Would you ever consider making bikes again? Occasionally, that proposition pops up and it usually catches me off guard. It shouldn't. I invested some of my best years making mountain bikes. It was the rarest of opportunities, to be on the ground floor of a movement that would launch cycling's most prolific period of innovation. Like many of my contemporaries, I was consumed by in the process - building, testing, racing, trade shows - time passed at the speed of light. It was a difficult way to earn a living, but immensely rewarding. Most of the time.
Would I make bikes again? I've convinced myself otherwise. Tom Ritchey used to say, "a bicycle frame is just nine tubes joined together." Rear suspension has made that equation slightly more complicated, but his point rings as true now as it did when an oxy/acetylene torch and a stack of chromoly tubes defined the craft. A bicycle frame is a means to an end. If you don't build with a purpose in mind, it's just artistic expression. "Bikes are pretty good these days," I say. "What's the point, if all I'm doing is making a slightly different one?"
Don't get me wrong. Making your own frame, building it up, and then riding it? The magic is undeniable. Every month, it seems, I come across a press release by a start-up bike maker. You don't have to read between the lines to sense their urgency to share the stoke. Then there's meticulous, seasoned builders like Steve Potts, who's titanium masterpieces are tailored to fit one person. Creativity needs no justification.
I tended to focus on the larger picture. The sport was evolving rapidly and, however small, I hoped that our bikes could play a role in its development. As boutique bike builders go, we were pretty successful, and even after handfuls became hundreds, there were still magic moments. I liked the solitude of welding, seeing a prototype emerge from a drawing, and the sensation when the decals are applied, that the frame springs to life. What motivated me most, though, was that people were going to be riding these things. That's the purpose, right? So when the corporate players caught up with the little guys, I took a position as a journalist and never looked back.
Twenty five years later, I'm in my basement workshop. My hands are stained black by drawing oil baked into the chromoly tubes I have painstakingly mitered. The room smells like cutting fluid and the acrid scent that abrasive saws make after burning through thin-wall steel. A cursory inspection reveals that I haven't lost the touch. The tubes are locked into place with small tack welds and their fish-mouth shapes fit snugly together at each junction. I reach for the brass aircraft torch and before my thumb has cracked open its acetylene valve, my left hand has already moved the striker into position. The bright yellow flame announces itself with a dull pop and a different Richard Cunningham takes over from there.
It's an airplane fuselage, not a mountain bike frame, but the welding torch does not discriminate. From this moment onward, the only thing that will exist in his universe will be a puddle of molten steel the size of a corn kernel. I'm Richard the journalist, watching Richard the frame builder - a man from another lifetime who's hands rock the torch and dab the filler rod with remarkable surety, welding each joint in an alternating sequence, memorized, but never shared, pausing only to reposition the tubular truss, clamped firmly in a vice by a wooden frame block.
Well after dark, holding the finished fuselage on my knee, my eyes were tracing a dozen triangles that mimic the shapes of a mountain bike's front section and swingarm. The slender tubes got me wondering, "If I adapted a truss structure, how light could I make a chromoly 130-millimeter-travel 29er frame?" I keep a spiral-bound notebook on my workbench. Three promising concepts had been scrawled upon its pages before I recognized the trap.
"One of us needs to go to bed," I said. "The other one has a Cannondale review to finish."