“Scrappy entrepreneurs” are making wood bicycles Normal in Buffalo

Imagine you’re riding your bike around the Queen City. You’re wearing a helmet, of course, and taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells of life buzzing around you. The air is crisp, and you’re wearing a windbreaker over your fleece jacket. You smile because you are doing something you love—cycling—in a place you love—Buffalo, of course.

Now imagine all of this, coupled with the amazing feeling of accomplishment, because you MADE the bike on which you are riding.

That’s how Chris Kudla feels every time he makes the time to cycle in the city. Time is more of a luxury now, especially since he and his wife, Jessica Vreeswijk Kudla, started Normal Bicycles, a business whereby each bicycle is custom-made using hard maple on the outside and a thin layer of carbon fiber inside the walls of the hollow interior.

Normal Bicycles are not your grandfather’s bicycles.

Chris Kudla, who grew up in Pendleton, started out as a tyke on a little red Huffy with training wheels. “There wasn’t much traffic on my street,” he said, “so I was able to ride freely.”

As he grew up, he discovered woodworking and combined it with cycling. Years after he discarded the training wheels, Kudla developed his skills in engineering design, working for companies like Honda and Enidine, where he focused on vibration isolation and energy absorption.

He has brought all of these properties together in the Urban Scout, a flagship model bicycle—Normal Bicycle’s first design—which launched in August.

“I spent a lot of time designing the frame,” he said. “I tested the material properties of wood and how they affect the ride. And it’s quite amazing how much smoother and more connected the ride is. I also wanted the frame to be lightweight and strong.”

One of the most exciting moments of this entrepreneurial journey for his wife, who works part time for the company, was early on in the ISO testing phase. They had to sacrifice a frame for testing, and it had to withstand harsh treatment. As you can imagine, it passed the tests. “We saw the videos of the testing and it was absolutely amazing to see how well Urban Scout stood up,” she said. It did so well, in fact, that they were able to use the frame for a bike for themselves.

In many respects, Normal Bicycles—especially the flagship model—is a mirror image of its creators: strong, unique, and durable. To get to where they are today, they both made sacrifices because they wanted to be businessowners. They scrimped and saved and sold some real estate investments so they could devote full time to the company. Normal Bicycles began in their vintage home located on Normal Avenue, and like them, strives to encourage people to challenge what is normal.

A wooden bicycle? Well, why not?

They admit that some of the business endeavors along the way have not been as exciting as actually designing bikes, but there have been some great moments. Like raffling a one-of-a-kind road bike and seeing the smile on the winner’s face when he learned he had won. He loves his bike so much that his wife now has one, as well.

The “testing trip” last May was another highlight of the journey. They loaded up two bikes and went cross-country to mountainous excursions in Utah and Arizona. It was five weeks of testing their creation through rain, snow, and sleet.

Last August they launched Urban Scout, a hybrid bike for men or women. “I’m short,” said Jessica Kudla, “and the bike is comfortable for me. We wanted to make the bike as universal as possible, a city bike, with wide tires.”

The Kudlas say that while the design portion of the business came easy, albeit with some sweat and hard work, the marketing side has been more of a challenge. They are grateful for the support of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which helped with business strategy and also introduced them to other entrepreneurs. “We have learned a lot from talking to other people who WEDI connected us to,” Jessica Kudla said.

They say they have also benefitted from professional connections they have made through workshops offered by IGNITE Buffalo, a part of 43North that offers business grant and mentorship program.

And certainly, they are extremely thankful for The Foundry, a small business incubator on Northampton Street in Buffalo, where Chris Kudla now builds Normal Bicycles. He uses the wood and metal shops to build Urban Scout, and looks forward to launching a second model in spring 2019. “This one will be more like a traditional road bike,” he said.

This past weekend (Oct. 27-28, 2018), the Kudlas were honored with the People's Choice Award at the Philly Bike Expo. In March 2019, they are looking forward to representing their company at the North American Handmade Bike Show in Sacramento, Calif. The believe the exposure will be positive for Normal Bicycles. One may wonder why two cycling gurus wouldn’t choose to live and work in a place like Sacramento.

“We know customers exist in Buffalo,” said Jessica Kudla, “and this is where we want to be.” She added that they have found a supportive entrepreneurial climate here, and Buffalo is the perfect—maybe not normal—place for them to do business.

The Kudlas report steady sales since they launched Normal Bicycles, and they are busy at work producing more light, strong rides for bicycle enthusiasts in the city and surrounding areas.

“Chris and I have a sense of pride in the resurgence of Buffalo,” said Jessica Kudla. “There is great value in Buffalo placed on people building things. It’s a beautiful kind of scrappy entrepreneurship, and we want to be part of it.”

Read more articles by Cynthia Machamer.

Cynthia Machamer earned a B.A. in writing from Houghton College and has more than 15 years of experience writing in the nonprofit sector. She moved to Buffalo in 2005, and her happiest moments are spent with her two grown children and her niece.
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