Road to Philly Bike Expo 2021: Peter Olivetti Channels His Ancestors
Peter Olivetti has weathered the Covid-19 era with attention to customer service and a do-it-all approach to frame-building. We touched base via email before the Philly Bike Expo to talk cargo bikes, frame-building techniques, and titanium vs. steel.
Please enjoy this interview with Peter Olivetti.
Bikerumor.com: What’s your name, your bike brand, and where are you based?
Peter Olivetti: Peter Olivetti, Boulder CO. Long story short, full-time six-ish years.
Bikerumor.com: What’s your preferred frame material and building technique?
Peter: I am most known for building with steel, however, I originally started in titanium and have been working over the last year or so to get my titanium work back up and running. Titanium tends to be a bit different than steel in how you manipulate it so it takes a little longer to figure out the favored techniques to get it all dialed in. It is a blast to weld though. Most of my bikes are typically tig welded. I love doing fillet brazed and lug bikes as well, but those are more labor-intensive by many fold and the cost of such follows suit. For some potential customers, it then becomes cost-prohibitive to have a custom frame with those techniques
Bikerumor.com: What sets your bikes apart from other custom builders?
Peter: This is always an interesting question to me. Obviously, there [is] a pretty large range of builders out there. I also think that it’s a pretty narrow keyhole overall. From the bike aspect of differentiation, while I am not breaking any molds here, I think the fact that I am willing to and do use most techniques to build bikes.
Want a lugged gravel bike? Sure! Fillet-brazed mountain bike? I’ll do that. TIG’d titanium road bike? How about prototype some e-bikes? Sounds good to me. So I feel my ability to take on whatever comes my way [is] one part of it. I’ll add the caveat that in the last two or so years I have been called upon to help people prototype stuff or bring things to market, and that is a whole other realm than the day-to-day custom frame building world.
I do feel however that the large part of what sets my company apart is how closely I work with my customers. I try to be as available as possible and feel like having a direct line to your bike builder is really something special and something not a lot of companies can offer. In summary, looping the customer into the whole experience is a big part of why I believe I get people working with me in addition to getting repeat business.
Bikerumor.com: How did you get into this? Who inspired you to get started making bikes?
Peter: I have always been a bike geek, taking apart my bikes as a kid, working on them and that sort of thing, which I think is a common thread in the world of bike nerdery. But really what inspired me was…when I was racing, I really wanted a single-speed cx bike to race that could double as my commuter in the winter season. I called some of the companies that could do a titanium one for me and they were all either scratching their heads and/or asking way more than I could possibly spend.
That lead me to UBI where I took the titanium frame building class with Jim Kish and Mike DeSalvo. I built the bike I wanted, used it a bunch, and still have it to this day. There was a large gap in my career life before I took that to task in terms of full-time work as that class was in 2002. However, I think I eventually really wanted to be doing something that to me had a real tangible value; I make this custom product for you, you believe in the value of that, so we can have a mutually beneficial relationship. I also really like the design part of the work and the problem solving for my customers that need to solve for something other than just another cool bike, which should be noted is an equally reasonable reason. Ha.
Bikerumor.com: Who inspires you now?
Peter: There are tons of folks that inspire me. It reminds me of when I was a BFA major in college and we would have critique days. I’d come to the studio with something I thought was really outstanding, but then I would see what other folks were working on and my mind would just be blown. In a more straightforward answer, I am always inspired by great design, but also I am really inspired by efficiencies. Guys like Bishop, Nobilette, Weigle, and Chapman that are…often making well beyond just the frame and taking it really deep into the custom zone always are in my mind and what I am looking at.
I also realize that I would easily go down a rabbit hole doing that kind of stuff and never get anything out the door in a reasonable timeline. So there are folks like Bingham, my good friend Chad at Corvid, Paul Sadoff, Mike DeSalvo, and Oscar Camarena who really have worked out their systems of building and can repeatably build near-perfect beautiful bikes in a well thought out manner. There are really [tens] of dozens of other builders out there that I think are really inspiring in all sorts of ways, but I feel like that is its own chapter of bike building.
Bikerumor.com: How was Covid era for you? Good, bad, about the same? How did it change your business and business model, if at all?
Peter: The Covid thing has been a real struggle and challenge. Aside from the additional challenges in family life that came when the virus first hit, the most obvious issue was supply chain issues. A big part of many frame builders’ models is to sell complete bikes which is 100% the model I am for.
I definitely had done frame-only builds, but complete bikes were the main goal of the business. As a builder doing one-off stuff, if you are not taking advantage of that part of the income, you are really losing out. Not that it is super easy even when supply is good. With custom customers, you can definitely get custom problems of fickle decision-making. About once a year I have to go through my build bins and organize what change-out parts I should keep for potential other builds and what I need to sell just to get the money back out of things that customers have moved off of.
Anyway, [the] point being having bike frames sitting around for 3-7 months waiting on parts to collect the rest of the payment of bikes was really trying. Now having mentioned that as a one-off builder you should focus on completes, I am going to flip the script a bit. As the year progressed this year, I was noticing more inquiries about domestic manufacturing since small companies (I mean like really small) were getting either booted from their factories in Asia or just not able to procure time. In so I was able to pick up some production work doing frame-only contracts.
For those that don’t know about this world in the small manufacturing market, many companies that are custom bike frame companies or even production companies that have a domestic presence, source the small builder market to get their products made. So I have managed to pick up some of that work as well as the aforementioned prototyping work for some people trying to bring concepts like e-bikes and e-cargo to the US market. So yes, in summary, the Covid era of stuff has been fairly disastrous in terms of being able to get product. It…has also made me have to realize that I have be nimble and change gears to make it happen.
Bikerumor.com: What’s the most interesting bike you’ve built over the past year?
Peter: I think beyond really trying to get my titanium stuff going for real this year, I would say working on the cargo bikes for Juggernaut and helping assess how we can improve the design in both a performance and manufacturing way has been really interesting. Each time I build one I get to see it with fresh eyes. They are such a big project each time, but the result is a pretty cool alternative to using your car for everything. I also see that the US is just on the edge of really looking at cargo bikes as a reality. We are nowhere near the EU market, not even close. However, with companies like Pon/urban Arrow and the work already done by companies like ExtraCycle and Yuba, there will be what I believe a tremendously increasing demand for alternative ways to travel whether that is moving your kids and groceries around town or even greater an impact for use in last-mile delivery for companies like Amazon and/or UPS.
Bikerumor.com: What are you bringing to Philly Bike Expo this year? Any teasers or sneak peeks?
Peter: I have a few bikes I am thinking of bringing. There is one for sure which is the most current version of my GTLT bike. Basically, a gravel bike that gets as reasonably aggressive as I think is logical without moving to mountain bike specs. This one, in particular, will be for a Philly Bike Expo squad rider Mike Shipp. He has been waiting for a grip for this thing on account of parts and paint, all of which has been really strung out time-wise. I also have a bike that I talked about with Alec White about a while back. Since there were no shows, I wanted to build a bike that would be a bit blingy that both White and I could use to showcase some stuff with the media. That will be an Irish racing green mtb one speed with polished silver white parts all over the place. ; ) There may be one or two others that will show up, but I am usually maxing out my Philly booth with three bikes since it’s a smaller venue and I have to usually get this stuff across the country.
Bikerumor.com: If you had to do a multi-day bikepacking adventure with anyone else in the cycling industry, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Peter: This is a weird answer maybe, but I think it’s relevant. Way way back, in the 1890s my great grandfather was a visiting professor at Stanford University, which might have been the first Italian visiting professor in the engineering school, but I’d have to double-check that one. Anyway, he rode a bike all over the place, like basically across the country, and seeing the industry booming in the US really inspired him to create the Olivetti company when he returned to Italy. Seeing as I never got to meet him, I would have loved to get the chance to ride with him as he cruised around the US. Or better yet I’d love to bring two modern bikes back to his time frame to do our trip. I am sure his mind would have just exploded. In any case, beyond just getting to know my own relative, I really would have loved to be able to get a sense of his entrepreneurial ideas as well as to hear about what he thought about industry and building and designing things. I often get comments from my family that I am channeling my inner Camillo doing this business, so I’d really love to have the chance to truly understand what my family is always talking about.