By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
Brown has always enjoyed cycling, but it hasn’t been easy on his body. His bikes have never fit properly, leading to knee pain and general stiffness in his arms and shoulders from being hunched over a too-small frame.
And it’s been rough on his bikes, too.
“I am the bike destroyer,” joked Brown, 50. “I have broken frames and ripped gears off my bikes for many years now. One time, the frame just snapped while I was doing a trail ride on top of a mountain.”
Things finally shifted a few years ago when Brown met bicycle builder David Folch in an online forum for tall people. Thanks to that connection, Brown now sits astride a first bike that really fits him.
Folch is the founder of DirtySixer, a Santa Cruz-based company that specifically designs, engineers and hand-builds bikes for tall folks. They’re not just scaled up, either. When he custom designs his aluminum bike frames with rigid chromoly steel forks, he takes into account bigger hands, longer legs, and feet that fit shoes in sizes 15 to 20, which require bigger pedals.
“It’s a more upright riding position, less aggressive,” explained Folch, who at 6-6 knows firsthand the challenges of proper bike fit. “No one wants to be folded up on the bike.”
This month, DirtySixer is expanding its offerings by rolling out a new wheel size: 32 inches. That smaller size is intended to fill the gap for people 6-4 and under. That will capture a bigger slice of the market for Folch, 42, who launched his company in 2013 but didn’t really start selling bikes until last year.
He calls the bikes “all-terrain, do-everything bikes,” meaning that they can serve as mountain, road and commuter bikes. His original line of bikes, which he will continue making, feature 36-inch wheels — far exceeding the popular 29-inch mountain bike wheel. Previously, the industry standard for a mountain bike wheel was 26 inches.
So who rides bikes with jumbo 36-inch wheels? Typically people towering from 6-5 to 7-5 and weighing up to 320 pounds. That range includes NBA star-turned-commentator Shaquille O’Neal, who has purchased two bikes from Folch. O’Neal is one of several prominent basketball players who have ordered bikes. Folch is also talking with retired WNBA players.
“I can’t do any name dropping, but it will be nice to have not only big dudes, but also the ladies on the bikes,” Folch said.
Although he played basketball as a kid growing up in France, Folch said he did it “poorly.” Bicycling was what he loved.
“In my small village in the south, it was the ticket to get out in the vineyard, do stupid things away from my parents and visit friends in the nearby village,” Folch said. “So my first bicycle was a road Peugeot that I used to ride with the drop bars upright — that was ridiculous. I ended up breaking the fork in a crash trying to jump it and went to the ER with a cut eyebrow. This is when I switched to BMX, but I wasn’t that good and crashed a lot and broke my frame. (I) tried to have it welded up, but it was stolen. Then I bought a cheap mountain bike, 26-inch wheels and another same one from Cannondale. At that point, I was 6-6 and could tell these bikes were not made for me. I dropped riding when I felt that hitting the bars with my knees would just get me more crashes.”
Brown can relate to Folch’s early foils on the bike.
“I definitely had an appreciation for bike riding since I was a child,” Brown said. “It was our only reliable form of transportation in the Hollywood Hills. I would ride to school, to friends’ houses and sometimes into Hollywood or the San Fernando Valley.”
When he turned 21, Brown started riding a Specialized Stumpjumper, his first high-quality bike.
“I loved it and would spend my weekends riding to the beach, going 50, 60, to 70 miles at a time,” he said. “I also attempted the Solvang Century on knobby tires. I lasted 68 miles before my knees gave out.”
Fast forward to 2015, when Brown sent out an email expressing interest in mountain biking at the cross country event at Sea Otter Classic. What happened next was totally unexpected.
“David said his rider for the Clydesdale event had been injured and asked if I would like to take his place in the race,” Brown said. “Since I didn’t know any better, I said yes. Within the first mile, everyone was gone. The uphill at Sea Otter is more difficult than I had thought. I am pretty sure I came in dead last, but it was so much fun being on a bike again, I didn’t care. The thing that shocked me the most was that I was not in extreme pain the day after 18 miles on a bike. I think it was the first time in over 30 years I was on a bike that actually fit me.”
When asked the about the benefits of being tall, Folch said, “People will remember you, good or bad. So, better behave ’cause we stand out in the crowd.”
Good thing Folch and his big bikes stand out in a good way.
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.