Over time I’ve had many ask how long I’ve been in the bike business, how I got started and how I ended up opening my own framebuilding shop. Since I’ve been involved in the bike biz for well over 30 years now it’s not a short story but here goes.
You may have read about the JK Special and my father building me my first bike when I was young. Little I did I know then that my lot was cast. He instilled an interest in bikes and mechanical things that has consumed me to this day. A few years after he passed away my mother remarried and we moved from downtown Rome, NY to the suburbs where there were empty roads and many trails to explore. It’s those trails that lead to BMX for me. All the area kids raced through the woods, built jumps and acted like kids. Some of us took it more seriously than others and I entered, and won, my first official BMX race in Syracuse, NY in 1978 while in high school. BMX became all I could think about.
During my final year of high school in 1980 I discovered bike shops were the coolest places on the planet and I started hanging out at Dick Sonne’s Ski, Hike and Bike in New Hartford, NY. I knew I wanted to work there so I asked the manager Steve for a job. He told me they didn’t need any help and I thought that was that. But I talked to the wise old guy in the back room, Peter O., and he gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to show up at the shop every morning 15 minutes before the doors opened and be standing there when the boss arrived for work. I took his advice and each morning I got there and waited. The boss would arrive and tell me he didn’t need any help and I would come back the next morning and be waiting there again. On the fourth day he hired me. I ended up working there for six years on and off and I was taken under Peter O’s wing and he taught me everything I could absorb.
The day after high school ended a friend and I took a road trip to Florida to meet girls. I met a girl I liked and I fell in love with the Florida weather and the fact that I could ride my BMX bike year round. I shocked my parents when I got home and told them that at 17 I was ready to move from New York to Florida to live on my own. I moved to the very small military town of Niceville, Florida. It was very ‘nice’. I enrolled in school there and studied art and then moved to mechanical drawing and design. After a few years I moved to Pensacola, Florida and got a job at a newly opened bike shop called Cycle Source, where I worked for Tom and Lee and started racing BMX seriously. There were a number of local tracks and I practically lived at them. I ended up with a coach and a sponsor and lots of miles on my Ford Courier pickup truck. I raced all over the southeast and got pretty good at the BMX thing winning some state titles and earning national rankings.
During breaks from school I would head back to NY, race BMX and work at Dick Sonne’s. It was then that I branched out into road and mountain bike riding and racing. Sonne’s gave me a Raleigh International road bike and I started entering races and doing better than I had any right to. I also got my first mountain bike and entered my first off-road race. My girlfriend was a road racer and was headed to New Hampshire for the USCF road nationals so I went part way with her to Massachusetts to the first annual ‘Ross International Stage Race’. I didn’t know enough to be scared and just jumped in with both feet on this 3-day stage race. When signing up I was asked what class I wanted to race and I said “pro” with too much confidence. How hard could it be? I didn’t know enough about the scene to know that folks like Ned Overend and John Tomac were big names and I raced as hard as I could and while I didn’t do particularly well in any one stage I did mange a 7th overall in GC making me one of the highest placed east coast riders. It was at this race that I first met a real life framebuilder – J.P. Weigle. He was racing the most wonderful fillet brazed bike and I’ll never forget it and the feeling it gave me. I guess I’d never really thought about framebuilding before this. Bikes just existed and I didn’t really think about the men that made them. Seeing his work and meeting J.P. Weigle changed all that. Now I wanted to learn framebuilding.
It was about this time that I moved back from the south to live full time in NY and I raced whenever I could, on whatever bike I could. I raced BMX, road and mountain and had the most success racing off road becoming a sponsored member of Team Ritchey and riding a beautiful fillet brazed bike built by Tom himself. One night the phone rang, my mom answered it, and yelled to me “a guy named Ben Serotta is on the phone”. I of course knew exactly who he was and thought it must be a friend teasing me. No way Ben Serotta would call me. But it was Ben and he told me he’d heard of me (Rome, NY is only about 2 hours away from Saratoga Springs where Serotta was located) and asked if I would be interested in coming out to interview for a job as a mechanic. Hell yes! So I went and met Ben briefly, had a number of interviews and in the end was offered the job. I of course took it. I gave notice at Dick Sonne’s and was ready to start down a new path. New job in hand, I had started looking for a place to live in Saratoga when I got a call from the person at Serotta who hired me – Rory. He told me they were ‘a bit behind schedule’ and I should give him a call in a few weeks. Two weeks turned into 4, and then into 8, and the message was always the same – then he stopped taking my calls. I was disappointed but lucky because Steve Sonne was very good to me and let me stay on even after giving notice.
About a year later I started working at a shop in my hometown called ‘The Schuss Shop’. The Schuss Shop was best known as a ski shop and I was hired to set up a bike department for them. I spent two good years there and learned a huge amount about business and customer service from the owner Dan that serves me well to this day. Then, once again, the phone rang and it was Ben Serotta. He’d just found out how I was treated two years previously and wanted to apologize to me and ask if I would like to interview again. It turns out that Rory wasn’t a stand up guy and he’d done the same thing to others without Ben knowing about it. With Rory gone, I got back into the car and headed to Saratoga Springs to interview a second time. The night before I was to go I was goofing around on my observed trials bike and hopping around on a log at dusk and was attacked by a swarm of bees. Great, my hands were so badly stung and so swollen I couldn’t even reach into my pocket to get my car keys. Might not have been the best start to this.
I went to the interview and was excited to see that Serotta had moved from the old barn with the chicken coop paint booth (I couldn’t make this stuff up) to a renovated schoolhouse that looked luxurious in comparison. The interview was going well and I spoke with Ben and many others and the last person I spoke with was Kelly Bedford. Kelly asked me a few questions and then took me to the shop where he was going to have me show my hand skills. Well, I pulled my hands out and put them, in all their red and swollen glory, up on the desk and told him I didn’t think I could do that. They were huge. Interview over. Nonetheless Ben called a few days later and offered me a job as general shop help for $6.50/hr. Not big money even in 1989 and it was much less than I was making at the Schuss shop but I had to give it a try. I gave notice at the Schuss and moved to Saratoga. It was 1989.
My first few days working at Serotta did not fill me with excitement. It was dirty and disorganized at best and seemingly no one was in charge. I was pointed to a metal bench covered with garbage and broken tools and was told that was my bench. Great. I cleaned it up and tried to make it a usable space but after that no one gave me any work to do. I saw the guy sandblasting frames for paint could use a hand and suddenly I was the new sandblaster guy. Not quite the dream job I had in mind. I stood with my hands in that blast cabinet for about a week when I’d had enough. I told anyone that would listen that I wasn’t doing that any more and figured if they fired me it was no great loss.
I wasn’t fired but instead was taught to do finish work on lugged and fillet brazed frames and now I felt like I was learning to be a framebuilder. The boys in the shop were building 8-10 framesets a day and most of them at some point passed through my cut up, dirty and raw hands. It became obvious that the business was growing very quickly and that there was almost always an opportunity to move up the ladder. The other thing that I realized during this time was quality work was in the DNA of that place. This was a group of young men who would not cut corners. Every detail was just right and great pride was taken in doing top shelf work. This quest for quality was the most consistent thing that ran through the shop and this made it a great place for me to work.
So in time I moved from standing at a pedestal vice shaping and polishing lugs for eight hours a day to doing alignments, and machining and brazing. I’d shown great interest and enough aptitude that it was deemed that I should learn to do every task that goes on in the shop so I got to work in all the different departments over time. This in turn lead to my working along side the top guy Kelly Bedford in the custom shop. This meant that not only did I get to build bikes one at a time, by myself, start to finish but that I got to build for some of the best racers on the pro circuit – the Coors Light Professional Cycling Team.
Building bikes for the Coors guys was a huge responsibility that Serotta took very seriously. These bikes would get ridden and raced by some of the best racers in the world in some of the most demanding races on the calendar including the Tour de France. The team had many members and each of them got at least 2 bikes and some like Davis Phinney got many more. Building the Coors Light bikes became more or less a full time job for me and took me a good part of the year to do on my own. It was fantastic fun to wait for the newest paper issue of VeloNews to arrive and to look for photos of the boys winning on the bikes I built for them.
In time the Coors team disbanded and my job changed with that – I moved from being a full time custom builder to being a part time builder and part time designer. I designed new frames, forks, and stems along with the tools needed to make those new products and then taught the guys in the production shop how to use the tools to make the goods. This was very exciting and frankly very stressful work when I realized that the future financial health of the company, its employees and dealers all relied on customers liking the stuff I designed and Serotta making a profit on the products. No pressure then.
Despite the pressure I felt I ended up doing some work I am proud of – I worked on the design, prototyping and testing of the Serotta F1 fork and titanium STS stem. I designed the Serotta 3D dropouts and numerous special braze-ons. I built testing rigs to do long term cyclical fatigue testing on frames, forks and stems. I designed and tested the Serotta CST soft tail mountain bike…. and my biggest project was taking my concept for a suspension road bike idea and turning it into the Serotta Hors Categorie road bike featuring the DKS system. The Hors Cat was a revolutionary design that allowed for about 10 mm of rear wheel travel and adjustment for different rider weights. I was awarded patent number 6,109,637 for this work.
In the end I spent ten years with Serotta and they were some of the best, and some of the more difficult years in my life. While the products were always strong the business constantly struggled to make a profit and survive due to its less than ideal business practices.
One of the best things that happened during my time at Serotta was a met I local college girl and cyclist named Karin Bohacek. Karin and I were married in 1995 and in 1999 we moved west into the high mountains to live – we chose Bozeman, MT. We decided on Bozeman after taking a ski vacation in the area and feeling very at home. Karin went to grad school at Montana State University and I took a winter off from work and got in a huge amount of time on the snow. However I did need to work so I went and introduced myself to Carl Strong of Strong Frames. He offered me a job and I was happy to have the work. I worked for Carl for a few great years and then tried a few different jobs for a short time – supervising a snowboard school in the winter and being a water well driller in the summer.
I then got a call from Ben Serotta (see a pattern here?) and he told me that they were in a bind and that they needed help with some work in Saratoga Springs. He flew me back and I worked long and hard for about 10 days building CSi’s they had on order but couldn’t build. Before I left for home we struck up a deal for me to build Serotta CSi’s from Bozeman. I built about 60 CSi’s from a corner of Carl Strong’s shop before the reality of the cost of shipping stuff back and forth set in and Serotta decided cease Bozeman production.
Now I was all tooled up and building again, doing the type of work I liked so much, but had no work. So, in June of 2003, I formed Kirk Frameworks. The idea for the business from day one was that I would work alone so that I could completely control the quality of both the work and the customer service and that has been very rewarding. Over time I’ve designed more and more of the parts that I build my bikes with and now most of framesets are built with dropouts, chainstays, seat stays and fork blades of my design – these parts are designed to work together to make the bike ride and behave just as I want it to with no compromise and I’m very proud of the end result.
Now in my second decade of building under my own name, with many hundred Kirks out on roads and trails, I look forward to continuing my work and doing what I feel like I was born to do. I’ve got a head brimming with new ideas and just need to make the time to get them onto paper and then to realize them in metal. Stay tuned…
Thanks for reading.