I saw a magical commuter bike this week. It's called The Lumen, and it's hand-made by the good folks at San Francisco's Mission Bicycle Company. By day, the frame and wheels are a beautiful deep grey that barely borders on black, but in night lights—or a flash—they turn retro-reflective like the snazzy part of a stop sign.
Do not be deceived: This is not just any old paint job. In fact, it took two years of development to make it happen. Halo Coatings invented, developed, and patented the tech that blends tens of thousands of microscopic glass beads into paint that can be applied with an electrostatic powder-coating method. From the company's Josh Zisson: "Before our tech, retroreflective surfaces could only really be made in 2D, as a tape or laminate that could then be adhered to a 3D surface. Our coating was developed specifically with 3D surfaces in mind." They started with highway guardrails, and have since expanded their scope (considerably!).
Mission Bikes general manager Jefferson McCauley was intrigued. What if your cycle could glow in the dark, without cluttering its sleek lines with stickers and tape? Undeterred by the potential difficulties of trying out Halo's method on the curves and corners of a bike frame, he (politely) hounded the company, and eventually convinced them to do a few trials.
Mission Bicycles doesn't sell spandex or water cages; they cater specifically to the urban commuter who is regularly takin' it to the streets.
So how does it work? The set-up is sophisticated and the equipment is expensive—there are only two spots in the US that can do it—but it sounds cool as heck. "The coating comes in a powdered format, and gets siphoned up into this gun, which gives it an electrical charge," McCauley told me when I visited Mission Bikes HQ on Monday (it's situated behind a row of colorfully yarn-bombed racks on Valencia Street at 19th—can't miss it).
"The frame itself has to be electrically grounded. The powder comes out in a kind of mist, and because of the charge, it just sucks to the frame in a perfect format. No paint falls to the ground. There's no waste, no drips, no streaks. It goes on perfectly even, and is totally durable," he says.
I got to see a prototype up close, and it really is a stunning baked-in sheen. You can't help but want to touch this thing. It's a neat effect, and if you took it out for a spin, I can't help but think you'd feel like some kind of stealth superhero with a secret power: No one knows you glow until you're in the spotlight.
Every Mission frame is made from 4130 Chromoly steel that weighs in at a feather-light four pounds. They cut down on excess material bulk by double-butting each of the joints, which means the corners are thicker than the middle stretch of tube. Here's the Lumen up close. It's really cool.
Right now, the company is Kickstarting the first run in single speed, geared, and geared deluxe models, and if I had an extra grand I'd buy one in a hot second, because apart from the fact the Lumens self-illuminate, every single one of their bikes—about 500 a year—is conceived and constructed within the span of a single block in the middle of the city. Unlike big name hybrids aimed at commuters, these are completely custom and built to each individual's specifications—literally with their riding style and exact route in mind.
Here's what it looks like when you order your bike. There are a ton of options, from riding style to colors and finishes, and everyone who comes in will walk out with something totally different.
How fun would it be to pick your hues?
Uber-high-end Brooks leather-wrapped handlebars. Niiice.
"One of the most frustrating thing about owning a bike is constant adjustment of the Derailleur gears," McCarley says. Instead, they use internal gear hubs, operated by a single shifter. It's got the same range as a multi-chain-ringed counterparts, but only eight steps instead of the incremental 27 (which you likely wouldn't need between stoplights). If you look closely, you can see two little yellow markings in the middle. When they align, your shifting is in perfect order. When they don't, all it takes is a quick twist of the barrel adjuster and you're good to go again. It's a lot easier than making an appointment for a tune-up.
When I visited the shop, McCauley took me behind the scenes to the workshop across the street, where each Mission Bicycle is assembled.
This is Dan Cherry, operations manager. Hi Dan! Dan's smiling because he gets to sit in an airy workshop overlooking Valencia Street—Creedence on the radio, sun streaming in, prime people-watching below—and work on bikes all day. It can take up to an hour to do a single wheel.
Most hybrid bikes come equipped with a quick-release saddle. Why? Apparently this makes it easy for sales-peeps to test out different options for potential customers in the shop before they buy. Unfortunately, it also makes it super easy for someone to steal your seat when you're parked on the street (hands up if it's happened to you). Mission Bicycle partnered with a bolt-making company to develop this custom bolt with a little peg in the middle that requires a special Allen wrench to undo.
Not a bad place to spend an afternoon.
McCarley says this is pretty much the entire stock of parts. "We keep it lean," McCauley says. Cherry places orders about once a week to keep things up to speed.
These are build boxes. Believe it or not, there's almost an entire bike in each of these! Come summertime, there are a ton lined up along the shelf.
So. Many. Colors.
Operations coordinator David Archard fits a fork (should you meet him in person, be sure to ask him about his burgeoning rap career). Look at that Lumen glow!
Archard takes a hacksaw to each and every fork, then cleans up the end with a file and installs it on the bike.
I got a bike about five years ago and it completely changed my life, as well as the way I relate to, understand, and navigate this city. I don't think I'm alone when I say I have genuine affection for my two-wheeled baby—it's the fastest, coolest, least expensive and most exciting way to get me where I need to be—which is what made watching these guys work a real treat. They love what they do, and they want to give you the ride of your life. And I believe that anything that gets people rolling around their town is a good thing. [Kickstarter via Mission Bicycle Company]