Local bike-builders get national recognition.
At this year’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) in Salt Lake City, an annual event showcasing the talent and workmanship of custom-bike builders, three Bozeman-based craftsmen shared the stage.
Kirk Frameworks and Sklar Bikes brought home three coveted awards, while previous NAHBS award-winner Carl Strong created a buzz during his seminar on “The Business of Professional Framebuilding.
Carl Strong started Strong Frames in his grandmother’s garage on South Willson Ave. in 1993. Since then, his shop has been relocated around Bozeman eight times, including a stint in the cavernous Story Mill. Each move refined Carl’s business model and the corresponding footprint for the tools and space required for his trade. Nowadays, Carl, with his wife and business partner, Loretta, average two frames per month in their new shop and studio, a compact maze of milling machines and workstations at the original southside site once owned by his grandmother.
Carl’s longevity and the worldwide demand for his customized titanium framesets are a testament to his and Loretta’s business savvy, efficiency, and dedication to a personalized manufacturing process. Light, stiff, and expensive, titanium requires a highly skilled hand to transform a tube-set into a completed bicycle frame. In 24 years of hand-building approximately 4,000 bikes, Strong bicycles have become known for their meticulous welds and clean lines using this finicky material.
At this year’s NAHBS conference, Carl introduced his new partner Bill Cochran, a Montana native and bike entrepreneur, and their business venture Pursuit Cycles (PC), a locally handcrafted carbon-fiber bicycle company. The fourth founding partner, Jared Nelson, a Ph.D. graduate of MSU, is Pursuit Cycles’ director of engineering and currently is heavily involved in the design and testing phase. Carl explains that these limited-production frames “will be built using cutting-edge technologies to create a stiff-yet-light bicycle not just for racing, but also for everyday riding.”
The pursuit of perfection
Thanks primarily to Bill’s 30 years of networking within the cycling industry, Pursuit Cycles has assembled a national team of professional consultants to guide the product development, but the company is “all about Bozeman,” according to Carl. Loretta and Bill nod in agreement: “We’re part of the Bozeman connection,” says Loretta, emphasizing that they want to “create quality-of-life opportunities with livable, enticing wages and a fun place to work for Bozeman’s creative, outdoorsy, career-minded people.”
Bill’s eyes beam as he speaks about the future of Pursuit Cycles. “Carbon fiber is the new frontier for handmade bicycles. Everything we know about metal frame-building has already been explored and done. Carbon fiber gives us new opportunities to do things that have never been achieved in handmade bicycle frame-building.
Since 2003, David Kirk has run his one-man operation, Kirk Frameworks, out of a brightly lit shop at his home in the foothills of the Bridger Range. The contents of the converted two-stall garage, with a stunning view of the Spanish Peaks, speak volumes about David’s interests and passions. Vintage sports-car posters line the canary-yellow walls and his personal quiver of Kirk Frames hang from the ceiling. The south side has a workbench, roll-away toolbox with requisite hand tools, a Kirk-designed bike jig, and acetylene torch for frame-building. In the north stall sits a bright orange Westfield, an open-wheeled English racecar. Built personally from a kit, David calls it “his humor machine” because it makes him smile when he races it in regional autocross events throughout the summer.
The coolest garage in town
David’s love of racing machines came from the earliest influences of his dad, who was a racecar mechanic extraordinaire. After David mastered the balance of riding a two-wheeler as a tyke, his dad hand-built him a bike from repurposed parts, painted British Racing Green with David’s name in chrome lettering on the chain guard. At that point, he was hooked by a quest to build what he wanted to ride.
Bitten by the competition bug a short while later, David raced BMX, then road cycles, and eventually mountain bikes while working in bike and ski shops in his native New York. For ten years, he worked at the venerable Serotta Bicycle Company in Saratoga Springs, New York. While initially hired as a mechanic, he peaked professionally after becoming the sole frame-builder of custom bikes for Serotta’s Coors Light Pro Cycling Racing Team.
Kirk carrying the torch
When David felt that he’d reached his potential at Serotta, he and wife Karen moved on to new things. The mountains were calling and Bozeman offered an enticing mix of graduate school (for Karen), alpine recreation, and new opportunities. David landed a job hand-making bicycles at Strong Frames during its expansion period, where he had “a few great years” with the renowned frame-builder.
David’s frame-assembly technique of choice is still fillet brazing; a torch is used to melt and flow a filler metal into the joints where the tubes meet, creating smooth, seamless joints. “If you don’t do it right, it ends up on your shoe,” he admits. At the NAHBS show, David’s stunning piece of framework art was awarded best fillet-brazed frame. His personal road bike, a meticulously crafted, Joe Bell–painted, lugged frame, was awarded best road bike, a testimony to the strength and function of the hundreds of bicycles built by David’s own brand.
In 2011, at the tender age of seventeen, fresh-faced millennial Adam Sklar “started building bicycles for myself and other high-school friends in my family’s garage back in Boulder, Colorado.” To his credit, and after only 75 handmade bicycles, he won this year’s NAHBS mountain bike of the year.
Adam came to Bozeman to attend MSU’s engineering program, where mentors helped him hone the next phase of “his customized-bike hobby.” Mechanical engineering professor Tom Jungst saw Adam’s potential and gave the freshman a job in MSU’s machine shop. Tom imparted new perspectives on designing, machining, and welding metals.
After earning his degree, the lure of a creative reality in Bozeman inspired Adam to pursue his bicycle passion in earnest under the Sklar Bikes moniker. Soft-spoken, Adam is quick to give thanks “for the insights of my bike-loving friends, and Alter Cycles owners Steve Bretson and Mason Griffin,” with whom he shares the hip northside workspace near the Bon Ton Mill, and a quick-witted camaraderie.
A trail rider, Adam builds mainly steel bikes for strength and accessibility. “I grew up riding, racing, and coaching others to ride mountain bikes,” he explains, “which has instilled a love for adventure and riding on dirt. This influenced my design philosophy and is the inspiration for many of the bikes I build.”
Like David, Adam credits Carl Strong, in part, for his start. He went to Carl for advice when starting his own shop. “Initially, I don’t think Carl took me seriously. When I asked him again, he emphasized the importance of solid and disciplined business practices.”
Adam seems to have listened. He now has a growing demand for his adventure mountain bikes and gravel-grinding cyclocross frames. His frames feature a signature “ovalized” and curved top-tube that combines a retro look with the latest geometries and plus-sized wheel-and-tire combinations. “I like designing mountain bikes because there’s lots you can do with geometry to make them more fun,” he explains. “I build a lot for bikepackers or aggressive hardtail trail riders. It’s fun to find out what people are into and then design a bike around that.”