I love the Tour.

I love the Tour de France.

As a young racer I fantasized about racing in the Tour but alas I am a mere mortal and didn’t have it in me to race at that level. It wasn’t for lack of trying or wanting that’s for sure but it also wasn’t to be. I was fortunate however to work at a company that was building bikes for the 7-Eleven and Coors Light cycling teams so I did more than a bit of living vicariously through those teams.

I started working at Serotta in 1989 right as the 7-Eleven program was winding down and remember a few 7-Eleven Huffy’s being worked on and repairs being done but since the program was near it’s end there weren’t any new builds going out the door as I recall. Not long later the Coors Light team was formed and somehow Serotta managed to get the deal to build the bikes for the team. I say ‘somehow got the deal’ becuase contrary to popular belief, teams don’t shop around for the best bikes they can find and then buy them – they shop around for the company who can pay them the most to ride the bikes they are given. There is a huge difference. Serotta was a small company without the benefit of deep pockets so coming up with the huge amount of cash needed to close the deal as bike supplier to Coors Light must not have been an easy task.

Like the teams I was also in transition at the time – moving from the production shop to the custom shop at Serotta and the timing could not have been better for me as I was asked to build the Coors Team bikes. Ben Serotta and his company took the whole team thing very seriously and we did everything humanly possible to build the team guys the best bikes we could regardless of the time or cost. We wanted them to win and win on our bikes. This meant that all the team riders got custom bikes which is much different from  the norm today. Since most of today’s bikes come out of moulds making a custom size or stiffness isn’t often done but back then it was fairly simple. Seeing as I had been promoted from the production shop to the custom shop I got the privilege to help build the team bikes my first year and then build almost all of them for a few years after that.

I thought at the time that building the team bikes would be much different but looking back on it I can see that the team bikes were much like the ‘regular’ customer bikes I also built. In some cases the tubes were a bit lighter or the lugs and dropouts were cut back some to shave a few grams but otherwise they were like every other custom bike I built.

But they felt different nonetheless. Knowing that they would be ridden all over the world and campaigned in the Tour de France made them very special in my mind. I wanted the frames to be the best I could build so that the team guys could do their jobs as best possible. Some of the team guys had quirky preferences – Davis Phinney liked his frames fillet brazed instead of lugged because he thought they felt better to him. We strongly doubted that anyone could ever feel that type of difference but what the hell – give him a fillet bike if he thinks it’s better. Just the opposite of that were the bikes I built for Ron Keifel. I made it a habit to call each of the team guys when it was time to build new bikes and ask if they wanted any changes or special touches they might enjoy. They have to ride the thing 20,000 miles a year so they may as well enjoy it as much as possible. So I call Ron and sheepishly ask if there is anything he’d like. I ask if he’d like it stiffer or softer or quicker handling……..or anything else that might allow him to enjoy the bike more. He was very gracious and did his best to answer my questions but in the end I felt like I had no answers to speak of. He then told me something I will never forget. He said, “Look Dave, make it 59 x 57 with a 73° seat and it will be fine. If I have good legs I’ll win – if I don’t, I won’t”. I was floored by his honesty and relieved in a way.

I also built unusual bikes for some riders. Some got offseason cross bikes or track bikes that weren’t really part of the contract but we gave them to the guys anyway. a few of the bikes were real challenges to build – the most difficult being the Soft-Ride bikes I built for Alexi Grewal. They had super short C-stays (36.2 cm!) that were so short the back side of the BB shell was cut away for tire clearance. There were also Soft Ride bikes for Alex Steida and MTB’s for Davis Phinney.

When these bikes were being built and raced there was no internet or practical way of finding out what happened on any given day at the Tour. Velonews would get published every two weeks and when the stack of them was dropped on the lunch table in the shop they were all scraped up in a hurry. The only way to get timely news was to buy the USA Today newspaper so I stopped at the ‘quickie mart’ on the way to work and put my 50 cents in the machine and then drove fast to the shop so I could check out the results column………..only if we were very lucky was there an actual article explaining what had happened. We are really spoiled now with instant results online and live coverage everyday on the TV.

Building all these team bikes took the vast majority of my time for a good part of the year. I always felt for the guys in sales who just happened to sell a custom bike to someone only to find that I was tied up with team bikes for the next two months and wouldn’t get to it until then………. meaning of course that they wouldn’t get their commission until then. It cost Serotta so much, in so many ways, to provide all those bikes.

I sometimes wonder what happened to all those team bikes I built. I’m sure some got wadded up in crashes or hung on a hook and forgotten in a basement somewhere. I see some from time to time on eBay and they bring a smile to my face. I know Serotta kept a few of the bikes although I don’t know if they still have them. I recall once when we were moving the shop and getting everything out from every nook and cranny that I found a crashed team bike in the attic that had dried blood all over it. It was the one Davis Phinney rode into the back of another team’s car. He got a huge number of stitches out of that deal. He went through the rear glass window of the car and ironically the team was sponsored by a company that makes safety glass – ooops!

Some of my favorite memories of that time are of times when the team guys would come and visit the shop for a day or two. I’ll never forget being able to go out for an easy ride with Phinney or do a local mountain bike time trail with Alex Steida (I beat him so he bought Karin and I dinner afterward – my claim to fame – just try to forget that Alex got lost and went off course).

Anyway – I’ve taken enough time away from the bench on this very hot Montana day. I’ve just been thinking about this stuff and thought a few of you might like to hear a few old stories.

Thanks to Ben Serotta for having me build those bikes and thanks to you for reading.


This entry was posted in For Fun, Musings.  

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3 responses to “I love the Tour.”

  1. parris says:

    Hey Dave thanks for the post. I remember that photo of Davis Phinney from when he hit the back of that car. Did many team frames return to the shop for repair through a season?

  2. kirks says:

    Hey Parris,

    No – we didn’t get many back from repair. Not because they didn’t have bikes in need of repair but because we almost always built them new replacements. The time delays in shipping a damaged bike back and then turning it around were most often not worth it so once we heard that rider X needed a bike we’d put pout his sheet and put one together. We sometimes would get bikes in at the end of the season for repair or alignment checks but even that was rare. The racers would just toss anything that was damaged and sell the good stuff at the end of the season to make a few extra bucks since we’d be building new bikes for spring anyway.

    I don’t recall what race it was but I think the racer was Mike Engleman and he was racing in Europe. He stuffed the bike into something and it was toast. He called right after the crash, I pulled the tubes and built the bike and within 24 hours a new painted custom frame was being red labeled to him in Europe. That was a bit stressful as I recall.


  3. Don from Kalamazoo says:

    Dave — Very neat story, and a nice inside look at what it takes to be the bike manufacturer supplying the teams. It’s funny, today we take for granted that if we miss “Stage 18”, that we’ll just catch it on one of the next several rebroadcasts of it on Versus. It’s also kind of fun to note that Davis Phinney was racing on 32 spoke wheels front and rear. — Don4

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