‘I was living in London when the fixed gear scene began to boom. Steel bikes all over the place with their cool, simple lines. And straight away I wanted to ride. But more than that, I wanted to make one myself.’
Growing up in a Russian-speaking region of Latvia, it took the 1991 secession from Soviet rule and the resulting relaxation in visa rules before Vladimir Balahovsky could travel to London in search of work. On arrival he accepted what would be a series of temporary jobs; the bikes he saw on the city streets inspiring him to purchase an old Raleigh fabricated from Reynolds 531.
‘I loved the freedom of riding my bike. And that encouraged me to customise the paint scheme and swap out different components. All the time on the internet researching different frame builders. Which was kind of ironic considering I’d never had any interest in building anything myself before then. I could break things but not make them [laughs]. My father was a machinist and worked in a big factory that manufactured tractors. He’d built our house himself and he could fix his car. Almost anything. But I was a really bad boy when I was a kid – just wanting to be entertained – and I can remember looking at my father and thinking, no, I’m different.’
‘But then meeting my future wife in London; that proved a pivotal moment. When she returned to Japan after her visa expired I decided to follow. Moving to Tokyo without really anything; just a couple of secondhand sweaters and a few more bits and pieces. And when I arrived I was so broke I couldn’t even afford the cheapest bike. But this made me realise that because nice track frames went for such a lot of money, then maybe it could be an opportunity to earn a living. So I began looking for a supplier and found this guy in Italy who had connections with a bike shop that had dozens of old frames and wheels stacked up in its backyard. I arranged to have these imported and sold them on Japanese eBay; finding I could make pretty decent money.’
Working out of the couple’s one-bedroom apartment – Vlad fixing up and customising his vintage finds on a tiny balcony high above street level – the government’s decision to change the law and prevent individuals from riding on the streets without brakes signalled an end to the burgeoning track bike scene. Questioning what to do next jobwise coincided with the generous gift of his wife’s grandmother’s house in downtown Tokyo. Subsequently rebuilt as a new property, Vlad finally had some dedicated space on the first floor for what his wife teasingly described as his hobby.
‘It was only a small space but that didn’t matter. I would have slept with a bike if required. And looking back it was clear I had reached a crossroads. Should I decide to look for a regular job or try and pursue my dream of building my own frames?’
‘But my whole story has been a series of coincidences,’ Vlad continues. ‘And I wonder if it ever really depended on me or whether it was destiny. I wanted to learn to build frames but, at that time, the interest was too high. Everyone was riding steel bikes and the frame-building courses had waiting lists of 2 or 3 years. But somehow I still believed that if I could connect with cycling I could make it my future job. And all the time that I was selling on eBay I was researching on the internet about the different steels and components. Constantly educating myself; I couldn’t think about anything else.’
Able to communicate conversationally in Japanese, Vlad had visited a bike workshop in his local neighbourhood to arrange for a couple of repairs. The proprietor, Mr Ohtaki, was a passionate and well-respected NJS frame builder and when Vlad decided to take the plunge and ask if he would teach him how to build a frame, without hesitation the master craftsman gave Vlad a list of the tools that he would need to get started before explaining where he could source them.
‘I’d tried to prepare myself with my research but dry knowledge doesn’t allow you to grasp the intuitive aspects of the build process. So I’d stand for hours and just watch how Mr Ohtaki moved; how he used the file. And by watching him I was becoming attuned to his world. If you can see the precision of a professional craftsman’s movements – how calm they are – it’s the most beautiful thing to behold.’
‘I spent weeks at Mr Ohtaki’s workshop where he showed me the various aspects of fabrication; building a couple of frames together before it was time to work on my own. Brazing tubes together, over and over; just practising. The process is very strict and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be a disaster. You have to be really confident and that requires time. Many, many hours of practice. And in the beginning my standards were really high. In the work of Mr Ohtaki I had a mental image of how it was supposed to look. Everything visually sharp and crisp.’
Years later and with his own frame-making brand now firmly established, Vlad views the help and encouragement he received as a priceless gift that considering his Eastern European background was quite extraordinary. He understands that his ability to communicate in Japanese was crucial but Vlad recalls many conversations with machinist shops in the neighbourhood that although polite never led to a working relationship.
‘You’d say hello and they’d acknowledge you but that was about it. Perhaps they’re a little shy or embarrassed that they can’t communicate easily. Especially if they don’t speak English. But the Japanese have quite rigid views and don’t always feel particularly comfortable dealing with foreigners. So me learning from Mr Ohtaki was so very unusual that it’s hard to believe it actually happened.’
Setting himself such high standards for the frames he fabricates, Vlad is not an individual easily pleased or willing to rest on his laurels. Each completed project brings a certain sense of satisfaction but these are fleeting moments before the process starts all over again. A sense of forward movement that he considers, on balance, to be positive and driven by a desire to never simply repeat. A professional drive for perfection now supported by a fully-equipped workshop but rooted in the lessons learnt at his mentor’s side.
‘At some stage not having the proper tools is just a waste of your time. You need to embrace the efficiency and time-saving qualities they bring. But in the beginning, you risk missing out on the opportunity to learn at a deeper level. When I first started building I had to cut all the tubes by hand and then master the proper filing technique. So the most precise and efficient tool is yourself. Your eyes and hands. At least in my opinion [smiles].’
When the time came to establish his Equilibrium brand, Vlad intuitively understood that any implied considerations of balance related to not only the rider’s experience and the bike as a physical object but also to his own emotional engagement.
‘Building a frame; you can’t rush and you can’t be angry or upset. The perfect pace and state of mind is vital otherwise you start screwing things up. Your inner-self attuned to the object you’re creating; allowing your senses to express themselves in harmony.’
A holistic approach that he extends to the fabrication of each frame and beyond. Vlad viewing the bike and rider as part of a shared journey that is referenced in the headtube badge. Two intertwined letter Es that represent the coming together of the various facets of the build process to create one whole experience.
‘The only true opinion that matters is when an individual rides one of your bikes. It’s then that you find out if you’re on the right track [smiles]. And the standard of the competition is very high so there’s a requirement to constantly invest in refining your skills and technique. I started TIG welding a year ago and it was so difficult that I just had to stop and focus on learning to do it really well. I didn’t build any customer frames for two months because if you aren’t practising for one or two days you lose any proficiency you’ve gained up to that point. A considerable cost in not doing your regular job for so long but how do you put a price on the time you spend in education; for trying new things?’
New directions that account for Vlad’s recent decision to also build in titanium after years working solely with steel and the reason for the welding lessons.
‘The ride quality is really amazing and there’s so many advantages to this material that makes sense for a cyclist. The power transfer is so efficient. You push the pedal and the bike simply goes. It works with you; every single effort is rewarded. So smooth in absorbing vibrations it’s as if you’re levitating above the road. And throughout my career, what I’ve always aimed to deliver is a sublime ride experience. But to be honest, that’s regardless of the frame material. Maybe one day I’ll build the perfect carbon bike or even one using bamboo [laughs]. If it works, then why not?’
‘I never want to stand still,’ Vlad concludes, ‘and I suppose that’s why I’m always asking questions about the bikes that I build. 6 months before my father passed away I built my first junk bike. He saw it and we spoke and he knew I was going to continue in this direction. But I really regret that when I was younger I never took advantage of his valuable knowledge. That I didn’t take the opportunity to learn. So I think this accounts for the passion I now feel. In a sense, like it’s a sport and I’m competing against myself. Keeping it fresh because I can’t build the same bike every day. I’ve got some stock models and even with these I’m thinking about how I can improve this or that. And that’s why I can’t work for somebody else. I remember in the past when I had a normal job but with zero interest. The frame building was the first time for me that I felt energised. I can wake up early and work for 12 hours and it doesn’t matter. Because I’m enjoying every single minute that I spend in my workshop.’
All workshop images with kind permission of Lee Basford
Bike gallery images by equilibriumcycleworks.com