John Hollands flips through the pages of the photo album as if he's gazing at snapshots of his children. And, in a way, he is -- all 271 of them.
The pictures are of bicycles, but not just any bikes that might have come off the shelf at a discount store, or even off the high-price rack at a bicycle shop.
These are pictures of ones Mr. Hollands handcrafted in his basement workshop on Main Street in Reisterstown. They are in the hands of customers he can call by name though they are now, literally, around the world. Each buyer paid well over $1,000 for a bicycle.
Down the side of each bike, simple lettering spells out "hollands." On the front is a crest featuring the white horse of Kent, the English county where Mr. Hollands was born 54 years ago.
The album sits on a perfectly flat steel table where each bicycle frame is inspected for proper alignment. Around the room are the sturdy machines needed to transform a box of steel tubing into the triangles that make up a bicycle frame.
To those who think of a bicycle as a 10-speed on sale for $89.99, Mr. Hollands' work seems odd and distant, even absurd, laughable.
But to the thousands for whom a bike is, at once, a device for exercise and transportation, an ultimate expression of engineering beauty, and an extension of themselves that transforms the work of legs and arms into motion and control, a Hollands bicycle is something of the ultimate.
Each one is unique, custom-made. Not only does Mr. Hollands take a customer's measurements like a tailor about to stitch up a suit, he also discusses their weight and abilities. He asks whether they plan to race, bike across the country, or just dawdle around the neighborhood, before determining the type of steel to use, the appropriate dimensions and angles.
Hollands Cycles combines Old World craftsmanship with New World ingenuity to make its statement for American know-how, though economic necessity was the mother of Mr. Hollands' inventiveness.
He first learned to meld metal to his designs as an apprentice at the Royal Naval Yards before coming to America in 1967. A succession of machinist, metal-working and engineering jobs followed for the next 20 years.
In 1987, his teen-age son, James, broke a frame while racing bikes on the now-defunct city-sponsored team. James and his father went looking for a replacement.
"I wasn't too pleased with what I was seeing," Mr. Hollands, a soft-spoken man with a quick wit, says of his visits to bicycle shops. "The standard of finish was not what I expected. I $H decided I'd build James a frame, a one-of-a kind of thing. That was going to be it."
Soon James was winning races on his Hollands and others were asking his dad to make one for them. He complied, working out of his basement.
"I had already been through one job elimination after a buyout," he says of those years. "It was the lunacy of the 1980s. I bounced around to various jobs and then the same thing happened again, another job elimination.
"There were hundreds of thousands of middle-management people like me scrambling for the few jobs around. I figured I would have about as much security working for myself building bicycle frames as I would working for a corporation. At least I could call some of the shots."
In 1988, with seven unfilled frame orders in hand, Mr. Hollands and his wife Ellen rented a basement workshop and Hollands Cycles was born.
"When you start doing it full time, you go through your back
orders pretty quickly," he says. "We were down to two or three and I was figuring this was nice while it lasted. Then one day a woman came down here and ordered a frame and that seemed to turn the thing on. Gradually it started picking up."
Since then, Mr. Hollands has never been without frames on back order. His clientele used to be predominantly racers -- Betsy King, one of the top women racers in the world, rides a Hollands -- but now includes people interested in touring and distance-riding. Practically a whole department of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital rides Hollands.
As a custom builder, he also gets the odd orders. Many of his bikes are for people whose size or body shape doesn't fit on ready-made bicycles. Right now he has a frame for a 72-year-old woman with arthritis, built to her doctor's specifications. He's changed the geometry on frames for people with fused vertebrae, built one for a person who can pedal with only one leg, even made a mountain bike for a dwarf in Vermont.
With James working as something of an apprentice, he produces about 100 frames a year and would like to make about 300. Though prices start at $850 for a frame -- at least another $700 is needed for the rest of the equipment -- it is still not a lucrative
"It's the best period of my life for work, one of the worst periods for money," Mr. Hollands says of the last four years. "At least now I can do what I think is right. If it's wrong, I don't have to do it."
He and his wife tell stories of customers sent away because an off-the-rack bike would fit them just fine, or others turned down because they were shopping for their first bike. "Ethically, it's not right to charge someone for a custom frame if they don't even know if they're going to like biking," he said.
"We had a call from a gentleman last year, actually he had his chauffeur call," Mrs. Hollands remembers. "He wanted us to build his five-year-old boy a bike. John said no because by the time the bike was finished, the boy would be six and it would be too small for him."
"Finally the man grabbed the phone and wanted to know what was wrong with his money," Mr. Hollands says. "I told him probably nothing, but ethically I'm not going to do this for you."
"Nobody's going to fire you for keeping your ethics," Mrs. Hollands says of working for yourself. "We might end up broke, but at least we have our integrity.
The Hollands take pride in sailing successfully against those winds of the '80s that almost wrecked their lives. He talks of seeing the companies he worked for taken over by business school accountant types, forgetting they were in business to make a product, not just profits, shipping jobs overseas to make more money, even if it meant less quality.
He blames these people for the damage done to the American industrial might that drew him across the Atlantic a quarter-century ago.
"What I think everyone should know is that there are still people in America who are making things well," Mrs. Hollands says. "The quality is still out there."
"America is now setting the world standard in bicycles," Mr. Hollands says, with some irony intended because almost every bike sold here is made in Japan or Taiwan. A handful of American craftsman like Mr. Hollands turn out these top-of-the-line products.
"I have a customer who is from Italy. He's going back next year and he wants to take an American bike with him," Mr. Hollands says. "Italy is supposed to be the Mecca of bicycle manufacturing."
For a few hundred people, their bicycle pilgrimage was not to Milan or Turin, but to Reisterstown, where Mr. Hollands shapes steel tubes bought from manufacturers in the United States, Italy and England.
"I don't use Japanese tubing. I find it's not as forgiving, it does unpredictable things under heat," Mr. Hollands says. "Besides, I just like to say we don't use Japanese tubing."