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Mountain Ingenuity
Bike frame makers ply their trade in nearby mountain towns


Don McClung, hard at work - JIM WILLIAMS

The mountains are full of people who either retired with a fat nest egg, got an inheritance or cashed out one way or the other. Their egos and bank accounts are flush with newfound fortune.

Out here in the formerly Wild West, they're painfully obvious.

They travel in herds of shiny, unscratched and unused SUVs, clothed in the finest mail-order fleece.

And shortly after their move to the mountains, they start showing up at city council meetings trying to change their new home.

They whine about the weather, modem speeds, the social life (or apparent lack thereof) and God forbid anyone mention the local shopping. Most of the locals just smile, understanding their confusion. They are, after all, going through Mall Withdrawal.

Then, of course there are the mountain folk who arrive with their pockets thinly lined, but who are rich in creativity, tenacity and genuine passion. They are who the newly rich tenderfoots all seem to want to be -- real mountain folk.

Smilin' Don McClung

Don's a smiler. Not that he goes around acting all bubbly, but when you see him riding around town he's usually grinning his quiet smile. I've known Don for a good bit and I know he is a born biker. He was probably born with a bike seat stuck to his butt.

Last summer, after some twit ripped off my old townie bike, I visited Don in search of a replacement. Digging through his collection of bikes as I held up a rather weary tarp he smiled, "I know just the one. No one'll steal this 'un." Out came my now well-ridden, and loved, faded blue '68 Schwinn Camelback. It was love at first sight. Don got 20 bucks and I got a two-wheeled friend. It has taken me home many times.

Don showed off his shop. As we sat next to his old wood stove, a curl of smoke rising, he showed me the bike he was building. The frame was already welded and nearly finished. He was now fabricating the fork parts.

As he spoke, his eyes brightening with passion and excitement, he described his plans for the ultimate mountain/town bike. Now a half-year later Don's design has changed a bit, but his eyes still sparkle with passion.

His most recent bike frame is based on a 1935 Pierce bike. As he held the original frame next to his new bike's frame, I could see he did a damn fine job.

His bike frame is reasonably light at around 26 pounds. Weight, as most riders understand, is very important, even the wheels must be light. "Weight hurts you twice in the wheels. Once to rotate 'em, then again propelling 'em forward," Don smiled, teaching. I always learn something from Don when I spend the time. He's the consummate educator, delivering advice and trade talk in soft pleasant tones on bike history, physics and design.

Matt Chesters one-speed wonder - JIM WILLIAMS

Don's bike, as yet unnamed, is designed to be rigged as either a one-speed or multispeed depending on your desires. Fat or skinny wheels and tires are optional, although Don's bike sports fat knobbies and bent mountain bike handlebars. Building (or buying) a frame like this allows one to virtually "create" his or her own unique bike.

The features that seem to define Don's bike are the back angles, the bent seat post and the front struts. The seat post is angled back so if you need to get into the back position, while clipped in, you can. The struts just look cool and allow the bike to flex, yet add a bit of strength to the fork.

This is a serious mountain/town bike. It reminds me of being a kid, whipping about town on my old Schwinn Stingray. If the option had been available, I might have ridden off into the sunset on Don's bike, grinning like a fool. But, alas, Don wasn't ready to give it up, just yet.

Don's bike runs a mere (check out production cookie-cutter bike prices) $1,500 for a frame and fork. They're made one at a time, so patience is more important than money. You can contact Don at his Salida shop at 719/539-7146.

Matt "The Energy" Chester

Don told me about Matt as we sat around the aforementioned wood stove watching more smoke curl. "He lives in this tiny shop up in Leadville. It's probably not more than a 12-by-12. He's even gone to "frame school" and builds Ti frames. He's good," Don suggested.

Matt is, I soon found, a young man of vibrating energy.

Bongo Billy's Coffeehouse sits next to Absolute Bikes just off Salida's beaten path. That's where Matt had come to gear up his latest bike. And that's where I learned from him about titanium welding. It's also where I learned to respect those who fight with oxygen.

Matt's gig is a one-speed bike he's crowned the Utilitiman. It, also, is meant to be an all-around town bike -- a utility bike. "One-speeds are a kinda hip thing," Matt said, munching a sandwich. The one-speed fad started, like most retro trends seem to, in California. In the last few years it has become a respected form of transportation in small Rocky Mountain towns where cool is an old bike sitting, unlocked, on your porch. Even the mountain bike races are adding single-speed categories.

The "Ute" is constructed of titanium, where welding is a dance of argon, oxygen and flame. Because Ti has an incredible fatigue life, and is impact and corrosion resistant, Matt will work with nothing else.

To weld titanium Matt has to flood both the interior and exterior of the tubes with argon. Oxygen makes Ti brittle and, in bikes, dangerous. Welding Ti requires focus -- something that must be hard for someone with so much obvious energy.

The Ute frame runs a little over $1,000. For more specifics, contact Matt at 719/486-1006 or check out his Web site:

As we sat in Bongo's, I looked into Matt's eyes and saw something I'm a junkie for -- passion. His energy is passion-based just like Don's quiet smile. When the two bike makers moved to the high country they didn't bring a bucket of money. They brought something considerably more valuable -- a vision. And enough passion to fuel their creativity and tenacity.

See you out there.

Jim Williams is a self-admitted sports junkie and freelance writer living in Salida.

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