Some words first published in Peloton Magazine on a road trip I made to Colorado from Arizona a couple of years ago to see how you make a titanium bike…
“We’ve got a viewing platform out back, it’s 10ft. You know 10ft is all you need!”
There’s an hint of thousand yard stare to this statement of incredulity at my ignorance toward the general height of UFO observation towers, the owner though, not hanging about jumps back into her oversized truck and rumbles off down the dusty track to the arrow straight highway a few hundred yards away leaving me and a slightly confused but unrelated Geo-cacher that happened to have stopped here as well, to carry on our days. I am left alone to wander around her museum of the extra terrestrial; a garden of homemade tin can aliens and oddments, until Corey pulls up swings the van door open and we’re on our way north again, Americana road trip radio at it’s best accompanying our race into the rockies against a blizzard parallel to our left. In contrast to the endless warm Arizona desert that’s hosted this week’s riding, today will take in three varying states, starting with sand, ending in snow and none without steel guitars or potato chips.
Steamboat Springs is a warm orange glow far down into a valley from our ice capped road high in the mountains. We squeeze through as one of the last allowed over before this final pass is closed for the night as the weight of this snow storm begins to take hold. This long journey feeling so much larger than the slight crease on the road atlas it represents. Huge and varied this country, our trek ends here, not quite Colorado’s top floor but still nearly 7,000ft and whited out.
Stumbling downstairs in search of morning coffee from an apartment above the factory I bump into my second employee Frida who weighs me up me, winks and licks my left knee before wandering off round a corner. As I am later to realise the profound connection with free ranged four legged friends will partially unlock for me the raison d’etre of this house of titanium high up in the Rocky Mountains.
Moots is 35 this year. Middle aged and seemingly doing pretty well, something affirmed by my guide and coffee partner, marketing man Jon Cariveau who has been here 18 of those years. Caffeinated and toured through the processes I am highlighted toward the potential dangers, introduced to the welders and dog owners and given a glimpse of the prototype graveyard with it’s full Ti aero TT effort and bizarre electronic wiring loom on wheels creation before Jon sets me free to shoot at will in these halls of not so heavy metal. On the face of it Moots appears much like any other old school bike company, metal shops crammed with machines so solid and permanent life tends to evolve around them once installed. Handmade and metal is so different to high volume production line and carbon. It’s hard to imagine the contrast given the end result being so similar in appearance, but it seems akin to editing a music track second by split second on a computer screen compared with lifting and replacing a needle on a turntable and pressing record on the tape deck. Titanium is hard work to work, but it is also very very analogue.
I stand and watch the mitering guy Willy Keane from across the room. He stands, looks, blows and holds a seatstay up to the light streaming in through the south facing window ahead, squints, looks down the line, returns to the vice, files briefly and repeats the cycle. Cycling cap and glasses, wiry beard, lean faced with aerodynamic features in that roadie way, he takes his role seriously. This isn’t put on for the camera, but I capture a wry smile through long glass as he lets on he knew I was there all along. People come and go as they run ideas or problems passed him looking for solution from the old school. They seem to leave happy too, content he knows his shit. Behind him a wall of titanium, 3m long tubes brace the entire length of one edge of the room. Like a kitsch 70’s wallpaper print, dimly lit in tungsten orange hue, dusty and two dimensional, they backdrop the modern ideas being born out in front of them, and all around there is good music. In here, proper reggae. Early stuff, raw, warm, produced in a shoe box sounds that share the air with the the thumping and drilling of machinery. A happy marriage of dust crackle and laser cut.
Passing through the workshop, fellow guide and road trip partner Corey Piscopo explains to me “Moots uses cold worked stress relieved (CWSR) titanium tubing. Moots Pi Tech 3/2.5 Ti tubing (3% Aluminium, 2.5% Vanadium mixed into pure Titanium) is sourced from premium aero-space grade titanium tubing manufacturers. We custom spec a proprietary blend of tube diameters and wall thicknesses for every single frame style and individual size in our line.” I ask about the rumour I heard back in Blighty about Reynolds taking on part of the process for them? “Yeah, certain tube sets are shipped to the UK to be internally butted and then shipped back to the Moots factory here in Steamboat”. ‘Twinned with Birmingham’. Who’d have thought it.
Out of Sawyer Tom Krieger’s (well named husky type thing) territory and into the chocolate Lab Baxter’s pad, four guys with masks and Carhartt jackets sit in open booths carefully handling bike frames welding for a few seconds, inspecting, brushing and wiping clean, then repeating. Slowly sewing together someone’s pride and joy with the real care and attention you’d hope was there if you’d laid down enough dollar on two wheels that would comfortably buy you four. Within minutes it’s clear what this isn’t, a slick marketing operation supporting ok fabrication, all logos and perception and tribe. What this is really about is quality, plain and simple. These guys love making these bikes. They’re not welders that came looking for a job and found chainstays, they’re riders, cyclists with care and attention to detail and skill in their hearts and welding torches for arms. And it’s about bringing your dog to work.
For me this taps into where Moots may be facing one of it’s toughest challenges yet. They’ve been here in these mountains a long time now. Harking back to 1981 this reasonably early adopter of titanium (a decade later in 1991) has seen an industry based on metal, ruled over by the wearers of titanium crowns, turn pretty quickly into a plastic revolution. The thing about the ingress of aluminium over steel twenty years back was that it replaced the mass market material but still left Ti pretty exclusively at the top of the range, but carbon has seemingly wiped out the appeal for metal across the board to most. Understandably given the choice a lot of cyclists want it as it can now supply into entry level through to pro tour. That spelled the end for Ti a while back, but thanks to the inevitable desire of some for expression of individuality and in no small part helped by the focus on the handmade side of the industry, it survives, indeed flourishes again somewhat.
The handmade lifeline is a double edged sword though. With that re-igniting of the want for different, exclusive, custom comes a new battlefield. It has kickstarted others to join the party. The knights of niche is a growing band of brothers, more and more small independent titanium frame makers and designers seem to be popping up all the time and with new school comes new rules. It would be easy to for Moots to stay within it’s comfort zone of pretty subtle quasi-conservative appearance backed up by a quality underneath and allow other smaller newer operations to run with trends and clean up through perception in deficit of heritage, but I can’t help thinking while making high end titanium bicycles is now perhaps a safer long term strategy than it’s been in years, not budging in what they look like or how they are perceived could be a long game too far.
This is something it seems they are aware of in Steamboat Springs. Flashier outfits have sprung up fast to meet the new generation of money and catch the contemporary expressionism feeding hourly into Instagram at just at the right time; personal etching, anodising and painting, the paradigm of the modern ’empowered’ consumer bespoke spec, it all adds to the question of the future. And now seems a good time as any to address that. Moots is a company, conservative in appearance but liberal in experience. Small and independent enough to still be considered cool, old and wise enough to read the writing on the wall. It will be interesting to see how new owner Brent Whittington takes this ‘cool dad’ of a company into a refreshed high end consumer market place finding it’s feet once more in a subculture backlash of the mainstreaming of carbon fibre.
In a far corner of the factory floor a man in an apron stained with years of metal and grease stands over a jig holding a 6ft steel bar with duct tape wrapped around one end. “This is frame alignment” Blake tells me with a slightly excitable grin. That sounds painful. To watch it, it is rather. The force this solid bloke (job appropriation down to his stature I imagine) wields under this trussed up frame would make the most hardened bike geek wince. To witness this post welded ti frame flex as much as it does and not snap in the torture jig is nothing short of incredible. “if it will ever crack, it will be now that it does it” I’m told, “but they never seem to”. Knowing it’s needed to counteract the deformation the heat from the welding left in it’s wake doesn’t make it any easier a thing to see. As a customer I’m not sure if I’d want to know they do this or not, but the fact that this guy has done thousands of these hi torque yoga moves over the years and knows exactly how much force to apply with a huge metal bar reassures a little. The dog under his workbench doesn’t seem that bothered. She’s seen it all before. And if in doubt, always follow the dog.
Expensive computer controlled technology sits on benches along side piles of tubes laid out on the factory floor with hand written notes and blueprints representing someone’s bike by proxy thousands of miles from it’s new home. Dogs sniff welding masks hanging absent, as they wander freely through the place. Access all areas for these four legged friends a refreshing sight in an age of sense and fear in the presence of all things industrial. “Dogs are far more sensible and intuitive than us” explains Lacey LeBaron flipping down her face mask and goggles for a stint in the bead blasting booth (dogs not allowed). Through a small window I witness part of the reason for the cost of one of those ‘Open Road’ stems, bead blasting all this titanium, one bit at a time, must take ages. Done through those remote gloved arms you imagine handling fuel rods in nuclear power plants, bike parts are rotated and blasted repeatedly until they are that smooth grey associated for years with a Moots.
Another corner, another workbench, another dog bed. Here as everywhere music is key. The soundtrack to the finishing area is new school country, kind of clever and relevant lyrics, with a nod to the classic. Would be ironic, but actually just nice sounding it backdrops the smiles and banter, steadying finisher Dusty’s careful hands that can put decals on in seconds where most of us would deliberate about whether something is straight or not for an hour. Everywhere you look titanium frames dangle from the sky, little yellow ID tags hanging from their machined dropouts. Each process hand signed off before moving on to the next yellow ticket recipient. Like an office leaving card, numerous scrawls in differing ink confirm the team effort on the keepsake receipt for someone’s investment. It’s a pretty manual process unchanged in a while but it works and it fits.
Those early days were a long time ago now 245 odd in dog years, Moots ownership has changed twice but remained local. Famously founded by Kent Eriksen and his pencil top gator in 1981, it was purchased by Chris Miller in 1995 and then recently sold to Brent Whittington in October 2015, the company always having remained a locally based Steamboat Springs business. When the press release went out explaining the company had a new owner I had feared it might be that now familiar chess move of a big umbrella investment company deciding it wants a niche brand to add to it’s portfolio and moving in for the inevitable return on investment soul kill. An unstoppable and irreversible erosion of identity and reason for being traded for short term survival. Cash for question marks. I’m no purist, but it does sadden somewhat to see big bucks gobble up interesting minoes rinsing the life out of them as they go. But on hanging out with Brent, it’s clear this new owner is not playing that game. In fact he sees this as his opportunity to leave that world behind. He’s from a big business background, clearly knows his onions and I imagine doesn’t suffer a bad work ethic, but in the brief time we share a apartment, I get the distinct impression for him, this is above all a nice thing to do. Work, live and ride with nice people and their dogs and have a proud hand in American handmade. Perhaps not a business epiphany but definitely a come to the mountains and help a relatively small operation remain a relatively small operation plan.
I imagine some employees feared similar outcomes late last year when that news was announced, but in spending time here in amongst their working days I get the impression feeling is of an ongoing freedom to create and perfect rather than an uptake in the speaking of spreadsheet. Cliche indeed, but as the small world of cycling so often reflects, it feels like another bicycle family nestled here in the Rockies.
Packing up to leave Colorado I realise the paradox of a warm human spirit perfectly embodied by a pack of dogs roaming free between workbenches. People, friends, music, metal bikes, riding, snoring dogs. It’s about community here. Not quite what I had imagined, but this is the raison d’etre that envelopes from visiting Moots. Sitting on the plane pointed west on a snow covered runway I gaze out of my window at the blue dawn light over the Rocky Mountains and reflect on what it feels like to leave this place, these people, their bikes, this pack of dogs. As is the modern way it feels appropriate I invent a hashtag for the occasion. Plane now taxiing I gaze out at a diminishing perspective that felt like home for a moment. #mootsfamily… #matesofmoots…#muttsofmoots.
©Augustus Farmer 2016