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Tech feature: HetFairWheel Podium bicycle gallery opens

Fairwheel Bikes – the Tucson, Arizona boutique shop known for its comprehensive selection of high-end exotica – has ventured into new territory with the opening of a new bicycle gallery in Portland, Oregon. Occupying a space roughly the size of two cargo containers and covered in off-white paint and wooden floors, Het Fairwheel Podium will showcase a wide variety of the shop's extensive wares but also a rotating collection of bikes from local builders and pro riders.

"[We want] to show parts to people that they're not going to regularly see – to bring a little boutique gallery to physical presence, to pull it off of blogs and web sites and things into a space where people can actually check it out," said Fairwheel's web developer and gallery co-owner Emiliano Jordan.

Though the gallery is expected to draw a strong local crowd in proudly bike-crazy Portland, Jordan also expects the appeal of the gallery to extend far beyond the greater metro area, mirroring the international clientele of the mainstream Fairwheel shop. One recent customer flew to Tucson from Switzerland specifically just to go over details of a bike purchase.

A single tour through the gallery – even in its early state – is enough to prove that the shop has accomplished its goal. Littered throughout the modest space are (open!) glass cases filled with carbon and machined aluminum components from the likes of THM-Carbones, AX Lightness, Tune, Extralite, Schmolke, New Ultimate, Soul-Kozak, Enve Composites, KCNC, Far and Near, eecycleworks, and countless others – items many people may have seen pictures of but few have ever seen in person, never mind handled.

There are even extremely rare finds such as THM-Carbones' prototype carbon fiber rear derailleur – estimated to cost around US$3,000 – Tune's new magnetic rear hub, and ADA carbon wheels.

Fairwheel Bikes has also earned a reputation over the past few years for some remarkable project bikes that have occasionally made the rounds in online forums and the trade show circuit. Included in that mix is an insanely light complete road bike weighing just 2.7kg (6lb), a Titus 29" titanium hardtail with a thoroughly re-engineered sequential-shifting Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 transmission, and a variety of special paint jobs.

It's those amazing Di2 reworks that have earned the shop the most visibility in our eyes, though. What started out as more basic adaptations for mountain bike use has now morphed into something much more complex and ambitious. Fairwheel has enlisted the aid of an elite computer engineer and former high-power hacker who operates in the shadows from his home in Hawaii and normally charges US$1,000 for his consulting work.

"We can't really say much about him," said Jason Woznick – better known as "madcow" on forums and essentially the public face of Fairwheel Bikes. "He's a computer engineer that writes kernels and lives in Hawaii and is a bike fanatic. He just likes doing this kind of fun stuff – I think it breaks up the monotony of his day job. He's been a friend of mine for a long time and donates his time – we otherwise couldn't afford him."

Woznick says the Di2 projects that the company's secret developer has created thus far are only just the tip of the iceberg, too. Supposedly, there's much more potential given the right programming. Woznick adds that there are some patents pending surrounding the development work that may be sold or possibly put into a limited production run. After riding the sequential-shift Di2 system for ourselves – albeit very briefly and gingerly on account of non-glued tubular tires – we'd love to see something like this more widely available.

Still, "widely available" is a relative term here as much of Fairwheel Bike's inventory and work caters heavily to the very well heeled. Included in the company catalog are US$1,500 cranksets (without chainrings!), US$580 rear hubs, US$700 seatposts, US$140 water bottle cages, US$1,200 road brake calipers, and US$825 road handlebars. In all fairness, there is also a wide variety of less expensive machined aluminum and color anodized bits under US$50 but even so, we're generally not talking about the everyday consumer here.

Amazingly, though, Woznick says Fairwheel's numbers are still steadily climbing.

"We actually continue to increase in sales," he said. "Not that all of our customers are ultra-rich but for the guys that have money, when there's a recession and they lose 20 percent, they're still well off."

Moreover, Woznick sees no end in sight to what some folks are willing to pay to have the very best.

"There's absolutely no upper limit. I know of companies that have done jewel-encrusted head tube badges. As you move up in that price, the clientele shrinks with each step in price so at some point, there's only going to be handful of people that would want a jewel-encrusted head tube but they're out there. They're the same guys that want a US$30,000 watch or have a Ferrari collection or just prefer bikes to Ferraris."

That sort of casual commentary can sound like utter lunacy to most people but some perspective is needed here. General consumers may consider a US$15,000 bike (or more) to be total fantasy but for buyers who are typically more concerned with whether or not their yacht is fueled up for their next trip, it's the difference between owning something that is truly among the finest of its genre in the world or a used Honda Civic. And in relative terms, even high-end bikes are a cheap hobby.

"You'd be surprised how much goes to upper-middle-class guys that aren't rich, that aren't making over six figures a year," Woznick said. "You can put together a bike with the upper end of all of this stuff for 14, 15 thousand dollars. So it's really not that big of a jump over the eight, nine, ten thousand that you'd be looking for a Di2 whatever."

Woznick says it all started out very slowly. Contrary to the shop's online persona, its brick-and-mortar presence is decidedly more humble in nature and it was a slow start getting into the high-end business.

"It's a sixty-year-old building that was a grocery store in the forties," he said. "It looks like any other bicycle shop in middle America. It's filled with Treks and Specializeds. There are a few of our projects hanging up on the walls but 99 percent of what's done there is just day-to-day, regular bike shop stuff. Some people fly in to build project bikes but most of this kind of work is done off-site.

"We had a customer that wanted a really light bike a decade ago and we had to start purchasing from some really exclusive companies in Europe to do it and then we started adding a few more pieces to the order and then adding more. Over the years we've built the clientele and built our relationships with the manufacturers so we've been able to increase our volumes both in terms of what they'd allow us to buy and what we could sell. Nowadays our biggest problem is that we can't fill the demand."

Whether or not you can afford any of it, Het Fairwheel Podium is still worth a visit if you're in the area if only for the overwhelming selection of 'bike porn' available for viewing. The gallery will hold regular public hours on Saturdays but it will also be open by appointment during the week.

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