It’s not the first time that I mention that I have a small, or perhaps not so small, fetish for bags. I also like to support European manufacturers. Blahol has been on my radar for a few years now, ever since I bookmarked their saddle toolbox. So on a recent visit to Warsaw, Poland, I got in touch and asked if I can come visit.
As I was walking down the industrial building staircase towards the basement I could not help but notice traces of the past, evident also in many similar buildings in East Berlin – the exposed pipes, the concrete, the ceiling that’s barely 2 meters high and the utilitarian nature of the whole environment. This was clearly a space with deep history and stories of its own, and our little cycling world was taking over.
The staircase wall was painted with a beautiful mural showing a track racer in grotesque position, muscles pumped and determination that only eastern block athletes used to posses. There was no way to become a professional cyclist during the days in which Europe was split into two, so every cyclist, no matter how good, was an amateur cyclist. This painted guy did not look amateur at all.
The staircase opened to a corridor filled with bikes. I had to watch my head since the ceiling was roughly the height of my head and at times was cross by pipes. Some of the bikes had alley cat cards in their spokes, one even proudly presenting Blahol’s logo. None of the bikes were fancy and all were steel. The first door marked with the industrial looking sign proclaiming Cech opened into a room filled with bikes, each in various stages of repair – this was a bike workshop, a velo-surgery room, a safe-house operating table for Warsaw’s elite two wheeled transporters.
My goal was the door at the end of the corridor. I was heading towards a room, no larger than 4×4 meters, that hosts, for another two weeks until the boys move to a new space, the Blahol workshop, order processing unit, web operations and storage space – the whole operations is hosted here.
Blahol started 7 years ago by making messenger bags. In its initial 5 years the operation was an after work activity that developed slowly and allowed the young artisan to develop his skills, supply chains and product offering. Two years ago, Blahol gave his day job the middle finger and started working full time for himself.
Together with his brother, they operate the two sewing machines and take care of the customers. At times, Blahol tells me, his girlfriend helps as well. The name of the company is actually the nickname of the man himself. He explained that when a friend of his helped with the logo, said friend suggested that the name of the company will be the nick name. 7 years later the logo and name are a perfect match for this young and independent operation.
I did mention that I’ve got a little bag fetish, but in all the years I’ve been chasing bags around the planet, from the first messenger bag I bought in London in 1993 (hello Rasta colors Timbuk2) through the rather large collection of Chrome bags I own, I never got to see the bags being made, from scratch. Blahol sews all the bags exactly where I found him using two Juki Japanese industrial sewing machines. For material Blahol uses only the best elements, some, like the straps, from Poland, while the main fabric, Cordura, he sources from Italy.
For a small company one of the biggest challenges is getting the material. A large fabric manufacturer like Cordura, is interested in selling fabrics in 1,000 meters pieces and not in small batches. So Blahol sources his materials from other manufacturers that buy in bulk and sell him smaller pieces. This means that at times the colors he has, like the Swedish military cameo bag he had lying around, can be wild and unique and also run out quickly. Through the website the customers can create the color combination they want and Blahol and his brother make each bag when the order is made. Each bag also gets a unique ID enforcing the concept behind “this is your bag, no other bag like it exist.”
The messenger bag that Blahol demonstrated to me had some pretty cool features and looked to be indestructible. It had a double strap for those instances when you really have a lot of stuff to cary. The strap looked cushy and the buckles industrial strength and massive. I could totally see these bags being used and abused by bike messengers in Warsaw, but when I asked Blahol about the local messenger scene, he proclaimed that there are not a lot of these dudes in his city and that the bags mostly go to individuals that like to use these shoulder-strap style bags.
There were really a few other pre-made bags in the studio. One was a waist-bag.
And the other was a hip bag.
And U-lock belts.
Another bag, that lucky for me was in the studio and has not yet left the shop to the customer, was the new wave backpack. This is a brilliant backpack with roomy and fully waterproof main compartment that’s actually configureable by removing straps from their default positions to a different position, closer to the top of the bag, to allow for longer things to be packed. It also has a deep pocket on the front where you can keep your pens, cables, chargers and what nots. Another secret feature is the quick access, left and right pocket that’s located in the middle of the bag. It seems like Blahol thought about everything – you can even velcro-off the back-pad and wash it or use it as a seating matt. Brilliant. The Swedish cameo bag he had is one hell of a zombie-apocalypse gear which I found difficult not to snatch out of his hands immediately. I knew that Blahol could out run me in a second so that never happens.
For such a small business I was surprised to see an order management system that ensured the customer is able to track exactly when his or her bag is being made, finished and shipped. The brothers schedule their production by days and work diligently to get each bag out the door as soon as possible. These days, when every customer is the Western World, is used to near-instant delivery from the likes of Amazon, even small businesses have to compete with standards that were near impossible to meet only a few years back. Blahol seems to have his order management and customer order tracking system well under control.
I am stoked on this find. The bags are rock solid, made with attention to details and utilitarian mind set. The boys behind the bags use them and know, from first hand experience, what is important to the user. Even though the company is small, the bags are affordable – something that can not be said for many other bag companies, even those who manufacture in the far-east. I know the Blahol brothers will do well and can whole heartedly recommend giving their bags a chance.
The man behind Blahol:
And his brother:
Come in, take a tour in Rick’s workshop. WOW. Just…wow.
In 2011 I executed a project in the Boston metropolitan area. It was December and the weather was miserable. I was on a never ending project schedule around the planet since a few months and my only personal interest on daily basis was “how do I wake up in the morning”. This question translated into “find good coffee source”.
So on my first morning in the Aloft hotel in Lexington, I woke up, reached for a digital device, and executed a yelp search that read “Find ritual roasters coffee near me.” You see, Ritual is a coffee shop and roasterie in San Francisco which I know and trust so I figured that there is a small chance that someone in the Boston area was actually brewing coffee from these beans.
The first hit was a place with a funny name that was very close to the hotel: “Ride Studio Cafe.” They opened at 7AM and closed at 7PM – a perfect way for me to try and get the morning fix and in case another fix was still needed, return in the early afternoon and get some help until nighttime.
I drove the 2 kilometers from the hotel to the coffee shop in the pouring rain. I expected to find a little quaint New England spot fully focused on the typical smarty-pants student crowd that’s so common in that part of the world. Instead, I walked into a bike shop.
On the left side of the large space is a nice granite counter with pastries, espresso machine, drip coffee brewing contraptions, and what looks like an open kitchen. A Barista welcomed me with a warm smile and asked if she can help. At this point I was focused like a shark with laser beam attached to its head “I need something to help wake me up and I heard you guys sell Ritual coffee.” She nodded and explained that that is only one of the beans that they stock and pointed to other bags from the likes of George Howell and New York’s Grumpy.
This was clearly a weary traveler’s version of heaven and it could not get any better. After brewing me a steaming cup of Grumpy and completely convincing me that this place is going to have to deal with seeing me at least once a day I turned my attention to the rest of the shop and suddenly realized that I’m in a fancy bike shop.
You see, the other side of the space, right of the door if you will, is a Seven Cycles dealership. Right next to the door was one of Seven’s concept bikes, ironically the Berlin model. For a cyclist from Berlin, Germany, this was a sign that this was the right place to be. There were all sorts of Seven Cycles models everywhere – cross bikes, road bikes, mixed titanium and carbon, steel, tandem hanging from the ceiling and a fantastic display of Rapha clothes.
During that business trip I visited the shop on daily basis and enjoyed spending the 4-5 minutes every morning, waiting on the coffee to brew and breathing in the beautiful bikes that were everywhere. After spending a week in the area I flew to the next destination with fond memories and a few new acquaintances.
A year later I was back in the area for another project. This time one of the worst snow storms in Boston area history had just unloaded an ungodly amount of snow and the roads and pavements were all white. I drove from the airport directly to Ride Studio Cafe and tanked on a coffee and had a nice chat with Patria Lanfranchi – one of the owners of the shop. She explained that they organize rides on regular basis and are the biggest Seven dealership in the world.
The shop is welcoming in every sense of the word. A big table takes the majority of the space in the center of the shop and people, dressed in spandex as well as in business attire occupy its chairs most hours of the day. The table is covered with various bicycle magazines and coffee mugs and the air smells like a mix of bicycle grease and brewed coffee. The decor is minimal with shades of grey dominating colors and the occasional Rapha pink-stripe on the back of the wall.
Patria’s job title is actually co-owner and curator. She is responsible for the amazing and eye-poking selection of bikes on display in the shop. Every visit in the shop meant encountering new creations from the minds of Seven’s customers. In this particular visit I fell in love with an Orange-painted titanium rig that is described in details here. There was also a belt driven, all weather titanium commuter and various models of the newest creation from Seven’s owner – Honey Bicycles. I felt like a kid in a toy store.
The idea behind Ride Studio Cafe is brilliant – create a space in which bike enthusiasts, coffee lovers and the general public can come together in a friendly atmosphere. With the organized rides, the endurance team sponsorship, training and bike tuneups, locals flock to the shop. In all the visits to the shop I never had the feeling that any of the staff members was trying to sell me anything or was irritated by the customers – something that often happens in other bike shops. It felt like they were genuinely happy to see people coming in and were always happy to answer questions, show and explain the bikes on display and see you join the rides. Every time I visited the studio/cafe with friends or co-workers who are not bike enthusiasts, I was told that they loved the studio/cafe and that the place was welcoming.
Maybe it’s the friendly staff? Maybe it’s the decor? The excellent coffee? The carefully curated display? The free wifi? The clean bathrooms? The purified water dispenser that is designed just right to allow you to fill your bike’s water bottle? The friendly mechanic? Or maybe it’s the combination of everything and the fact that good people, like good places and that good people like to hang out with good people and that circle perpetuates itself and before you notice, you have created a community.