Bikes made in Etna are ridden all over the world

Danielle Jester
Etna’s Steve Potts stands with one of the custom bikes he makes for people all over the world.

Steve Potts has been building his own bicycles for decades. Two years ago, he moved to Etna and now operates his business, Steve Potts Bicycles, from the rural town, where he ships his bicycles all over the world.

Potts grew up at the base of Mount Tamalpais, in California’s Marin County. His love of bicycles started from a young age as he rode all over the mountain peak. At age 17, he became a professional motorcycle racer; he raced for nine years. In high school, Potts developed the hobby of buying broken down bikes at the local junkyard and fixing them up in his machine shop class.

After returning from a bicycling trip around New Zealand in 1980, Potts decided to pursue building bikes full time. He sold all of his possessions, quit his job and began renting a two car garage for $35 a month. He purchased a mill and lathe and began building bicycles from scratch.

Two years later, Potts and his friend Charlie Cunningham started Wilderness Trail Bikes, a company that specializes in mountain bike parts. Steve left the business in 2000, which today sells its products worldwide.

Potts began visiting Siskiyou County with friends in 1972. He said he “immediately loved it.”. His brother moved to Quartz Valley many years ago after the two visited the area together. After Potts “finally got out of the rat race,” he followed.

“I like the community and the outdoors, and people have time to actually be cordial,” Potts said of Scott Valley. “It’s kind of for hearty people. People up here are self-reliant,” he added. He also likes the fact that “people have to make an effort to come here.”

Potts works out of a garage on Etna’s Main Street. He only does custom orders, not repairs. He makes virtually every piece of his bikes himself – the frames, seat posts, stems, handle bars, forks. “It’s a ton of work,” he said.

Potts makes his bicycles from titanium. “These are forever bikes,” he explained, adding, “They won’t rust. You could throw one in the ocean and it would be there in 200 years.”

Customers interested in a Steve Potts custom bicycle can find a convenient order form on his website. For reference, customers are asked to include the measurements of their current bike: saddle height, rider length, saddle setback, stand-over height and handlebar drop. From there, Potts asks customers to describe what they like and dislike about the rider position on their current bike.

The order form asks clients, “Would you describe the rider position as: too high, too low, too stretched out or just right? Is the bar too high or too low? If you are using drop bars, do you spend most of your time on the drops, the hoods or the top when you are climbing, descending and on the flats? What hurts the most after a long ride: hands, wrist, shoulder, neck, bottom, feet or other?”

A bike typically takes between 40 and 60 hours to build, Potts said, but may take up to 80 depending on the complexity. “Everything has to be just so,” he noted. The most challenging aspect of his craft his making sure he gets a bike “perfect” for the customer.

Some of the machines he uses to make his parts “just so” are 80 to 90 years old. “They’re quality tools,” Potts said, “but people don’t use them much anymore because everything is automated.” Sometimes Potts even makes his own tools.

The most bicycles Potts has ever built in a year was 300, he said. At this point in his life, he’s built nearly 6,000 bikes by hand. He also shows off a couple of his creations each year at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. “You have to be the builder to enter,” he explained, which he likes because it keeps corporations out of the mix. The show travels all over the country and is hosted in a separate location each year. Potts has flown to the show in the past; he’s happy that this year he can drive, as it’s being held in Sacramento.

Potts designed a special bicycle for fellow travelers; it easily comes apart and fits in a suitcase.

Even after building bikes for decades, Potts said he is still learning. He believes that’s how it should be, nothing, “If you stop learning, your product doesn’t get any better.”

Steve Potts bicycles have been shipped to customers all over the world, in locations including Singapore, France, Germany, Poland, New Zealand, Australia and South America.

“It’s hard work, but it’s satisfying. I do it because I love it,” Potts expressed. “I’m in a position where I’ll work for the rest of my life, but I love working.”