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Sparks fly at the hands of Glen Copus, who makes Spokane's best bikes. Photo: Hank Greer
Sparks fly at the hands of Glen Copus, who makes Spokane's best bikes. Photo: Hank Greer

The Elephant in the Woods: Ultimate Back-Road Touring Bikes Made in Spokane

I’m always amazed, and a little envious, when I meet someone who has found his or her passion and lives it every day. Glen Copus of Spokane is one of those people. Glen builds bikes. No, scratch that. Glen builds damn good bikes made of steel. His bike building pedigree is too lengthy to cover in my allotted word count so feel free to use your favorite search engine to learn more. Glen is a quiet, master craftsman who lets his work and his customers speak for him. Whether a mountain bike, a commuter, a roadie, or a cyclocross steed, if it sports the Elephant Bikes logo the owner will speak of their bike with euphoria unobtainable from any pharmaceuticals or illicit drugs. (Disclosure: I’ve owned an Elephant cyclocross bike for almost three years. When I hammer the pedals it feels like it’s running out from under me. I beat the crap out of it every year and it’s like, “Bring it!”)

Added to the Elephant Bikes product line a couple years ago, and increasing the size of the chorus singing its praise, is a model called the National Forest Explorer or NFE.The NFE evolved from numerous rides and bike-packing trips through the national forests by John Speare and several of his friends. (You may know John from his Cycling Spokane blog.)

What kind of ride is a national forest ride? They are characterized by long days, fast riding on rough surfaces, lots of climbing, sketchy descents, and doing this while carrying a small load of food, water, supplies, and emergency camping gear. Photo courtesy of Josh Cohen/Elephant Bikes

What kind of ride is a national forest ride? They are characterized by long days, fast riding on rough surfaces, lots of climbing, sketchy descents, and doing this while carrying a small load of food, water, supplies, and emergency camping gear. Photo courtesy of Josh Cohen/Elephant Bikes

John says that about 5 years ago, he and a friend explored the Gifford Pinchot National Forest for a week. His friend, Alex Wetmore, built a bike with geometry based on a classic randonneuring bike, but it included fatter tires while still using the super-light tubing of a traditional rando bike. After riding Alex’s bike and another similar bike for a couple years, John asked Glen to make one. Glen did and the NFE was born.

The NFE sports the versatile 650b-size wheels. The steering on the NFE is light and responsive, which may take some getting used to if you’re a mountain biker. There is no suspension but the front fork has a lot of rake, which helps dampen washboard gravel roads. The fork consists of tapered tubing and has a tab for disc brakes. The fork itself is much more complex and detailed than your production “gravel grinder” bikes, which typically have straight forks.

What kind of ride is a national forest ride? They are characterized by long days, fast riding on rough surfaces, lots of climbing, sketchy descents, and doing this while carrying a small load of food, water, supplies, and emergency camping gear. Why is the NFE just the right bike for this?According to John, mountain bikes and cyclocross 29’ers were too much bike to lug around for 60-plus mile days. Cyclocross bikes are great for climbing and agility and distance, but they don’t have enough tire volume to handle the descents on the rutted rocky fire roads.

Elephant in the Oregon outback. Photo courtesy of the Radavist/Elephant Bikes

Elephant in the Oregon outback. Photo courtesy of the Radavist/Elephant Bikes

Glen has built a number of custom NFEs during the last couple of years. With each one he’s refined the design and optimized his building process.His customers love them and their feedback has helped shape the bike. For example, Fred Blasdel is a customer in Seattle whospecified every detail on his bike. (Search for “holstein elephant bike.” It’s pretty cool.) Working through the details on Fred’s bike influenced some of the design elements on the NFE, many of which have been purchased by other Seattle-area customers.

There is no other production bike like the NFE anywhere in the world, so Glen is going to make the NFE his first production bike. He plans to make a batch of three different sizes, presell as many as he can, and keep a few on hand to meet new orders in between production runs. He hopes to do two or three production runs a year.

Anywhere you go, you expect to pay more for quality when it comes to a bicycle. Regardless of whether it’s a custom or a production build, it’s difficult to match the value of a bike made here in Spokane by Glen compared to one made by anyone else. The combination of his reputation and the quality and value of his bikes has attracted customers from all across the country. He’s even shipped bikes to customers in England and Peru.

Glen went “all in” after quitting his day job 22 months ago to focus on Elephant Bikes. There’s no place he’d rather be than in his shop cutting, shaping, and welding steel for extremely satisfied customers. He’s living the dream. Find him at: Elephantbikes.com. //

About Hank Greer

Hank is an avid photographer, runner, cyclist, and inconsistent Oxford comma dropper. Sometimes he runs to work but mostly he commutes by bike unless the roads are snow or ice covered. (A small compromise made for his wife who, surprisingly, has enjoyed having him around for 30+ years, which speaks more for her character than his.) You'll know him on his bike by the camera hanging off his back. Hank once quit caffeine cold turkey and, as a result, he remains, even to this day, a legend in his own mind.