Op-ed: Another Lifetime - Journalist Meets Framebuilder

Dec 6, 2018
by Richard Cunningham  
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?"
Mantis Bicycle Co.
Vic Armijo photo

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.

Welding torch

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."


97 Comments

  • + 199
 I might be biased but this is easily one of the best things I've read on PB. So good.
  • + 11
 Absolutely. I'm book marking this one.
  • + 21
 I’m not biased at all, but it was one of the best articles I’ve read anywhere in quite some time. Very emotive.
  • + 7
 no bias, the guys a legend, he just needs to remember, longer, lower, slacker !
  • + 3
 Truth.
  • + 3
 Absolutely top notch.
  • + 3
 Agreed! Loved it. Now for you Mike!
  • + 8
 Agreed, this was awesome.

I’ve made my living as a pilot, but I’ve read pretty much everything written on PB for as long as I can remember. I live vicariously through those that make a living writing about and riding bikes, and always with a bit of jealousy.

All that being said, I really hope we get to see that fuselage someday........
  • - 1
 It's OK. I was hoping for more down country content, though.
  • + 5
 @pinhead907: 2019: The Year of Down-Country
  • + 3
 Completely agree, very nice bit of writing.
  • + 2
 I'm probably the only one who tries to blend it and assume I understand this.
  • + 2
 What an Absolute stud and Legend!
  • + 56
 I've only done 2 frames for my daughters. 1st one was a simple balance bike but then got a bit more creative with the 2nd one ????
m.pinkbike.com/photo/14799826
  • + 6
 Pretty sweet looking work brother. Cheers!
  • + 4
 That is sick!
  • + 2
 That is the d.o.g.s.b.o.l.o.x!! But why no Single sided fork?
  • + 10
 that's f*cking awesome, will you be my dad?
  • + 4
 Looks dope, but as a mechanic, how will you lube the chain without contaminating the brake?
  • + 2
 You Sir are officially DAD of the Year!
  • + 2
 @bigtim: Thought about it but didn't have time to get it done..
  • + 2
 @m47h13u: Very liberal use of dry lube. She doesn't ride far and there's been no problems yet.
  • + 25
 As a welder by trade and someone who has all the tools just sitting in my home shop I've often wondered what it'd be like to build a bike frame. I should really pull the trigger and buy some tube. A long, slack, XL (I'm 6'3") steel hardtail with 29 plus wheels would be the cats meow for a winter bike for me.
  • + 8
 I’m a machinist and often wondered the same thing. Did a lot of brazing when I was younger. I wish I knew what I know now when I was 19 I could built some cool stuff. We just need the motivation I guess
  • - 11
flag Kramz (Dec 6, 2018 at 16:46) (Below Threshold)
 @Turboute: Yeah, I don't care anymore. When I was a kid I was always dreaming up things, like cars, and stuff. I could care less nowadays, rather buy alcohol.
  • - 4
flag Kramz (Dec 6, 2018 at 21:08) (Below Threshold)
 @freestyIAM: If you don't give a f*ck it isn't.
  • + 1
 Do it!
  • + 3
 @Kramz: Better start caring again, cause life gets VERY hard when you don't.
  • + 3
 Draw some frames, build some jigs, buy some tubes, pick up the torch and get to it my friend. It's a long winter haha! My Formula SAE days were some of the best times with buddies.
  • + 3
 @Kramz: If you really didn't give a feck, you would not be here telling us about it. Crawl out of your own ass and pick up the damn sketchbook and get at it.
  • + 1
 @Turboute: My brazing sucks but what better chance to practice on my own stuff. Motivation and time are important but severely lacking. Between kids, a more than full time job and finding time to ride/ski life gets in the way sometimes. Prioritizing is the answer methinks.
  • + 1
 Yeah man! Get jiggy with it....O>O.....
  • + 12
 The staying up all night, getting sucked in by a project is one of the best/worst feelings ever. When you realize that's it's 4 in the morning and you have spent 8 hours doing something that felt like it only took 2 is such a mixed feeling for me.
  • + 9
 This is an excellent article! Beautifully written from an artists perspective.
As a woodworker I relate to the idea of the "other" taking over when the tools are in hand.
Thank you.
  • + 8
 @RichardCunningham: Your excellent vividly expressive prose is inspiring to say the least. Your piece on Intense, a while back inspired me to apply for and be accepted to give a TEDx talk on the need for artisanship in an age of automation. You sir are a gift to all things mtb related. This world is a somewhat better place because of it. Thank you
  • + 10
 owned several Flying Vs and a Pro Floater, bought from Butch, from time to time i miss those days. Bikes got better but lost character and style as did the sport itself....
  • + 1
 Yep, I got a Pro Floater in 1994 at the age of 16 - my first full suspension bike. Sold it to a buddy in college who still rides it occasionally. He told me he took it into a shop not long ago and they all freaked out. Hoping he'll sell it back to me at some point.
  • + 1
 whoa
  • + 10
 I want to see the airplane fuselage!
  • + 4
 I feel like such a psychopath after reading this... i designed a frame and got it welded for me. Sold it without tiniest bit of remorse... looking back I feel most of my self loathing was kind of forced. The only thing I appreciated about it was that it has been done. I designed something and I rode it. Other than that it was kind a shit bike.
  • + 18
 You are a one stange man. At least assume you're a man.
  • - 6
flag rideonjon (Dec 6, 2018 at 15:37) (Below Threshold)
 So you had someone build you a custom bike with your imput on geometry,congrats.You did nothing!
  • + 9
 You sold the shit bike to someone?
Mental note: Don't buy shit from Waki!
  • + 2
 @rideonjon: I only spent hours on hours designing it www.pinkbike.com/u/WAKIdesigns/album/Hard-TRAIL

@Rubberelli: the tyre clearance was crap and the NS eccentric inspired drop outs were flexy as fuk.
  • + 1
 Psychopath may be a bit strong, but you may be rather extreme on the « finished result Vs design process » spectrum as there are different kind of brain wiring.
For a long time I didn’t finish most of the things I do in 3D. I love the process more than the result, I love the modeling part where things take shape, then when I’m at 95% I start to lose interest as I’m often already thinking about something else and as the remaining 5% of work on the little details take much more than 5% of the overall project time. I pushed myself for the bikes and (partly thanks to a never ending fall/winter), and, not counting the things I did at work that I complete because of the mandatory deadline, the SLB was the 1st personal project I ever really completed, 1st thing where I said myself « ok, I could still push it a bit, and keep refining little details ever and ever, but I decide I’m 100% satisfied, or at least 99%, which is an acceptable margin ».
Also we probably tolerate « failed » attempt much less as grown-ups than when we were kids/teens.
  • + 1
 @Will-narayan: My problem is that many people told me, "why are you selling this?! That's you first bike damn bike! Who gets to design his own bike and get it done?!" and I just have no feelings related to it. The only value I see int it is that I learned from the mistakes I made there. I will be now making a 4X/XC frame for myself and I honestly look at it pragmatically. There is simply no bike like this currently that can do both DJ and XC in 26" format. And then I can get it done in the relatively good money by a good builder. Pragmatism... So when I read that someone loves his creation, I envy him/her. There is this happy idiot vibe to it. I don't have it. I find it extremely easy to move on. I have problems with attachment Big Grin You know the song "Young and Beatiful" by Lana Del Rey? Well... it gives me goose bumps, as if women were monsters that want to attach to you forever, also after death.
  • + 2
 @WAKIdesigns: I always fall asleep during the 1st verse of any Lana Del Ray song :p
Well, having no attachment for objects is not a problem, more a blessing I would say. Better than those idiots who’d kill someone who scratched their cars by mistake. And some people really like the process much more than the result. It’s the learning and thinking that they like, not the product. Your input on this bike was the design, not the actual building, so in a way you still have something of that bike : The learning experience from your input. Maybe that would've been different if you welded it yoursel, I don't know.
Having no attachment for people may be a bit more concerning, though as long as there’s empathy it should be ok. Without empathy you get closer to a psychopath xD
  • + 3
 Not precisely a builder, but I get the feeling of going back to your roots and finding it rewarding no matter the purpose but the rush that runs through your body because you're just letting your dreamer keep going. And then having to keep working on the stuff you like too. Nice writing, thank you RC!
  • + 4
 "Don't get me wrong. Making your own frame, building it up, and then riding it? The magic is undeniable."

The magic is real. This article is great Richard... keep sketching in that book.

-Adam

Reeb Cycles
  • + 4
 I want to go to my.childhood bedroom and use my grandpas drafting paper to draw robots again like back in the day...
  • + 1
 Love this kind of stuff. There's the magic of blasting down a trail, but also magic in the build and design of these pretty simple machines that are also works of art when stand still. Much respect to anyone who has or is paying the bills by making bicycle frames. It's something that's on my bucket list to do, and would be up there as top career choices if i thought i could be any good at, or maintain a decent living. Support those boutique makers, folks!
  • + 2
 I've worked with many welders and learned so very much from them. But none of them has taught me much about writing...and this was damned fine writing from a welder. Pinkbike has finally surprised me.
  • + 1
 Great article RC...I too was a Mantis Homer!!! Loved all of your stuff!! I ordered a XCR-EC as soon as I finished reading the article in MBA..When it arrived in Metallic Gray I couldn't have been happier..Loved that bike...ahead of it's time...Shortly after that I bought a Flying "V" from Cambria Bikes....Loved that bike too.....Then the Pro-Floater!!! You are the man!!! All great designs!!!
  • + 1
 Very nice article my friend. I enjoyed working with you many years ago and making your beautiful creations look awesome and marvelous with a touch of flare of custom paint and glass looking clear. Best memories, loved the lines on X frame. Forever love your writing and our friendship, Nutzo, aka the red head goddess from H. Also aka owner at Cycle Fantasy
  • + 1
 My first mtb was a Bridgestone. Which was a re-engineered bike someone else designed. Growing up in South East Asia that's what we got. Thank you Richard for the warmth this nostalgia provides, makes getting older a good thing. And I always wanted a Mantis.
  • + 2
 I know a frame jig makes it way easier to build, but do you HAVE to have one? My brother builds pre runners and has a welder, miter, and mostly everything. I think it woul dbe a cool project to learn from.
  • + 0
 Short answer is no. The front triangle is pretty straight forward to do 'flat' -- the rear end (I'm assuming hard tail) gets trickier, but it can be done.
  • + 1
 I've build a hardtail and a full suspension frame without a jig. It can be done. There are also relatively simple jig options that can be made for fairly cheap.
  • + 1
 A Jig.. No, but you must have a datum/inspection table as a minimum and , no a piece of MDF just won't cut it.
A frame NEEDS to be perfectly inline ,not just close.
There simply are no shortcuts, as I believe a certain frame builder this side of the pond found out on PB this very year.
To RC, I was one such builder back in the Mid 80's early 90's. And after nearly 25 years I built a frame again for myself
I suspected I would no longer be able to Fillet braze, but just like riding a bike, it never leaves you.
  • + 1
 @XCAussie: alignment table isn't a must have for the garage builder doing personal frames. Many other things higher up the list before being too worried about alignment.
  • + 1
 My 1992 Mantis Flying V in Tree Frog Green/Medium Long was my favorite bike of all time. Followed closely by the 1993 Mantis Pro-Floater in Red Metallic. Wow that takes me back. I wish I still had both of them. Absolutely ride-able art.
  • + 4
 Fantastic! I want to see that fuselage now.
  • + 1
 Amazing article! I've had enough conversations (one) with someone who makes their own bikes to know that I definitely want to give it a try! Worst case scenario is I get a funky commuter out of it!
  • + 2
 Thanks RC for your commitment to the sport and appreciation of the craft. And also for saying hi and including some shots of my creations from the last NAHBS show.
  • + 1
 Great article. I had a job building hydronic headers when I was younger, I would t drill and braze outlets - I really enjoyed that. I could see how that would be so addictive.
  • + 1
 RC is a legend. I woudl love a modern version of this as a 29" www.pinkbike.com/news/now-that-was-a-bike-1990-mantis-valkyrie.html
  • + 1
 That's not 9 tubes there, more like 13 Smile
  • + 1
 I lusted after a mantis pro floater forever wayyyy back when I first started working at the shop. Beautiful bike. Great article, very well put together!!
  • + 3
 Superb writing. Beautiful, like bop poetry
  • + 4
 thanks for sharing RC.
  • + 1
 AWESOME article! It's 9pm here and I read it as I take a break form building my own latest idea for a 29er. It's 128.99 mm though Wink
  • + 1
 Anyone in the Uk fancy having a go, look up the Bicycle academy in Frome, Somerset. Their framebuilding courses are outstanding and they really are super passionate.
  • + 2
 9? I count only 8. Maybe that why I don't build frames? Great article! Now show us the plane!
  • + 2
 Head tube/top and down tube/2 chainstay/ 2 seatstay/bb shell and Seat tube.
  • + 2
 head tube + tt + dt + st + bb +2 cs + 2 ss =9

"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...A cursory inspection reveals that I haven't lost the touch"
  • + 1
 Shit, BB. Long day at work. Smile
  • + 3
 More please.
  • + 1
 Some great emotive writing RC
  • + 1
 RC you are a true gent and a legend! Well written, thanks for sharing.
  • + 2
 Beautiful
  • + 1
 Contagious passion! Thanks RC
  • + 2
 Thank-You RC Smile
  • + 1
 Calves of steel since 1963!
  • - 1
 For the love of Crom, if your going to position yourself as an expert, at least get the terminology correct! It’s a cope, not a miter. Sheesh.
  • + 1
 UM ITZ WHOSE
  • + 2
 Respect
  • + 4
 Absolutely superb writing. Truly brilliant
  • + 1
 Dw link
  • + 1
 Nice!
  • + 1
 Still water runs deep.

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