What Not to Name Your Bikes
When I first started building bikes, I wasn’t doing it for the business of it. I didn’t know or even think about creating a brand. I did it because I wanted to make cool stuff, to play with fire and steel. But a year or so in, after having made several bikes (for the cost of tubes — my labor mostly free), and custom racks, I needed to figure out something to call my bikes. A brand was forming, whether I wanted to admit it or not. I most loved the look of the un-branded bike — no language at all on the parts or the frame. But the idea that someone would pay me for a bicycle I built with my own hands was a revelation that was beginning to dawn. Just amazing, I thought. But I needed some way for people to to find me, to find know my work. I needed to name my bikes, and name my business. It seems so obvious now, and so easy, but holy hell, that was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.
Hand made bikes are traditionally branded with the name of the builder. In the 1980s & 90s, as the industry grew in the USA, mainly because of the rise in popularity of mountain biking, the way of naming bike brands shifted, becoming more like that of cars — naming them for “things” rather than the people who made them.
Of course, naming bikes after people continued, but what were bicycle business owners to do if their names didn’t lend themselves to bicycle branding? Often bike branding includes elements of what is “cool,” or somehow implies speed or strength. But what were you to do if your last name was something average, pedestrian, or was in competition with other brand names? For example, what if your last name was Smith, and you had to compete with a much larger maker of eyewear? Or what if your name was Johnson? Who could keep a straight face when asked what kind of bike they ride?
“Oh, I ride a Johnson.”
Hm, I bet you do. You can see how well this might go over with weekend warriors and racer A-types out to conquer the competition, all muscle-hustle and panting in their spandex.
As a side note, and speaking of Johnsons, if you haven’t seen The Big Lebowski, then I’d suggest you do so in a great hurry, for you are missing out on some classic American cinema.
As a double side note, in regard to bike names, I did for a moment consider calling my company Nihilist Bikes, although I can’t recall if this name was inspired by the Lebowski film. Abide Bikes, though, definitely was. White Russian Frames & Forks. Dead Donny Bikes. I could keep going. Shall I keep going?
I was so resistant to using my last name. Nothing about the name Ahearne seemed right for bikes. It didn’t point toward anything like speed or strength, royalty, flight, elegance. I felt like there was no ring to it. It has too many vowels; and how was it pronounced, anyway? Accent on the A, or accent on the hearne? (For the record, for my name, accent is on the A. Other people with the same name may pronounce it differently, though. Even within my own family. Call it Irish American confusion, I don’t know…).
Another thing was, I could be insecure when it came to anything that sounded personally boastful, and what could be more boastful than associating my name with a brand, and something I hoped was (or would become) high quality? I was just discovering the nature of the business I was building — I could hardly admit to myself I was building a business at all. But there it was: I wanted to make a product that people would talk about, and want to buy, and calling it by my own name was somehow a lot to ask. It’s a strange and self-defeating insecurity, I know, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t factor in.
What the name Ahearne had going for it, though, was that it was unique enough in America that I didn’t risk overstepping some boundary with another brand, and it didn’t point at some cultural reference that might embarrass anyone. But still, it just sounded weird to me.
In my resistance I experimented with a lot of other bike names. I tried Grimace Fabrication, because I frowned a lot, but people told me it reminded them of this purple cartoon character in the fast food world. The Grimace idea went far enough that a friend, Evan, hand cut a couple of Grimace logos from vinyl, kind of graffiti style, and I stuck them on the down tube of at least one bike. Maybe two. Today, thinking about Grimace makes me wince, and then smile, alternately, which is good for toning muscles in the face.
Another idea I toyed with: When I was born my parents had, for a minute, considered nicknaming me Mojo. I thought, Could this work? Mojo Bicycle Manufacturing, perhaps; or MJM Studios, as another quasi-Hollywood reference. Like the nickname, though, the Mojo idea got quashed. I got called Joey instead. Which, no, never mind.
I thought about Sour Head Bikes and Apocalypse Bikes. Blank Stare Frames. Fisher Price Bikes (as a decoy). Stolen Bikes, until I learned a BMX company already thought of it. Could I steal it back? Some names just got silly: Pistol Grip Frames; Big Dick Bikes; Monster Attack Custom Fabrication; Sad Life Bikes; And so on. I could do this for hours.
What eventually happened was, I built a bike for this guy, Mike Wolfson, a friend from the bike shop where I worked. It was maybe my fifth or sixth frame, an unbranded single speed, lugged, with a smokey clear powder coat. I’d ordered frame materials from this obscure distributor in England, and the lugs had long barbed points that sleeved over the tubes and made the bike look gothic and tough — it was by far the coolest thing I’d built.
When the bike was all finished, before giving it to Mike, I put it in the work stand in my garage-shop, drank probably eight beers and just stared at the frame for hours, touching it, stepping back, shifting the light, looking at it from different angles.
“I made this,” I kept thinking. “With my own hands.” It was a moment of personal astonishment, of almost disbelief, that I could produce something so beautiful. I was finally gaining a bit of confidence in my skills. I saw my progress as a bike builder, it felt like I learned so much every time I lit the torch.
But by this time, more than a year into this business, I still wasn’t officially a business, and I was distraught about not having a name. How would anyone every find me? No name, no website, just a bunch of anonymous tubes with wheels. If I didn’t name my bikes soon, I felt like I was going to die.
When I delivered the bike I told Mike Wolfson my troubles. “I can’t figure it out,” I said. “There just isn’t any name that sounds right.” He knew I’d put Grimace on a bike or two, but he’d told me from the beginning that he wouldn’t have that name on the bike I built for him. I was a little sheepish about it because I knew it was a stupid name.
The day he got his bike, Mike finally said it: “Dude, your bikes are called Ahearne. It’s your name. It’s your bike name.”
Simple as that. I needed to hear this, but I was like, Easy for you to say. You’ve got the cool name.
Son of a Wolf.
This was it, though. I knew he was right and I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I went to Sign Wizards that same week, picked through a giant font book until I found an Old English-style lettering I liked. Karla, a graphic designer, helped me by adjusting the size and letter orientation. I had a name, but I was still too much of a punk to want to put the logo on the down tube, as per tradition. I asked Karla to set the lettering vertically, stacked one on top of another, so I could put the logo on the seat tube. I had her keep it kind of small, but it was a start. I needed to warm to the idea. I ordered five sets of high quality vinyl logos in black.
Tradition or not, though, this was it; This made it official. I had a name. I had my name.
My bike company was now called Ahearne Cycles.