Tucked behind his welder's helmet, Eric Baar coaxes a tiny puddle of molten metal along the surface of the shining titanium tubes. White light hisses from the tip of his welding torch.
He works patiently, making his welds, or "stitches," as he calls them. The torch dims and he lifts his helmet as the fresh weld glows red. He lifts it up for a closer inspection. The weld is formed in circular patterns. It is strong and permanent. It is the place where bicycle frame building and art intersect — the backbone of the bike.
"Welding is a small part of the whole deal, but when the time comes, you have to nail it," Baar says.
He owns the Ground Up Speed Shop, an old structure that sits on a clay hillside not far from downtown Colorado Springs. It had no roof or doors when Baar discovered it years ago. It's not much to look at, but the magic happens inside.
"It's a small shop, but it has everything I want," he says. "I'm kind of a minimalist. I think you can do a lot with the basics. There is a lot of science that goes into it," he says. "Sometimes I laugh to myself. I shouldn't be able to do this in my garage."
The Speed Shop contains precision tools for measuring and cutting the tubes that make a bicycle frame. There are enough loose bike parts scattered about to build a bike or two. A massive steel bottle of argon gas — used in the welding process — stands to one side. The center of the room is dominated by a workbench where he fits and welds the tubing together. The place smells like an old garage. A pinup centerfold of a woman in a bubble bath hangs in the corner.
"She reminds me to keep the shop clean," he says.
Baar, 39, lives much like an artist. He's a little introverted, happy when he's in the shop or out riding the trails with friends. No wife or girlfriend. "I haven't really tried," he says. He shares his home with tomcat Theodore.
Many folks know him as the wild man who rides the "Flame Thrower," a trick bike that spits flames 10 feet behind the seat. "That's probably the most famous bike I ever made," he says. "But I got a little scared about it after the forest fires we had here."
With a background in machining and mechanical engineering, he found a home when he moved from South Dakota to Colorado 17 years ago. He began building bikes at Tomac, which was founded by Doug Bradbury, a bike suspension specialist from Colorado Springs, and former pro rider John Tomac. Baar built his first frame in 1999 and says he now has constructed about 1,300.
Starting price for a Ground Up bike is $1,000 for a steel frame. A light titanium outfit begins at $3,000. The prices go up from there.
"That's just the basic stuff," he says. "I sell them, then make them. That's what it costs for my friends and everyone. I don't give discounts. They all take the same amount of time and my rent payment doesn't care."
Baar is hooked on speed, going fast and making quick and nimble machines. "That is kind of the theme around here," he says. "I can only make so many, so I've become kind of specialized. I like to spend my time making really fast track bike[s] for the velodrome, or something like that." Olympic track cyclists JoAnne Kiesanowski and James Carney, plus Aaron Kacala, an elite racer from Colorado Springs have all raced on Baar's frames.
He doesn't just make fast machinery. He enjoys the thrill of the ride as well. In the summer months, he'll strap himself in the seat of a race car and hammer the accelerator on the dirt track at Calhan. And he is a regular at the velodrome in Colorado Springs, where he can pedal some fast laps.
But the Speed Shop is where he does his best work — the creative work of an artist — welding and then pinstriping his frames with elaborate designs.
"I can make any kind of bike," he says. "But I want them to look like something you've never seen before, otherwise, what's the point?"
"My torch is always on," he says.