The Master

The Master

When I learned that Mark DiNucci had designed a new tube set, one for which he had done all the CAD files, and then had designed a lug set to go with it, that this was his chance to revisit the work he did when he designed the tubes and lugs for the famed Specialized Allez, my mind reeled. A new steel tube set. No one is doing new steel. To put fresh resources into steel is essentially unknown.

I could order a frame from anyone out there. So why DiNucci? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, when you look at his resume as a builder, working with the likes of Andy Newlands of Strawberry and Jim Merz (who hired him to work at Specialized), DiNucci may not have built as many frames as a guy like John Slawta, but his work has been universally hailed for its precision and craft. When I ask other guys who have seen his work bare, they shake their heads in wonder.

His first work at Specialized was to design a set of vertical dropouts, something he did on a drafting table. Taught himself CAD to make working with Japan easier. DiNucci isn’t just a builder who happens to have some engineering chops. He has worked in steel, aluminum, carbon fiber and metal matrix composite. The original Allez and Stumpjumper Epics were largely his. It’s a breadth of experience that allows him the room to build in steel and tell you it’s better from a vantage of knowledge.

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In talking with Jim Merz about DiNucci’s depth of experience and broad skill set, he cut me off mid-sentence and stated categorically: “There’s not another builder in the world who could have done that bike.”

One of the more remarkable qualities DiNucci exhibited was his soft-spoken nature, a modesty that often hid his knowledge. He’d talk around his own accomplishments. It was Bryant Bainbridge at Specialized who told me how DiNucci reviewed all of the technical specifications for the tubes Reynolds drew for him and determined that the heat treating for some was too rapid, that if they slowed the cooling a bit, the ultimate tensile strength of the tubes would increase. Reynolds wasn’t particularly enamored with this suggestion, but he asked them to try a set of fork blades according to his specs, and then test them, just to see if they were stronger.

It turns out, he was right. But of course, DiNucci didn’t tell me that story, someone else did.

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One of my biggest reasons for working with DiNucci was his vision for how a frame should appear. This is what separates the A-list builders from the rest. Their joints aren’t just strong, they are visual statements, reflections of a deeper philosophy. Whether we are talking Steve Rex’ Ultimate Fillets or a Richard Sachs seat cluster, I’d know that work unpainted. DiNucci’s points are geometric, like the teeth of a Great White Shark. And they are thinned, just as you’d expect from a self-respecting West Coast builder. What makes DiNucci so compelling is that very few guys from his generation still add brass fillets to the lug transitions to smooth the flow of those joints. It’s not enough to have a thin point on a lug, that point has to go somewhere with an elegant arc to it, a sweep that is informed by a sculptor’s eye. Most builders have given up those fillets. They take hours upon hours to do and they do nothing to make a frame stronger. Worse, they make a frame heavier. So why do them? To make a statement.

On my frame, DiNucci took that flourish and ratcheted it up, like someone pumping pure oxygen into a rave to get everyone to dance into delirium. He added slight ridges that run lengthwise along the plane of the frame, like the faintest hint of webbing between fingers. And when you think of the sensibility and eye that lays down brass fillets on a lug to form smooth radii, that subtle ridge draws from the same basic skill set and yet runs counter to it. Those swells are machine perfect and yet also mesmerizingly organic. This is the three-pointer with his back to the hoop.

When I asked DiNucci how many hours he’d put into the frame, he stammered. He said something about putting in a minimum of 100 hours in a frame, and then started taking me through the math of the cost to run his shop, the value of 100 hours devoted to a frame, his inability to do other work when he’s that intent on a frame. I never got a straight answer, but I suspect this was substantially more than 100 hours.

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I received the bike back from painter Joe Bell (who ran out of superlatives in assessing the quality of the frame) just days before the 2016 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Sacramento. Didn’t get a chance to ride the bike before putting it in my car and driving to Sacramento. At the end of the first day of the show, I grabbed the bike to return it to my room for the night. As we left the hall, I swung my leg over and soft-pedaled down the sidewalk back to the hotel. We had nailed the fit (two other custom bikes in the last four years certainly helped) and the combination of fit and geometry made for the most uncanny jeans ride I’ve ever had. I wanted to skip dinner and just ride around town. Someone opened the door to the hotel and I slipped in like I was ducking out of rain.

In June I rode the bike at the final Grasshopper of the season, King Ridge Dirt Supreme. It’s an 80-mile event of which 20 or so miles are covered on dirt. Unsurprisingly, the bike performed as I hoped; it felt balanced on twisting roads, took fast descents with aplomb and gave a lively feeling out of the saddle. It seemed like a really fine bike, which is just what I expected. Late in the event, on the descent of King Ridge back into Cazadero, a rider on a gravel bike with disc brakes attempted to pass me and had to get hard on his brakes because he realized he couldn’t both pass me and complete the turn. Watching a rider attempt to pass only to brake hard and drop in behind carries with it a special kind of satisfaction.

One thing Mark stressed to me about this tube set was that the tubes were designed as a set, meant to work together, that the bike should have a spring to it that makes the response of the frame seamless from dropouts to dropouts. After I’d ridden it for some months he checked in with me to see if he’d achieved it; he’d never ridden a bike made from this tube set, so he didn’t know. What I told him was that even though the bike was metal, a giant spring, it responded in a way that was fluid, of a piece.

This bike has elicited in me two contradictory responses. On one hand, I want to ride nothing else. The combination of fit, handling and feel—that life that comes from this frame’s unique spring—makes this thing as revelatory as a first kiss. And yet, no bike I’ve ever ridden has reminded me of the surprise, the excitement that reviewing a bike can be. It makes me interested to encounter other bikes, has reminded me that I can be surprised.

Look, I can’t call this a review. It’s not. Whatever objectivity I was supposed to use to keep my infatuation at bay took a hike the moment I placed my order. I’m a bike geek and RKP does little other than trade in velophilia. We are stoke merchants, and there’s no reason to dance around that. So this “review,” if we are to use that term, is a celebration of craft, a marvel at what can happen when you unleash an artisan at the top of their game on a work without concern for the bottom line. Consider it a template for the best-case scenario.

A frame from DiNucci is expensive enough that I hesitate to even share the figure here. Those who are prone to outrage at the price of a luxury item will be outraged. For those willing to make an investment into an object that will bring lasting satisfaction over many years, this is a bike worth exploring. No one will order a DiNucci when hand-built will do. You order a DiNucci because you want to experience the framebuilding equivalent of shock and awe.

When I get on this bike what my body tells me is that this is the why of riding bikes. That exquisite poise, the elegant spring. There’s nothing like it.

 


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26 comments

  1. Alex

    Define “new steel”. Plenty of builders have custom butted and shaped tube sets made by Reynolds, Columbus, etc… Richard Sachs comes out with new lug and tubing sets… A wide variety of builders use their own design steel dropouts and other parts.

    DiNucci is definitely a master with amazing craftsmanship, but he’s not God.

  2. Alex

    In regard to DiNucci being self taught in CAD, this is kind of apparent by his drawings. I think he’s just left the number of decimal places in dimensions on the default values in his CAD package. I sincerely doubt he’s making parts by hand with 0.0000001 inch tolerances….

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/dinuccicycles/5286205304

    Not diminishing his level of craftsmanship or creativity, however.

  3. Nik

    And yet, if that tube set doesn’t work with the disk brakes that you wanted, is it really a good idea to use that tube set for your bike ? If he had made the bike out of some other material, who is to say that you wouldn’t be raving about the finished bike just as much ?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Mark gave me the option of going with a different tubeset and sticking with discs. A fair consideration, but not what I wanted. I wanted that tubeset because he’d worked so hard to make a bike where each element worked in concert. And while I’m not going to say it couldn’t happen in another material, it wouldn’t happen in aluminum and it’s not yet possible to do carbon fiber with custom geometry, custom fit and still use monocoque construction. So that pretty much leaves steel or titanium.

  4. Jim

    If it’s beautiful and it performs well and you feel good about riding it and you can afford it, who is going to argue with that?

    I like that every bike can be personalized and there is still room for artisans in our sport/hobby/way-of-life.

    I too would like to know what “new steel” means. I would guess it refers to methods of adapting steel in such a way to achieve many of the performance qualities that are present in carbon and ti frames.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks for that. Some folks, will, however, argue with anything. So there’s that.

      Now, on to your and another reader’s question about “new steel.” If memory serves, the last new steel tubeset to be introduced was either PegoRichie or Spirit for Lugs, two tubesets that Richard Sachs works with an also distributes. Spirit for Lugs is a great example because Spirit was originally a tubeset with very short butts, designed for builders who were going to TIG weld. There is a smaller heat-affected-zone with TIG welding, so you can get away with shorter butts, and therefore lighter tubes. Lugged construction (and fillet brazing) has a larger heat-affected-zone, so new dies had to be created to draw those tubes with longer butts. Creating tooling isn’t being done for bicycle framebuilding. Also, new research into new alloys is also not being done. So convincing Reynolds to draw new diameters of tubes along with different butt lengths and different wall thicknesses than what they were already doing was a very big deal. I hope that explains this sufficiently. But if not, let me know and I’ll jump back in.

  5. Scott G.

    Sounds like you have joined the shellac sniffing, lug licking, Masi worshipers.
    DiNucci Lodge.

    Beware the brazed on MAFACs I see in your future.

  6. Kimball

    Many would hang that bike on the wall. The fact that you are riding it; and in fact taking it off road is to be admired. Like the guy who drops his son off at my daughters school every morning in his Ferrari. Bravo!


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Yeah, that’s just wrong. My great-grandmother was fond of saying that you don’t save the silver for the guests. I liked her style.

  7. Les.B.

    Are you willing to disclose what this bike will elevate your “Bikes needed = Bikes owned + 1” number to?

    Seriously, what would be the kind of ride where you would consider your lineup and choose THIS bike over the others?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I’m honestly not sure. There are two bikes for which I have, shall we call it, a “riding need” for which the particular circumstances would be better fulfilled by something I don’t have. The first would be a 24-inch-wheeled cruiser for our local pump track, though I have a 20-inch freestyle bike that does okay. The other would be a hardtail cross country 29er for our dirt crit series. I have no plans for additional purchases at this time. I gotta pay for preschool. Ouch.


    2. Author
      Padraig

      Oh, and choosing this bike is a matter of simply needing 100 yards of dirt somewhere—anywhere—on the ride. That’s all the justification I need. The honest problem is that if it gets into really hairy technical stuff on the descent and the descent is off-road, then I have to switch to the Seven Airheart.

  8. Alex

    Thanks for defining what you mean by “new steel”. This wasn’t really clear from your opening statements – you didn’t really say it had to be for lugged or fillet construction. It also seems you are discounting stainless steels from your definition. In any case, I believe, Reynolds 921, Columbus Xcr and now Vari-wall Thermlx came out after PegoRichie.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Stainless is a funny beast, and I do think of it differently than I do other steels for a simple reason. When someone uses stainless, part of the plan is to polish at least part of the bike, so it’s chosen for aesthetic reasons ahead of other considerations. I’ve yet to hear a builder say they chose 921 or Xcr because it gave them something they couldn’t do better with another tubeset. Having said that, the someone will prove me wrong in 3, 2….

    2. Alex

      Well, Xcr and 953 do enable some pretty light frames, especially since you don’t need paint. Not saying it’s a better bike, but for some people grams is the only metric that seems to matter.

  9. Mark Petry

    It is beautiful. So “crisp” is the word that comes to mind when I see it. Far more than an obsession with lug filing, it looks like it is all one piece of metal, and I think that’s the vision of the integrated tube set and design. Like you I don’t need one more bike, but I have been talking to Mark and I think I will call him today. I’m sure his phone will be busy. thanks!

  10. dnagle

    Mark DiNucci is the most honest and straightforward person that I know. You won’t meet anyone more thoughtful and considerate. It’s a double bonus that you end up with an amazing bike like Padraig’s. It will be worth every penny.

  11. Miles Archer

    I had a weird dream about this bike. I don’t know you or DiNucci so it’s kind of odd.

    In the dream I was standing around talking with you and DiNucci while looking at the summer of love paint job on the bike. I asked him if he could build me one just like it out of carbon, but without the funny pointy things. Also, make it a recumbent.

    I can’t believe I troll myself in my dreams.

  12. Andrew

    That’s a beautiful, classic, classy bike.

    You know we’re not going to take the occasional pleas to financially support RKP terribly seriously after this, however?

    :- )


    1. Author
      Padraig

      I was running the Continental Cyclocross tire. It’s a 35mm-wide hunk of rubber with a primarily diamond-file tread with knobs on the outside. Killer tire.

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