This is Jon Norstog, the macher behind Thursday Bicycles. Story of my wasted life! I started riding bicycles when I was an undersized seven-year-old. My father took away my trike and for my eighth birthday gave me an “English racer” - a 3-speed with a gaspipe frame. I never quit riding bicycles and had quite a few, including some very nice ones during the bicycle boom of the 1970s.
I rode those bicycles when I went away to college, when I was in the Coast Guard, when I went back to college and got that degree in architecture, when I dropped out and lived outdoors, in vacant buildings, on the road. And when I resurfaced and went back to graduate school. There was always something about those bikes I wanted to change ..
That graduate degree took me half way around the world, to Thailand and back, me and that red Raleigh International. The one with no upper rack mounts. Finally I bought some bosses and silver-brazed them on with a propane torch. Then I re-brazed a loose seatstay bridge on a nice frame I picked up for my daughter.
I convinced my wife that “we” needed as set of oxy-acetylene torches so I could repair a bashed-in fender on our old Volvo. I could really swing with those torches. By then we were living in Dine’ Bikeya - the Navajo reservation – where I was a tribal official. That’s another story. It was usually pretty hectic, but Thursdays tended to be slow, so I started taking Thursday afternoons off and puttering around with bicycles. I was cutting and brazing frames to change geometry; adding braze-ons galore; brazing on racks; even cutting up old frames to make new ones. Window Rock is in Arizona at about 7,000 feet elevation. I set up my workbenches out back of our Tribal Housing duplex and was able to build ten months of the year.
I found out about Aircraft Spruce about that time and started building frames with new material. Not much later on I got hooked up with Reynolds USA and was able to get bicycle tubing. I started surprising myself how nice the bikes were. They actually looked and rode better than what the majors were producing.
There was no place within a couple hundred miles to get a bike painted so I broke down and bought a compressor and a cheap detail gun. I soon realized that toned down car colors were not intense enough for an object the size of a bicycle. Fortunately there was a Navajo guy, Chuck, who owned a paint shop in Gallup and loved to mix paint. I still have some of the colors he mixed for me. Window Rock was great for painting, sunny, early mornings before the wind kicked up, just enough breeze to move the overspray and vapors away from you.
I started building bikes to geometry and specs I found in the bike magazines, and painting them car colors. My thinking about frame design evolved pretty quickly; two early influences One was a Keith Bontrager mountain bike frame I saw at Cosmic Cycles in Flagstaff. It was radically different from the mountain bikes of the time – it looked fast, it was light, looked like something you could win races with. So I copied the angles and built a couple frames in my size, with the old Reynolds 653 tubeset. I sold one to a Tribal attorney, and still ride the other one, twenty-some years later.
The other influence was the Lynn Kastan “Mosh” twenty-incher. What a revelation. You could do anything with that bike provided you could keep the front wheel on the ground. I had built a few BMX bikes pretty much copying Redline geometry of the day. After riding the Mosh, I shortened the chainstays on my BMX bikes to under fourteen inches for a twenty, and fifteen or less for a twenty-four-inch wheel frame, and started using a 1 1/4” seat tube with 7/8” round chainstays.
By this time there had been a tribal election and someone’s relative needed my job. So the last half of the ‘90s I had time to make LOTS of bicycles, which I did. I also started racing BMX, first so I could get a feeling for what worked in a BMX frame, and then, once I had it pretty well dialed in, just for the hell of it. My son was 11, 12 those years so he wanted to race too. I’d build the bikes and we’d race them at Duke City BMX, joking and laughing on the long drive back to Window Rock, waving our trophies at people in passing cars …
The BMX bikes, that fast handling and out-of-the-saddle riding style, started working its way into the other bikes I designed and built. I built cross country bikes with a low standover and 72/72 angles, bikes with short chainstays and fast handling, bikes for dual slalom, four cross and technical situations. I built for advanced riders, bikes that the majors couldn’t mass-produce because they had to build to the lowest common denominator of rider skill.
Stories! Every bike has a story behind it; why it is that way. My Navajo friends used to joke about making a bike for sheepherding, so I started making them. The design concept evolved into the Muttonmaster utility bike. Memories of running away to Europe with my future wife, and riding the paths and cobbles on those nice 3-speed bikes they had, led a city bike. I called it “Je Ne Regrette Rien” and turned out a few of them. My young son picked the names for two bikes: “Phantom of the Opera” was a 20” BMX bike with somewhat easier geometry and water-bottle bosses; the “Bumblebee” was the name he gave for my yellow-and-black slalom bike. I raced a lot of latino guys at Duke City, so I called the pro model BMX bikes “Mi Vida Loca.”
The move to Idaho was kind of a step up. I bought a house with a big garage and had a shop indoors at last. There were three or four BMX tracks within easy driving distance so I started racing a lot, and got a lot better at it, winning five state championships. There was at least 50 miles of singletrack I could ride to the trailhead. There was internet service so I could really reach out, website and all. I had everything I needed except customers! Oh well, that’s life.
I lost my day job and my wife retired and moved in with me. We had some money so we bought a house in Portland where I am still building a few frames. I crashed pretty bad in a BMX national in 2014 and have hung up the gloves. What has taken the place of racing for me is bicycle touring. I rode Italy last year and am thinking about doing it again this year, plus Thailand and Laos next winter. The market for custom frames really never recovered after 2008; the people who would ordinarily be young clients are too broke to afford a frame, while the people who CAN afford one already have one. Or two. Or three...