For a man whose career has woven in and out of many major eras of bike history, Glen Copus has managed to fly under the mainstream radar remarkably well. He raced cyclocross in Santa Cruz in the late 70s and early 80s with American cross pioneers Laurence Malone and Dan Nall. He learned how to build bike frames from Keith Bontrager, one of the godfathers of mountain biking. Copus worked as a race mechanic in Europe for the US women’s road team in the 80s. He did production building for Serotta, Bontrager, and Rocky Mountain Bikes. He was in it and has the stories to tell. But one doesn’t get the impression that Copus ever wanted to be a bike industry “name” so much as he wanted to just go to the workshop, put his head down, and build amazing bicycles. When he launched his own bike company Elephant after an 18 year stint in metal fabrication, he chose the name in part to keep his own off the downtube. Today, Copus continues to build Elephant bikes out of his garage workshop in Spokane, WA–a mix of custom frame orders and small-batch production runs. In this interview, Copus discusses his long history in the bike world from shop rat to professional builder, life as a race mechanic, bike art versus commonsense craft, the business side of frame building, and more.
I gather that you got your start in bikes as a BMX racer. Tell me about those early days in California.
There was a BMX shop about 12 miles from my house. It was a difficult ride through a state park with lots of hills. I only rode there once or twice. If they hadn’t moved to the shopping center by my school, I wouldn’t have been able to go there and hang out every single day until they hired me. It was a mail-order place. We sold tons of wheels. Starting my first day I put spokes in hub, put spokes in rim, tightened all nipples equally, put them in pile for owner to fine tune. Repeat. I would make a pile as high as my 12 year old head. Next day, same thing, different color. The owner’s wife showed me how to do it, she could put one together much faster than any of the two or three kids that worked there, but she hated having to work in the shop.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, I had a lot of early exposure to cyclocross, and the owner of the BMX shop brazed some cantilever bosses on an old road frame for me and I tried a race pretty early, maybe 1979. It was pretty hard, I think all riders were lumped in one race. I assumed it was just going to be like a really long BMX race, and as a BMX racer I would blow everyone away. Not so much. That was freshman year of high school. Top level advice was available from guys like Dan Nall and Laurence Malone, so I got pretty good at the detail stuff: dismounts, carrying a bike the right way, setting up the pedal/toeclip interface for maximum efficiency, etc. I think I was always most interested in the bikey part–figuring out what does and doesn’t make the cut. I also did some road races and criteriums, a little cross, and lots of BMX. BMX was pretty easy back then with tiny jumps and tame, repetitive tracks. I can’t believe the stuff they do now.
Did you think in those early days in the shop you’d end up making a career out of bikes?
I don’t think I can really say at this point yet that I’ve made a career out of bikes. I’ve made a career out of welding and I have every intent of making a career out of bikes. But no, at 12 years old I didn’t spend a lot of time plotting my future other than what cool anodized part I was going to buy with my next paycheck. I do remember during my last of three separate time periods at Bontrager that I thought I would be pretty happy being in my garage doing the same thing just without all the other hullabaloo that goes with a big business. I’ve always been a fan of the labor.
When did you go pro with mountain biking?
1985? It doesn’t matter. The people I was riding with were signing up as pro so I did too. Nothing much ever came of it. It seemed like a valid thing to do at that time. I think I got $300 once for a third place. (Only time I recall winning any money). I worked at Siskiyou Cyclery in Oregon and they paid all my entry fees one season, and Keith Bontrager had given me a frame and some rims around then.
How’d you learn to braze and weld?
Much like how I got my first two bike shop jobs, I just started going to Keith’s garage every day. I would just sit in the corner and watch him do stuff. I must not have been too annoying because I started getting little jobs to do after a while. Everything was brazing at that point, but somewhere along the way a TIG welder showed up and I remember we started making quite a few stems that were TIG tacked and fillet brazed. I feel like I might have got to do a lot of those–maybe 50 or so? It was good repetitive learning.
What was it like working with Bontrager in those early days of mountain bike building?
Fascinating. I was just so into bikes and frame building was just a fascinating new branch of that. Man, the first time I went to Bontrager’s house to buy some of those roll-down Super Champion rims, I was just overwhelmed. I think I told him right there, “this is what I want to do.” I’m not sure if I asked for a job then, or just started hanging around all the time. He was going to school and other stuff then, so it was a little hit-or-miss schedule wise, I was also working at a bike shop in Santa Cruz and a car wash, too. And riding lots.
How did you end up working as a race mechanic?
I saw an ad for the first Bill Woodul US Cycling Federation mechanics clinic, applied, and got in. A couple of other guys and I figured things out pretty quick and were offered national team jobs straight away. I chose to work with the women’s team, because it seemed like it would be way cooler than hanging out with a bunch of sweaty guys. It was more of a people skills thing, keeping the riders calm and happy. The mechanic stuff was automatic, we wouldn’t have been there if that wasn’t already high level.
I mostly worked in Europe. Riders rode for their trade teams in the US. Races were always stressful, you don’t really see much of the race unless there is a problem, and the hours are pretty long. I shouldn’t complain though, the races were only half as long as the men’s races. I loved the time between races, driving all over. At a training camp in California one time there was a spate of practical jokes going on, Inga Thompson put a duck in my dorm room. It was initially in the shower but it got out and shat up the place pretty well. I think I retaliated with the cling-wrap over the toilet gambit, but I went to the wrong room.
Mostly I just remember being amazed that I was getting paid to hustle around Europe with a bunch of pretty awesome bike racers, meeting people like Eddy Merckx and Jeannie Longo and all the big-time racers of the day. I was a total fan-boy about all bike racers, totally naïve about what was really going on out there at the dawn of the EPO era.
Did the mechanic gig lead you to Serotta? How was it working there?
I was working for a team that was sponsored by Serotta and got to know Ben over the phone. He knew I was unhappy with some management stuff on the team, knew I had a little frame shop experience, and offered up a job. I may have oversold the frame building experience, though. I loved working there, Ben was an excellent guy to work for, I thought. Really felt appreciated when I was there. It was a pretty great bunch of people to work with, too. Kelly Bedford taught me so much. Dave Kirk, too.
I did lots of prep work, mitering, brazing and finishing dropouts, machining, alignment, etc. All frames at that time were lugged brazed construction. Late in my time there we were making tig-welded track and TT bikes for “Team USA” and I made quite a few of those. Also some 650c tri bikes. There was an ex-navy welder there that patiently got me up to speed on welding thin tubes. I made a couple bikes
I wasn’t cut out for east coast living, though. All our family was on the other side of the country and we were really cut off. Bontrager was expanding a lot and I went back there for a while.
Then you jumped to Rocky Mountain, right? What was it like working with Rocky Mountain building aluminum bikes? That must’ve been the fairly early days of using aluminum for frame building.
I’m not sure how I talked them into that. I didn’t know anything about aluminum. It was awesome, they sent me out to Yeti for a day to learn about aluminum fabrication, FTW [Frank the Welder] showed me how to weld, and I went back and we got cracking. We ramped up from next to nothing to hundreds and hundreds of bikes really fast. We had free reign to do whatever was needed to get production up. I got to design and build tools and machines. It was really a great opportunity, which I bailed out on after a couple of years. Maybe not the best choice.
Why did you start Elephant Bikes?
I’d moved to Spokane, Washington. There are no bike industry jobs in Spokane and I needed steady employment with health care for the kids, so I got a job, put my head down and worked. I spent about 18 years working in a metal fab shop, mostly welding stainless steel pressure vessels, but also building all manner of other things. Over the years I built some frames for friends, did some frame repairs, but just for fun. About 15 years later things started perking up a little and the next thing you know I’m a damn frame builder again and got back into aiming for full time frame building when we had a drop off in the fabrication business.
I never had an inclination to have my name on a bike, so I had to pick a brand name. I had seen a Carlsberg Elephant bar mirror long ago, and thought the head-on view of the Elephant would be a good head tube logo … and there you go. I think I actually started labeling as such when I was at Rocky Mountain Bikes. I needed some extra income at that time and they let me build my own stuff after hours with impunity. I would regularly stay up all night to make a frame for some side money.
Your bread and butter seems to be “adventure” bikes such as the National Forest Explorer and cross bikes. Is this an intentional choice based on the bikes you like to build and ride? Or is it a reflection of what people are ordering these days?
It’s more customer-driven than anything, but I’ve always been partial to riding a cross bike for darn near everything.
What do you think of the industry trend towards bigger tire clearances, fenders, other practical elements that make bikes more versatile? Do you think this’ll last or will things shift to a new hot bike sooner than later?
It seems so obvious, why is it taking so long? I really dislike road bikes that can’t even take a 25c tire. I bought a carbon bike a few years back and when I would ride gravel little stones would jamb in between the tire and frame. So annoying, especially since this bike was named after a famous cobbled classic. But things will always shift to a new hot bike. I’m just happy I can afford to do them the way I want, and not worry too much about hot trends.
You’ve got tremendous building experience, yet your custom bikes are two to three times less expensive than many other custom builders (many of whom just have the experience of a UBI class and a few years of building). Why is that?
First and foremost, I’ve never had a ton of money, and I try to price things at a level that seems reasonable to my budget. I know there must be people out there like me, right? I feel like I am getting a reasonable amount of money out of most bikes, I’ve been really careful to keep my overhead low. I do have a lot of production-based experienced and think I have a pretty efficient process. I don’t do any finish work on most bikes: I braze clean and powdercoat helps a lot. I stick to some pretty basic designs, try to TIG weld whenever I can, have a lot of my bits and pieces made locally. And I don’t really do art, I do commonsense. I love and appreciate NAHBS style bikes, because I know the work involved to make them, but that’s not my deal.
My co-conspirator John Speare has provided much of the impetus to keep me rolling along and exploring new ideas and my wife Christa’s doctorate-level education and support allowed me the freedom to make the full-time leap a couple of years ago without the pressure of taking money out of the business right away. Those years of being a pure hobbyist builder let me acquire some good machinery at an affordable pace, so I feel like I’m set up pretty well right now for a one man shop.
Speaking of production model, you’ve recently started offering small-batch productions of your touring/adventure bike the National Forest Explorer. What inspired you to do that? Do you like that model more than doing one-off custom builds?
Well, that’s been mostly at John’s urging and it makes good sense for a lot of reasons, especially revenue wise. I think at some point we realized that the majority of the bikes I was making were falling into the same genre and a pretty limited size window. We had a great opportunity to do some small batches for another company in the last year or two, and I found I was enjoying the work even more. But at the core of it I think that custom orders feel like a craft/art business and production feels like industry. And I’ve always been more intrigued by industry. I don’t want to have a huge bike factory, but I do try to perform like one.