In Part II of my interview with Steve Hampsten I get Steve to talk about several of his big loves in equipment: 650B wheels, the constructeur movement and Columbus MAX tubing. His perspective isn’t what I’d call mainstream, but his rationale is so clear that the alternative he offers is truly compelling.
PB—You’ve been at ground zero for the constructeur movement and 650B wheels. What is it about those that interests you and what practical value do you think they offer the average cyclist?
SH—Constructeur bikes—which I’ll define as a made-to-order frame and fork designed to work with dedicated lights, fenders, and (usually) a front bag and rack—have become pretty popular of late. I think they’re an attempt at creating a bicycle that will work well in the real world in terms of being usable in varying types of weather and lighting conditions, and when carrying more than just a spare tube and a gel. As a designer with a hands-on approach, I find integrating the racks, lights, tires, and fenders of these bikes to be both challenging and rewarding—each one is just a little different.
650B wheels are interesting and becoming more so each year. A 650B x 38mm tire offers roughly the same outside diameter as a 700c x 23mm tire—so it’s essentially the same wheel size that most of us are used to but with a much larger volume of air. They’re nice when riding on really rough roads, when carrying a heavy load, when you want that certain Frenchy je ne sais quois—or when you want all three. Currently I have three 650B flat-bar bikes in the works: all three designed as shopping bikes but each is taking a different approach in one form or another.
We should see at least two new 650B x 38mm tires this year—the size many feel is ideal for this wheel—and I think they’ll be better quality than anything we’ve seen previously. It’s maybe not the ideal go-fast tire size but it is comfortable, grippy, and elegantly classic-looking.
PB—How would you compare/contrast the use of 650B wheels to the newish road bike category of endurance bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, Trek Pilot and Felt Z-series which share a longer wheelbase, slacker head tube angle, more fork rake and longer head tube resulting in a higher bar position?
SH—I wouldn’t really compare them at all. The three you mention are closer to our own Strada Bianca and to the Moots Mootour/IF Club Racer/ Co-Mo Nor’wester than they are to a 650B bike like the Rivendell Saluki or Tournesol Pavé. I think most 700C bikes are good for moving a rider and (maybe) a small load over a variety of road surfaces but as the load increases—or the surface becomes less smooth—then smaller wheels with bigger tires start to make more sense. But I like that bigger companies are offering bikes that aren’t simply dumbed-down Pro Tour race bikes, that they’re entertaining the idea there might be more riding experiences to be had than simply hammering along a road in mad pursuit of … what?
PB—Let’s talk a practical consideration: For better or worse, most riders on most group rides are running a 23mm tire at 8 bar (and some guys are running pressure much higher than that). Rolling resistance is much lower than running a 28mm tire at 7 bar or less. That’s some noticeable extra wattage you have to put out to maintain pace with the ride. Do you maintain that these bikes are appropriate for most roadies?
SH—Well Patrick, I’ll have to disagree here with you here: I don’t think that skinny tires pumped hard roll much faster than fatter tires run slightly softer. I agree they FEEL faster because you’re getting more feedback from the road surface and you’re bouncing over all the little bumps and most folks think that feels like speed. I like my skinny tires for some riding and I like the fatties for other rides. I do notice the larger tires seem a little more sluggish to accelerate, which they should as it’s more weight to get moving. But on gravel or on a bumpy road, I’ll take the bigger tire as they feel smoother when rolling and more planted in corners. Horses for courses, as they say.
PB—If you could only ride one bike, a bike that needed to be versatile enough to do your favorite group rides and more, what would that bike be? What size wheels would it have? What would the geo be? What frame material? And heck, what parts would you put on it?
SH—It’d be a welded steel frame from light tubing, probably with a steel fork and for 57mm-reach calipers, same as our Classic model. 700c x 25 or 28mm tires for the day-to-day stuff, maybe 24mm Vittoria Pavé with fenders for the six damp months a year up here, 33.3mm tires for the epic rides. 73 X 72.8, 46mm rake, 70mm BB drop, chainstays at 420mm. I like handbuilt wheels, anything from the Chris King catalog, and SRAM Force is my current favorite kit. Thomson, Fi’zi:k, Deda Zero100 bars, King Cages … bliss.
PB—How many people actually work for Hampsten? Tell us a bit more, if you would, about Max and Martin.
SH—Hampsten is me as the only full-time employee. I have a part-time mechanic, Chris Boedecker, who helps with assembly, repairs, and wheelbuilding as needed. Max does the in-house welded frames and has been building our custom racks, Martin does all of our lugged frames/forks and makes our extra brazed forks as needed.
Max Kullaway started at Rhygin, then moved over to Merlin where he learned to weld – this was back in their days in MA – then worked at Seven until moving out here a couple of years ago. He’s working at a local metal fabrication outfit and also welding titanium frames for Davidson. He and fellow ex-Sevenite, Bernard Georges, have started their own framebuilding gig called 333fab—say “triple-three-fab”—building steel and ti frames for both road and cyclocross. In his spare time Max welds some frames for me, here at my shop – he’s a busy lad!
Martin Tweedy took the framebuilding class at UBI back in 1996 or so then became the first employee at Match Bicycle Company where he brazed several hundred lugged frames for Schwinn Paramount, Beckman, and Rivendell. When Match closed up he worked for Dave Levy at Ti Cycles doing Dave’s brazed frames as well as helping with the Hampsten frames then coming out of Dave’s shop. He had his own line of “Palmares”-badged lugged frames and he has built almost all of the lugged Hampsten frames since 2001. Martin is credited with creating the Hampsten Gran Paradiso/Race geometry back when we worked together at Match; Dave Levy gets most of the credit for the Strada Bianca geometry.
PB—How important is frame material to you? Do you have a preferred frame material?
SH—I like materials that can be welded or brazed. Currently I’m loving my steel frames for their springy resilience but I’m also looking forward to putting some miles in on my aluminum winter bike—I think having a light, stiff bike makes me go a little harder on the hills and maybe slows the fitness degeneration as the days get colder and darker. Titanium feels good too but I just haven’t been grabbing my ti bike as much this year. But overall I’ll take frame fit and design over material choice—I think a good frame can be built from any of the materials out there. (As a footnote: I sure liked all my carbon bikes from Parlee and I can’t imagine that anyone could do carbon better. But Parlee’s pricing moved to a point where I didn’t feel comfortable offering their frames and we parted ways amicably.)
PB—You’ve been getting into building with Columbus MAX. If there’s a stiffer ferrous tubeset on the market, I haven’t ridden it. It’s stiffer than almost every aluminum frame I’ve ridden. Is MAX strictly the domain of the big man, or does it have other applications?
SH—It’s not the tubeset that’s overly stiff, it’s what you do with it that determines how the frame will ride. We’re talking about a top tube that is 31.8mm, bi-axially ovalized, butts are .7/.4/.7mm, and the down tube is 35mm with .8/.5/.8, also ovalized on opposing axes. The seat tube is pretty standard, we don’t use the MAX seatstays, and the chainstays are tall but not crazy heavy. Overall I’d say the wall thicknesses are what we would typically use on many of our steel frames but the MAX diameters are increased by almost 10% which should give an increase in stiffness of about 20%. We don’t use the MAX forks and we save some weight by welding rather than using the MAX lugs and BB shell.
So I could take that tubing and build you a really stiff, short wheel-based race bike and we could pair it with some tall rims and skinny tires pumped hard and we could make it ride like crap—stiff enough to rattle your fillings.
Or we could lengthen the wheelbase, slacken the angles, and orient the top tube so that the oval section was flexing at the head tube, and combine with a carbon or light steel fork. I’d use some lighter seat stays, possibly replace the chainstays with something smaller, put you on some hand-built 3-cross wheels with 28mm tires pumped to 85-90psi and make sure there was enough dirt, cobbles, and/or gravel on the ride to get your attention – then you would see the beauty of the MAX tubeset.
I think it helps to be at or above 180 pounds and to not be too hung up on the weight of the bike but I think MAX is a good example of older technology that still works great today. More on MAX here.
The Hampsten name is associated with a lot in the world of bicycles. Sure, there was Andy’s career as a racer; there’s the tour company Cinghiale Cycling Tours; an olive oil company, Extra Virgin Olive Oil; and perhaps best known these days is the bike company, Hampsten. If it’s Andy’s reputation that brings people in, it’s dealing with Steve that seals the deal. He’s a warm and thoughtful guy whose desire to combine proven technology and affordability has made him a voice of reason to many who can’t rationalize a $10,000 bicycle.
I shot these photos during a Cinghiale Cycling Tours training camp in Los Alamos, Calif. The days were spent riding through Santa Barbara County and the evenings spent eating gourmet meals prepared in part by Steve and accompanied by local Pinots and Chardonnays.
PB—Let’s start with the most basic question about you and Hampsten Cycles. Where does Andy stop and you start? Specifically, how do you two dovetail your roles in the company?
SH—Andy sells bikes—mostly to his Cinghiale Cycling Tours customers—and he works with his customers in choosing the right size, model, and equipment. He helps with the fine-tuning of new models and provides feedback as we move along; he also has the unerring ability to shoot down my crappy ideas: “No, we don’t need a Hampsten mountain bike.” I’d say his customers account for a third of our bike sales.
Two of Andy’s big contributions to the company have been the Strada Bianca and what we now call our Travelissimo—our S & S-coupled travel bike. They are two of our biggest sellers and it’s a bonus that they’re bikes Andy rides himself and feels passionate about.
He’s involved with clothing design and special projects and he helped drive the recent Rich Roat/House Industries-produced Gavia poster. He has good ideas and strong instincts and he has the sense to leave the day-to-day stuff to me – I think we make a good team.
PB—How’d you get into what you’re doing and what’s your background?
SH—Well, Patrick, I started working in bike shops in 1976 and continued off-and-on for about ten years, was even part owner of famed J. Stone and Sons Cycles (I was a “Son”) in Grand Forks, ND, for a while. About 1982 I started cooking in restaurants in Madison and Seattle, focusing on French, Italian, and American food. In 1997 I started welding and working with steel and most of 1998 was spent building frames and forks at Match Bicycle Company. When Match closed down I continued welding, blacksmithing, and fabricating part-time until about 2005, but 1999 was when Andy and I had the idea that putting our name on the downtube might be a fun thing to do.
So I had been involved in batch-building lugged frames and forks and I spent some time at Ti Cycles with Dave Levy and I have a good idea of how carbon and titanium frames are built. I can braze steel and I can weld steel and aluminum but I don’t do any of it well enough or efficiently enough for it to make sense for me to be the principal builder. I could learn, I suppose, but I really enjoy what I’m doing now. Maybe someday, start brazing some lugs….
PB—Hampsten Cycles is different from some operations in that you don’t build too many frames in house. Who are your current suppliers?
SH—This year we’ll build about fifty frames, most of which become whole bicycles. Of those, about 25%, or 12.5 frames, will be built in-house by Max and Martin. Of the rest, I’m getting aluminum frames from Co-Motion, welded steel and stainless frames from Independent Fabrication, and titanium frames come from both Kent Eriksen and Moots Cycles. We’ve done some one-off titanium and stainless frames in our Seattle shop but my preference is that we stick with steel here.
I’d like to see the overall numbers creep up and I’d like to see us do more frames in-house. I love the Colorado-built ti frames because they don’t have to be painted: order the frame and—boom—six weeks later it’s ready. Ditto with the frames from IF and Co-Mo; they have excellent welders and great paint departments and they make the whole process so painless.
But there is also a beauty in designing a frame for a customer and working out the details with Max or Martin and seeing this lovely creature birthed in my own shop, then sending it off to paint and having it come back perfect. The in-house stuff we do may not be quantifiably “better” than what we get from our suppliers but the welding, brazing, and painting is every bit as good. And given the little touches we can do to each frame in terms of tube selection, dropout and casting choices, and in the details – all this makes it more of a one-off.
PB—What draws you to a particular builder—what makes you want to work with someone?
SH—I think there is a look I go for when evaluating a builder as a possible supplier: simple lines, round tubes, perfect welds/brazing/bonding, and I’ve got to feel comfortable talking with them. Some of the people who supply us are friends of ours going in but with others it’s simply a case of dumb luck. As an example: I approached Independent Fabrication at a time when we were having trouble getting steel frames. I had always been a big fan of theirs but I didn’t really know anyone there—I had ordered a fork or two but that was it. Despite seeing plenty of examples of their work it never occurred to me that I might ask them to build for us—but once I did it just seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
PB—Is each of your suppliers building both stock sizing and custom frames?
SH—Nope, everything we do right now is custom, made for a particular customer. However, I am working on a line of non-custom, less expensive frames, name as-yet undecided, and our plan is to build all of them in-house—we should see these early 2010.
PB—What differentiates a Hampsten from an Ericksen or Co-Motion?
SH—I spend a good amount of time talking to and/or emailing my customers, after which I create a drawing in BikeCAD for that customer’s frame. I spec all dimensions, angles, tube diameters, etc, then I send the drawing to Kent [Ericksen] or Co-Mo or whomever for fabrication. Occasionally, I’ll have some discussion with Kent, Dwan [Shepard of Co-Motion], et al, on tube selection or other detailed aspect of the frame—and I gain a lot from talking with these guys—but I never get the sense that our bikes really look like theirs. I have the numbers I like to work with, they have their own—it’s not like any of us are doing anything radical in terms of fit or handling but I do feel that there are certain signatures one can look for from most builders or designers.
PB—Bill McGann of Torelli once told me he relished the opportunity to hire framebuilders to build particular bikes to his spec, rather than braze the frames himself because not building allowed him time to focus on big picture issues. He could spend more time balancing the quality of tubing, build and price for a model or thinking through the geometry of a particular model relative to its use. What requires the biggest investment of energy for you on a daily basis if it’s not the act of building?
SH—My day probably looks like that of many people who run a small business: I spend a good portion of time talking with and emailing customers, both potential and those with bikes or frames on order, tidying up details and answering questions. I’m responsible for all the ordering, paying taxes/bills/contractors, making sure my insurance and licenses are in order, keeping the shop and office clean—and I do most of the new bike assembly and repairs. In my “spare” time I try to work on new models and ideas for the months ahead, things that I want to present on the website and/or blog. I write all the text for the website, answer a surprisingly large amount of emails, and have occasional writing projects like this interview right here. I’m currently working on a new website and on the new “brand.” It’s almost a relief that I’m not the guy with the welding or brazing torch or half that stuff wouldn’t happen.