For a shop said to produce more handmade bicycles than any other in North America, Proteus Design Inc., in College Park seemed awfully quiet.
Half a dozen employees were sitting around talking, listening to radio, or just counterplating some private thing when manager Barry Konig walkout in unannounced with a visitor. They still were sitting when he left.
"As factories go, this seems pretty laid back," the visitor observed.
"People have work at their own pace. We want a low-pressure operation because these are craftsmen, not robots. Besides, I'd have to be high-pressure to drive them . . ."
Actually, Konig said. Proteus' 16 employees work hard, when and as they feel like it. "It's not like you have to be hear at 9 and if you miss a day we'll cut your finger off. Everybody has a production quotas, but how they meet it is their business."
The end result of this happy labor is 20 bicycles a week, more or less, which seems a slender thread from which to hang a worldwide enterprise until you notice the price tags. Proteus bicycles start at $295 and can rise to over $1,000, depending upon how fanatic the cyclist is about custom fittings and superlight/superstrong components.
The six-week waiting list holds orders from South America, Australia, Alaska, Asia, and, best of all, Europe, where world-class bikes are made.
Are Proteus bikes that good?
"Their quality approaches that of the finest machines produced anywhere," said Larry Black, owner of Georgetown Cycle Sport and vice president of the National Capital Velo Club. "They have some problems, but you have to remember you're talking about extremely exacting standards.
"I would put them in the class of the Schwin Paramount but a step below Albert Eisentraut and Bruce Gordon in California, who are really breaking ground.
"I know Proteus is looking forward to the new factory they're building in West Virginia, and I hope it doesn't result in a dropoff in quality. Bike building is an art, and there is a point at which production begins to become the point instead of quality.
Koning is confident things won't get out of hand.
"Nothing is going to change except that our people are going to have a better place to work and better tools. A craftsman had to be removed from the limitations of inadequate machinery."
Proteus sells bicycle kits to people who are too penurious - or too picky - for a production model. A skillful scorunger can build his own for perhaps $200, according to The Proteus Framebuilding Handbook by Dr. Paul Proteus, who doesn't exist.
"It's a corporate pseudonym for Steve Schuman, who's our R&D man, plus Larry Dean, myself, and a bunch of other contributors," Konig said. "There really wasn't a decent book on the subject, so we wrote one."
And published it themselves, when they found out about how the American book world operates. Prospective bike builders are advised to read the book before they buy a kit; they may decide to save up a while longer and buy a finished bike, or start with an assembled frame ($185). Aligning, brazing and finishing the paper-thin steel-alloy tubes that give a fine bicycle strength with flexibility is not learned over a weekend.
"We sell a lot of bare frames," Konig said. "People who can't afford our finished bikes get the frame and hand cheap components on it, then replace them with quality parts one by one. It takes a while, but you wind up with a machine as good as any we make, because all our production frames are the same, whether they're low-line or top-line. The people who build them don't know whether to certain frame will sell bare or as the foudation of a $1,000 bike."
The corporation was founded, if that is the word, six years ago when Konig, Dean and Schuman graduated from the University of Maryland and couldn't find jobs. They had met on campus because "in those days we were the only students on bikes," Konig said, and so they decided to go into distribution of bicycle parts.
"There were good parts around, but they were hard to find, so we decided to become the place where you could get the best stuff at fair prices."
The place was a basement at first, then the sprawling shop across from the campus. Wholesaling is the mainstay, with Protues jobbing parts and accessories to 400 dealers.
Porteus' front office at 9225 Baltimore Boulevard is a head shop for bike freaks, and the atmosphere is every bit as mellow as in the factory.
"We have one fulltime employee who just answers mail," Konig said, "and probably the equivalent of a full-timer out front who just answers questions. The kind of people who buy our bikes really care about them, and they talk a lot. We'd rather get out of retailing entirely, but we started out as a service organization and we don't want to drift away from that."
The services, beyond advice and empathy, include overhaul, repairs and repainting. A frame chosen at random from a rack had been mailed from Nebraska for repainting, at $40 plus postage. "We use epoxy primer and DuPont Imron polyurethane enamel, and we triple-bake it," Konig said. "It's the best finish we know of, and to someboyd who really loves his bike it's worth it. We care about bikes too, and we do what we can."
But Proteus does not fix flats.
We had to draw the line somewhere."