Incredibly enough, the first time I visited Darren, I had been listening to Dinosaur Jr. in the car and he was listening to them in his studio in Castiglion Fiorentino, different albums though. Yet, it’s these little “though’s” that intermingle with serendipity and had kept us near, but apart for close to 40 years. In any case, it seems obvious that giving PezReaders a chance to hear from the greatest American bike builder in Tuscany would be a done deal. Darren’s motto is “know your builder”, so let’s get started.
PART I: The Scene
You just got back from 2010 NAHBS, your impressions?
The bikes are always beautiful and breathtaking. NAHBS, for me, represents the pinnacle of custom bikes and there’s no doubt that the quality there supersedes other trade show formats. My real reason for attending the NAHBS show, is about the people. I find that going to this show gives me a benchmark for the work I do. There are quite a few titanium builders there and I consider them all friends. We have a good info exchange and talk about technique, the bikes, and the general custom bike market. Every time I go I make new friends and eventually most of them are able to make the trip over to Italy so I can reciprocate the hospitality. It is a great environment and we share a common enthusiasm for what we do. I lost my voice after the first day of the show. Lots to talk about.
I somehow feel that the custom scene is almost “too hot”, is there really enough demand to support all these players? Are we creating a bubble here?
I really don’t believe that you can dilute the market with custom bikes. I’m sure there is a positive trend towards custom, but as I look around in my own local and regional bike scene, we still have a lot of room for growth. I also come at it based on the Italian market perspective where there is way less influence from the custom market. In 100 bikes, you might see 2-3 custom or semi-custom rides. When I did my original business plan a number of years ago, this figure for custom bikes by percentage was around 5-6%. I’m sure that number has advanced in the US market, but worldwide I think we’re a few points behind. There’s still plenty of room for growth if those numbers are accurate.
Was there any talk about the economy or do long waiting lists shield you guys from recessions?
There’s always talk about the flow of work. In fact, I always ask my fellow builders how things are going and I usually get a positive response. I don’t think we’re protected by a long waiting list, really. For a business to succeed, you need to take orders. If that process slows, it’s just a lagging indicator for things to come. When the recession is over, you’re still looking for work in that case. All in all, most builders that I know are reasonable with the waiting list as we are interested in getting a quality product to our clients. Our industry is still a blip on the radar screen and we largely rely on word-of-mouth and our satisfied customers are usually pretty aggressive in promoting what we do. It’s in our best interest to give them the tools to do that.
Is it an advantage or disadvantage being away from the US scene in Italy? Is Portland really so cool?
I really look at it as an advantage. I’ve had to make quite a few personal sacrifices to live in Italy, but I’ve also gained a tremendous wealth of knowledge by being able to take a step back and look at both environments using these experiences. The USA is usually ahead with trends and I can pick up on them and start to develop and implement them months and even years ahead of my competitors here in Italy. As a result, I actually supply (or have supplied) most of my titanium counterparts with materials and know-how. 29ers, BB30, Press-Fit30, belt-drives..just to name a few. I have to say, though, that I’ve been to Portland twice and it is a pretty cool place!
I realize that a great bead is cool, but aren’t you sometimes envious of the others that get to play with fancy lugs and paint their frames in pastel colors? Sometimes titanium can be a little too gray, right?
Naah.. I’m not sure if you know, but I cut my teeth building lugged frames starting in 1995. That was fun and I didn’t even start to experiment with those tools like the current builders are doing. They are making ride-able art with their craft and have all my respect for taking simple elements and tools and making masterpieces which delight the eyes and soul. With titanium, it is a different kind of stimulus. You’re pallet is more limited so you have to really push yourself to make a great bike frame. I think the challenge is there no matter what you building material or method. That is what drives all of us (framebuilders) to wake up and make the best work we can from what we have on the shelf. Regarding your question about the differences between USA and Italy, we can make a nice example with architecture: With all the materials available to us in the year 2010, some of the most beautiful work comes from hundreds, even thousands of years ago. A piece of marble from Carrara can be turned into a masterpiece sculpture. Stones from a local quarry can be turned into a Gothic Cathedral, etc. etc. The concept is that with simple tools and materials, exceptional work can be created. The common element in these examples is that their creators had a driving passion inside that defined limitless ways of using common elements to create timeless works.
Seriously though, it seems to me, harder to distinguish oneself from competitors in the titanium segment. For example, why would I choose Crisp over Seven or Moots or Eriksen?
I get that question a lot and understand why folks ask. I think most of my clients are well versed in titanium because by the time they reach me, they’ve been studying titanium for quite some time. Some of them can even converse pretty well about titanium alloys and different qualities pertaining to the ride characteristics. Most of my clients come to me or others because they feel aligned with the brand or the product being offered. I’m a one-man show, so my customers become a part of a family, really. I have a personal relationship with them from the first time we make contact and we remain close even after the build is completed. That’s how I differentiate myself from others because they know that they can call me on the cell phone on Sunday evening and discuss intimate details of concerns they may have regarding some topic of discussion that they heard on the morning group ride or race.
I consider the companies you cite as some of the best in the business and I personally know individuals in each of them. We share the same passion of creating fine custom titanium bicycles and all have our unique way of building and promoting our work and business. I can probably best sum it up from and excerpt from my FAQ page:
The way I see it, you can buy a titanium frame from a multitude of sources. You can buy the $600 frame from the Far East or the $5000 frame from the boutique dealer. And many cyclists have and are very content with their purchase. No objections here. I started Crisp Titanium because for me the difference is the journey. I took that journey myself back in 1995 when I built the first CRISP frame (which I still use and enjoy today) and loved that whole process of starting with an idea. I loved it so much that I committed myself to helping other passionate cyclists achieve those same sensations, offering them the means to make their own journey.
PART II: Some Technical Stuff
Could you briefly discuss the types of welds (one pass, two pass, etc) and their pro’s and con’s?
Wow, that’s a big topic. One that interests me greatly and I could chat on and on for pages. Generically, most low-cost frames are built with a one-pass weld. This means that after the tubes are assembled in the fixture and tacked, the welder will proceed to join the tubes with one single pass using a titanium rod and heat. This generally requires higher temperatures as the fusion is being created between the rod and the tube. It’s a pretty solid weld if you get enough heat, but as I’ve described, it is not a joining of the tubes to each other. You’ll usually see a larger-sized weld bead and it may be more raised off the surface with respect to the two-pass method. This is because you’re weldment is sitting on top of the tubes and penetration is minimal unless you really crank up the amperage. This type of weld procedure is found on less-expensive frames because you’re basically welding the frame only one time, hence one-pass. The two-pass technique is more refined and allows the welder to concentrate on a quality finish weld using less heat. This is because the root weld pass is done with low amps joining the work with no filler rod. This means that the tube miters need to be dead-on with no gaps and fit-up is perfect. The welder will do what’s commonly called a root “fusion” pass which creates a small amount of undercut (concave surface between joined tubes). When making the second weld pass, filler is introduced which allows the titanium to flow into this void and create a nice washed effect. The joining is tube-to-tube with the fusion pass, then reinforced with the introduction of the second filler pass making for a nice strong joint.
The welding process: tacking.
Only round tubes for Crisp, what about those famous guys touting fancy shaped titanium tubes?
Years back I read somewhere, “round is a shape, too”. That stuck with me and pretty much sums up how I approach this topic. A lot of technology has been developed over the years, but when dealing with a bike frame, pound-for-pound, no tube shape can beat a round tube. Having tube wall thickness from 0.04-0.89mm, the shape of the tube greatly influences the structural quality of the frame.. That’s important when considering all the torsional loads applied to a frame over each ride and after years of abuse. A round tube will distribute these loads better than any other “shaped” tube. I have yet to see any research that would indicate otherwise and will continue to promote round or near round tubes to provide the best frame characteristics in all possible events. I frequently manipulate tube shapes to oval and do on occasion use aero-type tubes but only where loads are generally uniform (i.e. tri bike).
The welding process: fusion follows tacking.
I recently got an old Colnago Bititan and am really amazed at how well it rides. It’s making me reconsider how much stiffness is really necessary/beneficial. Maybe we’ve gone overboard in the quest for stiffness, which compromises traction/handling. Your thoughts about “tuning in” frame compliance?
This is a question that I get frequently, especially with comparisons made to carbon fiber. I am not an expert on carbon fiber, so my capacity to respond at a technical level is greatly limited. I know that both materials can be formed in various ways to achieve objective goals of strength, stiffness, and light weight. Carbon fiber may be manipulated with changes in fabric density, lay-up orientation, thickness, shape, epoxy/resin type and quantity. I prefer to achieve these goals with titanium by manipulating tube length, tubing diameter, tube shape, cold bending, wall thickness distribution, and geometry of the frame to meet the design criteria. I can make a frame more or less flexible depending on the desired effect. I do, however, question the marketing strategies of those who promote their bikes, using both stiff/rigid and shock-absorbing in the same sentence. I base my design development on an individual basis and act on the needs of the customer and the frames intended use.
Welding process: the dress pass completes it. The dress pass uses filler rod/material to complete the weld.
Now that we’ve tackled stiffness, the next bike prophet to knock down is lightness. You know, your frames aren’t terribly light. Do customers give you grief about this?
Never. When I first started building in titanium in 2001, I gave it a lot of thought. Frame weight varies from project to project based on design, size, and material selection. Weights of a Crisp Titanium frame generally fall into a range from 1200-1500g. Frequently, a lot of emphasis is placed on ultra light frames. It is important to consider when working with titanium, however, that the lower the weight, the less material is being used. There’s no other way around it. Following this procedure one begins to lose the quality characteristics that make titanium such a great material for bicycle frames. I realized this doing repair work and I noticed that the lighter frames of some manufacturers were breaking disproportionally to those with more material. I prefer to concentrate on quality fabrication and correct geometry, bike fit, etc., while keeping an eye on weight. It makes more sense to shave grams on the moving mass like the wheels and drive train. I’ve easily built bikes under 6.0kg and if you want to go that extra step, we can go sub 5.0kg, less pedals. Invest in the frame which will last a lifetime, play with the components to keep it fresh and to meet your weight needs.
Can we agree that a size 55 frame is proportionally the most elegant? [note: that's my size, while Darren is about 6'5"]
(laughing…)You’d be surprised at some custom 55cm frames that I’ve seen!
PART III: The Biz
How many frames do you make a year?
It takes me about 10 days to build a bike. I’ve built complete custom frames in two days (usually in a rush for the Milan EICMA bike expo, EHBE, or other trade show) but really l like to take my time. I usually work over a period of weeks developing the project with the cyclist while working through my existing job list. That way it is ready to execute when it comes time to start cutting and welding. I have never built over 40 frames in one year.
You once said that 4 months is the perfect time to wait for a bike (not too long, not too short). How long is the waiting list these days?
Your road frame + fork is priced at around 3000 euros, how did you arrive at this sum (meaning: could you share with us your expenses/margins/the difficulty of owning a business in Italy, ect.)?
My frames price out around 3000 Euros depending on build type, customer specs, etc. but this number can fluctuate depending on a number of variables including raw material costs, frame specifications, shipping, to name a few. Crisp Titanium is a privately held company so we do not release financials, but suffice it to say that you have a business plan and it all starts with expenses. The numbers flow through from there. Italy, like any other country/economy has it’s own unique set of challenges to navigate in business. For example, artisans are taxed higher than any other sector in our national economy, which contributes to the dwindling number of custom frame builders in our country. Other aspects that one would not associate with a bike frame, like gas prices which are 4x what they are in the US, have an indirect effect not only on raw material transportation cost, but also the cost of shipping a frame, and even the production of material which always ends up getting passed down to our company just like any other. Probably the most difficult aspect of having this business in Italy is sourcing good aerospace grade Ti from the US in small quantities. There is only industrial grade titanium being produced in Italy and it is not suitable for frame building.
Some have argued that a lot of relatively young frame builders are unfairly charging as much or more than very well established and respected builders. As one of the founding members of the Framebuilders Collective, your thoughts on how much experience should factor into pricing? Or should we just say that the market (supply n’ demand) determines who’s right and what’s good?
For full-disclosure, I’m not a founding member of THE FRAMEBUILDERS’ COLLECTIVE. The founding members asked for my participation and I have been honored to accept this role in promoting what we do as professionals. I believe that experience is an important factor in making a quality bike/frame, but at the same time, I welcome a younger generation of frame builders of which I am a part. That is why I’m enthusiastic to be associated with THE COLLECTIVE. To a certain extent, the market will thin out the choice one may have when choosing a good builder. THE FRAMEBUILDER’S COLLECTIVE is a good way to promote quality in the upcoming generation of framebuilders, to provide guidance and information for those who are interested. With regard to pricing, that’s a pretty difficult question to nail down. A titanium builder in the USA, for example, has a wealth of material sources which are very accessible. In my case, however, costs are also relative to my raw materials coming from America and subsequent taxes and customs fees being levied before they get to my door. Pricing via experience, per se, is partially a market-driven factor, but there are costs of doing business which are irrelevant to one’s expertise. Other factors include operational expenses, fixed and variable costs, insurance..the likes of which are in many occasions regionally based and different across borders.
It’s said that most people choose a bike based on price, weight, and color. Seeing as yours aren’t cheap, nor the lightest and only come in gray, who is a Crisp customer (is there a “type”)?
Well, those characteristics are all relative, right? I look at it a little differently. I’m making a custom titanium frame that has to withstand the test of time (lifetime guarantee, ) so it’s easy to get caught up in the latest trends and passing fads, and even colors and strange shapes. That grey frame with the hand-satined finish will always look modern as Crisp owners have come to experience. With that timeless look, upgrading components as they become available allows a custom ti bike to always “look” trendy. That’s why titanium has always been a valuable solution even as the latest trends come and go. Regarding price, have a look around at any bike shop. For what is being sold as high-end stock frames in stock sizes and in some cases with questionable fabrication standards, for the same price (and sometimes much less) you can easily order a custom Crisp Titanium frame made to suit your dimensions and riding style.
My customers are about as diverse as you can imagine. I’ve got die-hard racers (I also sponsor state and national championship racers on two continents) who are a constant sounding board for R&D. A large part of my work is also dedicated to Gran Fondista’s and Cycle Sportif-types as well as extreme racers (I have one client who just finished the Iditabike and others who participate in extremely difficult stage races throughout Europe and Africa, PBP, etc). Other customers are just as passionate but are more interested in the great feel of titanium or it’s mystical ride qualities. Engineers and factory workers, no line is drawn and all my clients get the same attention to detail no matter what their objective, cultural background, or cycling experience.
• See Darren’s website at CrispTitanium.com