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.
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.
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.
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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