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Deep in the Appalachian Mountains, at the headwaters of the New River (the world’s second oldest waterway), a tattooed, middle-aged man full of vigor crafts some of the most interesting bicycle frames — and stories — in the cycling industry.
Steve Garn learned how to build BMX frames in 1973 and did so until 1977 when other pursuits led him elsewhere. A decade later the catalyst for creating his own brand came when his son needed a bike. After shopping around, Garn was disappointed with what he found and decided to build one himself.
So it was that in 1987, BREW Bikes was born. BREW is an acronym for Garn’s other business: Blue Ridge Electric and Welding. It has nothing to do with the local moonshine trade. Oh, and the 16” wheel BMX bike that he constructed for his son still hangs in his shop these days and serves as a reminder of his beginnings.
After the local Boone, North Carolina bike shop saw Garn’s creation, requests for other frames came rolling in. He quickly moved on to build road, time trial, mountain, cyclocross and touring bikes. Over the years Garn has created some of the most unique bicycles the industry has seen. Many of his ideas were later copied and more recently rendered in carbon fiber.
For Garn it’s always been about building fast bikes. In that pursuit, he explored different materials and building techniques. Garn was certainly one of the first (if not the first) framebuilder to use TIG welding to attach frame tubes. A natural-born welder, after years of watching others weld aerospace materials, he took a class at a technical school. The first day of class, he was out-welding the instructor. When the instructor asked him how long he’d been welding, Garn replied, “Oh, about 10 minutes.”
With a mind full of ideas, Garn began producing superlight road brake calipers. He said of all his varied designs, “I was always coming up with ideas, thinking, ‘this is going to make me money!’” His brakes are still some of the lightest ever made. Similarly Garn made steel hardtail mountain bike frames that were lighter than Trek’s OCLV frames of the time.
In the 1990s, radical BREW bikes began showing up at road races, track races, time trials and even at triathlons. Olympian Carl Sundquist raced BREW frames to several national titles.
In 1991, Garn showed his Superlight bike at Interbike. The dramatically sloping aero bike features an aerodynamic, narrowed front fork that uses a 30mm front hub (100mm is the industry standard). Amazingly, the Superlight also has internally-routing cables and a set of water bottle bosses on the seat tube, features that not all time trial bikes have today.
Designed specifically for triathlon, the frame has an elastomer between the tiny seatstays and the seat tube. VeloNews’ own Lennard Zinn saw the bike and questioned the elastomer. Garns answer was that a bit of suspension over the course of an Ironman would save the triathlete’s legs for the run. That’s forward thinking even today.
In 1996, Garn debuted his Strange BREW bike, a design that completely abandoned the double diamond frame design. A single-bladed fork and custom integrated aerobars completed the radical bike.
With talent and ingenuity, Garn built the BREW brand into something of an icon. His BMX frames are still legendary in that discipline. When the segment really took off, Garn invested a lot of time, money and energy in BMX, eventually employing 22 people and producing 10,000 frames a year.
After becoming, self-admittedly, burned out on cycling and frame building, Garn turned his attention to motorcycles. They had always been a part of his life, but Garn worked hard to establish himself as a preeminent custom bike builder.
In 2006 Garn’s wife, Kim, suggested he start a frame building class. Garn resisted, saying he didn’t want to deal with “uptight assholes.” His reluctance was eventually swayed by difficult financial circumstances. As soon as he offered the class, it immediately filled. Six years later, “every student has been cool. Not an asshole yet.”
For $1,500, Garn spends five days with two students at a time. At the end of the class, students leave with a finished, powder-coated custom frame. Participants can build road, ‘cross, mountain, BMX or any other kind of frame they like. Additionally, you get to hang out in Boone, North Carolina after class.
Currently, Garn spends a third of his time building or teaching others how to build bicycle frames. He also continues to build award-winning custom motorcycles. His old-school choppers and café racers are sought after and have graced the covers of American Iron and The Horse. He also writes tech articles for both publications, including a piece on the dangers of phosgene gas after an exposure to it almost killed him.
Between bicycles, motorcycles, ceramic and powder-coating and custom machining Steve Garn is a busy man. He also recently built a small motocross track on his North Carolina property. It really is hard to keep a fun-loving guy down.
Garn’s vibrant love for life and renewed enthusiasm for cycling are instantly apparent when you meet him. His sometimes radical bicycles inspired this writer as a young cyclist. Meeting the man behind so much innovation was a treat. Now I just need to come up with the $1,500 to take a frame-building class.