Ian Sutton builds frames with an unmistakable left field approach. He can perfectly blend art and function, resulting in machines that are simultaneously svelte, sublime and visually mind-bending.
Most Cycle EXIF readers will know you as the man behind Icarus Frames, can you tell us a little about your cycling history? I learned to ride young, about four years old. For a long time I rode just as a mode of transport but I became more interested when I went on a week-long mountain biking trip as part of the Boulder hippie middle school program I was in. In college I really started focusing a lot of time into working on bikes and riding just to ride. The first racing I did was in alleycats in Boulder, and I continued that when I moved to the East Coast. I enjoyed them, but later started to do more track racing than street. I raced up at the ghettodrome in New Hampshire for a couple seasons as well as a couple opening weekends at Kissena in Queens. I only raced at a casual level, but did well there because I was in the habit of racing around town faster than I needed to. In 2009 I went touring—started in Milwaukee, WI and rode to Steamboat Springs, CO before my time and money dried up and I came back to Boston to do Icarus full-time. Now I just ride everywhere nice ‘n’ easy.
Have you worked with any other material other than steel? What are the qualities of steel that makes it so appealing? Yes. I actually moved to Somerville from Boulder to work for Seven Cycles. Titanium was the primary material there, but I also worked on Ti/Carbon, full carbon and steel. I started with final machining and finishing where I learned what was important in alignment, how to bond up carbon, and attention to the smallest details. I eventually became a machinist where I cut, butted, coped, bent, and jigged up frames for the welders. I think titanium makes an extremely durable and low maintenance custom frame but when you buy titanium, its aerospace titanium. It’s not specifically engineered for bicycle frames, so a lot more work goes into making it suitable for bicycle use.
I like steel most of all because it gives the widest range of customization over any other material. The array of tubes to choose from dwarfs all the ti/alu/carbon options put together. Each tubing company provides a family of different performance levels. Within each level I can hand pick different diameters, wall thicknesses, butt lengths and shapes to match what my clients want from their frame. Steel doesn’t fatigue like aluminum and you don’t have to baby it like carbon. Aluminum and carbon make great race frames that will be replaced after a few seasons but a steel frame can last a lifetime. Going custom is a big step monetarily for a lot of people and the people who come to me want something that will last, feel good and look beautiful.
When creating a frame for a customer, how does your design ethos influence the final product? I suppose it goes into every aspect of the frame without me thinking about it. Obviously I have my own feelings about what angles, bottom bracket drops, chainstay lengths and fork dimensions make each bike ‘correct’ so my design choices start affecting the bike as soon as I draw it up on the drafting table.
You’re located in Somerville, Massachusetts. Have you cycled overseas? How does Somerville compare, and why do you call it home? Heh, I’ve never been overseas. I will be going to soon though! Later this summer I am headed to Japan for a couple weeks. I’ve had an apprentice for a while and he is bringing me to see his country and meet his family as a thank you for the training I have given him. I’m very excited to see Japan, talk to some NJS builders and visit the shop where Yamaguchi, who I learned from, got his start.
Where do you see the ‘fixed gear’ scene developing in the next few years? There are an unbelievable number of people on fixed gears. For some it’s a fad or just sensible transportation, but some percentage will stick with it and fixed gears will have been their gateway to all types of cycling.
What are your thoughts about the increasing interest in bicycle touring? Are townies, randos or porteurs the next fixie? I totally understand the interest in touring. The independence and functionality it provides speaks the the desire to be self-sufficient and have real, grand experiences. A lot of people are spending more time on the internet reading and looking at what other cools stuff that people are doing; touring is a way to disconnect and have a tangible experience where only the simplest things matter. Dang, now I want to go touring again.
What are your favorite bikes to work on? Do you prefer the simplicity of a track bike or the ornate complexity of a tourer? Just have to mix it up. Yes, all the braze-ons that go into a touring frame can drive me crazy but what comes out is totally worth it. I love working on track frames because I feel like there is more room to be creative and make subtle changes. I guess my favorites are the ones that make me think, “oh, now I need to make one of these for me.”
Are you optimistic about the bespoke bicycle scene? There are a lot of new builders out there and as long as everyone builds within their skill level and experience and are up front about what to expect and when to expect it, then the custom bicycle scene will continue to be something that people will want to be a part of. It stinks to hear about a talented frame builder going under, but its tough to be a good craftsman and businessman. I’m optimistic that there will always be a handful of active legendary customer builders, and the gaggle of folks hoping to one day be.
What are the advantages of a handmade bike compared to one bought off-the-shelf? The obvious one is fit. Even a properly fit stock bike has to hold up to a 250lb rider mashing through potholes just isn’t going to feel right to the 125lb rider that wants a little vertical compliance. When you get a fully custom built bike, that means every tube has been selected specifically for you. Not just the tube lengths and angles but the feel of the ride is tailored to you. After that are the details, each builder has their own style and details, owning one of their frames is like joining a club. I think there is value in knowing the individual who built your frame.