Sparks are flying as Sam Whittingham gets to work on his latest project. The custom bicycle he’s working on is going to a special client – Taiwanese movie star Stanley Huang.
While it’s not typical of Whittingham to make bikes for celebrities, it’s not unheard of either. His work in the past has attracted the attention of legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong purchased a bike Whittingham had on display at the 2008 North American Hand Made Bike Show in Portland, Oregon. “We had built this specialized bike and he bought it,” Whittingham says.
That bike also garnered three awards – President’s Choice, People’s Choice and Best in Show.But the notoriety Whittingham gained from Armstrong’s purchase was priceless.
“With all the publicity that went along with it, and the story with Lance, that probably made us more well-known to the public and among people who follow bikes,” Whittingham says.
Whittingham’s business, dubbed Naked Bicycles, is so popular among the cycling community that, combined with the fact Whittingham works on just one bike at a time, there’s a one year wait list for one of his custom creations. “We’re really busy,” Whittingham says. “We have 50 bikes waiting.”
While Whittingham makes his home on Quadra Island, the majority of his orders come from other parts of BC, from places like Vancouver and Victoria, the Comox Valley and Nanaimo. But he’s also known for his work around the world, taking orders from clients like Huang.
From his humble workshop – a shop that used to be his father’s – Whittingham welds, hammers and carves out custom bicycles for each and every client. “Every bike is unique to each person,” Whittingham says. “We never build the same bike twice.
“We provide a service for people, who, for whatever reason need something not typically available in the stores,” Whittingham adds. “Whether it’s maybe because they’re really tall or they’re really short or they can’t find a bike in the colour they want. They come to us if they want something in particular. They come and get exactly what they want, in exactly the right fit and it will last a long time.”
But while Whittingham’s one-of-a-kind bikes have put him on the map, so to speak, he’s known in the cycling community for other reasons.
Namely, for being the fastest man in Canada on wheels.
For 20 years, Whittingham partnered with George Georgiev, a Gabriola man known for building hand cycles for disabled athletes. The pair went after the world speed record using a human-powered vehicle built by Georgiev and ridden by Whittingham.
“In 2000, we finally broke that record and then we broke it again four or five more times,” Whittingham says. “I held that record until last year; I had it for 14 years.”
The cyclist who broke Whittingham’s record is from the Netherlands and Whittingham is happy to let him have it.
“Our whole thing was to see how fast we could go and after 14 years, we found out,” Whittingham says. “It was a lot of time and energy for a sport that doesn’t give out a lot of prize money.”
Since then, Whittingham has turned his focus to building the best quality bicycles that he can.
He says that what started out as a hobby has taken on a life of its own.
His inspiration came from a friend who failed out of high school.
“A friend of mine had to go to summer school and his parents were so mad that they refused to drive him to school,” Whittingham recalls. “So he pieced together a bike with the help of Pedal Your World in Campbell River.”
His friend grew to enjoy cycling so much that he entered a bike race in the Comox Valley. Whittingham says he watched with interest and got a racing bike of his own. He spent a few summers working at Pedal Your World where he got his first taste of working on bikes.
He built his own bike but never imagined he could make a career out of it.
After high school, Whittingham enrolled in a theatre design program at the University of Victoria.
He turned theatre work into a full-time profession but long hours away from his home in Victoria and his young children were difficult.
“I thought I needed something closer to home and I built one bike as a hobby,” Whittingham says. “It took one and a half years to build because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere, it was just for fun. But people saw the bike and went ‘whoa, can I get one?’’
For six years, Whittingham balanced building custom bikes for people who requested them and working in theatre design.
Finally, in 2004, his family made the decision to move back to Quadra Island. At the same time, his parents decided to retire to Victoria. They swapped houses and Whittingham moved his family into his childhood home.
He also decided to focus on bicycles full-time and found there was such a demand for custom-made bikes that it has provided him with more than full-time work.
When Whittingham’s not building bicycles, he’s riding them himself or helping others get into cycling.
He’s been busy the past few months trying to build and maintain trails around Quadra Island to accommodate mountain bikers and other trail users.
“We have a lot of trails here and we’re working on getting them more organized,” Whittingham says. “They’re unestablished trails built on public lands and we’re working with government organizations to get them legitimized – to get them advertised and get them on maps.
“We’re noticing people coming off the ferry with mountain bikes all the time,” Whittingham adds. “It used to be just a core group on Quadra Island, but now it’s a pretty wide group so we’re working with local hikers and a rock climbing group to get access to these trails.”
Whittingham says while he’s still focused on Naked Bicycles, he seems to have a found a new hobby.
“That’s where a lot of my passion is these days,” he says. “If I’m not building bikes, it’s mountain biking and building these trails.”