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Made in Buffalo: Normal Bicycles' wood-frame bikes get rolling

Chris Kudla's hobbies are woodworking and cycling.

The mechanical engineer found a way to combine his two interests. He launched Normal Bicycles, making bikes with wooden frames, last year with his wife, Jessica.

Normal Bicycles started in the basement of the Kudlas' home, on Normal Avenue in Buffalo. They moved the business into the Foundry, a business incubator on Northampton Street, in September 2017.

Chris Kudla used to design automotive parts for Honda, and then worked for Enidine, a manufacturer in Orchard Park.

"It's always been shock and vibration-related products, or structural-like (products)," he said.

The Kudlas set out to create a wood-frame bike that could be made and delivered to customers more quickly than those on the market. They often go on overnight bike rides together, providing ample time for creative discussions.

While the company was born on Normal Avenue, the Kudlas also chose the name "because we want everything to be just like a normal bike." They didn't want their wood-frame bikes to have any drawbacks compared to typical metal bikes, whether parts, maintenance, or the bike's strength, stiffness and weight.

Along with hard maple, the bikes consist of carbon fiber, Kevlar and aluminum attachment points. The frame is coated with an epoxy and an automotive-like finish, to protect the wood against rain and snow.

Normal Bikes operates from the Foundry, a business incubator. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Last August, Normal Bikes launched its flagship model, called the Urban Scout. Chris Kudla says it is more of a road bike than a mountain bike, well suited for city riding.

The Kudlas say a wooden bike provides for a smooth ride, and prevents riders from feeling bumps and vibrations. They say the frame is sturdy yet lightweight. It's designed to weigh about the same as an average aluminum frame. The Urban Scout, depending on the configuration, weighs 23 pounds to 26 pounds.

Some potential customers insisted they would only buy a single-speed wood-frame bike from Normal Bicycles; others were equally adamant against buying a single-speed bike. So Normal Bicycles is producing two versions: a single speed, and an 11-speed.

They also developed a design that lends itself to larger-scale production, Chris Kudla said.

"It's just me in here making them one by one right now, but in a way that hopefully in the future, we can have people come in here and help us to do that."

Jessica Kudla brings a business background to the venture, having run her own consulting firm before. While she oversees Normal Bicycles' background operations, such as the website, marketing and bookkeeping, she also became certified as a bicycle mechanic this year.

"The fun part this summer has been the two of us working together to design a bike basically, to source all the components, to kind of work together on how do we build this into a really good product," Jessica Kudla said.

For now, Normal Bikes aims to make a new bike every two to three weeks. Some other makers of wood-frame bikes take eight to 12 weeks to fulfill customers' orders, Jessica Kudla said.

Normal Bicycles sells its bikes for about $3,000. Wood-frame bikes are still something of a novelty, so they expect their early customers will be enthusiasts who probably own another bike or two.

Next year, Normal Bikes plans to increase its production. "Once everything's actually rolling along, I think at least one [bike] a week is our expectation," Chris Kudla said. Along with maple, the company at some point will probably try making bikes out of ash and black walnut, two other types of trees which grow in the Northeast that the Kudlas thought about using.

They're also trying to build name recognition for their bikes. Normal Bikes won the People's Choice Award at the Philly Bike Expo, held in late October.

Operating from the Foundry has helped the business evolve. Chris Kudla uses the Foundry's wood shop and has benefited from the supervisors' expertise.

"It was a huge learning experience for me, just coming from the hobbyist to now, 'OK, I'm looking at doing this from a production standpoint' and talking to people in there who have huge amounts of experience," he said. "They've been doing it their entire life."

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