Tom Lais owns two custom bikes made by Alex Cook. He has ridden them along the Baltic Sea in Finland, on the streets of London, throughout the Upper Midwest and into Canada.
Whether riding “the Pink Lady” or “Oscar,” “people will look at my bike and say, ‘Oh, that’s Alex Cook,’ ” said Lais, a longtime St. Paulite who recently moved to Milwaukee. “People around the country know his work.”
That happens when a guy brings top-of-the-line stainless steel, world-class tools and painstaking precision to the monthlong process of building a bicycle.
Even if the guy is 25.
“He’s an artist, man. This is an art, and he puts his soul into it,” Lais said.
Cook has loved bikes since middle school, “when I wanted to start gaining some independence,” he said. “In high school, when my friends started getting their driver’s licenses, I was really bummed out that we weren’t just messing around on bikes.”
Instead of getting a license when he turned 16, Cook got a job — at the Bicycle Chain shop in Roseville, where he started taking apart bicycles and putting them back together.
“I remember at one point I wanted to be a train driver,” he said, “but I think every young boy wants to be a train driver. Once I started in the bike industry, I’ve never wanted anything else.”
So he learned whatever he could at the bike shop, then took a three-week course at the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Ore. When he came back from Oregon, Cook bought a few tools and a frame-building fixture and started making bikes for himself and his co-workers.
His first few efforts “were not really good at all,” he admitted. “It took a number of bikes before I really started being proud of what I was doing.”
But as he improved, Cook ended up with “more orders that I could reasonably complete” along with having a full-time job. So three years ago he launched A-train, his own custom bike company.
Now he works two days a week at the Angry Catfish bike shop and spends at least 40 more hours in a 300-square-foot section of A-train’s warehouse in south Minneapolis, which he calls “my little slice of heaven. This is truly a ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ thing,” he said.
His national reputation is such that about 60 percent of his orders are from out of state. His primary customer base is not his generation, but “the generation that grew up on Schwinn Typhoons. And they’ve been riding all their life and they’re used to store-bought bikes and are kind of sick of riding the same thing.”
Cook’s goal is to build these customers “the last bike they’ll ever need.”
Q: What makes someone a master of bike-building?
A: I don’t think you ever truly master anything in life. You can be excellent at what you do.
Q: OK, what makes an excellent bike builder?
A: The attention to detail and the time you take on every bike. I’m detail-oriented almost to a fault. And you need high-quality equipment and tools. I love tools almost as much as I like bikes. Also precision. A frame looks like a simple device. And it is; a bicycle is incredibly simple. But the alignment, I always make sure it’s all less than a millimeter off.
Q: What are the best and worst parts of the job?
A: I think the greatest thing about my job is when a customer picks up his or her new custom A-train and being able to see the excitement and joy it gives them. There is a lot of sweat that goes into every bike I build, but seeing what it means to the rider makes it all worth it. The worst thing, I would probably have to say, all the aspects of owning a small business that keep me at my desk as opposed to my workbench.
Q: Does being really good at this help other parts of your life?
A: I guess I am pretty good at fixing things. I would credit that to working with my hands and the problem-solving and critical thinking involved in building custom bicycle frames.
Q: Are there sacrifices?
A: Yes. The craft of frame building is very much a labor of love. Many hours go into crafting each frame. This makes for long hours and often working weekends. Luckily, I have a very supportive wife.