Bikes are machines. Simple machines. They take energy and convert that into greater energy. They go. They take kids through childhood. They take people to work. They take people to places they’ve never been. They take people around the corner to get milk. And, unlike the combustion engine, they aren’t taking a toll on the planet.
For Zak Pashak, it’s this simplicity that inspired him to leave a flourishing career as a concert promoter and start a company that would make not just handbuilt bikes, but handbuilt bikes made entirely in this country. And, to do it in of all places, the Motor Capital of the World, Detroit.
Pashak, late 30’s, relaxed and mannerly, founded Detroit Bikes in 2011, just as the city began to claw itself off the mat. Their 50,000 sq ft. facility––home to various manufacturers for generations–is located on the near west side of downtown Detroit.
A gutted neighborhood you could easily see featured in a Netflix documentary, but it’s also a neighborhood starting to see some change for all the right reasons.
“Job creation is important to me. We are at the core of Detroit and we need jobs for people. Consumers are slowly starting to figure out where their stuff comes from. Diversity is important to the consumer and they want options,” says Pashak.
He preaches like a guy that grew up in Detroit his whole life. Truth is, he spent most of his life in western Canada. His draw to Detroit a mix of family history and a lifetime fascination and interest of urban planning and city design.
Detroit Bikes make stunningly beautiful rides. Take a 1960 Chevy Impala and reform it into a bike, and there you have it. Chromoly steel you can brush your teeth with; tight welds; effortless design lines. Each is hand-assembled with American steel and sweat. It’s an understatement to say they pay tribute to the heritage of the Motor City.
“Times have changed” Pashak says, gazing across the assembly floor; “People are more aware of where things are made. They want to know the face of the people who made their bike and support people in their community. And, these bikes will also last a lifetime.”
Detroit Bikes employees come from neighboring parts of the city. Many of which he met at a local Belgium bar called, Cadieux Cafe, where an obscure and traditional game called Featherball is kept alive (ESPN actually did a feature on this place and the ‘sport’ of Featherball. It’s best compared to curling).
None of the staff has titles. Ask a worker what their title is and you get an answer like “you name it.” They work incredibly hard and require their tools, equipment, and footwear to do the same. They all give each other a hand. The common thread here is they love making things.
As one of the guys, Henry, puts it, “Only hard part about my job is getting here in the morning.” That says a lot about a lot of things, but it says a lot about Zak. “I just try to stay out of the way and let them do their thing.”
Around the streets of Detroit Bikes, Pashak cruises the neighborhood and it’s here you really feel what the DNA of this company is really all about. Bikes have a utilitarian purpose: they move billions of people from point A to point B every day. Yet, it’s bikes that give us freedom and trails to explore culture. Bikes let us wander. Drift. Escape the grind. Bikes enable people to connect with communities and explore new ones.
Pashak comes to a stop to investigate a neighboring building up for sale, “It’s more fun to get around on a bike––breathe the air. Smell the trees. Say Hello to a neighbor. It’s a friendly––more fun––way to get out. You’re more likely to check out a new store or something weird. In a car you are a zombie.”
For a city in transition, like Detroit, the bicycle is a sustainable and accessible transit network. “Detroit is still a poor city. Car insurance is insane. It’s hugely important we offer an alternative to cars. Bikes might not make a lot of sense to Detroit right now, but in 10–20 years it’s our hope you’ll be able to live here without a car.”