Building Community, One Bike at a Time
What this morning was a pile of hollow metal tubes is now taking the shape of a bike. After hours of measuring, cutting, fitting, aligning, and cleaning, the most critical and holiest of all bike-building activities, welding, is about to begin. Winding the electrode through a maze of tubes and hoses, Carl Strong works a molten puddle of metal around the maze tube. He is a nucleus of efficient, coordinated activity. The right hand runs the electrode, the left feeds the filler wire, his right foot works a pedal controlling the heat. In the electrode, a small tungsten probe arcs electrical current to the metal, melting everything but itself. The number of things that can go wrong is staggering. Too fast, the weld will be too thin; too slow, it will puddle up and splatter. If his hand moves too far to either side, the weld will he exposed to air – and weakened, it goes on beautifully: small scallops of titanium form in graceful, even circles around the junction of tubes. Carl unclamps the bike and holds it up, looking closely, objectively at the cooling welds. Even in this form, rough mid unpainted the lines are graceful; the strength, exactness and simplicity hint at a beautiful bike. “All your work is right there,” Carl says from under the welding helmet. “There are no layers, and the paint can’t hide much.”
Carl Strong has raced bikes since he was a kid, his mom driving him all over the state to weekend races. After racing for 15 years, he quit and took a real estate job. He hated it and knew he wanted to do something that involved cycing “Frame building”, he says, “seemed like the most romantic aspect.” So with money he’d made from selling his house, he went down to the local welding store and walked away with $16k of equipment He was in business “The toughest part of starting up was welding,” he remembers. “Good welding is phenomenally hard to do.” In 1993, Carl sold his first frame. His first customers were mainly friends and he made just enough to cover costs. It was a tough schedule, working a day job and welding at night and on weekends. One day out riding, Carl ran into Tony Smith, then a Chemistry grad student, and a fellow bike nut. They hit it off immediately and Tony became Carl’s sole employee. Tony, a mechanical whiz, worked a couple of years before Carl was able to pay him. Now Tony is a partner in the business. Toward the end of 1999, Ibis, a major bicycle manufacturer, was looking for a quality-conscious builder to help make their high-end frames. They turned to Strong. With the Ibis contract plus their regular load of custom frames, Carl and his crew were up to 800 frames a year. The partnership with Ibis meant success and recognition, but it was a frantic pace. They never took weekends off and would often weld for ten hours a day. A break with Ibis (they went bankrupt) brought numbers back to a more manageable level. And that’s fine with Carl. ‘We have no intention of being large,” he explains. “Maybe 500 or 600 a year, but not thousands.” With Tony’s brother, Dan, and a full-time secretary, Strong Frames currently makes about 200 bikes a year. His days remain hectic and he has only been able to take weekends off in the last year. Starting last summer, Carl and crew have been spending more and more of the year traveling to bike festivals rides, and some races with a trailer full of demo bikes. Being among other small frame-builders and enthusiastic riders has strengthened his love of the cycling community. “We’re like a traveling band of qypsies,” he explains, “a little family of frame builders.”
For the Strong the day begins around 8 a.m. Carl spends the first few hours answering customers emails and calling supphers. Since his bikes are completely custom, there are tons of measurements and questions the customer has to answer to get a bike that will fit perfect. When he makes it out to the shop, he lays out the priorities and the schedule for the day. The rest of the day, he flits in and out of the shop taking phone calls, welding frames, ordering tubes, researching trade magazines and websites, and confirming designs with customers. It is the interaction with the customer that defines Strong’s approach to custom bike building. “You have to have a relationship with the customer, to find out what they really want in a bike,” he says. Sometimes getting that information out of them is not easy. Strong’s real talent lies in his ability to translate the often cryptic and nebulous experiences of the customer into a bike they will absolutely love. He interrogates until his customer is, sure they are getting the exact bike they want or can afford. They can choose not only the dimensions, materials and components, but even the joining methods, weight, and paint scheme. From tandems to full-suspension to cyclocross and everything in the middle, road or dirt, Strong makes what the customer asks for. This fall the Strong family will grow. Strong Frames will open a new 6,800square-foot building by Montana Ale Works where the community of cyclists call come and meet in the courtyard, air up tires, fill water bottles, or just relax, eat lunch. To be called Bozeman Cycle Works, they will not only continue to make their custom bikes, but customers can test ride different bikes and talk to the frame builders about fit and styles. Another big change for Strong Frames, at the end of this month, is that they will be releasing their own Signature Line. Quite a departure from pure custom bikes, the pre-built frames will run about $900 and be sized as standard bikes. You can choose either a frame or a complete bike – just pick the color, fork, arid component package. Customers can be in a complete bike for as little as $1500.
THE TEST RIDE
They called it the Breathmint when it came out of the paint booth. A Kellygreen front fading into white on the rear with a sparkly clear coat on top like drops of retsin. I’m not one to get too worked up over a bike (wink) but it was stunning. Underneath the shiny paint lay the bare gray tubes that Carl welded that morning. At lunch came the first layer of powdercoat. Now at five, it was ready for me to test ride: my own super-light, Strong Frames custom mountain bike to bounce around for a week. Leaving the shop, I asked Carl what I should expect, how it would ride. He grinned, “It’ll be lively.” Lively? A colossal understatement. This thing’s a thoroughbred – on speed. It wants to sprint away and dart, jump and hop down twisting trails. I am a little kid, jumping storm grates, racing traffic sprinting up hills. Sprightly and athletic, the bike wants to go fast. Where the trend in bikes today is bigger shocks and more cushion, this one wants you to feel the trail. A heavy downhill bike will run over, this bike wants to cut and zip. Rocks are dodges, not absorbed; creeks are navigated, not plowed. Breathmint is lithe and bird-like. I am a superstar on this bike, a herd. No one call Catch me, few can even see me. Wooooeeeee! I’m never giving this thing back. OB Kent Orms, Outside Bozeman’s contributing editor for two rears, has been missing for several months now. If you’ve seen him, please report to local authorities as he is wanted for “questioning.”
CARL’S FAVORITE RIDES
These are some of my favorite mountain bike rides in the area. They are fun and not so technical that you’ll have to go real slow, but not wide open enough to go super fast. They’ll scare you and challenge you, but you won’t disintegrate if you wreck.
This had a fire go through it the year before last, but it might be back open this summer. It’s a steep double-track climb with a beautiful downhill. Motocrossers made this trail, so it’s full of jumps, berms, and tabletops. At the top you can look over Canyon Ferry as you come down through the trees. Access is easy: take Hwy. 287 to Townsend and hang a right at the Commercial Bar. Drive to a flashing light, turn left, and follow the road north along Canyon Ferry until you hit Magpie Gulch (it’s on the right). Follow the gulch until you see a sign for Cave Gulch. This is the trailhead.
This ride is in the some area as Cave Gulch but is accessed through the town of York. It’s a tight single-track climb that heads up for miles, then descends into the valley. You can feel the temperature drop as you come down. The trail gets tighter and tighter until it dead-ends at a cliff, so you’ll need to hike the last bit. The view is fantastic, as is the riding. Head back out the same way. To get to the trail, travel northeast out of York to the campground. The trailhead is sort of hidden between two campsites at the back of the campground.
Head up to Hyalite and follow the road around the reservoir to the trailhead for this local’s favorite. It’s a beautiful, technical climb (try to make every switchback without dabbing!) and a blast of a downhill. Take some bug repellent and watch out for other trail users. This trail gets some traffic, especially on weekends.
– CARL STRONG