Wheel Fanatyk: Wood Crazy

The following feature is from the 2012 NAHBS in Sacramento. Wheel Fanatyk will be back at this year’s show – visit them at Booth #85

Wooden rims and high flange hubs feature in Wheel Fanatyk's offerings. Photo: M.Butterman
Wooden rims and high flange hubs feature in Wheel Fanatyk’s offerings. Photo: M.Butterman

The Hjertberg brothers, Ric and Jon, like to roll in many circles.

You may remember them as the men behind Wheelsmith. Ric later worked for FSA, and in 2009 launched Mad Fiber wheels.

Wheel Fanatyk began in 2007 to “celebrate fine wheel building,” as their website claims. It’s a store and a resource for wooden rims, handmade hubs, spoke machines and wheel technology.

With a background using stalwart aluminum rims, and developing cutting-edge carbon fiber wheelsets, why would Hjertberg choose to spend time on something so seemingly anachronistic as wooden rims?

“Wood rims have a timeless quality,” Ric Hjertberg says. “They’re comfortable and durable, and have the same appeal that steel or titanium do for the building of framesets.”

Photo: Matt Weil

Hjertberg actually sees wood rims as part of a new era of wheel technology: “For the first 70 years of bike history, wood rims were used. Then, for approximately the next 70 years, aluminum took over the industry. Now, were seeing a new focus on ride quality, and carbon fiber and wood are leading this new wave.”

Wheel Fanatyk imports Ghisallo Wood Rims from Italy. According to Hjertberg, they’re made by a father/son team using tooling that goes back five generations. He said that while the Italian rims use a type of wood ideally suited to rim construction, and that many types of American wood are unsuitable for rims, the increasing use of bamboo for frame construction may lead to its development as a rim material.

As you might imagine, vintage and art bikes are applications for many of the wood rims that Wheel Fanatyk sells. But recent road tests by the tech editors of Velo and Road Bike Action magazines have opened cyclists’ minds to the many virtues of wheels built up with wood rims, and have created demand far beyond just the vintage bike arena.

“Wood rims are stronger than aluminum, and have a shock absorbent feature that’s absent from harsh-riding alumnium rims,” says Hjertberg.

“Most importantly, they’re just fun to ride.”

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King Cage: Keeping your bottle

One booth at NAHBS always draws a crowd, but you won’t find a single bicycle frame on display there.

Ron Andrews of King Cage will be busy in his booth at the 2016 Sacramento North American Handmade Bicycle Show, bending tiny tubes into high-performance water bottle cages as he has done at four previous editions of the show.

Video: Ron Andrews of King Cage shows how it’s done. Credit: Matt Butterman

You might wonder what a water bottle cage might do to raise its game? The answer is three things: First, it stays firm yet springy and thus keeps a good grip on your bottle for years on end. Second, it doesn’t leave dark aluminum oxide stains on our bottle. Third, this metal residue on your bottle doesn’t mix with sweat drops to form a dark goo that drips onto your frame.

At least that’s what Andrews tells us, as do friends who have used them. We’ll find out for ourselves after NAHBS once we’ve purchased our set and tested them on the unforgiving trails of south Marin.

Andrews founded King Cage in 1991, and he works from his home in Durango, Colorado. He has been in the bike making business since 1982 when he started at Fat City Cycles. Since then his employers have included Ibis, Merlin, Joe Breeze, Ted Wojak and Yeti.

Ron Andrews' workshop in Durango, Colorado.
Ron Andrews’ workshop in Durango, Colorado.

“A customer asked if I could make a bottle cage out of titanium, so I gave it a go and it worked so well I started selling them. I introduced the stainless steel model in 1996. I use a tubing, it’s about half a millimeter thick, and this keeps the weight down.”

Andrews generally recommends the titanium cage, which he says has a stronger grip on the bottle and lasts longer, although at $60 it’s considerably more expensive than the $18 stainless cage.

“Since I started making them 25 years ago I’ve had to replace maybe 20 cages,” says Andrews. “With normal use eventually they’ll break, but not for at least 10 years. I offer a half-price replacement if your bottle cage breaks, but most customers who come back for more are doing so because they’ve bought a new bike and need extra cages.”

Finished product in the King Cage workshop.
Finished product in the King Cage workshop. Photo: Ron Andrews

Without putting other materials into a negative light, let’s just say Andrews’ products measure up against the competition.

Sure, it is less expensive to purchase plastic composite cages, and sometimes these will give 10 years’ good service, and carbon fiber cages – distinctly preferable to some customers – can be had at a similar price and some of these designs work great. One caveat Andrews raises about his cages is the use of metal bottles. He recommends a plastic bottle. The Specialized Purist would seem an obvious choice.

It’s fair to say that the King Cages aren’t for everybody, but for those riders in the market for an elegant metal bottle cage – and there seem to be many such people – King Cage will help you keep your bottle.

Ron Andrews' flower garden. Made from parts he pulled from the recycle bin while working at Yeti. Photo: Ron Andrews
Ron Andrews’ flower garden. Made from parts he pulled from the recycle bin while working at Yeti. Photo: Ron Andrews

Cage weights are 28 grams for titanium and 48 grams for stainless steel. They will accommodate 21 and 24 oz bottles. The stainless cage comes in conventional and iris designs.


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Rolf Prima: Handbuilt wheels for handbuilt bikes

Rolf Prima Vigor Alpha road wheels. Photo: Rolf Prima

Rolf Prima has been building wheels since 2002 in Eugene, Oregon.  They hand-build high-end, performance based bicycle wheels for road, mountain, gravel adventure, cyclocross, track, tandem, town and folding bikes and which serve just about any type of riding you are into.

Despite the Germanic or Nordic-sounding name of the wheels’ original inventor, Rolf Prima wheels are as American as apple pie. Brooke Stehley of Rolf Prima explains:  “We have always designed, tested and built all of our wheels right here in Eugene, Oregon and a little more than a year ago, we brought in the ability to manufacture our own alloy rims. These have always been our design, but now are also made by hand in-house. We also make an effort to partner with many US manufacturers, like our hubs that are made to our design for us by White Industries in California, or our decals that are printed in Colorado for us.”

Rolf Prima’s signature characteristic is their paired spoke technology that allows them to build with fewer spokes and lighter rims. This creates a lighter, faster and better performing wheelset.

The wheels with the signature paired spokes also pair well with their handbuilt frameset brethren. Stehley explains: “You will find many of our wheels on handbuilt bikes. We work with all sizes of builders around the globe to help create truly what the end-user wants out of their new bike purchase. Being a small business that designs and manufactures in the US, we can easily do small one-off and custom orders for just the perfect look.”

In fact, customers can personalize their own Rolf Prima wheels with the Built On Demand program. This allows you to design custom color decals for many models of Rolf Prima wheels to coordinate with your bike or team kit.

See more about how to pair yourself with a pair of Rolf Primas at www.rolfprima.com.

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A new era for Bruce Gordon Cycles

Who knew that a simple bicycle tire could change people’s lives? When Tom and Sarah Swallow stopped at Bruce Gordon’s shop in Petaluma, California, they thought they’d stay for 15 minutes before heading out to Yosemite.

The couple ended up chatting with Bruce for two days, and a few short months later they moved their business in with his.

Left to right Bruce Gordon, Sarah Swallow, Tom Swallow.
The Swallow boilerplate is a sign of things to come. Left to right Bruce Gordon, Sarah Swallow, Tom Swallow. Photo credit: Paul Skilbeck

So if Bruce Gordon looks like the cat that got the cream at NAHBS this February, that’s because he is. For the past few years the legendary manufacturer had been searching for the right young, enthusiastic people to come and help him run his business, particularly on the customer service side, and so the arrival of the Swallows couldn’t have been better news.

By now the story is well documented, and it appears on the Swallow’s blog at bikepacking.com in some detail, but in case you’ve not read it, this couple from Ohio had it in their minds to relocate their bike shop business somewhere, but they didn’t quite know where. Sarah Swallow’s sister had moved to Portland, Oregon, using the bike shop van, so Sarah and her husband Tom set up bikes for a cross-country trip to go and retrieve it. They pedaled from North Carolina to Portland off-road, following an enduro motorcycle route, the Trans-America-Trail.

The Swallow and their bikes. The closest one was built by Tom, who doesn't call himself a frame builder, yet made a bike that carried him, with load, across a continent. Photo credit: Paul Skilbeck
The Swallows and their bikes. The closest one was built by Tom, who doesn’t call himself a frame builder, yet made a bike that carried him, with load, across a continent. Photo credit: Paul Skilbeck

In Portland they picked up the van and headed south down the coast to see what they would find.

Let’s get back to those bike tires for a minute. The tires the Swallows had used (and sold in their Ohio store) were Bruce Gordon’s legendary Rock n Roads – which an increasing number of cyclists say is the greatest mixed-surface tire made to date.

Rock n Road tires can be worn very smooth and still ride great. Left: old; right: new.
Rock n Road tires can be worn very smooth and, reportedly, still ride great. Left: old; right: newish. Photo credit: Paul Skilbeck

Sarah recalls, “We’d been riding the tires and selling them in our shop, and it was an easy choice to ride them across the USA, and they were just as great as we expected them to be on that long trip, so we wanted to call in and say Hi to the guy who produces them. But we didn’t expect to stay for long.”

Bruce picked up the story. “We started talking about this and that, and one thing led to another. The next thing I knew, we’d agreed that Tom would set up a mechanics workshop here, Sarah would embellish the retail space and run a bike store, and I’d keep doing what I’ve been doing, except Sarah and Tom would be the customer interface. It’s what I’ve wanted for years,” said Bruce.

The official welcome for the Swallows, and the dawn of a new era in Bruce’s business, was celebrated at a good-humored event on February 6, 2015. The celebrants included many luminaries of the Northern California artisan bicycle community. Among those present included Joe Breeze, Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster, Ross Shafer, Sean Walling of Soulcraft, Curtis Inglis, Doug White, and Jeremy Sycip, John Fitzgerald. Given the intimate nature of the custom bicycles business, the event had a family kind of atmosphere and the spirit was of a new era. Almost like a christening, but one couldn’t feel a lot of religion in the room. A re-awakening maybe? Mike Varley of Black Mountain Cycles in Point Reyes thought that a good fit. “Serendipity, it was serendipity,” proclaimed Bruce. “That’s what it is.” Whatever it’s called, this bears the marks of an auspicious move by all concerned.

Paul Sadoff (l) introduces Ross Shafer (r) to the Schnozola.
Who was there: Paul Sadoff (l) introduces Ross Shafer (r) to the Schnozola. That’s a whole separate story. Photo credit: Paul Skilbeck


Doug White, Mr White Industries himself, sporting the only really serious approach to trouser cuffs and socks.
Who was there: Doug White, Mr White Industries himself, sporting the retro-cool approach to trouser cuffs and socks. Some say this is the only true way.  Photo credit: Paul Skilbeck
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Ordering a frame: Strong logic

Owners of handbuilt custom bicycles may – or may not – be the most knowledgeable cyclists, but most likely whatever they knew when they started out, the process of ordering a custom frame will have expanded their horizons.

Carl Strong, owner-builder at Strong Frames, reckons the conversations we as customers have with frame builders lead to greater awareness not only of how bicycles work and the way they interact with their riders, but also about what we know of ourselves as cyclists.

“My customers and I have many conversations leading up to the point when they actually place the order. Then at that point, through a series of phone conversations, I’ll guide the customer through every element of the frame design, while responding to their personal levels of technical knowledge. I’ll translate their thoughts and words into specific frame design considerations, from frame size and fit to tube selection and geometry. But no action is ever taken on my part until they have finalized their decisions and are comfortable with their choices, and have given me the OK to move to the next stage,” says Strong.

He continues, “Ordering a bike should be interesting and fun. And I’ve found over the years that customers ordering their first custom bike usually learn more about themselves and their priorities in a bike, and they end up with a better understanding of frames and frame design.”

During 24 years as a frame builder, Strong has developed an ordering process that he says works for him and his customers.

sf-infographic-finalCarl Strong’s ordering process should reassure even the most cautious of new customers that they’re in good hands. Photo credit: Strong Frames & Consumedesign.com

Once the ordering process is complete, then comes the hard part: waiting for delivery of the frame. “I know the waiting can be hard, but based on all the feedback I’ve gotten from customers it seems to be worth it,” says Strong. Maybe these agonizing weeks can be seen as time to contemplate what’s been learned during the order process and what that will mean when it comes to riding that gleaming new bike.

Main photo:
Loretta Strong/Strong Frames.com

Excerpt text:
Ordering a custom bicycle frame might sound intimidating, but frame builder Carl Strong says it’s actually quite fun and can help customers discover new things about themselves as cyclists.

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Ordering a frame: Going custom at your local bike shop

Your local pro shop speaks the language of custom bikes. Photo: Paul Skilbeck
Your local pro shop speaks the language of custom bikes. Photo: Paul Skilbeck

Customers in the handbuilt custom bicycle market have never seen so much choice. Partly this is due to  many builders setting up to sell direct, rather than through bike shops. For some this arrangement works fine, but with the industry expanding  farther and wider than ever before, and a phenomenal range of frame and component options, the question for many new customers is: how to manage the process confidently from beginning to end if we choose a maker who doesn’t sell through bike shops?

Bespoke interior
Bespoke in San Francisco stocks several handbuilt custom brands. Photo: Paul Skilbeck

Let’s start with fit, Your dream bike might be built in some other part of the world, making an in-person visit challenging. If you don’t know your exact requirements with regard to geometry, a fitting is crucial. This is the first step your local bike shop can assist with. Yes, fittings cost money – and well they should – but it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Component selection has also become increasingly complicated. There are probably five times as many front derailleur options alone than we had ten years ago. Cable routing, brake configurations, electronics… you get the idea. Your local shop can explain the pros and cons of all the different options available to you. Again, you should expect a fee for consultation, but buying the right components the first time will save you time and money.

The build is the last step. Although many of us fancy ourselves as “fair” mechanics, very few of us have the resources and experience of a good shop. An expert level build can ensure a much higher quality experience on your bike. It’s safe to say those kind folks at your local shop absolutely love building handmade bikes too.

The moral of the story is that a great local bike shop is a tremendous resource and even if you order a frame from an independent builder a continent away, a quick trip to your local retailer can make the whole experience a better one.

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De Rosa: Il Miglior Fabbro

DeRosa Titanio Solo Photo: DeRosa Bikes
DeRosa Titanio Solo Photo: DeRosa Bikes

Pleasing a master and perfectionist is never easy. If your father is the famed bicycle builder Ugo De Rosa, it’s a downright terrifying prospect.

Doriano De Rosa started building frames in 1975 as a teenager under his father’s severe gaze. Thirty-five years later, he’s the craftsman in charge as De Rosa’s head titanium and steel framebuilder.

Attention to detail and a critical eye produce a superior product. “Doriano is completely involved with the whole process of producing a custom steel or titanium frame, from start to finish, ” explains Trey Henderson of Trialtir USA, De Rosa’s American importer. “From measuring the customer to testing the strength of the frame, he’s totally committed to the process of building a masterpiece.”

De Rosa explained the eight steps on the path to building a frameset that bears his family’s name. First,the customer is meticulously measured. Second, these careful measurements are converted into customer-specific tube lengths and frame geometry with the aid of CAD software in a process he calls “projection”.

The next two steps are the most critical, especially for a titanium specialist like Doriano De Rosa. The raw tubes are “mitered”, or cut angularly, with the help of precision machines. Next, the tubes are fitted together on alignment tables in the “positioning” step. This is a crucial and exacting step for the lugless Ti and steel frames in which De Rosa specializes, because there is no room for error to produce a solid, strong tube joint.

Next, the tubes are cleaned and welded in a pristine environment – again an especially important step to get right for a titanium specialist like De Rosa, and one at which many less experienced builders stumble.

Finally, the frame’s alignment is checked, and its durability and quality are tested in a rigorous process that again employs a combination of cutting edge technology and the immeasurable intuition of a craftsman.

“For me, weight is not as important as durability and strength” says De Rosa. That those two latter ideals are emphasized is shown by the results of De Rosa’s in-house stress test. A De Rosa frame constructed from 6/4 blend titanium tubing has been shown to be theoretically capable of withstanding 200kg (440 lb.) dynamic force cycles repeatedly and constantly for 400,000 years before fatigue will cause breakage!

Much as keeping the business a family affair is important for De Rosa and his two brothers, having a strong relationship with titanium tubing supplier Reynolds is strongly valued and has been cultivated over 10-12 years of working together. De Rosa built his first Ti frame in 1993, and in 2002 made the switch to 6/4 alloy titanium – stronger and stiffer than its more popularly used 3/2.5 alloy brother – all sourced by Reynolds.

“The testing I do gives me important data on optimum tube thickness and shape parameters”, says De Rosa. “Reynolds is a great partner and takes pains to develop and give me exactly what I need to produce a strong, durable and elegant frame.”

So there you have it: invest some (serious) cash in high-tech frame design tools and follow the eight-step process and you’ll have your own version of a De Rosa, right? Not so fast, Doriano cautions.

“Being a framebuilder is not just about making the frame. It’s about putting your philosophy behind the design. It’s about developing and making your own tools if the right ones don’t exist. It’s about being open to new technology. It’s about…” De Rosa’s hands grasped in the air as he struggled for words in his highly self-underestimated English.

It’s about passion, tradition and an enduring legacy of excellence. You’re born with it; it’s not earned. So if you want to build a De Rosa, you’d better be a De Rosa.

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Ellis Cycles: Taking it to the (Gravel) Streets

Strada Fango disc-brake frameset. Photo: Ellis Cycles

One bicycle, many uses. What sounds like a disambiguation of a famous cliché could be taken as a mantra at Wisconsin-based Ellis Cycles. Owner and builder Dave Wages sees the multi-use bicycle as the most exciting industry trend today.

Representing this trend is the Ellis Strada Fango, a mixed-terrain bicycle that presents multiple capabilities with the swap of wheels or tires. Wages is a keen gravel road rider himself, and his passion for the road less travelled is embodied in his bicycles.

Fully built Strada Fango with 29x2.0 tires. Photo: Ellis Cycles
Fully built Strada Fango with 29×2.0 tires. Photo: Ellis Cycles

Its name translated from Italian as “road mud”, the Strada Fango is a Swiss Army knife for the cyclist. Wages describes it as follows: “I designed this as a “monstercross” type bike that will allow wider tires (29×2.0) and still work well with skinny tires too. It features internal wiring for Di2 and a rear derailleur modified by K Edge with a long cage and the ability to run cogs as large as 34 or 36 teeth. I’ve also worked on a new gentler fork rake to work with disc brakes, I’m looking forward to some real world testing of the road disc brakes.”

A builder of gravel road bikes for the past six years, Wages’ own upcoming marriage might depend on the integrity of the Strada Fango, as he explains: “I’ve been showing my Strada Fango mixed terrain bikes since the 2013 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Denver, but I’ve continued to refine this bike. I have one that I’ve built for my fiance that she’ll be riding around Lake Michigan for our honeymoon next summer.”

In an era where racers will change bikes multiple times in the course of a single race, or have many bikes in the stable to suit specific race courses or cycling disciplines, Ellis Cycles’ traditional, multi-use approach is a realistic and pragmatic swim against the tide of specialization.

Ask yourself: would Eddy Merckx have changed bikes in the middle of a race? No he wouldn’t have. Neither should you.

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Le Petit Graveleur: Big on Function and Style

Le Petit Graveleur Photo Credit: Bina Bilenky
Le Petit Graveleur          Photo Credit: Bina Bilenky

You could say that Le Petit Graveleur, a purpose-built all-road bicycle for the continent of Africa, is the two-wheeled, human-powered version of the Land Rover. Strong and built to take abuse, it’s also a very precise machine – each feature and component cherry-picked from the best possible pool of contenders. When the nearest hardware store or machine shop – not to mention bicycle shop – is hundreds of kilometers away, the durability and rugged design of Le Petit Graveleur can literally be life-savers.

The Graveleur is the brainchild of Bina Bilenky, Director of the Philadelphia Bike Expo, and the daughter of Philly’s own master frame builder Stephen Bilenky of Bilenky Cycle Works. In 2014, Bina was part of the support crew for the Tour D’Afrique, a 12,000 kilometer length-wise bicycle journey of the continent from Khartoum in Sudan to Cape Town in South Africa. Bina got to ride for much of this odyssey on the prototype Graveleur. It was during this crucible that the bike earned its stripes.

But what started out as a special one-off design soon attracted a cadre of admirers who wanted their own version, as Bina explains. “Basically we built this bike for me to ride across Africa in 2014 and since then we have had several requests for duplicates of this design. We decided to debut it as a Bilenky Cycle Works model with design by Bina B.”

Some of the unique features of Le Petit Graveleur include a True Temper heat-treated downtube with an ovalized profile. This is stronger and lighter, and with a small-radius curve behind the headtube, more resistant to buckle-failure. Stephen Bilenky says, “An offroad bike without a suspension fork takes a lot of front impact, so rather than a heavy tube we used a different shape to get the required strength.”

Another design feature is the thin-wall top tube. Measuring 7/8 inch in diameter, it is smaller than top tubes found on any production bikes. This increases the lightness and comfort of the bike to match the weight of the rider. “Not every mountain bike has to have oversized tubing. We build bikes that match the uniqueness of every rider. That means we choose tubing that matches the rider and where and how they’re going to ride,” says Stephen Bilenky.

Function meets style when it comes to the frame’s sweeping curves. The top tube is kept low to allow an easy standover clearance, and wide, cuved stays allow for up to 2-inch wide tires – a necessary prospect in a place like Africa, where the definition of a road is very broad. All of the frame geometry is designed to offer the rider as much comfort as possible.

The component choices include a Brooks B17 Narrow Imperial saddle, durable White Industries hubs laced to DT rims, Panaracer Protek tires for a suspension-like ride, a Chris King headset, SRAM brifters with 2×10 mountain range gearing and, somewhat surprisingly, cantilever brakes. These provide mud clearance and ease of repair in a touring situation.

The finishing touch on each bike is the artistic headbadge. Think of it as the cork in a fine vintage bottle of champagne. Bina Bilenky explains: “The head badge is African inspired with mixed metal leopard spots, an acacia tree and a North Ethiopian opal which I picked out myself in Ethiopia this past summer.”

With its purpose-built design ethic, careful component selection and Francophone name, Le Petit Graveleur hearkens back to the work of the French masters of the 1950s and 60s known as Les Constructeurs. For Les Constructeurs, each detail on the bicycle had to serve its intended purpose, and the unique needs of its rider. So each bike was a holistic steed, and not a bric-a-brac of trends and readily available components.

Yes, Les Constructeurs would be admirers of Le Petit Graveleur. Except this French classic is built in Philadelphia U.S.A.. And it’s much more at home plying the savannahs and jungles of Africa with equal finesse. Or leaning against the trunk of a baobab tree when at rest.

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DT Swiss: Precisely Crafted


At first thought, the terms “handmade” and “precision” might not seem compatible. When we think of precision in the modern era, we think lasers and computer-aided design and micrometers.

Consider the legendary Swiss watch, though. Its roots extend far back in time to a period when everything was handmade, and the well-deserved legacy of Swiss precision continues today.

If you’ve been in cycling for twenty years or more, you’re no doubt familiar with DT Swiss’ spokes and nipples. They were produced in a seemingly endless array of lengths and gauges (thicknesses) to fit every hub and rim combination possible. Boxes of DT Spokes stacked next to the bike shop workbench were a familiar sight before factory wheel production began to erode the art of the handbuilt wheel crafted by your favorite mechanic, or maybe by yourself.

Today, DT Swiss produces the full array of wheel components (hubs, spokes, nipples, rims) and wheel building tools, and recently introduced suspension forks to its line-up of products. And while they arrive to your shop today fully assembled, all of DT Swiss’ wheelsets are built entirely by hand, rare in today’s world of sophisticated wheel-building machines.

And while DT Swiss is now a global company with production facilities around the world (Switzerland, Poland, Taiwan and Grand Junction, Colo., also home to its US headquarters), its roots extend back to 17th century Switzerland – even before the invention of the bicycle – and the production of wire.

Even the “DT” in DT Swiss’ name is a quintessentially Swiss product of a multi-lingual nation, with the”D” coming from the German “Drahtwerke”, and the “T” from the French “Trefileries”, each meaning “wireworks” in their respective languages.

Chad Eskins, DT-Swiss’ U.S. Sales and Tech Representative, named the Star Ratchet hub mechanism as the flagship of DT Swiss’ product line, due to its “simple construction with unbeatable reliability”.

Learn more about DT Swiss’ enduring legacy of precision craftsmanship at www.dtswiss.com.

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