Before David Lee played guitar with the Legendary Shack Shakers, before he got his first tattoo, he was a cyclist.
"I can distinctly remember a time when this friend of mine pulled up on his bicycle," he explains, remembering one episode from when he was 10. "I said, 'Can I take it for a ride around the block?' And he was like nah."
So Lee had to get his own. He's been two-wheeled ever since, and he's fairly well known around Charleston for it. (The City Paper even featured Lee and his bicycle on the cover of a 2008 issue.)
"When you ride a nice bike, the way that they handle, the steering is very, very precise. It feels like an extension of you basically," Lee says. "It constantly reminds me how inefficient walking is when you can get somewhere so quickly on a bicycle and the whole time, you're having fun."
Today, Lee co-owns his own bike fabrication company, Clementine Bicycle Works, which produces custom frames and bicycles. Lee manages the creative side of the business, hand-painting frames in vivid colors and with distinctive details.
Oddly enough, it was Lee's position as a Shack Shaker for about 20 years that eventually led him to start Clementine. Whenever he went out on tour with the band, his bicycle came with him; he even kept one stashed in a locker in London for European jaunts. Fans would hear that he was a cyclist and show up at shows and offer him guided rides through Switzerland and southern France. So when the novelty of playing 250 shows a year wore off, Lee left the band and started to think about how he could find a place in the bicycle market.
Luckily, the touring circuit had taken him through Boston, where he got acquainted with another company, Independent Fabrication, and he took a position there building and painting bikes. When Lee finally returned to Charleston, he reconnected with an old friend, Kelly Lowry, through Facebook. Turns out Lowry had been into cycling all this time too.
Lowry, who will soon be relocating to Vermont from Spartanburg, holds down the financial, behind-the-scenes side of the business. Lee considers the environmental attorney the calm yin to his own manic yang. "I am a spaz and ADD and hard to control and go off on tangents about things," Lee says. "[Lowry] is a yoga instructor attorney, which seems like the strangest mix you could ever meet, but it's legit. He really is that guy. And he reels me in. He lets me go on my little rampages and doesn't freak out."
The pair has spent the last year quietly learning the ropes, developing frame sets, and working with overseas distributors. Together, they have 40 years of experience in the cycling world, and they can make a bike look any way its owner wants. And they work directly with their customers — when someone reaches out to Clementine, they get Lee or Lowry every time. "We sort of embrace the process of people calling or e-mailing and talking to David or Kelly," Lee says. "I think that's part of our charm. It's growing fast enough that that isn't always going to be the way it is, but I want to keep that going as long as we can."
Currently, three Clementine models are available on their recently launched website, clementinebikes.com. Each was designed by Lee and Lowry to balance high performance with visual appeal. The 916 and 935i have subtle differences, but both are intended for road riding and racing. Meanwhile, the 989 is time-trial specific. Lee says it's extremely aerodynamic, made for "going in a straight line as fast as you can." (It's not the bike you'd hop on to run an errand.)
Clementine uses carbon fiber for its frames, since the material is light, stiff, durable, and easily repairable if broken. They're made overseas and arrive in Charleston in a nude carbon format that gets sanded and prepared for the painting process, which Lee performs in the back of a West Ashley warehouse.
It can take seven to 12 hours to paint a single bicycle, but that's the fun part for Lee. "It's a tedious process that involves lots of masking and taping and razor blades and peeling off layers of tape and retaping and hopefully not making any mistakes," he says. "When you make a mistake it's like three steps backwards." He's inspired by vintage cars, airplanes, trains, tractors, and any object with a weird color combination that he can expand on. He encourages clients to lend him visuals, whether it's a Latin phrase or a turquoise piece of jewelry, and he'll balance a special pop with more understated subtlety.
"Part of the thing about painting, it's sort of like with tattooing or the way somebody plays the guitar. It's like a personal thing," he adds. "Someone can see a bike and be like 'David Lee painted that.' When you start to hone your craft and your niche in it, people see it."
With that amount of attention, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Clementine bicycles are expensive. The base prices for each may seem colossal to novices — the 915 starts at $1,650 for just a frame and fork, and that's the cheapest Clementine available — but Lee promises they're pretty low for a completely customized, hand-painted ride. And if you already own a sweet ride, Lee can paint that for you too.
So far, there are about 80 Clementine bicycles riding around out there. "The bikes have started showing up on group rides and races," Lee says, and Clementine sponsors a racing team that Lowry owns in Greenville. "They've had a presence, especially in the Southeast, and so people see them and they either really like it and like our logos and the things we're trying to do."
In the next year, Lee hopes to bring some of the Clementine manufacturing to South Carolina, for frames that will, admittedly, be twice as expensive as the ones currently offered. Consider it a couture branch of the business. And there's a new prototype in the works, one that Lee rode to our interview (and that you can see in the photo above). The pink bicycle is actually Lee's personal favorite to date. It should be available for purchase sometime this year, and, according to Lee, it's the nicest bicycle he's ever ridden.
But we assume he's biased.