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Torchmaster vs. Torchbearer: In Pursuit of a Steel Frameset

– A few weeks back I mentioned I might be in the market for a steel frame and fork. It wasn’t mere passing fancy. I contacted three ‘name’ American frame manufacturers to get an understanding of how the purchase process might work.

Greg LeMond June 3, 1980A voice in my head told me to span the generations. After all, framebuilders have been trying to master the craft for nearly a century. So I emailed builders whose frames’ rise to prominence came in different decades. Representing the Old School is Roland Della Santa of Reno, Nevada. Bridging the gap between Old and New is David Kirk of Bozeman, Montana. And in full flower of New School youth is Ira Ryan of Portland, Oregon.

Della Santa’s most famous customer was Greg LeMond. In any photo from his pre-Renault days it’s likely that Lemond is riding a frame that came straight outta Reno, regardless of its badging. Della Santa’s cred has gone unquestioned for 30 years and its strength is most intense in California.

Dave Kirk was widely acknowledged as the torchmaster during his long tenure at Serotta. Back in the 80’s he addressed all of the freaky geometry requests that came from 7-Eleven’s pros. Fast forward to the 90’s and he was known for innovations such as Serotta’s DKS seatstays (guess what the DK in that stands for?), the progenitor of the Specialized Zertz stays you’ll find on its cobble-gobbler Roubaix frameset. In the mid-2000’s Kirk left Serotta and hung his own shingle.

Ira Ryan, RaphaThe origin of Ira Ryan’s fame is less clear. What I know for sure is that he’s highly regarded on the west coast. Like Sacha White of Vanilla Cycles, he’s a torchbearer of the Portland bike scene. The fanfare of the modern framebuilding scene gravitates around Portland, so including one of its royalty seemed like a no-brainer.

I wrote the same email to each of them:

‘Hi [name]. Would you mind sending me a bit more information about the process by which you make your frames available? Specifically, my questions are:

1) Could I travel to [state] to be measured by you for a custom? I don’t have the physiological need for a custom, but I feel like the process could be a joy.

2) Leadtime and cost.

3) Can you tell me a bit about the tubesets you prefer.’

The results were interesting.

I got a quick reply from Della Santa. Not the man himself, but the organization. The thoughtful and well-worded email came from an individual named Coot —

‘Roland usually deals with the racing market and actually doesn’t ‘size’ people for frames and most racers already have their preferred dimensions. If you don’t know what size you’d like, you can always get fitted by a trusted local shop and then send us your measurements. If there isn’t a shop that can do that, we can help you determine a frame size based on your inseam plus a few other measurements. All we need is your seat tube dimension, top tube dimension and your seat tube angle and Roland can calculate the rest.

Della SantaFor reference, most people don’t ‘need’ a custom frame, but you’ll definitely benefit from a made-to-order frameset. Not only will it fit well, Roland’s bikes ride very well and can offer performance and comfort that an off-the-rack frame could never provide. It really does make a big difference. If you ever talk to someone who owns a DS, you’ll discover just how much they love their frame. It is often their favorite bike to ride.

I’m including a price sheet which will give you a good rundown of costs. Turn-around time for a frame is roughly 16 weeks right now. A $1,000 deposit gets you on the build list and you can send that any time before or after you’ve talked with Roland and nailed your specifics.

Roland is one of the few builders to still have old tubesets around, so he can still construct a frame out of older Columbus or Reynolds stock if you’re looking for a retro bike. For modern bikes he prefers to use Dedacciai Zero or Zero Uno tubing, which is both lighter and stronger than the old stuff and builds into a really nice bike.

Thanks, Coot’

I don’t know if Coot is his salesperson or his assistant. But the process of purchasing a steel frameset is a kind of intimate thing. A buffer is a bummer. That being said, there are some fundamentally likeable things in Coot’s email: Della Santa builds bikes for racers. Custom geometry is called out as an unneeded conceit. The wait period is palatable. And at sub-$2,000 the cost is nice.

Dave Kirk was just as quick in getting back to me. Put aside his reputation for framebuilding excellence. The friendly vibe of his reply was a pleasure. In my mind that counts for plenty.

‘Nice to hear from you. I hope all is well and that you are enjoying spring. It’s been such a warm and dry winter that spring hasn’t been much of a change.

1. yes you are more than welcome to visit – it’s hardly necessary and most folks don’t make the trip but I always welcome a visit and if you can come during riding season all the better as I can play hooky and we can go for a ride.

2. lead time is easy – about 13-14 months from deposit to delivery. Cost is a bit harder to pin down as I offer a few different levels of build. Roughly speaking it can range from about $3000 (frame and fork) to a bit less than $4000. Big range I know. We’d need to talk about what you want and what would best serve your needs.

3. I work exclusively with Reynolds brand tubing. I use some 953, some 853 Pro as well as a few tubes that Reynolds makes just for me. Again it depends on what we are doing for you.

What type of bike are you looking for?’

Davis Phinney as KingHis downplaying of the need for an in-person visit echoed Coot’s contention that customization is unnecessary. It was a surprise to hear this from Kirk given his long time at Serotta, a brand obsessed with customization and fit-by-micrometer. Outside of el hefe Richard Sachs, no builder has a greater nationwide rep for building amazing bikes than Dave, so his year-plus leadtime was understandable. But it was a bummer. Also, the 50-100 percent price spike in comparison to Della Santa also stung.

And Ira Ryan? Amazingly, he never replied. Perhaps my occasional ostracizing of the painfully self-serious nature of the Portland bike scene makes me a persona non grata among the heads of state there. Or might have I sent the email to, since every Apple device wants to spell check Ira to Iran? Sure. But double-checking proves I spelled it right. The silence was mystifying.

Nevertheless, I thrive on rejection. So I bopped on over to Ira’s website and checked out his pricing and such. The price of his frames falls basically halfway between a Della Santa and a Kirk, in the mid-to-high $2,000’s.

So where do I stand? First and foremost I’m mystified. The price differences between the three is something I’m struggling to wrap my brain around. Perhaps my assumption about materials might be misguided. But if each of the three uses the best steel tubing available from the best suppliers out there, Reynolds, Columbus or Dedacciai, I can’t pinpoint the value a particular builder adds to command a 50 to 100 percent premium over a fellow ‘name’ builder.

Cost and leadtime aside, Kirk is currently my leading candidate. It’s one part salesmanship. Don’t ever downplay the value of quickly replying to email, and to doing so in a personable manner. And it’s one part track record. If you’re 40-ish and bike-mad, chances are likely that upon driving by a 7-Eleven, you can’t stifle the goose bumps. You know that Liévin is where Davis Phinney won his first ever Tour stage. At every image of the Champs Elysees you don’t think of the Louvre or the Seine, but instead give yourself your millionth mental high-five for how Jeff Pierce snatched solo stage victory against insurmountable odds.. You know that D-Day takes second place to the Gavia Pass for the ultimate display to Europeans of how pure balls are essential to the American character. 7-Eleven, you were my parents, my priest, my teacher, my girlfriend — all wrapped up in one.

What could be better than handing over responsibility for bike-building to the guy who teased out mechanical excellence for the demigods of my youth? What could be better than knowing he’s a quick email away?

1985 Coors Classic- Phinney and Keiffel

7 Eleven

1986 Coors Classic- Sacramento


Doug Shapiro & Andy Hampsten

Holey 7-Eleven (Midlothian Turnpike)

1988 Giro D

Matchbook - 7-11

Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel & Alexi Grewal

7 Eleven

Leonard Harvey Nitz

Always Open, 7 Eleven

Jombang, Indonesia,  August 8-10, 2009

7-Eleven payphone

Bike Race, Texas, 1982 #3