Ministry Cycles: A Radically Agile Approach to Making Bikes
Chris Currie has always dreamed of creating a unique bike. Then last spring, after wrapping up a decade of working at Stan’s, he decided to do exactly that, and Ministry Cycles was born.
“I dusted off a mountain bike suspension patent I have from back in 2010, and I started to explore alternative ways to make bicycle frames,” said Chris, who lives in Vancouver, Washington.
As we’ve all experienced firsthand in recent years, the cycling industry has struggled to keep pace with huge fluctuations in supply and demand. First, there weren’t enough bikes and bike parts, and now there are too many. Today, manufacturers are sitting on excess inventory of current products, making it more difficult for them to have the capacity to be able to develop and roll out new products.
Chris believes the time is ripe for disruptive technologies. “As the bicycle industry started slowly turning on its head with supply chain issues and other challenges, I saw what was broken and thought that there had to be a better way. I became really interested in new, radically agile ways to make bike stuff.”
He was inspired by what companies like Czinger vehicles were doing with 3D printed components. Czinger has developed a completely automated, additive manufacturing technique for cars.
“A lot of the future of manufacturing is going toward a more sustainable approach to materials and transportation that allows companies to only make what is needed,” said Chris. “The big advantage to radically agile manufacturing is that you can produce much closer to on-demand products. It means you don’t need to pay a lot for tooling and commit to a long-term, multi-year vision. You can change and adapt your designs and evolve quickly. There is more design flexibility in what you can do. There are fewer limitations.”
But at the end of the day, Chris says he just wants to create a really cool mountain bike frame.
A Different Approach
Chris chose a 7075 Aluminum alloy for his bike frame material and CNC machining as the way to make his frame’s parts, which are then bonded together. For the time being, the bonding is done by Chris himself in his garage.
“My frames are hybrid factory and hand-finished. The only real limitations in productivity at the moment are me and the bonding process. Everything else is scalable and agile,” said Chris. “Each part has a file and can be made in multiple different places. The idea is that the parts themselves are completely portable and can be made anywhere.”
The advantage to a radically agile manufacturing approach is that a manufacturer can be more responsive to major disruptions like geopolitical events and acts of nature.
“It makes what I do much less vulnerable than the rest of the bike industry,” said Chris.
As we spoke with Chris, the latest prototype was bonding in his garage. His first few frames were slated for testing, both in the lab and in the field, and he’s hoping to manage to make enough to have some on display at various booths at the Sea Otter Classic and Crankworx.
Becoming an Entrepreneur, Again
Ministry Cycles isn’t the first company Chris started. He and his wife created an e-commerce bike business called Speedgoat back in 1997. What’s different about this time around is that he hopes to be able to actually enjoy the process. His goal is to maintain awareness of everything as it happens.
“With Speedgoat, we went from ‘I think we just started a company.’ to ‘Oh my god, we started a company!’. There was one emergency after the other for 15 years. It meant that I missed a lot of the high points because I was so busy. In hindsight, I realized we had built a cool company, but I didn’t get to enjoy it as it happened.”
Chris shared one particularly memorable moment so far.
“The first time you glue a frame together in your garage and go ride it is an experience unlike anything else,” he said. “I knew on paper that it should work, but I rode that first generation prototype around the neighborhood, and I just expected it to fall apart. But it didn’t. I almost forgot to notice that I was riding a bike I had fabricated completely, and it was staying together. I just kept pedaling.”
Before long, that prototype had 1,000 miles on it.
From Marketing Wheels and Sealant to Marketing Bikes
In his most recent capacity at Stan’s, Chris was the Creative Director. The experience he gained has been serving him well.
“Stan’s was an amazing opportunity. Just getting to hold the handlebars at such a big, renowned brand was really special. I learned so much about products,” said Chris. “[President] Mike Bush was a big inspiration, too. He has a decidedly thorough approach to design and product and always asks, ‘What about?’. To be able to steal that page from the playbook helps a lot. There’s probably always something you didn’t think about, and if you take the time to do so, it ultimately saves you time in the development process.”
Chris has done just about everything there is to do in bike industry marketing -- making print and digital ads, building trade show booths, creating websites, working with athletes, and building and managing a brand’s reputation to name a few. Now he’s doing those things for his own brand.
“At this point, there’s very little that phases me. There’s no better education that I could have had before going forth and making my own products.”
The best part for Chris about having been at Stan’s was seeing the different ways that bicycles are important to people and how they can change lives. “I got to be a part of so many positive stories, helping prevent flat tires and save rides,” he said.
It was, in fact, his faith in bicycles as a force for positive change in the world that made Chris decide to call his company “Ministry Cycles”. Contrary to how it may sound, the name’s not about any particular religious affiliation. Some ‘90s industrial metal music aficionados will get the reference to a popular band from that era.
“I realize how important bikes are -- not just to the world as a means of transportation, but also as a mental health thing,” said Chris. “I think the pandemic showed us how much bicycles matter... even more so than before.”
Getting to market a product he’s designed and built is something that comes naturally to Chris.
“Product is your single best marketing tool, and when you can be involved in product development and design and you have the skills to market it, that’s the ideal scenario. When you’ve helped bring about a product, you feel it in your bones and you understand it inside and out. The marketing is automatic because it matters tremendously.”
Starting a company in the early 2020s has been a lot different than it was in the late 1990s. Chris calls it a “wild experience”, and he’s taking a fresh approach in light of how technology and marketing have changed over the years.
“I want to build the brand with a bunch of consumers involved so they feel like they’re a part of it,” he said. “I’ve adopted a process of radical transparency, and I'm documenting it all on Instagram and TikTok every day.”
For Chris, an OG kind of sales and marketing bike industry person, it’s been an interesting and unusual undertaking.
“I’m throwing the door wide open and letting people into the brand,” he said. “Consumers don’t want to be marketed to. They only want to know what you’re doing and why. They don’t care who you are.”
With all that in mind, Chris strives to make Ministry Cycles a positive presence on social media. “In my own small way, I’m aware of the role that anyone doing something on social media plays. Social media fills the voids of emptiness in life, and I think too much of bicycles to let my posting on social media evolve into me ranting about bikes and what’s going on. Instead, I’ve adopted a radical customer service approach. There aren’t any dumb questions or any judgements. Yes, I get a lot of wacky responses and wacky followers, but there’s so much toxicity out there. I figure if I can do anything to get more people into bicycles and bicycle products, that’s a lot healthier for a lot of people.”
Chris has been encouraged by how many young people have reached out to tell him that they want to become an engineer or get into the bike industry. “I appreciate it when they say I’ve been an inspiration, and I take the time to reply meaningfully to everyone.”
What’s unique about Ministry Cycles’ approach to bikes is the use of an intentionally modular design that’s built to evolve. It has adjustable dropouts so riders could explore a longer wheelbase, taking it, for example, from 1250 to 1260 mm (Yes, the suspension kinematics allow for that). It also has an adjustable reach. A rider can literally flip the chip and have 480 or 490 mm reach.
Chris has been working with an engineer based in the UK called Certa Design. As the pair collaborates and comes up with a better solution to a design aspect, they implement it.
A lot of attention has gone into the relationship of geometry and suspension. “I’ve made a life of understanding the balance point and how it relates to the suspension,” said Chris. “This bike looks different because it is different.”
Yes, the bike has a normal form factor, but even people who don’t know much about bikes tend to stop and ask Chris what’s up with his bike.
CNC machining lets engineers do different things with shapes, thus unleashing design potential. “You can optimize shapes more like you would for carbon fiber. You can adjust things like wall thicknesses. “We’re still testing, but I think there’s a durability advantage. With this bike, a rock kicked up isn’t a big deal. The bike is pretty indestructible because its structural integrity is good.”
Ride characteristics are halfway between what you get with a carbon and a metal bike. “It looks distinct, and it rides distinctly. I’ve been working on this suspension design since 2005, so it’s almost 20 years. It’s good for braking behavior, acceleration behavior, and leverage ratio. I think people notice the suspension is very sensitive, yet it also pedals really well.”
Ministry Cycles is initially focusing on a single trail/enduro model in just one size (medium-large). Their first product created with the radically agile manufacturing technique is for 29” wheels and has 150 mm of rear travel. It’s intended for use with a 160 or 170 mm travel fork.
Pre-orders are currently being accepted for tentative delivery in spring 2023.
An Auspicious Start
Perhaps the best part of Chris’s experience to date has been the positive reception Ministry Cycles has gotten.
“I was expecting to have to sell what I’m doing more,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting so many people to just look at it and want it.”
While most new brands get started by first assembling a team of stakeholders, securing financing, and creating a big buzz while they figure out the details, Chris’s more individualistic and thoroughly researched approach seems to be working well.
“The most surprising thing has been the lack of surprises,” he said. “It’s been a crazy thing to do, and it seems like it would be the premise for a bad Learning Channel reality show where things go horribly wrong, but I had a plan, and I’m executing it.”
“It could still go sideways tomorrow but so far, it turns out that the things you research for a really long time really do work.”
Learn more about Ministry Cycles.