion or during the interviewing process beside it or talked about possibly bringing under civilian underneath the back country, um, banner as a house brand, we could tell the story of a frame builder who wants to, uh, wants to put more asses in the seats and um, you know, develop, develop a number of bikes. You know, we weren't price point bike, but we were certainly a competitively priced by, um, you know, I went after when, uh, bikes that I felt like, um, lending themselves to steal because of the brand heritage, willing to, to stick with steel. So we did some cross bikes, um, a couple of 29 and mountain bikes and then some support of the bikes because they had so much success with that. Uh, first urban bike.

It's such a unique story. I can't imagine, or I certainly haven't heard of any other frame builder who's gone through that same journey to take the brand in house somewhere and start producing it overseas at that point. Uh, it's really interesting.

Yeah. And it was, it was, uh, I think it's just because I had been over there. My manager at the time had the confidence that I could do it and I, and I did have some connections that I brought to the table. And so it was kind of a perfect storm of what I was doing at the time and the experience that I did gain at Bob, um, for, for product management and getting in and understanding what it really looks like to, um, to produce things in Asia. Um, that said, it was, uh, it was all, it's always a struggle. Um, you know, there's certain minimums you have to meet, there's certain, um, um, specs you have to, uh, work within some confines that you have to work within. And, and so I'm really proud of the bike that I've built while I was producing an Asia.

Um, but I also never was satisfied with them. Um, it was, it was a lot of, a lot of fun and a lot of work, but it was also just a lot of compromise. Um, and so again, I'm really proud of those, but I was always wanted to do more. Um, and you know, there was a lot of things that I was, you know, a lot of roads I was going down proposing to, to my boss about what, where I thought the brand could go or what I thought we could do. Um, and so ultimately, um, it was, it was a series of compromises, but again, very proud of what, uh, what I built over there.

How did the brand end up spinning out at the end?

So, uh, during that time, um, they had also, or right after I came on, they were in discussion with competitive cyclist, which was another online small, you know, that's definitely more high end online re Harvie Taylor I guess. And so they had bought competitive, um, again, they, they understood that um, their customers also ruined bikes. You know, at the time, back country was really, uh, a camping and skiing and outdoor brand or retailer. Right. And they have since gone into a lot more, uh, just, you know, bikes and, and fishing and things like that, this other, other disciplines within that space. Um, so they, they foresaw that there, there were also cyclists, so they wanted to get kind of, you know, try to get that year round, how summer. So they had bought, they had worked out to buy a competitive cyclist and bring that team on board.

And quite honestly, I think what happened was, again, steal bikes, um, you know, affordable, not cheap, but affordable steal bikes wasn't necessarily where they're, where they felt uncomfortable. They really were a lot more about, and like super high ends, you know, what I call speed in Spandex, you know, kind of bikes. So they just didn't, I don't, I just don't think it'd be end of the day they understood the brand and, and what I was trying to do that, and coupled with a couple other business decisions, um, that you know, happened at the executive level, they, uh, cut the whole private label, the pro program. So they cut my team and then they also cry my manager's team who was doing all the outdoor label stuff, so they were doing outerwear and gloves and puffy jackets and all that kind of stuff. So they ended up cutting both of our teams kind of, uh, of at once.

And I was able to buy the brand back mostly by just kind of giving up a little bit of my royalty package than I had negotiated a initially with them. And so they're going to get the brand back. Also a negotiated down buying another couple of containers of cross and mountain bikes. So that was the good news. I was able to, um, you know, have a couple pos to continue to address overseas. And I ended up continuing to work with by Taiwan, um, manufacturer and get a couple more shipments of bikes out. But at that point I was basically a one man wolf pack in it. Um, and trying to run this business, trying to, um, you know, order order containers, worth of bikes as well as build out a sales channel beyond back country. Not calm cause I just, I had a feeling that our relationship wasn't going to last. And, um, ultimately it took costs a lot of money to fill a container full of bikes.

Yeah. I can only imagine.

Yeah. I just couldn't quite get to a place where I was sustainable and it was starting to burn me out quite a bit. And again, the, uh, the quality of the bikes was never what I, what I want to be. So it got to a place where, you know, in my personal life it changed who I was married and um, you know, moving into different direction. And so, um, kind of started, you know, thinking about things like dental plans and health insurance and that kind of thing. Um, so I ended up, uh, after a little, a a good run, but, um, with another batch of, of, um, Taiwanese made by cause, uh, and I, and that was able to develop a small sales channel, but it just wasn't enough. I'm very passionate, small shops around the country. I was able to get into a handful of them and, um, but you know, they're, they're passionate cyclist and passionate cyclist aren't always the best, um, you know, business owners and business people. So, um, struggle to kind of keep them, uh, buying, uh, buying the bikes and being able to, to buy in early and that kind of thing. So, um, between that and then again, just happened to do the half a compromise so much. I just felt like it was a time for a break, take a little break,

kind of got your head strain, figured out what you wanted to do and be as a brand.

Yeah, it took a little break. Um, I, um, uh, you know, I was still building a bike here. They're just for myself or a friend or something. Um, but it would not welding on, on a regular basis. And so, you know, obviously we'll have that back country. I was, I was, you know, if that's jockey, um, I was managing the Burnham, both that brand and the cutter brand. I was, you know, more of like a product and a brand manager or even just like a general manager for, you know, depending on what you call it for, for the civilian and cut our brands underneath the back Pantry, um, umbrella and a after, you know, do it in, which was what I was kind of doing once I left there to the first few years. And then, um, again, just not being able to, you know, robbing Peter to pay Paul every month just made it, made it kind of a struggle.

So I ended up, yeah, I've just taken it down and thought I getting burned out on, on bikes too. Um, but like it was, I was not enjoying riding and not enjoying, you know, racing, riding, doing any of those things with the bikes. So I actually just took a break from the industry all together. Um, and I had a couple of jobs outside of the industry. Um, one was in the small startup in the outdoor space and one was in the industrial tooling space. Uh, and you know, both of them, especially the industrial tooling company, I just knew like the day I just knew it wasn't the right fit. And after a year, um, I think both parties knew it wasn't a right fit. And so a part of the way, um, with them, meanwhile, like that flavor and that and that fire for some writing and kind of started, started taking over again.

I started commuting while I was at that company and, and, uh, just getting out with friends a little bit more, again, being able to ride just for the fun of it. Um, and once I left that, that job, I started thinking about what it, what it would take to really make a, a US brand successful. And what, what, what it looks like to build something based on all the knowledge that I have of working overseas of, um, you know, working with us, manufacturing, Asian manufacturing, um, what the industry, uh, it looks like how much things have changed with the likes of have a back country, dotcom or other retailers, even Amazon, um, and uh, you know, where civilian could fit within that, within that world. Um, start having conversations with some folks in Portland about, um, you know, what the capacity is for building and kind of small band of builders, um, that are kind of on hold for building some small batch by X.

Right now I'm doing small batches of like two and three. When I, when I get an order, um, I might build, you know, I get an order for a cross bike, I'll, I'll build like, uh, you know, maybe another one in a popular size and try to have it kind of ready to go. So someone has to do is pick the parts and the paint and then, uh, and then, you know, it gets delivered pretty quickly if someone does want custom. Um, that's, that's an option and we'll do that as well. But just trying to right now you don't get offered just, uh, you know, a purpose bill, you know, what I called dirtt first bike that can, um, that's kind of ready to go and rip when you are. So, um, and you know, and also being able to control about the specs a little bit more and also add some of those details, um, that you just can't do in Asia. Um, really kind of excited me. Uh, so, uh, that's where I am now.

That was one of the things that kind of dirt first philosophy that was articulated on your website and then your booth at nab is one of the things that drew me in because I think the grapple market, you've got a lot of road plus markets, the road plus bikes, which are kind of just giving slightly wider tires and disc brakes and allowing people to go off road and it's very attractive to someone interested in, uh, you know, expanding their road riding loops. But the dirt first philosophy, I know you come it from a radically different perspective. You're, you're sort of talking about like, this bike is built to go off road, so can you talk about some of the attributes of your flying tramp model

can get out there? I just enjoy being away from the hustle and bustle of the city. So I wrote a cross bike as my main by quote unquote road bike for years, smaller, maybe a file and ride that is a commuter bike or just as my training bike and then swap it out to Nabis it and ride it for during the race season. So I've always been a writer. I've always wanted to get off and there's a off the main, the main road in doing that and getting out and ride a little bit more as this thing started to take, take hold in the last however many years I found myself on longer rides. You know, a lot of it was kind of to your point, like, oh, just take this little gravel roads connect to that other road. So, you know, having a found trends would, was a great way to do that.

But, um, you know, we have so many fire, uh, fire roads and forest service roads around here and has, um, groups started going out and I started joining them. I understood that, you know, uh, my aggressive kind of cyclocross geometry just wasn't a right bike for that, um, ride. And I also started paying attention as a, as a product guy, I started paying attention to what other people are writing and um, you know, not everybody could have equivalent bikes and so you'd see a lot of guys more and more showing up with them with a bike that could take a little more, uh, tire clearance or run to tire sizes like a 760, 50. And again, that has just kept getting wider and wider and you know, and then you'd see some of the monster cross things with the 2.2 or 2.0 tire on them.

So it was really interesting to just kind of watch that evolution and keep that. So, in doing so I, I, I tweaked the geometry, um, where, you know, I got the rider, I tried to get the rider upright a little bit more just for that long day in the saddle, a little bit slacker geometry to take up the bumps into, to be more comfortable for those, for those long days in the saddle. And then I also started working on figuring out the tire and the optimal tire size. Um, I wrote and I built up a crazy, uh, you know, Monster Cross bike and I rode out on a few a few rides and n I a n m. Dot. Light's still come, come into the, uh, into the fold someday. But I think what I built with the flying tramp, which is, you know, my gravel specific, a bike really tries to answer as many questions or you know, that writer might have when getting out on the road and really optimize the, it continued it kind of to what ever kind of riding they're going to if they have the, you know, the time and the tire selection to do so.

But it can take a pretty, a pretty large 2.0 50 tire and up to a 42, um, uh, 700 tire. So just kind of going down that road, I felt like that was again just kind of off, tried to optimize what I felt I saw out there with, um, with what people were doing

and what type of tube center using on that bike.

Generally I use Columbus' life, uh, you know, and if it's a bigger bike, I might have to tune that a little bit. Uh, I've worked a lot with Columbus and I really, I really like it. I like the, I like what they offer as a, as a selection of tubes and I feel like that life, uh, life families really optimizes the kind of compliance that you want, but also had, it's snappy enough to get up out of the saddle and crank up like a steep, steep grade if you needed to.

Gotcha. And when customers are ordering a bike from you, what are the choices they're making?

Um, like I said, right now I offer stock sizing. Um, but like I said, I can't do presto. You know, generally what I ended up doing it starting at a stock and then tweaking it from there unless their anatomy is really a really unique. And then there I have, uh, two different bills on my site. I have a standard and a prime and I tried again to offer like a, a very reasonably priced, custom built bike. Um, and then something a little bit nicer. Again, understanding that people aren't going to want whatever they're they want. And looking cups to custom bikes, I felt like this was a good place to start. So by all means, those, you know, bikes aren't set in stone and there's a few upgrades to those two models that you can, that you can add on.

And then do you have some difference, different finishing options as well?

Yeah. Getting to that. So then I'd have a kind of a standard color and you get to pick, um, our standard, uh, you know, color way and you can pick which, you know, three colors you want on there and it's, it's, um, and that's, uh, you know, with the painted to match as the fork on there. So you can kind of go, I generally will work with customer on, on colors, a lot of ideas and a lot of them will have maybe one pantone that they want a certain color and then, you know, I might work with them on some complimentary. But yeah, again, that's a three color, you know, painted to match for, um, you know, basic design. Obviously, again, custom bikes or custom bikes. So if you have some crazy color scheme you want, we can do that. And I work real closely with my, with my painter and he can do just about anything. So, um, you know that again, customers, if you want to customize everything, we customize everything.

Well, there's certainly some great examples of both the quality of the craftsmanship, more of your story and some of the great paint jobs. On your website, so I'll put a link to that in the show notes. If people want to get in touch with you, what's the best means for them to do that?

Yeah, just Tyson at Ryde, CV l. N. Dot.

Awesome. The Tyson. Thanks for the overview and thanks for continuing to plug away on the civilian brand. I really liked your work at nabs and a wish you the best of success.

Thanks. I appreciate your time.