Strong Frames: Building Community, One Bike at a Time

Strong Frames: Building Community, One Bike at a Time

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Orms, R. Kent

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 seat 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 be exposed to air – and weakened. But, 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 and 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.”

The Story
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 cycling. “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 $16,000 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 gypsies,” he explains, “a little family of frame builders.”

The Company
For the Strong crew, the day begins around 8 a.m. Carl spends the first few hours answering customer e-mails and calling suppliers. 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 perfectly. 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 Web sites, 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 the customers are 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 6,800-square-foot building by Montana Ale Works where the community of cyclists can 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 prebuilt 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, and component package. Customers can be in a complete bike for as little as $1,500.

The Test Ride
They called it the Breathmint when it came out of the paint booth. A kelly-green 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 superlight 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, duck 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 dodged, not absorbed; creeks are navigated, not plowed. Breathmint is lithe and bird-like. I am a superstar on this bike, a hero. No one can catch me, few can even see me. Wooooeeeee!. I’m never giving this thing back.

Kent Orms, Outside Bozeman’s contributing editor for two years, has been missing for several months now. If you’ve seen him, please report to local authorities as he is wanted for “questioning.”

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