Sunday, January 3, 2010

Crumpton Cycles: Continuing an American Tradition

Crumpton Cycles: Continuing an American Tradition

Let’s face it. Given that frame materials and production processes have become so advanced, a stock bike will be more than adequate for most of us and thus the vast majority of riders who buy a custom machine are rarely buying their first bicycle. But once we move into that rarified atmosphere of bicycles that cost upwards of $4000, then the custom alternative becomes increasingly attractive. Just interacting with the elite group of individual artisans who craft them, understanding their design & build philosophy and realizing that the end-product will be both unique and will achieve that 95% solution that we crave ….. now we are talking about something truly special. However, only by talking directly with a custom builder will you be able to share his or her infectious enthusiasm and benefit from their expertise. Perhaps that’s easier said then done. First, custom frames have historically been in built in steel, sometimes in aluminum or titanium but rarely in the increasingly desirable carbon. Second, alas, most builders are at least a day’s flight away. But don’t fret; there is a local alternative. Here in South Texas there is a nationally-recognized carbon builder, Nick Crumpton of Austin. But before we discuss Crumpton Cycles, let us take a look at the last few decades that brought the custom frame business in America to where it is today.

High-end frame builders in the US were a relatively rare commodity in the post World War Two days, with the notable exception of the Schwinn Company (who had introduced the legendary Paramount in 1938). For the most part, Europe ruled those roads with classic Italian steel machines such as Bianchi (1885), Pinarello (1952), De Rosa (1953) and Colnago (1954) and their many well-established English rivals which included Harry Quinn (1909), Bates (1926), Holdsworth (circa 1930), Ellis Briggs (1936), and Mercian (1946). In 1949, the British contingent was joined by Ernie Witcomb in Deptford, London. His son, Barry was to play a future role in the establishment of a cadre of high-end American builders.

Fast-forward to the 1970s when aspiring American frame builders turned to their English cousins for inspiration. Both Ben Serotta and Richard Sachs traveled to Deptford to study frame building at the now prominent Witcomb Lightweight Cycles under the tutelage of Barry. Witcomb (USA) was subsequently established in the early 1970s with both the celebrated Sachs and Peter Weigle as frame builders, though the American subsidiary barely survived the decade.

Nevertheless, the foundations of a US-based artisan industry had now been established, with Serotta, Sachs and Weigle eventually setting out on their own as independent custom steel builders. They were joined by other master craftsmen who included Bruce Gordon, Tom Kellogg and Dave Moulton (who had also learned the craft in his native England and later with U.S. Masi). These and other notable US builders were soon turning out superb steel frames.

In the mid-1970s, three seminal events took place that were to further transform the bicycle frame business on this side of the Atlantic. The first was in 1974 when Teledyne marketed the first titanium bike that was produced in any quantity. Both the innovative guys at Merlin and the Lynskey family at Litespeed were eventually able to bring titanium frames to a broader market in the mid-1980s. The second was when Gary Klein displayed his revolutionary welded aluminum frames at the 1975 International Bike Show. This led the way for Cannondale to launch their highly successful line of aluminum bicycles in 1983. The third milestone was the 1975 appearance of the first carbon-tubed frame, the innovative Exxon Graftek. It was built with stainless steel lugs and suffered frequent frame failure but did set the stage for the successful application of carbon technology in the mid-1980s by Trek and others.

The gradual acceptance of these “exotic”, non-ferrous frame materials opened up a huge number of possibilities with different builders and companies experimenting with every possible permutation of aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber for the frame’s main tubes stays and forks. As a result, the custom frame business diverged, with individual builders such as Richard Sachs and Bruce Gordon remaining committed to classic steel whereas Ben Serotta and Tom Kellogg led the way with non-ferrous combinations.

The carbon revolution really exploded in the first few years of the 21st century with mid-level frames and components being produced in the Far East for relatively little cost. However, ever since Kestrel had introduced their non-lugged, carbon fiber frame in 1986, the large-production trend gradually moved towards the monocoque (one-piece) molded products. Since the cost of custom molds for individual customers would be prohibitive, the artisan carbon builders stayed with a more “traditional” lugged construction, except that their methodology was far from traditional. Craig Calfee in California was one of the early custom carbon builders, establishing his first production machines in 1989, under the name Carbonframes (changed to Calfee Design in 1997). Bob Parlee in Massachusetts joined the small and elite cadre of carbon builders in 2000, employing his knowledge of composite fabrication from having previously built custom boats.

And what about Nick Crumpton? His passion for bicycles started as a racing cyclist but his birth as a builder began when he learned frame welding techniques at Bike Friday in the mid-nineties. He subsequently started building his own steel frames after he moved back to Austin. Around 2003, the idea of building custom carbon-composite bicycle frames took hold and two years later he left his full-time job and founded Crumpton Cycles. Still in the workshop in his backyard, he remains that company’s only employee. It’s he who answers the phone and he is the only man that will touch your bike from start to finish”.

He firmly believes that carbon frames provided greater strength for their weight and has developed a process for using tube- sets that allows him to ensure both exceptional durability and ride quality. A critical goal is to achieve optimum balance and weight distribution of the rider on the finished product. After extensive discussions with the customer, examining their current bicycles and taking whatever measurements are required, the new frame geometry is determined and the specific tubes are selected for that individual.

Crumpton’s specialized equipment allows him to make extremely accurate tube cuts, thus offering individualized frame angles down to fractions of a degree. The initial epoxy-joining of the tubes is followed by carbon wrapping the head tube, seat-tube and bottom bracket joints. Even though he has tested his initial joints before the carbon wrapping and determined that the tubes will fail before the joint does, the wrapping process is still essential because this allows him to further tune the ride quality. For example, for a heavier rider wanting a stiff frame, Crumpton will use both more layers of carbon around the joint and will extend the carbon layers further up the tubes. The frame is then subject to the heat and pressure that produces the final bond between the wrapped “lugs” and the tubes.

In this weight-obsessed world we cyclists have created, it has to be said that his Superlight frame begin at 850 grams; that’s well under two pounds in case you were wondering. He is now working on prototype Ultralight frames that will weigh around 650 grams. Crumpton attracted considerable interest early this year when he worked with Group de Tete in North Carolina to produce a fixed gear bike which came in around seven pounds and yes, that’s for the whole machine.

Crumpton Cycles has a capacity of around 60 frames per year for as long as Nick remains the only builder. All his road and cyclo-cross frames come with a 10-year warranty and are offered either clear-coated or with a custom paint job. He is also moving into the component arena. Bicycling Magazine’s recent super-bike featured a Crumpton bar-stem in which he takes a carbon bar and carbon-wraps it to a machined-alloy extension to form a stiff one-piece combo. At this time, his component line is only available to purchasers of complete frames.

In addition to the small but growing number of satisfied customers, Crumpton has received prestigious accolades from his peers. At the Handmade Bicycle Show in Houston in 2005, he was recognized with two awards including the Best Carbon frame. Remarkably, this achievement was repeated at the 2006 Show in California. Nick Crompton’s advice to any rider seeking the ultimate custom machine is simple: “Buy your frame from somebody who actually rides bicycles. Only then can the builder truly know what he is talking about”.

Even though this is not an article about bicycle fit, it’s worth reinforcing this point with another axiom from Andy Pruitt, the Director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and one of the world’s foremost expert of bicycle fit. He emphasizes the critical need for “dynamic” fit to complement the more traditional “static” fit. Body measurements from a motionless rider can only represent one piece of the puzzle and observations on the rider when he or she is pedaling are essential for a complete analysis. Only one-on-one interaction with the frame builder will effectively achieve this goal. For more information on Crumpton Cycles, e-mail or visit the web site at

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful bike! I bought a used Crumpton that was a close, but not close enough, fit. It was a thing of beauty to behold, even in comparison to my custom steel bike. I was just surfing and saw this blog and read it out of interest and hope that one day, I will own a Crumpton again. I sold mine to a neighbour down the street and still occasionally get to ride *with* it, but not *on* it :(

    Enjoy that beautiful rig.