Brian Curtis and a life of challenging convention

I met Brian Curtis on the second day shooting a piece for Mountain Biking UK Magazine at Curtis Bikes in spring 2018. Scouring the internet beforehand for other interviews gave me a glimpse of a surly, and slightly scary man, whom I worried could be hard work to interview and photograph.

I’d done some preliminary shots with Brian’s main man Gary Woodhouse, who runs Curtis Bikes day-to-day with Brian now in semi-retirement, and had returned on a second day when Brian was available. So, with some trepidation, I entered the tiny Curtis workshop on a sunny day in May, to be met by Gary, Brian and a very interesting bike, even by Curtis’ standards.

As we got chatting Brian turned out to be genial, warm and very engaging. Not the ‘ogre’ portrayed in previous photographs I’d seen of him. His trademark scowl had worked on me beforehand and I had thought the image would match the man. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We got talking about this fascinating little bike that Brian had brought with him to show me; Brian’s totally custom design for young children with Dwarfism.

Brian Curtis’s bike for children with Dwarfism.

Brian Curtis’s bike for children with Dwarfism.

What struck me throughout my time chatting to Brian was his passion for all things two-wheeled, but especially motorcycles - which was where Curtis Bikes started as a result of Brian’s years racing motocross - and his lifelong desire to challenge perceived wisdom.

To cut a long story short and get to the point of this article, Brian had come across some generally accepted information that suggested that, due to their unique physiology (relatively long torso with short limbs), children with Dwarfism were unable to ride bicycles safely until around age 12. So, in his usual way Brian set about proving that wrong by designing and building a bike that would spread the joy of two wheels to children with Dwarfism earlier than science suggested should be the case. The bike you see here is the result.

Utterly bespoke, with the minimum of off-the-shelf components, this was the result of Brian’s determination to produce a viable bike for young children who, as a result of their condition, already had enough to deal with in life.

As a measure of his determination and ability to adapt, Brian needed reduced-diameter grips for children’s small hands and was unable to source them from established companies, so he engineered a solution that solved that issue while simultaneously reducing the reach to the brake levers. The levers that Brian sourced are adjustable, but not enough to address the smaller hands of children with Dwarfism. So he adapted the handlebars to reduce the reach while incorporating the slimmer grips he needed, all completely custom-engineered.

Bringing a new meaning to the word ‘custom’.

Bringing a new meaning to the word ‘custom’.

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Attention to detail didn’t stop there. Brian would have liked to spec lighter components but those available for children’s bikes typically tend to be cheaper and heavier than he wanted (remember Keith Bontrager’s maxim: cheap, light, strong; pick two). So he sourced the best he could outwith the parts he could manufacture himself, and made the bike lighter still with titanium bolts. The design was intended to specifically address the children’s specific physical characteristics, while being as light as possible and strong enough to be ridden off road (Curtis don’t do anything other than off road bicycles).

Bespoke chain guard and cranks.

Bespoke chain guard and cranks.

Manipulated tubing that provides a short seat tube, strength and mud clearance.

Manipulated tubing that provides a short seat tube, strength and mud clearance.

According to Keith Bontrager’s truism you’d be forgiven for thinking that a light and strong bespoke bicycle wouldn’t be cheap and you’d probably be right; I didn't enquire about the price. For me it wasn’t the point. But notably, Brian never made any profit from these bikes. He did it for the love of it and just because he could, and only priced them to cover his costs. The bikes have been shipped worldwide and Brian managed to make about one a month for a few years. Brian’s now stopped making these bikes as he wants to edge ever closer to retirement, and at 77 who could begrudge him that?

When I originally decided to write this piece after doing the wider Curtis article for MBUK, I asked Gary if Brian would agree to talk a little more and to some more photographs, but he didn’t want to; testament I believe, to his modesty and his desire to enjoy his imminent retirement. So there is a chance Brian wouldn’t have wanted me to write this blog article but he was aware I took the photographs (obviously) and that I had a real interest in what he achieved. I intended this article as a tribute to Brian’s work and to bring to a wider light the dedication of a man who likes to remain in the shadows, as it were, and let his work do the talking. I just wanted it to be heard. Thanks Brian.