At age nine, Hinmaton Hisler was taking apart bicycles. Now he’s making some of the best bikes in the country.
Hinmaton Hisler believes in “complete geometry.” The owner of Midlothian-based Stijl Cycles, maker of custom-designed mountain bikes that recently built a bicycle valued close to $10,000 for The Martin Agency vice president and creative director Mike Lear, views rider and bicycle holistically.
Most bicycles are essentially connected points: the head tube below the handle bars, the crank arm where the down and seat tubes merge, to the cogset in the bike’s rear.
“Those are the pieces that change how you feel about [the bike], that’s where the real design comes in,” Hisler said. And that’s where this local man’s passion for design and perfection takes shape.
Taking Things Apart
It was Hisler’s third-grade principal, Mr. Fry, that first kindled his imagination. “He was a cycling enthusiast,” Hisler said about the man who owned a tandem bicycle, which he often rode with his wife. “Probably the first tandem I’d ever seen.”
Hisler later attended Mr. Fry’s after-school program on bicycle maintenance. “I was the one that would stay late and pick his mind” about anything and everything bicycle-related, Hisler said.
While other kids his age were content to merely ride bicycles, Hisler wasn’t. “I was really fascinated with anything I could take apart.” The first bike he owned was a Huffy Pro Thunder BMX he got at age nine. Hisler’s father made his son save up money to buy his own socket set. “He wasn’t keen on me using his tools.”
The bike and his socket set “were my first real sense of freedom,” he said. “You could go as far as your legs would take you.”
When Hisler wasn’t riding his bicycle he was tinkering with it. “I stripped it down to its bare essentials, added a couple of different components,” he said. If ever he wanted to do something to the bike, but didn’t know how, he’d do it anyway. He’d learn from failures.
“From that point all the way forward, my self-educational process really truly began, and that same process is how I approach pretty much everything,” Hisler said. “If I want to learn something, I just do it…most everything I know today I principally taught myself.”
Up until his high school senior year, Hisler would ride his bike to and from school. After graduation his interests were in cars and life, rather than bicycles.
In the following years, Hisler traveled “across the country learning all sorts of different things.” He became a: piano tuner, stone mason, auto mechanic, painter, carpenter, jeweler, sculptor, blacksmith, wholesale retailer, and even did body work on hotrods.
In 2002, he co-started Tektonics, an industrial design and manufacturing company in New Haven, Connecticut, mostly doing architectural metal work. Hisler said that he and his partner tired of New Haven’s “fast-paced, cutting, derisive” environment and looked for a new city to relocate. Claiming to have lived in nearly every continental state,1 Hisler swore he’d move south if he ever moved again. One of his favorite cities was Richmond, where he’d visit old high school friends while they attended VCU.
“Richmond, of all the places I’ve been, it is the closest to a perfect culmination of a southern city and northern lifestyle,” Hisler said. A more relaxed environment compared to the hustle and bustle of the north, but not the slow crawl of the Deep South. In 2003, Tektonics relocated to RVA.
The Crazy Woman
In 2004, Hisler and his partner were having lunch at Millie’s Diner just before Hisler met someone that changed his life. “This really crazy woman drove her Toyota MR2 into our truck,” he said. There was something about her eyes, the way she acted that seemed a little off. “And she couldn’t do an insurance claim, so she’s like ‘Whatever it is, I’ll pay for it.'” Replacing the bumper was all that was needed, something Hisler said he could do himself being one of the many things he’d learned over the years.
The woman asked if Hisler would fix her blue Pontiac Star Chief with a smashed-in front that she parked across the street from Millie’s. “‘I’ll give you all these blank checks and you can use them,'” Hisler recalled her saying.
Hisler agreed, and when he finally got the car to work on it, he discovered a Klein mountain bike in the Pontiac’s trunk. The woman told him he could keep it. “For whatever reason, I latched on to this thing,” Hisler said. The freedom he experienced as a child returned. “I started cycling a lot, pretty much constantly,” he said.
Just like when he was a child with his first bicycle, Hisler also started investigating components and “how they were made, what they did.” He spent a week with well-known Mountain Bike Hall of Fame frame-maker Frank Wadelton, commonly known as “Frank The Welder.”
He incorporated some of Wadelton’s hall-of-fame knowledge to create an aluminum bike in 2007. Hisler’s omnipresence on bicycle websites and message boards led to Cirque du Soleil performer Lance Trappe commissioning Hisler to make a custom bicycle. Hisler would go on to make three for him.
But most of Hisler’s customers were interested in having a BMX bike for trials where riders maneuver around natural and man-made objects. One of those riders was the Norwegian cyclist Thomas Remvik Aasen, known simply as TRA.
“He was interested in working with someone who was willing to pull from his knowledge base and build something that he wanted, which most of the big companies aren’t interested in doing,” Hisler said. Whereas larger companies design bikes for average users, Hisler felt that individual users wanted different things, and that bikes made for average users don’t typically address those wants. Aasen valued Hisler’s commitment.
“We built some pretty amazing bikes,” Hisler said. They’d almost have to because competition-specific bikes typically last only one year. “It’s a pretty abusive sport,” he said.
Despite the success, Hisler never made a go of creating a company around his customizable aluminum bikes. “My competition was predominately big companies outsourcing to Asia.” Back in 2009, it was nearly impossible for Hisler to compete. “So I just had to let it go.”
Hisler was still working at Tektonics, which happened to take on a new partner, Damian Pearson. The two decided it was worth trying to make customizable mountain bikes. Pearson even coined a name, Stijl, the Dutch word for style.
Hisler ditched aluminum for steel, a better material for mountain bikes, and decided to “take what I had learned from doing trials frames and this idea of geometry and building custom bikes, and take it a step further.” He spent more time with his clients, learning their riding preferences, needs, likes, dislikes. He measured their bodies to ensure that the bikes would be tailored to their height and weight, and even compensate for any back and shoulder pain.
“So the process of building the design of the frame became this more elaborate, more inclusive process,” Hisler said. “I did my best to make sure that all of that information was there in my design.” That’s what Hisler calls complete geometry.
“You have an idea of what the geometry of the bike should be,” Hisler said. “You [also] have components that fit on these frames.” He found that while clients and bicycle makers would focus some on the geometry of the frame, they neglected how the added components would affect the bike overall. Hisler thought he could make a superior bike. “I can’t make the bike make you better, but I can make the bike the best it can be for you,” Hisler said.
Mike Lear, the vice president and creative director at The Martin Agency, was impressed by what Hisler was doing.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Lear said about the bikes. “I was blown away by the frames he was making.” A mountain biker himself, Lear reached out to Hisler and offered to help Stijl. Lear and others polished Stijl’s logo and website, along with creating ads and web banners.
Lear was so impressed with Hisler, he asked for his help. “I went to him and I said, ‘I’m looking for a bike that feels right to me.'” He wanted a mountain bike reminiscent of some of his bigger mountain bikes of the past that also had cross-country capabilities.
After several discussions and meetings over months, Hisler created a 29” 20.7 lbs. bike specifically designed to Lear’s body and liking. “It fits better than any bike I’ve ever ridden,” Lear said. “This bike is so light it climbs beautifully even with one gear.” He said that having someone local that both listens and cares about what you want out of a bike, then delivers one that tailored to each person, is “really special.”
Currently, Stijl produces an average of six bikes per year. Fully customized bikes of good quality typically range from $5,000 – $6,000. Stijl may have origins as Hisler’s hobby, but is now one of three sub-businesses within Tektonics.2 “It’s a side project,” Hisler said, but it’s no longer a mere hobby.
Hisler is still tinkering with bicycles like he did when he was young, but he misses riding them the most. “I want to have that sense of freedom I once had,” he said. To spend hours riding for no reason other than to ride: steering and pedaling with all points of the bike working in complete geometry.
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photo by Chris Peel