Craft Culture: Custom Bike Frames at Prairie Crow Bikeworks

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Photos by Matt Lien

Tucked among the houses of Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood sits the Shasta building, a sprawling industrial fortress, whose lungs make a constant metal on metal rasp. Alex Heegaard-LeGros of Prairie Crow Bikeworks brings me back through the long hallways, past the scores of tenants clanging and banging, to his corner space. “I’m super excited,” he says, pointing to the front swath of the building. “This guy’s moving out, so we’ll soon get a small expansion.”

That “we” speaks more to Alex’s belief in the biking community than it does his operation.

Prairie Crow is just Alex, and even with a wall of customized frames lined up for clients, he also works part-time at the Hub Bike Co-op. It helps him keep an eye on trends; a lone wolf can get too isolated. “No one does just frame building,” Alex says. A lot of frames take a long time to build. If you want to resuscitate your old Raleigh with a bent or cracked frame tube, it can be three months. Frame builds from scratch can take six to seven.

Alex has worked within bikes for most of his adult life. Before the Hub, he was working in another bike shop where he would talk endlessly about frame building during his shifts. Finally, his boss told him, “All right, shut up and go do something about it.” So he did. For four years now he’s been building and operating under the Prairie Crow moniker, which came to him on a solo bike tour in the Utah desert. He was searching for a name that would pay homage to the Midwest—he’s from here, and by the sounds of it, isn’t in a hurry to leave—but he wasn’t sure how to connect it. Until one day on a ride, he looked up and saw two circling crows.

“In many ways, they’re dependable companions,” Alex explains. But while crows are very social and stay in close-knit family groups, they also express a sense of independence found in cyclists. “Like cyclists, even when we’re riding together we’re alone on our machines.”

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Alex learned his craft from Paul Wiganowski of Princeton, one of the oldest established frame builders in the state. It took him about a year to feel comfortable with his own technical skills, and, even now, he’ll consult fellow frame builders if he runs into issues. True to the Midwestern spirit, there’s a collaborative ethos amongst them.

The first thing you notice about Alex is how comfortable he is in the metal shop. Once you get him talking about the mechanics and the building process and get a torch in his hand, he adopts a Zen-like calm. A graphing calculator sits on a granite surface plate, signaling the kind of technical proficiency required for the work. Alex is mathematically capable and comfortable doling out chemistry lessons in miniature, but in his gut, he’s a creative soul—a matchmaker.

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To begin a custom build, Alex asks his clients to send him pictures of inspiration, from motorcycles to animals and beyond. He still gets nervous during pitches—the beginning stages require translating the client’s “ethereal dream.” It’s no small task but, like a greased-up midwife, Alex doesn’t interfere. He’s more interested in seeing someone else’s creation into the world—squeegeed, wiped, and hopefully with a long life ahead of it.

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After the idea becomes clear in his mind, much like a tailor, Alex gets their measurements—torso, arm length, foot to pubic bone—and watches them ride. If you ride more upright or lean a certain way, Alex takes it into consideration. He’s creating for aesthetic, but fitting for the body. When he’s ready, he draws up a blueprint, which can take an hour or more. “You want to watch out for things like toe overlap. On small frames with big tires, your foot can hit the front tire when you turn.” Then he gets the green light from the client and sets to work.

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