I’m on a call with Zach Lambert—partner in Luft Los Angeles and founder of the BlackHeart Bike Company. Looking suitably West Coast casual in a shop tee, he’s recounting the time he first moved up to Lake Tahoe only to discover a bear was living under his house. Not a brown or grizzly he points out with a smile—choosing instead to compare his black bear (and roomy) to a large dog with a penchant for mischief making.
Growing up in New Hampshire – there are black bears there too – a mountain bike was his chosen ride. But when Zach moved to Los Angeles in 2008 he decided to give road biking a go. Researching local cycling clubs, he remembers calling in at the Rapha clubhouse in Santa Monica and what a great space it was. But he was left wondering whether there was this perceived notion that you needed to ride in their kit.
“LA is very big,” Zach suggests, “and that’s encouraged the cycling scene to grow and become more inclusive—lots of interesting characters from a range of backgrounds which, in turn, means there’s more diversity. And then there’s gravel which has helped out a huge amount. Instead of feeling that you’re not wearing the right thing, there’s almost a sense that anything goes and you can create your own unique style. A case of celebrating rather than chastising the differences.”
With the opening of Luft – more on this a little later – rather than any slavish adherence to the so-called rules of cycling, a focus on individuality extends to the items the store carries—a curated range of products based on what Zach and his colleagues actually like and use themselves.
“In much the same way that there’s no right or wrong why to say Luft – we have a wall of cycling caps to help us explain the concept – we’re trying to evolve cycling culture away from one that is elitist and has all these unspoken rules regarding sock height and how to wear your glasses. We’re more, let’s have a coffee and hang out.”
“It’s almost like people discount themselves when they say they’re not a cyclist,” continues Zach. “When maybe they just don’t race or ride thousands of miles a year. So at Luft, we strive to make cycling magnetic and inviting in all its different forms.”
Regular shop rides provide one popular mechanism for achieving these goals. Ranging from large events with riders numbering in their hundreds, after-hours photo walks and a running club help attract a diverse crowd of participants.
“It’s always good fun to finish a ride at the shop for pizza and a few beers,” says Zach with a smile. “And when we hook up with the Venice Photo Club, people show up on bikes and scooters – even roller-skates – before cruising through the neighbourhood with their cameras.”
With a relatively small footprint, the store’s central 10ft long bar inevitably acts as a fulcrum around which people rub shoulders—free cups of coffee encouraging the eclectic mix of customers to hang out and interact.
“Cultural nuances are what makes LA society so interesting,” Zach observes. “It’s not uncommon, if you’re eating out in New York, to have perfect strangers sitting at their own table, six inches to either side of you. In LA it’s the opposite—the tables are all spaced out. In fact, pretty much everything is spaced out. And these norms also dictate behaviour when I’m out riding. Where I grew up on the East Coast, everybody speaks to everybody. Here it’s not as common but I still wave and say hi regardless.”
This riding that Zach describes – and more specifically a search for the right bike – proved the catalyst for starting his own bike brand. A story he tells with a wry sense of humour when referring to certain cycling industry clichés.
“The bike I wanted didn’t exist—a combination of titanium aesthetic and performance but at an affordable price. And I also came across this sense of seriousness in the bike world. Claims that this bottom bracket is 13% stiffer and saves you 3 watts at an average of 40 kph over 40 km. I mean, who do they think they’re talking to? Because for the vast majority of cyclists, none of that matters.”
“I was looking for a good quality product along the lines of a high end watch. Something with a sense of class and inherent longevity. And it was my girlfriend Kristen that came up with the name—along the lines of having a BlackHeart for all this marketing BS that was coming out from the big players.”
Work started on BlackHeart in 2017 before the brand was launched in January 2020. Zach initially running the business out of a storage unit in Venice Beach which gave a real insider feel to the operation—awareness limited to people Zach knew, their associates and the local cycling scene.
“Pretty cool but not exactly scalable so I started looking for a proper commercial space, got talking to Kristen and our friend Cody, before deciding that we’d open a bike shop instead.”
Looking around at what cycling retail infrastructure already existed on the West Side, Zach counted a handful of high end shops that covered bike sales. But apart from Rapha, there wasn’t really a place where you could simply go and hang out. So talks were instigated with a few brands Zach felt would be a good fit to partner with for the launch and Luft opened its doors in April 2021.
With BlackHeart bikes framed by the store’s street-facing windows, there exists a kind of symbiotic relationship with each venture serving the other in different but complementary ways. Luft builds a sense of community and encourages foot fall—the bikes on display just beg to be ridden.
“If you’re competitively road racing, our titanium Allroad is not for you. It’s also not the kind of gravel bike that just ploughs over ridiculous rocks and roots. But what if you want one bike that will perform on road and gravel really competently—sharp and nimble on the smooth stuff but with 40 mm tyre clearance? And we have the exact same frame design for our aluminium model so you get to enjoy the sweet ride but at a more accessible price point. I would even argue that our aluminium BlackHeart performs way better than low end carbon bikes. Like they say, you can make a great – or terrible – bike out of any material.”
The option to choose a painted fork adds an element of customisation to the build process—a reasoned response to Zach believing it’s “kind of lame” to spend upwards of $10,000 on a mass-produced bike only to find someone riding the exact same colour scheme when you pull up at a stop sign. This thoughtful approach to growing the BlackHeart model range accounting for the flat bar version of the aluminium Allroad that uses an Enve fork for bigger tyre clearance.
“As yet not a model all on its own,” explains Zach, “but something that’s fun with a capital F and puts a smile on your face when you ride it. There’s a bunch of trails near my house that on a mountain bike would feel far too tame. On this bike, you feel like a kid again but without risking life and limb sending it down some technical single track. Maybe a niche product but one that speaks to the idea of placing ride experience front and centre. And whenever I have that flat bar locked up outside Luft – sandwiched between Pinarellos and S-Works – I’ll notice people stopping and taking pictures of it with their phones.”
As our transatlantic time is drawing to a close, I’m curious to know that when looking at Luft – the community, the café, the shop – how it all makes Zach feel? Whether he still gets the same thrill when a shop ride returns for a slice of pizza or a BlackHeart bike is taken out for a test ride?
“I still respond to all our email queries and even the website’s instant message function—these all come through on my phone. And for the first two years all of this traffic was the result of personal interactions, speaking to people at the shop, doing test rides. But over the past year, it’s becoming more and more common that an order will come through from a person that I don’t actually know. And I’m surprised and humbled every time that happens because they obviously must like what we’re doing.”
If the cap fits, I suggest?
Zach smiles as I picture him mentally reviewing his journey so far.
“There’s been a lot of steps,” he concludes, “and there’s still a lot more to come. But we’re all having fun and just taking it one day at a time.”
Zach / Kristen / Cody
Unless individually credited, all imagery with kind permission of Luft Los Angeles / BlackHeart Bike Co