March 28, 2008: 3:12 PM EDT
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Silicon Valley's cult ride

The latest status symbol of the technorati is a seriously old-school bicycle. You can get on Brent Steelman's waiting list- but only if you ace your interview.

By Jessi Hempel, writer

Spinmeister: Steelman, near his Redwood City, Calif., workshop, makes only about 50 bikes a year.
Hot rod: Steelman welds a bike in his Redwood City workshop.
Three more for the road
Not ready to go custom? We asked Myles Saffian of Mike's Bikes in Sausalito for three picks.
A basic carbon frame that's strong enough to race on. Cannondale Synapse Carbon 5,
A women-specific design that's tops for small bodies.
An elegant steel frame for both commuting and racing. Rocky Mountain Solo 50ST,

(Fortune) -- On any given Saturday morning, throngs of bikers in brightly colored jerseys cluster in front of Roberts Market in Woodside, Calif., preparing to hit the back roads of Portola Valley. Among this unlikely crew are some of technology's titans.

But while they spend their days chasing the next, newest, lightest, fastest thing, the most coveted bike in these circles doesn't have titanium forks or computers to record each pedal stroke.

It's a handmade, hand-measured steel frame bike by a little-known guy named Brent Steelman.

At 6-foot-1, with white just starting to show through his red beard, Steelman is somewhat of a cult hero to clients like Kohlberg Kravitz Roberts co-founder George Roberts, Trinity Ventures partner Noel Fenton, and Accel Partners VC and Facebook board member Jim Breyer, who raves that the bikes are "perfectly proportioned."

A former racer who started building bikes in his teens, Steelman doesn't mess with fancy new materials. He attends no trade shows and does no advertising.

And it takes more than money to secure a Steelman: "When I'm building, a tremendous amount of my energy goes into that bike, that person," he says. "There are certain people I get the wrong vibe from, and I just don't deal with them." Once you make the cut, Steelman's interview process can take up to three hours.

Savile Row tailoring

That's because Steelman fits each of his bikes, which cost an average of $5,500, with the precision of a Savile Row tailor. He measures from the bottom of your foot to the base of your kneecap, from the upper reach of your arm to your wrist joint, even your shoe size.

He cuts a frame's tubes to your exact proportions. "Even the slightest differences in how straight a frame is will impact the handling," says David Strong, a hedge fund manager from Marin who owns three Steelman cycles. "Brent's bikes are not even a millimeter off."

Purists like Strong also like Steelman's bikes because they're "stiff"- they give riders a heightened sense of momentum. And while Steelman uses high-end components from companies like Campagnolo, Shimano, and Dedacciai - he favors traditional steel over carbon because it gives his bikes the feel of a road-gripping Porsche vs. a smooth-riding Lexus.

His bikes may ride like high-end sports cars, but Steelman's workshop - an unmarked warehouse in Redwood City just off Route 101 - is decidedly downscale.

He has no employees, and he doesn't much like it when customers arrive unannounced. His wife, Katryn, runs the office from a walnut table out front, while in back Steelman, the grandson of a mechanical engineer, has built not just bikes but the equipment that makes the bikes.

He purchased most of the dozen World War Il-era machines in his shop at auction and retooled them to, for example, slice through thin metal tubing or add the delicate bend to the back fork. The work is painstaking: It takes at least six months for Steelman to complete an order, meaning he makes only 50 bikes a year.

To catch a thief

His bikes are so special that his followers can identify when they were made and often for whom. In 2002, a bank robber dubbed the Choirboy Bandit hit a string of Bay Area banks, then ditched his getaway vehicle (a Steelman) and ran on foot. Police nabbed the bike - and Steelman posted photos of it on his Web site. Within two weeks the cyclist was arrested.

Of course, there is one other reason the bikes take so long to build: Their creator spends a good deal of his time in the saddle. He commutes six miles to work each day and takes several 30- to 70-mile spins a week.

Recently, on the Bay Area's first sunny morning after nine days of rain, this reporter joined Steelman on a ride through Redwood City's hills toward Woodside.

"It's amazing," said Steelman between pedal strokes, as he began a three-mile climb. "For the amount of resources that go into a bike and how much it weighs and how far it will take you, it's the most efficient form of transportation." And if it's a Steelman, one that sets you apart from everyone else on the road.  To top of page

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