It’s tempting to draw parallels between Six-Eleven Bicycle Company’s Aaron Dykstra and John Henry, the famous “steel-drivin’ man” of American folklore.
Both labor with their hands, sometimes in less-than-ideal environments, exposed to heat and bright light. Both work in an industry whose beginnings were based on ferrous metals. Both men’s stories are intertwined with the railroad: the John Henry of legend challenged a steam-powered hammer to a contest driving steel spikes that held steel rails into the roadbed below. Aaron Dykstra named his bicycle company after a famous 1950s steam locomotive, the Norfolk and Western No. 611, sleek and streamlined, modern and anachronistic at the same time.
Both men share a hearty work ethic and determination to prevail against the elements. For John Henry, his winning effort against the steam hammer ended in collapse and death. For Aaron Dykstra, a snowstorm for the ages in Kansas nearly stopped him, his wife Michelle and his bicycles from making it to this year’s NAHBS in Denver during their drive from their Roanoke, Virginia home.
“We finally made it here, but only just. They were closing down I-70 behind us in Kansas. We’re still getting the display set up, and when we finally do, it will probably be time to start tearing it down!,” Dykstra said.
Where John Henry’s legend and Aaron Dykstra’s reality separate is in how they deal with the steel that sustains them: John Henry was a manual laborer who prevailed through brute force, and Dykstra is a craftsman with the finesse of an artist.
Steel is Dykstra’s favorite bicycle material, because, he says, it is “versatile and dynamic, always evolving.”
His own story reflects some of the properties of his favorite material. He first learned the craft of bicycle construction at famed Japanese-American builder Koichi Yamaguchi’s frame building classes in 2008. He spent a full-year practicing his craft, defining his process. Dykstra refined his craft “organically. By 2010 I was ready to announce myself and display my work at NAHBS Richmond.”
Accolades came quickly and steadily ever since his Richmond debut. Dykstra has won awards at every succeeding NAHBS, in different categories.
Michelle Dykstra started working full-time with her husband’s business in September 2011, and takes care of a lot of the business side of things: marketing and customer relations. Demand has grown steadily as word of Aaron Dykstra’s expertise has gotten around and customers can expect to wait about a year for their custom, hand-crafted bicycles.
“I never want the wait list to grow longer than a year,” says Dykstra. He often puts in 15-hour days in an effort to keep up with demand, but for the ambitious, that comes with the territory.
“I’m always pushing, always evolving and wanting to grow more,” he says. To that end, Dykstra recently completed a TIG welding course offered by Vicious Cycles, and he has plans to buy some new equipment and possibly introduce a new brand of TIG welded frames. He’s hired a shop apprentice to handle some of the time-consuming prep work, such as mitering and doing braze-ons.
Every successful brand inexorably grows. Dykstra realizes this, but unlike John Henry, he’s drawn a line in the sand that he will not cross. It’s not for selfish reasons, though.
“I never want to get to the point where I’m not building, not in the shop doing hands-on work,” he says.
Dykstra’s current and future satisfied customers will thank him for this.