It’s easy to spot Sammi Runnels at the U.S. National Cyclocross Championships — just look for the rider with the shining metallic bicycle adorned with pink graffiti graphics. Runnels is the star rider for Squid Bikes, the California brand that paints bicycles to resemble skateboard graphics, urban graffiti, and other radical designs.
Over the past five seasons, Squid has become one of the most visible brands on the U.S. cyclocross circuit, and it’s done so without the aid of elite national championship titles. Instead, Squid has used its catchy kit designs and radical paint jobs to bring attention to its pro riders Runnels and Anthony Clark, both of whom have equally colorful personalities.
“Pink is one of my favorite colors so I was super excited to have a highlighter-pink bike,” Runnels said in a recent interview about her bike. “It’s one of my favorite paint jobs so far.”
The brand is the brainchild of Emily Kachorek and Chris Namba, who co-founded Squid in 2014. At the time, Kachorek was an elite cyclocross racer on the national circuit after years spent racing on the road. She felt that kit and bike designs on the U.S. national circuit had become homogenous and boring.
Kachorek was fast, yet not fast enough to win major national-level events, and she sought a way to attract more eyeballs to her racing squad. Kachorek saw an opportunity with her jersey design. Starting in 2012 she designed a kit that had loud colors and design elements that pulled from skateboarding, surfing, and retro-1980s style. She looked unlike any other rider in the field.
“It was important that, aesthetically, I had an image that would be eye-catching and memorable and say something different,” Kachorek said. “I wanted people to buy the kits, too.”
Kachorek’s endorsement with her apparel manufacturer paid her a percentage from every kit she sold, and the radical designs quickly sold through, helping pay her way to and from races. She wondered if the same model would work for a bike frame. She obtained a custom aluminum frame from a local frame builder and set to work painting it herself to match the aesthetic of her jersey.
“I went to the hobby store and got these big sheets of neon vinyl and just did this ‘Saved by the Bell’ neon vomit paint job all over the frame,” Kachorek said. “I had this feeling of like, am I going to be super embarrassed when I’m at a UCI race and I don’t look like anybody?”
As it turned out, the custom 1980s retro paint job connected with fans, and Kachorek and Namba received inquiries from other racers about where they could buy the bikes. Thus, Kachorek and Namba got an idea: Why not launch a bike company around the hand-painted designs?
The two live in Sacramento, California, and approached Sherwood Gibson, the longtime frame builder and co-founder of Ventana Mountain Bikes, to build for them. After some convincing, Gibson agreed to weld their frames and built an aluminum cyclocross frame for their new company. Squid started with just one model, a cyclocross bike, available with either cantilever or disc brakes.
“We didn’t have the funding to make a mold in China,” Kachorek said. “It was important for us to do small-batch stuff at first.”
Kachorek raced on the bikes, and she brought on Clark as the first sponsored athlete from outside the company’s family. A development rider through the Massachusetts-based JAM Fund program, Clark is well-known for his numerous tattoos, long hair, and colorful backstory. Prior to becoming a professional cyclist, Clark was in and out of jail numerous times.
In Clark, Kachorek found an ideal brand ambassador — he’s loud and full of personality.
“He looks different than any other cyclocross racer out there,” Kachorek said. “He’s not the top-tier racer but in that level just below. He was a perfect fit.”
Kachorek told Clark about the new program and the fact that Squid would custom paint his cyclocross bike. Clark said he wanted a wide variety of graphics on his bicycle: an El Camino, a checkerboard, flames, and mermaids, among other designs. Kachorek took notes and painted Clark the unorthodox and radical bicycle he desired.
After that first season, Squid blossomed into a bona fide bike brand, with its cyclocross bikes appearing in magazines and even getting featured at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. In subsequent years, Squid added more models to its array, including a BMX bike with 26-inch wheels, a hardtail 29er mountain bike, and a singlespeed road bike for skidding that Kachorek calls a “tracklocross” frame.
All of the frames are handmade in Sacramento, and Squid still relies on lightweight aluminum as its design of choice. While the performance cycling world has entirely moved to carbon fiber, Kachorek said Squid will remain true to aluminum for the time being.
That’s because performance is only one component of the Squid brand. The lion’s share of the company’s fame still comes from those flashy paint jobs. These days Kachorek hires out local artisans and graffiti artists to paint special editions of the bicycles. She and Namba still paint most of the frames themselves, by hand, at the company’s headquarters. The two apply tape and use spray paint to achieve the patterns and designs. Customers can choose one of four different types of paint design: torn tape, drip, freestyle, or stencil. Then, they spray, stencil, or drip the paint on the frame by hand.
“Your bike is a badass metal bike built by this guy who’s been making bikes his entire life,” Kachorek says. “You tell us the colors you want, send us some photos, and we paint it.”
The colorful bicycles are hot items, and several of the company’s models are already sold out. In fact, Kachorek says the brand has never paid for any type of marketing, aside from the race team. In truth, Kachorek’s commitment to radical designs and unorthodox colors, amid a sea of homogenous looks, paid off.
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