It’s all in how you frame it
Vail’s Jack Rossman isn’t one to beat his own drum. He likes to let the products he makes do that.
For the past 10 years he has been building custom bicycle frames in a humble 1,200 square-foot garage in Eagle that, with a little high-tech help from the Internet, draw cyclists from around the world.
For serious cyclists – those that race or log thousands of miles a year – a custom frame is an ascension to cycling nirvana.
“The frame is the heart of it,” Rossman said, as he rocked his own sparse frame in a plastic patio chair in an orderly shop papered with biking and sports posters.
“It beats painting,” he said of the posters – which also cover the ceiling.
A Jack Rossman bike from his Vail Cycle Works isn’t cheap, but you’ll get craftsmanship that will last and a bicycle that’s comfortable, fun to use and even looks good. Custom titanium frames start at about $2,100 and cost more depending on the features, he said.
At the starting price, you’ll get a bare frame that will weigh between two and three pounds. With components – wheels, cranks, pedals, brakes -bikes get a bit heavier, but the comfort of a custom frame makes it worthwhile for many cyclists.
“It makes them more eager to ride,” he said.
Rossman’s bicycles come with an intangible that’s increasingly scarce in this computer-dominated world – craftsmanship from a master craftsman.
Four years ago, Vail homebuilder Eric Baldwin wanted a custom “hard-tail” titanium mountain bike, but was having difficulty getting major manufacturers to make the frame he wanted.
Baldwin had pretty exacting standards – he owned a bike shop in Breckenridge and knew exactly what he wanted. He went to Rossman and had his custom bike within three weeks.
“He did an awesome job. It’s the best-riding bike I’ve had,” Baldwin said. “He’s a true craftsman. I don’t think people understand what he’s capable of doing.”
Baldwin said he put the bike and its components together himself and said the fit was “perfect.”
“Anyone who can do something as cleanly as he can with basic tools show’s he’s got a high degree of skills,” Baldwin said.
“I’m pretty particular,” Rossman said. “When you build them one at a time, you can check things as you go.”
That particularness comes from Rossman’s training as a machinist – he underwent 8,000 hours of training over five years to receive his journeyman machinist certification. That’s more time spent machining things than a college student spends earning a degree. He was welding in his father’s shop at 12. While training learned to build most of what engineers designed by observing exacting measurements –or “tolerances” – that involve a decimal point and several zeros.
“Some of those things they designed, couldn’t be built,” he said. “Bikes are pretty crude with tolerances of plus or minus a millimeter. That’s a mile to a machinist.”
He also builds a number of frames from steel. Recently developed steel compounds make the slightly less-expensive steel frames he makes just ounces heavier than pricey titanium.
The difference isn’t just the weight because that’s negligible – it’s in the durability of the frames. Titanium is not only a 100 times more durable, but it resists dents and scratching too, he said.
“I’ve had a titanium bike topple off a roof rack at 65 miles-per-hour and survive without a ding,” he said.
When the frame was checked for trueness, it was. The non-titanium components of the bike, however, didn’t fare as well.
Titanium, unlike most metals, also absorbs bumps, providing a smoother ride. But it’s also very difficult to work with, Rossman said.
Fitting for a custom frame requires extensive measurements and it can take as long as three hours, he said. All the major bones in a person’s body are measured. Once that’s done, he uses a stationary “fit” cycle with an expandable frame, to imitate how a custom frame will fit.
Some experienced cyclists are familiar enough with their measurements that sometimes they can supply the numbers over his Web site, and he can begin building.
It typically takes him a week to make a custom frame and in a good year, he can turn out 40.
After cutting the frame’s tubing to the right length and carefully fitting the joints, which in itself is a test of patience, he then sets the frame in a jig to hold it during fabrication. He begins sequential welding on the joints and dropouts so the frame members stay true. Once that’s completed, the frame is checked for trueness then prepared for a paint job.
He’ll even put the bike together for his clients, if they wish.
He’s built custom track bikes for world-class cyclists, but his most memorable frame was built for a free-spirit from Castle Valley, Utah.
The self-proclaimed desert rat had Rossman build a touring bike, but required a platform over the back wheel that his dog could ride. The last Rossman had heard, the man and his dog had ridden from Utah to Anchorage, Alaska, and back.
Over the last few years, Rossman, 41, has been building a new kind of bike for a group best described as “suffering neo-Luddites” of biking – single speed mountain bikers. They now make up nearly half of his bike-building business.
Iron-legged riders of the new machines eschew clusters of gears, opting instead for a different pain dynamic when ascending mountains – one gear.
“It’s a macho thing,” Rossman said. “New bikes now have gears enough that anyone can ride anywhere. With a single-speed you’re either cranking up the hill slowly and as hard as you can or peddling 200 RPM trying to keep up with your friends on the downhills.”
But success to the anti-technology single-speeders is measured by how you accomplish what you’re doing. he said. It seems to be all about pain management.
“When you blow past someone (with multi-speed bikes) on your single speed, it’s special,” he said.
Rossman regularly rides his single speed bike, even though he’s recovering from breaking his shoulder in a fall.
Rossman came to Vail 20 years ago to ski and that’s still the sport that makes his wheels spin. Biking, he said, became just another means of staying fit for skiing.
He spent summers working at his father’s machine shop and winters skiing in Colorado. Splitting his time soon proved to be too much of a hassle and he moved to Vail.
His metal fabricating abilities may be both learned and genetic. His grandfather was a machinist too, and Rossman still uses his grandfather’s metal lathe to fabricate bike parts.
Rossman helped start Vail Bike Tech in Lionshead but soon pursued frame building.
It seems to suit him because he said he chafes under a 9 to 5 regimen and prefers instead to have a flexible schedule that allows him a daily bike ride or some runs on the mountain.
“This (job) opened up a lot of freedom for me,” he said. “I’m on my own schedule. I’m pretty much self employed.”
His bike-building season winding down, Rossman has been fabricating a new aluminum drum for a ski tuning machine on a lathe. He also takes on other machining projects and has been developing a new one: ornamental metal work.
The recession has even spun into his world – bikers are hanging on to their old rides instead of purchasing custom bikes.
“It’s been a rough year,” he said.
While Rossman enjoys bike building he also is capitalist enough to look for opportunity. Lately he’s been tinkering with developing a new product line of decorative iron using his air-plasma cutting torch, and the excess production capacity he has with the equipment in his shop.
Some of the designs he creates with the iron are taken from photographs of petroglyphs adorning canyon walls of Utah’s San Rafael Swell, west of Green River.
He’s also prototyping some decorative flower boxes and even ceiling lamp shades. He thinks there may well be a demand for that. He’s even envisioned powder-coating the metal to make it nearly indestructible.
And Rossman has even built a bike for his most exacting customer -his wife. He’s even beginning to think about building another labor of love – a bike for his three year-old daughter.
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 970-949-0555 x450 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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