Torchbearers: Dave Wages/Ellis Cycles, Part I
Padraig: Is that where you grew up?
David Wages: No, actually I grew up in upstate New York. It was a big move for me to come out here. I got started at Serotta before coming out here. I worked in a bunch of shops before starting there.
Padraig: What’s the riding like in Waterford?
David Wages: You know, it’s actually really good. I was a little skeptical when I moved out here. There are lots and lots of little back roads. They call them rustic roads. They cut a lot of roads to connect all these dairy farms. You can do tons and tons of road riding without coming across a lot of traffic
There are not a lot of big hills—no mountains at all. I’m terrible at a short sprinters’ hills; I’m much better when I can get on a long hill and get a rhythm going.
Padraig: How did you get your start at Serotta?
David Wages: It’s funny because I had been obsessed with bikes as a kid. When I got the job at Serotta it was just a job. I was initially working packing and shipping bikes. I didn’t think I’d be a builder. Kelly Bedford was the one who showed me the basics.
I left Serotta for a year and worked for a bike shop. When Ben bought the company back he knew I was interested in brazing and he called me and asked me to come back.
I was there about two-and-a-half years before I left for Waterford. I got in and learned the whole process. There were a couple of people who came back after Ben bought the company back. After a few years I started asking myself what I was going to be doing long-term. I realized that if I stayed at Serotta I’d be doing the same thing for a number of years. I was looking for a way to break out. I called Waterford and asked if they had any needs. They were and when told them my credentials and asked if they’d be interested in talking they decided to fly me out.
Even though the interview was January I still moved out here. I spent almost exactly eight years there. When I moved to Waterford I didn’t think I’d be here in Waterford this long or even be at Waterford Cycles for that long. I kind of thought I’d keep moving west. I didn’t have a dream of Ellis yet, really wasn’t thinking of starting my own business.
The realization that I wanted my own business came when I realized that even if I do the very best work I can do, it doesn’t guarantee success. Everyone in the company has to be just as successful as me for the whole company to be successful. As an individual builder, now I have control over whether I do well or not.
It’s a one-man shop, totally. It does require more discipline, though. Especially working at home, it’s a lot harder than people think. It’s different than going to work at Waterford, where I would go in and do my eight hours and then head home. It has a lot of upsides, too. If I’m looking at a design and think, ‘Gee, it seems like this frame ought to have a pump peg,’ now I just pick up the phone and call the customer and talk to them about it.
Padraig: Where does the name Ellis come from?
David Wages: Ellis is my middle name. It’s also my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Sort of a family name that’s been passed down. I like that it’s an homage to my family.
Padraig: Do you ever work in a material other than steel?
David Wages: I did a little bit of welding at Serotta, but it was such a right brain/left brain thing for me, it just didn’t come naturally to me. I decided I’m just gonna stick with brazing. When you braze you move the heat around—you move the torch around a lot. When you weld you hold the welder still but move the rod. It’s the exact opposite for me in terms of technique.
Padraig: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
David Wages: You know, I probably, the biggest percentage of tubing I use is True Temper. I got really used to using it at Waterford. I like being able to purchase a la carte, tube by tube. I also buy a fair amount of Reynolds. I’m looking for specific tubes for a specific use. It really depends on the bike. I’m trying to find specific tubes of specific diameter and wall thickness.
Some bikes that are called custom are not as custom as people think. The builder may use a single tube set. It’s not terrible, but it’s not being tailored to an individual rider. There’s so much subtlety, such as what the rider is going to use the bike for. Choosing each tube one-by-one for the frame gives me more control in achieving the customer’s goals. That’s what separates stock from custom.
I get asked about what I think of carbon a lot. People expect that I don’t like the material. I’m not against carbon. I tell people, ‘This is what I offer and I think there’s a value to it.’