Hubert Horacio d’Autremont is not a Marcel Proust character, though his name may sound like one. “A guy once said to me, ‘How do you pronounce that? Redneck or fancy-like?’” says d’Autremont. He is standing in the middle of his Burlington bike building shop, a place cluttered with metal and machines, wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, black thick-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, grease on his fingers.
D’Autremont’s lineage is more Argentine than French, but he’s really a product of the American West. Related to the d’Autremont brothers of 1920s train robbery fame, he was born in Montana to a rafting guide, and grew up in Arizona, rock climbing, mountain biking and adventuring. He came east to go to Middlebury College and started a major in engineering, then switched to history of art. He took a semester off to live in Oregon and enrolled in a bike building class there.
After graduation, while his classmates scattered around the world to pursue a variety of careers that might entail wearing ties or heels, d’Autremont stayed in Vermont to first work on, and then build, bicycles.
Not just any bikes: his bikes have this ephemeral quality as if they were vintage but made with a thoroughly modern and highly functional approach.
“It’s about time,” d’Autremont writes on his website. He uses the phrase in both its meanings: it’s about time someone made a bike like this and ‘it’s about time’ in a more literal sense: a d’Autremont bike looks like it belongs in another era, yet it has all the modern technology of shifters and brakes and he’s not above putting a carbon fork on a classicly-style steel frame.
“In art and architecture there is a balance between having a respect for tradition and then learning how to evolve it. That’s what I like to do. My bikes don’t have the flashy paint jobs that will look dated in 5 years, they use simple colors and strive for timelessness.”
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D’Autremont, now 30, turns out only 15 or so highly custom bikes a year, largely some of the most beautiful touring bikes you may ever see. Each is meticulously handbuilt in his one-man shop in an industrial part of the city. At present, there is a waiting list of customers and d’Autremont has paused in taking new orders as he launches a sideline business, All Souls Tortilleria, a line of organic corn tortillas, with “three guys I like to cook with.” They include Vermont Bean Crafter’s Joe Bossen and Sam Fuller of the farm advocacy group, NOFA-VT. Burlington’s City Market will soon be carrying their tortillas.
Should d’Autremont agree to make you a bike, the process starts with a three-hour, in person interview and fitting.
“It makes a big difference to actually see and talk with people and listen to how they are really going to use the bike,” he says. “For instance, two people could be six feet tall and 180 pounds but I would build a different cockpit for someone who, say, had a big upper body and short legs than someone who had powerful quads and maybe a more slender upper body.” The bikes can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $11,000.
“Most people don’t need a custom bike,” d’Autremont is the first to acknowledge. “But if you are planning to spend a lot of time on it, or take it touring and say load it up, you want a bike that’s going to be really comfortable as well a ride well.”
He builds lugged-steel frame bikes (as well as fillet brazed), a type that’s no longer mass-produced. And because he makes his own lugs— the sockets that join and fix the frame and stem—he can manipulate the size and width of the tubes, their angles and shapes to whatever suits the bike and the owner best.
“Steel is easier to fix, it can be built light and it’s strong,” says d’Autremont. But he’s not overly concerned about weight or speed. “Some bike builders want to build Ferraris. I want to build the best pick-up truck out there,” he says proudly.
D’Autremont not only makes the lugs, but he also fabricates many of his own fixtures and metal-working tools, including those that make the lugs, the vent holes, and the parts for bottle brackets and panniers he custom makes too.
“I keep thinking, I could buy this $2,000 fixture from someone or I could make it myself,” he says. “I have such a long list now of tools I want to make I have to be careful I don’t spend more time making tools than making bikes.”
One of the few things he doesn’t make is the head badge with his insignia of the Sonoran bumblebee. “It’s a native pollinator, it reflects where I came from and ties to the landscape. It’s a perfect symbol of my past and present,” says d’Autremont. The head badge is custom crafted by Danforth Pewter. It is, as one might expect, stunning.
If d’Autremont had his way, just about everything on his bikes would be custom, especially the touring bikes he wants to focus on. “We’ve seen a boom in racing bikes and over the past 5 to 10 years cyclocross has exploded, now there’s a boom in gravel bikes, snowbikes and bike packing but there are very few good touring bikes out there.”
While he has made his share of road, mountain and town bikes, his most recent oeuvre might be described as the perfect custom touring bike— but not in the traditional ‘let’s load up with everything but the kitchen sink type of way.
For d’Autremont, bike touring means a different sort of travel: it means you might be riding on a road, or a dirt road, or a gravel road, or just a trail. (He is a also a founding rider of Waterbury’s 125-mile dirt/gravel/trail epic known as The Irreverent Road Ride). You might camp out. You might not know where you are going. But you have the bike to get you there. And the panniers, the bags and the lights, and all you need to make your bike a sleeker, more stylish miniature VW Vanagon.
To that end, he makes his own racks and even, with his friend Matt Renna of Queen City Dry Goods, his own line of bags and cycling caps under the brand 27th Letter (&). The retro-styled accessories not only look like they belong to the bike, but they fit it perfectly. “There’s nothing I hate more when I’m riding a bike for days than rattling racks or loose bags” he says. His newest project will be a light, one that will match the bikes and help him ride through the dark.
“Bicycling has never really felt like it was part of the outdoors industry, or really an ‘outdoors’ sport,” says d’Autremont who has ridden cross-country and tries to regularly get out on a tour. “As someone who grew up planning and packing for rafting trips, I came to riding as an outdoor traveler, not a cyclist,” he says. In the next month, he and his girlfriend plan to take a month to ride round Montana and Idaho, on gravel roads, dirt paths and wherever their curiosity leads.
Where, might that be, I ask? “A set itinerary and a destination is the kiss of death,” he says and laughs. “Once you start saying that you have to be somewhere at a certain time, you ruin the adventure.”