The History of Milwaukee Bicycle Company Begins With a Fixed-Gear Bike
In the year 2000, bike messengers around the country, including Milwaukee, were turning to fixed gear track bicycles to use while riding in city traffic. Fixed gear means the rear cog is threaded directly to the rear hub so the rider cannot stop pedaling.
Yet there were few reliable, good-quality steel frames for the messengers, who were, by nature of the job, hard on their bikes.
So when customers started coming into Ben’s Cycle looking for vintage steel bikes or older bike frames they could turn into fixed gear bikes, Russell Jobs, who was selling bikes and products on eBay at Ben’s Cycle, thought the shop should just make its own frame.
Ben’s Cycle owner Vince Hanoski gave Jobs the approval to talk with Waterford Precision Cycle, located just down the road in Waterford, Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee Bicycle Company had begun.
The Orange One Begins the History of Milwaukee Bicycle Company
Jobs created a bike design using a combination of the Gunnar Roadie and the Waterford X-Series cyclocross bike geometries, and Waterford’s production team completed the bike design. Finally, the prototype orange-colored frame arrived at the shop.
“We couldn’t agree on a name,” Jobs said. “We just kept referring to it as that orange bike or the orange one. The name stuck, and so the bike was called “the Orange One.”
On a post-it note, Jobs created the head badge design of the 13-tooth cog and foamy beer mug and gave the design to a local pewter smith to forge. He still has one of the original badges on one of the original Orange Ones, even though the badge was bent and is now held on with double-sided tape.
The original orange color was based on the orange and blue Molteni team colors of the famous Belgian bike racer Eddy Merckx.
One of the Waterford employees bought the first Orange Ones, but he added a three-speed internally-geared Sturmey Archer rear hub. Jobs said the frame had to have a 27.2mm seatpost and room for typical, easy-to-get parts, including 28mm tires.
Cheaper steel rode poorly, so the Orange One had high-quality True Temper Verus tubing.
Surly supplied the first forks for the Orange One, even though the first batch was black.
Milwaukee bike messengers quickly picked up on the Orange One, and many began riding it. And once Jobs took his free-hub Orange One to Chicago cyclocross races, the Chicago messengers wanted to ride it, and interest in the bike began to grow.
Cream City, Bruiser Cement Reputation of Milwaukee Bicycle Company
The Cream City track frame was the next Milwaukee Bicycle Company design. Drew Triplett, who had designed and created bicycles while working at Trek Bicycle and by then had started at Ben’s Cycle, said the velodrome at Kenosha was going strong, and the single speed market was leaning toward track geometry.
Since the Orange One was not a track bike, Triplett created the Cream City using the geometry of the hallowed Schwinn Paramount frame.
At the same time, the eBay shop of Ben’s Cycle began to take off. Triplett and Hanoski started selling new products and eventually created benscycle.net.
“We were one of the only places in the world that offered a full selection of high-end track and single speed parts,” Triplett said. It was the heyday of the single speed and track bike scenes, and Milwaukee Bicycle Company was very successful with the Orange One and Cream City.
In early 2009, a Milwaukee photographer who often shot pictures for MBC and Ben’s Cycle, Peter DiAntoni, went to Brooklyn and saw the fixed gear crowd doing BMX and trials kinds of tricks on their track bikes, often with devastating results with the frames crumpling because they were simply not built for that kind of use.
Triplett began working with John Prolly Watson, who was by then a growing presence in the fixed-gear cycling scene, on a beefier frame that would handle anything riders could dish out.The frame became known as the Bruiser, for obvious reasons.
“The Bruiser was essentially a big-wheel BMX bike,” said Triplett. “We transferred the theory of track geometry on a 20-inch wheel bike to the Bruiser. We had a longer top tube and short BMX stem.”
The Milwaukee Bicycle Company sold over 250 Bruiser framesets and parts in 2009. The frames were fabricated in Taiwan to keep the price as low as possible. And the frame still has a lifetime warranty.
“We had a lot of fun that year,” Triplett said. “We had a huge fiscal year.”
Milwaukee Bicycle Company Adds to its Lineup
The Milwaukee Bicycle Company decided to create a more complete line-up of bikes after the success of the Bruiser. Next was a mountain bike called the Grit in 2010, using Triplett’s geometry and design that included sliding dropouts to allow for a single speed.
In order to keep the costs down on this bike, the Grit, created out of a combination of Reynolds steel tubing, was also made in Taiwan.
“We didn’t want to make a mountain bike that was a full-out race bike,” Triplett said of the Grit. “It has a racy trail geometry that is easily raced, but also comfortable for longer days.”
The Milwaukee Road bike, named for the railroad line that started in Milwaukee, is a traditional steel road bike that is stiff enough to go and comfortable enough for all day rides. The frame, made of either Verus or OX Platinum tubing in Waterford, went into production in 2012.
Milwaukee Bicycle Company Becomes Force in Bike Polo World
During the same time, a Ben’s Cycle employee named Eric Kremin was playing bike polo and winning national championships. His team was using the Bruiser, but he and his teammates wanted something a little different, lighter and with a slightly shorter top tube. And so the Polo Bruiser was based on the Bruiser geometry, but made in Waterford of OX Platinum steel. Kremin’s team, the Beaver Boys, have ridden the Polo Bruiser to national and world championships.
Milwaukee Bicycle created its own line of bike polo mallets and other polo accessories, sponsoring events in Milwaukee and around the world.
In 2013, Milwaukee Bicycle came out with the Mettle, a bike meant for the growing sport of cyclocross. After some revisions and changes from the prototype, the Mettle is a full-out cross race bike with a tapered head tube and larger top and down tubes to stiffen the front end. The Mettle has been raced across the country, in state, regional, and national championships.
To meet the needs of cyclists who ride and tour on gravel and rough roads, the Milwaukee Bicycle Company developed the Fugitive, a road bike designed with slacker, longer geometry to keep the bike stable under the heavy load of panniers as well as a wider fork and rear chain stays to allow for wider tires. The Ben’s Cycle internet customer service manager Matt Hewitt took the prototype Fugitive on an 800-mile test ride from Milwaukee around the northern tip of Lake Michigan and back down to Muskegon to pick up the ferry.
Ben’s Cycle/ Milwaukee Bicycle Company Cycling Team
Ben’s Cycle has sponsored several road and mountain bike teams in the past. The shop established its own Ben’s Cycle/ Milwaukee Bicycle Co. Cycling Team in 2014 to promote the bikes, particularly the Mettle, Grit, and Feral as well as the Fugitive for gravel events and the Orange One for single speed cyclocross races.
The team has juniors, women, and men who primarily race cyclocross, gravel, and mountain bike events throughout the Midwest. The team won the Wisconsin Cycling Association cyclocross SuperCup Team competition in 2015, beating out much larger and more well-funded teams.
In 2015, Milwaukee Bicycle continued to expand its line, developing the Beltline, a carbon-belt driven bike with an internally-geared rear hub and disc brakes. While the bike was originally designed to be the perfect commuter ride, several customers, seeing the potential for the simplicity of having no derailleurs and disc brakes, have been doing long tours on the Beltline.
The updated mountain bike, the Feral, is made of OX Platinum and is manufactured in Waterford. The Feral, featuring a tapered head tube, was designed to be a fast trail-riding bike, great for either racing or spending the day cruising local trails.
MIlwaukee Bicycle Company Looks to the Future
The Milwaukee Bicycle Company has plans to expand the sales of its line into other shops across the country. In 2015, the company has prepared a specific build list for each bike as well as prepared a catalog for outside sales.
“It’s an excellent line,” Jobs said of the Milwaukees. “It’s really grown up. It’s a smartly-designed bike that is not over the top or pretentious, not dated, but still made out of high-quality steel.”
Currently, customers purchase a Milwaukee frame or frameset either online or by calling the shop. After choosing a color, customers pick a build (components) and other parts for the bike, or work with Ben’s Cycle sales staff to create the perfect semi-custom bike.
Milwaukee Bicycle Company, which got its name from an historic local bike manufacturer, has made its mark predicting future trends in cycling and creating new products to meet a cycling need. Some frames, like the Bruiser and Cream City, have declined in popularity both because the people who wanted one now have one and because the fixed-gear scene has waned in recent years. At the same time, frames like the Fugitive, Mettle, Milwaukee Road, and Beltline are taking off in popularity.