"Jeff, can I buy one of those welding tables?" I was hanging out with Jeff Steber outside the Intense factory and I noticed workers were stacking some metal tables in the yard behind the shop. He wouldn't take my money. Jeff set one aside and told me to come pick it up in a week. It was an awkward moment.
I had paid a surprise visit to Intense to drop off a test bike, which should have been no cause for concern. I live an hour south, and I drop in every so often to say hey and, if he isn't busy making a secret project, to talk tech with Jeff. Today, however, as I passed the threshold of the Temecula, California, factory, I sensed something was amiss. Jeff met me in the foyer and before ushering me into the factory's inner sanctum, he turned and said, "RC, you came here on a big day for us." It was not the kind of "big day" I was expecting.
I grew up in metal fabrication shops and I looked forward to passing through the hallway that separated the administration offices from the daily mayhem of the Intense factory. I anticipated seeing odd shadows cast in pink light against its concrete walls and hearing the buzz and crackle of TIG welders. I expected to smell ozone and the sweet scent of coolant emanating from CNC machining centers humming somewhere in the back of the building, and I looked forward to handling the freshly-cut bottom brackets, frame journals, dropouts, and linkages, all neatly arranged in rows, awaiting their turn in the building process. I'd finish my lap around the factory in the assembly area, running my hands over beautifully painted frames, lined up on wooden racks...and I'd allow myself to reminisce, for a fraction of a second, about a time when my fingers played across my own finished creations.
Stepping into the factory, I was confronted with a wall of bicycle boxes, floor to ceiling, stacked neatly on aisles of new scaffolding. The atmosphere smelled like fresh tires, corrugated cardboard, and the pungent assembly grease that wafts from new drivetrain components. Storage occupied the space where manufacturing and frame assembly once took center stage. Only two of six machining centers were left standing and a crew was busy, hastily disassembling the welding department. I watched men cart the TIG machines into shipping containers behind the shop. Assembly fixtures and work-tables were piling up in the fenced yard beside stacks of old shelves and furnishings.
Jeff was visibly moved by the goings on, but he managed to sound committed when he announced that the day had arrived when Intense would no longer manufacture bicycles. He explained that the management took a long, hard look at the costs and returns of Intense's aluminum manufacturing. The short story was that they had over 20 employees and most of the factory devoted to aluminum frame production. Aluminum bike and frame sales had dwindled to half of what the factory was designed to handle. Darkening that picture, frame sales had all but dried up as new customers demanded complete bikes. The reality they faced was that
Intense's successful range of made-in-Asia carbon bikes was subsidizing its manufacturing operation. By the end of 2016, Intense's aluminum production had been shifted to Asia. The factory was converted to a warehouse and that's when I showed up.
There was no turning back for Intense. The market for used manufacturing machinery is pennies on the dollar, and retooling the factory would cost millions. CEO Andrew Herrick said that employees who could not be absorbed into the new Intense were given severance pay and assistance to new employment. Jeff, who designs and builds Intense's aluminum prototypes, kept enough equipment to assemble a king's workshop in a corner of the new warehouse. Steber admitted that shutting down manufacturing
has given him a lot more time and a substantially larger budget with which to concentrate on future projects. There was, however, no hiding the fact that this was the end of an era. The finality of it hung in the air. I could see it in his eyes.
I know that feeling. I had a small mountain bike manufacturing business. The handful of people who worked beside me were as proud as I was to watch the aluminum and steel we shaped with our hands become painted frames lined up on our wooden racks. We grew up with the business, and so did the mountain bike industry. At some point, I believed that small frame makers like us were going to be eaten alive by established big brands and I made the decision to sell. I remember the day escrow closed. The concrete floor I had walked for a dozen years felt foreign. All of my tools belonged to someone else. The men who forged their dreams to fit into mine had a new employer. Miraculously, I stepped into a new career as the editor of a popular mountain bike magazine, but it was bittersweet. I studied the check in my hand. The voice inside me said I was not going to make bicycles again.
Years later, I paid a visit to my welder, Travis Decker, who now owns a custom sheet metal business. There, surrounded by his massive computerized punches and bending machines, I saw a familiar sight - my old aluminum work table. Travis had purchased it for almost nothing after the new owners decided they had no use for it. Every bicycle I had made had been designed, assembled, welded and aligned on that four by eight foot slab of aluminum. A measure of my soul is locked inside that table, along with crumbs of history that span from the first fillet-brazed, rigid steel mountain bikes to the dawn of full-suspension. That Travis is still using it today is an honor that I can't covey with words.
I drove back to Temecula and, as promised, my prize was waiting - standing alone in the fenced lot. I unloaded the table in my new workshop and inspected it more closely. Its aluminum top was bowed slightly from intense heat and pockmarked by high-voltage arcs. Its unpainted rectangular steel legs had a patina of rust, except for where its previous owner's boots had rested. A haphazardly crafted U-bracket was welded to one side to hold the TIG torch, and a hole near the center that formed a swivel point for heavy welding fixtures bore witness to thousands of aluminum frames that were either tacked together or finish welded on this plain-looking, three-foot-square metal table. It was an honor to have it. A few days later, I fired up my torch and the first project began to rise up from its well-worn surface.