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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Colbert bike builder works alone out of his garage, sells his singular bikes around the world

Glen Copus, owner and builder of Elephant Bikes, poses for a photo with a custom bike he is building for a customer that features drop bars on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, at his workshop in Colbert. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Glen Copus, owner and builder of Elephant Bikes, poses for a photo with a custom bike he is building for a customer that features drop bars on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, at his workshop in Colbert. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When Glen Copus was growing up in Santa Cruz, California, he spent a lot of time in bike shops and a lot of time lusting after high-end models that seemed out of his reach.

“I felt I could never afford something that cool,” he explained on a recent afternoon.

Then, one day, he went to buy a part from another bike enthusiast’s garage and “happened upon” a man building bike frames.

The man he’d stumbled upon wasn’t just any garage bike builder. He was perhaps the most important and innovative garage bike builders of the era, Keith Bontrager, whose innovations in mountain bike design made him a legend and led to Trek, one of the world’s biggest bike companies, buying his Bontrager brand.

Watching Bontrager work on his highly desirable and self-made bikes, Copus had an insight: “If I wanted anything that cool, I’d have to build it myself.”

So, Copus said, “I asked him, ‘How do you do this?’ … And he kind of just let me hang out there, giving me little jobs, and at some point I knew how to do all this stuff.”

What Copus means by “all this stuff” is the process of taking stock steel and turning it into the painstakingly designed and rigorously built frame of a bike model that’s being ridden all over the world by people who know exactly what they want from a self-propelled, two-wheeled ride.

Sold under the name Elephant Bikes, his bike company (elephantbikes.com) is a one-man operation housed in his Colbert garage.

There, he welds and tools frames and forks that he sells online, with optional standard build kits that allow people to create a complete bike.

Each one, he says, takes about two eight-hour days to construct, though that’s not normally how Copus operates, putting in regular hours, cranking out frames as fast as he can.

Not that he hasn’t tried – and not that the demand isn’t there.

While Copus can and does make one-off rides, his focus is on painstakingly cranking out a single stock model: the National Forest Explorer.

Painted the distinctive green of classic U.S. Forest Service trucks, with the model name emblazoned in the distinctive font of Forest Service signage, and designed for hauling panniers on long rides on highly varied terrain, Copus has shipped the NFE, as it’s known to those in the know, to customers far and near.

The greatest number of NFEs can be found in Seattle, followed closely by Australia, he said.

Word of the bike’s highly specialized advantages has been carried around the globe on the wings of esoteric reviews in print magazines like Bicycle Quarterly and Adventure Cycling, and on bike-enthusiast message boards and websites like The Radavist.

But while Copus is known for his idiosyncratic designs and expert craftsmanship, he’s disarmingly unpretentious about his product and adamant about keeping the NFE’s design as utilitarian and no-frills as possible.

“I like simple and practical,” Copus said. “I just try to simplify.”

To that end, he focuses on things you literally can’t see, like varying the internal tubing to make the bike lighter and stronger, and skips the kinds of artistic flourishes that some small bike builders emphasize.

Ask him about the cost of an NFE frame and fork – $1,485 – and he won’t exactly try to sell you on the deal.

“In fact, I think $1,500 is a ridiculous amount,” Copus said. “You should get the whole bike for that.”

But there are plenty of bike buyers who disagree with Copus about the NFE’s worth.

At one time, Copus was producing up to 30 bikes at a time and hired an employee to work with him in his long-time garage shop in the South Perry District. He had plenty of interested buyers and has had bike shops ask to sell Elephants, but Copus ultimately decided it “wasn’t really what I was after.”

“So we went back to the old ways,” he said.

“We” is Copus and John Speare, a longtime local bike enthusiast and advocate who serves as Elephant’s “viceroy of equilibrium.” That’s a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging that Speare helps Copus deal with the parts of being a bike builder that Copus would rather avoid – namely, everything but the bike building.

In exchange for helping to fill customer orders, maintain Elephant’s website and otherwise connecting people with Copus’ bikes, Speare is paid in custom bikes.

Speare found out about Copus’ frames during a race in People’s Park, when he asked about a couple of interesting custom-made bikes whose brand – Elephant – he didn’t recognize.

Copus had moved to Spokane in 1994, after years spent riding and racing bikes, working as a team mechanic, building bikes for Bontrager and other bigger companies, and starting Elephant as a small sideline while working in Canada.

When he moved to the Lilac City, though, “there weren’t any bike factories,” Copus said, so he took his welding skills and got a job at Tipke Manufacturing.

Speare helped Copus take Elephant more seriously, until it became his more or less full-time job.

Copus said he “wouldn’t be doing any of this” without Speare’s encouragement. And while they could be doing more, especially as a bike shortage grips the nation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Copus and Speare are happy hanging out in the Colbert garage and avoiding any temptation to boost production, hire paid employees and go against the grounded nature of the massive land mammals that give the company its name.

“Neither of us are cut out for that high-flying life,” Copus said.

Highway 53 changes

The Idaho Transportation Department is seeking input on proposed changes to Idaho Highway 53 near Rathdrum and Hauser via an “online meeting” at itdprojects.org/id53corridor that will last until June 8.

“Normally we would host an open house and engage with stakeholders in person,” Steven Bakker, a project manager for one of several projects in that area, said in a news release. “We can’t do that right now, but with a little more effort, we hope to still have a constructive dialogue.”

The online meeting will feature narrated presentations on four separate projects designed to improve safety from the Washington state line to Rathdrum by adding turn lanes and constructing a new interchange at Pleasant View Road.

These changes will require more than $40 million in funding through 2027.

Comments may be submitted via the website, by calling (855) 785-2499, by emailing id53corridor@itd.idaho.gov or by sending mail to 600 W. Prairie Ave., Coeur d’Alene, Idaho 83814 at the attention of Steven Bakker.

Work to watch for

Parking will be prohibited on Post Street between City Hall and the Post Street Bridge on Tuesday as crews place four large bridge girders in preparation for a major rehab of the bridge.

Crews will begin replacing a Havana Street water main on Tuesday. Traffic restrictions will be in place on Havana from Second to Third avenues.

Beginning Wednesday, the intersection of Foothills and Cincinnati will be closed to north-south traffic from the intersection. There will also lane closures reducing east and west traffic to one lane on Foothills. The closures are due to sidewalk work being done as part of the Cincinnati Greenway project.

Spokane Falls Boulevard will be reduced to one lane between Browne and Bernard streets through Friday for non-city construction.

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