A Talk With Bill Holland, Part I

A Talk With Bill Holland, Part I

When you think about the veterans of frame building in the U.S., the names that turn up are mostly from the East Coast and the Midwest. The guys at ground zero on the East Coast were part of the start of Witcomb USA—Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Ben Serotta and Chris Chance. In the Midwest, they were the Wastyns of Schwinn and then, later, Albert Eisentraut, who moved to the Bay Area. Eisentraut had already moved to San Francisco by the time Weigle and Sachs were doing their internship in the U.K.

Eisentraut hadn’t been on the West Coast for long before he began teaching classes in frame building. The classes were designed to turn out professionals who could fill the need for top-quality racing frames. The coveted Euro brands like Masi, Cinelli and Colnago were perpetually in short supply. Eisentraut’s protégés held the promise of making the U.S. a bastion for great builders.

The year of the Bicentennial, 1976, a young aspirant drove up from San Diego to take part in Eisentraut’s class—Bill Holland.

Back then, Holland was a bike shop owner. He’d purchased Casa de Oro in San Diego for the staggering sum of $6000 in 1972, and in doing so, caught the wave of the burgeoning 10-speed boom. The shop sold both new and used bikes and did a brisk business in repairs. In a classic case of one-thing-leads-to-another, a story that’s almost impossible to retrace the totality of steps, Holland began repairing frames.

That’s what led to the interest in frame building and the decision to visit Eisentraut.

“He taught you how to build with a file and hacksaw,” Holland recalls. “We had no mills.”

IMG_8341Bill Holland, right, with Eriksen’s Brad Bingham, Moots’ Butch Boucher, Jim Kish, Mike Lopez and Joe Bell.

Holland was soon back home and building frames under his name. He figured out how to do braze-ons and an Imron paint job, “On my own.”

He says the building and repair business grew enough over the next few years that in 1980 he decided to sell the bike shop so he could focus on the frame business. One of his mechanics was a young guy by the name of Joe Bell.

“JB did a perfect job on all the bikes,” Holland recalls. “I went to him and said, ‘I’ll teach you how to do paint so I can build more.’”

With a smile he adds, “We’ve been friends for 39 years.” Of course, Bell has long since graduated from single-color Imron to renown for being an artisan in his own right.

Holland spent the ‘80s building out of his garage in Pacific Beach and riding plenty, a life that’s even better in the living than in the retelling.

IMG_9476A cutaway showing the liner that internally routs the brake cable in a titanium top tube.

Holland says that in the late ‘80s he began to hear about titanium and the work that Gary Helfrich, Gwyn Jones and Mike Augspurger were doing in Boston with Merlin Metalworks. Holland decided he needed to find out.

“I paid retail for a Merlin,” he says. The decision would make a turning point in his career.

He says he went out for a ride with two other friends, all of whom rode the same size bike so they could switch the bike between riders and collect impressions from a group and not just one rider.

“Every time the road got rough, we all wanted to ride the Merlin. That’s when I knew titanium was something special,” he says.

After moving west, Gary Helfrich began offering titanium welding classes at United Bicycle Institute. Holland was a student at the very first class, along with Co-Motion cofounder and Moots president Butch Boucher.

“Gary was able to tell us all the challenges of working with ti, like purging.” Holland started offering titanium frames in ’92 and built his final steel frame in ’94. Without the need to paint his ti frames, Holland sold the paint business to Bell in ’94 as well. When asked why he sold the paint business rather than keep the profit center he says, “I don’t want to have a lot of employees who need lots of managing.”

It was at that point he moved his shop to his home. He said the change allowed him to work much more efficiently, with significantly fewer interruptions.

“I went from being a 9-6 guy at the shop to working from home. I did work alone that used to take four guys.”

Through the ‘90s and early 2000s, Holland became the go-to builder for custom titanium on the West Coast. When you spotted a ti bike on the road, it was as likely to be a Holland as it was a Seven, Litespeed, Merlin or Moots, which is impressive for a one-man operation.

IMG_9473Detail of an Exogrid tube.

Builders have been mixing materials in bike frames for ages. From the early carbon fiber frames that used aluminum lugs to the late-‘90s wave of aluminum frames with carbon fiber seatstays, mixing materials attracts interest because it holds the promise of giving a builder the opportunity to use materials strategically to keep a frame as light as possible without sacrificing stiffness. Mixing titanium with carbon fiber is a chance to keep a frame light and build back in stiffness where you need it.

The San Diego cycling community is tight-knit, and many friendships there go back decades. It was Speedplay’s Richard Bryne who told Holland about Titus Titanium’s Exogrid technology.

Exogrid takes a titanium tube and laser-cuts a lattice in the tube. With nearly 50 percent of the material removed, layers of carbon fiber are laid up inside the tube, and they show through the windows cut in the tubing. The resulting tube can still be welded into a frame. Light, stiff and weldable; pretty neat trick.

But the magic of Exogrid doesn’t end there. Another thing that Exogrid does is cut vibration headed to the rider. It doesn’t eliminate all vibration, but it does reduce it dramatically, moreso than would be done by carbon fiber alone. Damping vibration is easily accomplished when you change materials. The frequency of vibrations that will move through carbon fiber aren’t the same frequencies that will move through titanium. That results in what riders frequently refer to as a quiet ride.

Santana Cycles (which uses it for some of its priciest tandems) purchased the technology and tooling from the previous owner, Vyatek. It also hired one of its employees to continue to produce the tubing for them. Holland sources from Santana these days, and is the only builder working with the patented tubing for producing road bikes.


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  1. olmowebb

    I’ll be taking a Ti frame building class at UBI this summer. I can hardly wait. I’ve had bikes of every stripe over the last 30 years, and my 12 year-old Dean Ti is still my favorite. A beautifully welded (or brazed), locally-made frame almost brings a tear to my eyes.

  2. John Berry

    I met Bill through my younger, tougher, brother and was immediately impressed by his attention to fit and detail. Bought an exogrid several years back after riding steel for years – have not looked back. Well written story, and nice to learn the history of this man’s skill set. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. Waldo

    West Coast veterans in no particular order:
    1. Brian Baylis
    2. Ed Litton
    3. Bruce Gordon
    4. Peter Johnson
    5. Paul Sadoff
    6. Tim Neenan
    7. Mark DiNucci (lol)

    Please don’t sell us short.

    1. Author

      That’s a fine list, and one that ought to be headed by Albert Eisentraut. I’ve written about each of those guys to one degree or another, so just because we’ve done a piece about Holland doesn’t mean we will ignore the others. Give us a bit of credit.

  4. Maremma Mark

    Bill Holland and Joe Bell…two guys it was my pleasure and privilege to ride with in Tuscany about 15 years ago. Absolute gentlemen and two of the finest artisans one could hope to come across. Great cyclists too and funny as hell, we laughed till my sides ached on those rides…or maybe it was because I was out of breath a lot trying to keep up with Bill.

    I hope they return some day!

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