Born on the farm: Nicolai Bikes

We witness the birth of a frame at the hands of the meticulous Nicolai Bikes.

Drive through Lubbrechtsen and you will miss Nicolai. The perfectly smooth road cuts straight across the gently undulating German countryside, shallow ditches separating it from the vast fields of turnips being harvested by gleaming John Deere tractors. Two-storey-high stacks of them lie randomly dotted across the landscape with their plastic sheeting coats rippling gently in the cool autumnal breeze.

The forest that is home to the trails which shape the Nicolais of the future rises up in the distance in a ripple of browns and golds, like the crust of a well-done pizza.

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Nicolai Maschinenbau
Nicolai factory photos

Nicolai Maschinenbau

Nicolai do pretty much everything differently. There is no industrial estate HQ, instead they’re based in a converted 19th-century farmhouse in the tiny town of Lubbrechtsen. Their owner and founder, Kalle Nicolai, puts it simply: “Raw material enters the factory, bicycle frames leave it.”

© Stefan Eigner
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The board
Nicolai factory photos

The board

The board dominates the head office above the post room. Like a lot of things here it’s on one hand staggeringly simple and on another highly complex. Each individual frame has a magnet which tracks its way across the flow of the board throughout its construction.

© Stefan Eigner
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Raw goods

Raw goods

Nicolai are committed to aluminium alloy and are extremely well-versed in cutting, machining and manipulating it into all manner of tempting shapes. To get the best results from any recipe however, you need to start with the right ingredients. It’s EN AW-AL Zn4.5Mg1.5Mn, to be precise.

© Stefan Eigner
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First cuts
Nicolai factory photos

First cuts

Each tube is expertly cut by Danial. The shape of the cut will depend not only on the model of frame it’ll be used in but also the wheel size, frame size and depending on whether the customer has requested any specific geometry tweaks.

© Stefan Eigner
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Things take shape
Nicolai factory photos

Things take shape

What can be recognised as a bike frame takes shape on a jig as each tube is slid delicately into place according to the points fastened to a heavy wooden base. Despite the size and noise of the machine he uses, the delicacy of the corrections Danial makes to the tubes is incredible.

© Stefan Eigner
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Complex structures
Nicolai factory photos

Complex structures

For more complicated shapes such as the rear chainstay wishbone, Nicolai use sophisticated CNC milling machines to mill out alloy sections from solid blocks with incredible precision. The only frame parts that they fabricate and keep stockpiled are chainstay assemblies.

© Stefan Eigner
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Weld force
Nicolai factory photos

Weld force

In a room at the back of the machine shop, two welders sit separated by a heavy leather curtain. They delicately set about the task of immaculately welding the freshly-tacked front triangles hanging in front of them held together by CNC gussets and plates freshly cut just yards away.

© Stefan Eigner
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Alignment
Nicolai factory photos

Alignment

During the construction process, frame alignment will be checked between four and five times. Each stage of the process has the potential to knock the tubes slightly out, so it’s essential that everything lines up perfectly before the frame goes to paint.

© Stefan Eigner
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Powder day
Nicolai factory photos

Powder day

Each Nicolai frame is a separate entity, and along with offering a myriad of custom geometry and build options they also offer the most diverse range of colours currently in the bike industry.

© Stefan Eigner
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Into the oven
Nicolai factory photos

Into the oven

Powder coating itself is a lot quicker a process than choosing the colour to begin with. The dry, electrostatically charged powder goes on before being hung in a large oven in which the paint softens and forms a tough, smooth coating.

© Stefan Eigner
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Treasure drawer
Nicolai factory photos

Treasure drawer

In the corridor outside the prototyping and race shop offices is a massive roof-height wall of drawers which was rescued from an old chemist's. Within its hundreds of doors lie carefully organised boxes of the candy-like linkage parts ready to be hand-picked and torqued into new frames.

© Stefan Eigner
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Final assembly
Nicolai factory photos

Final assembly

Once painted and with the customer’s shock of preference installed, Nicolai’s engineers insert a back wheel and re-check the frame’s alignment for the final time. Specially spaced dropouts in 0.5mm increments can be installed in case of any tiny adjustments.

© Stefan Eigner
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The final product
Nicolai factory photos

The final product

From an order being placed, a new Nicolai customer can expect delivery of their new, individually crafted frame within four to six weeks. Of that time, typically 60 hours will have gone into each frame. (Nicolai prefer to make models in small batches.)

© Stefan Eigner
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