I'm wandering the floor of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, an acre of mom-and-pop bicycle manufacturers. The ambience is low key, PG, small scale, nonpolluting, sincere enthusiasm. So, you can understand why the bomber hooked me. I'm referring to a huge, blown-up poster -- must be five feet across by three feet high -- that shows a B-2 bomber parked in a wheat field with big purple mountains in the background and a bicycle parked on the bomber's wing. Wheat field. B-2 stealth bomber. Purple mountains. Bicycle. Somebody is crazy.
I walk up to Kevin Smeltzer, program manager for Roark Custom Titanium Bicycles. Smeltzer, 47, is average height, has short auburn hair, is clean-shaven with a 1 percent body-fat body; think Lance Armstrong's older brother. I say, pointing at the poster, "What's with the bomber?"
Smeltzer winds out the company line, "Roark Welding and Engineering has been around 55 years. It started as a job shop and evolved into an aerospace company. A lot of what we work on, we're not even sure what it's for because we're subcontracted by subcontractors. We developed a knowledge and expertise in aerospace, particularly titanium products. Eleven years ago we developed a titanium [bicycle] frame."
What is missing from this picture? Perhaps the concept, Why? I move closer to the poster, ask, "Who came up with the idea, 'Let's build bicycles!'?"
"The original program manager, Woody Collins, was an avid cyclist and also our quality control engineer. His dream was to build custom bikes using our aerospace knowledge.
"And if you take a look at this [we both move closer to the B-2 bomber], we've built parts for that exact same aircraft. This bike here," Smeltzer points to the bicycle parked on the B-2's wing, "is the very first bike we ever made. That's 001. Then you've got the New Zealand mountains with an actual wheat field from Indiana. The concept is, 'What we make flies.'"
B-2 bomber, first bike, Indiana wheat fields, New Zealand mountains, and What We Make Flies. Now, we should add breakfast cereal. Something organic.
"We're a worldwide product and everything," Smeltzer says. "And from there [a bike on a bomber's wing], we've moved forward with aero tubing and adding couplers for triathletes who want to travel with a custom made, custom designed, titanium frame. The whole bike will break down and fit into a travel case."
I nod, guessing that this is good. "What's an aero frame?"
"What you see right here [I am directed to a Roark bicycle attached to a bike stand] is our aero frame. It has an aero tube, aero down tube with a rear wheel cut out. We're able to tuck the rear wheel in to the seat tube for the most aerodynamic possibilities."
I grunt agreeably. It does look good though. Looks like about 1/2 inch of the back tire fits inside the seat tube. Very cool. "What's changed in custom-bike building over the last ten years?"
"Were able to dial in the exact measurements, the reach, the drop, the saddle height, in order to address, exactly, what the customer is looking for."
"He comes in for a fitting?" (Sir, do you dress right or dress left?)
"Exactly," Smeltzer says. "Now, does the individual get a few measurements and then -- poof -- eight weeks later a frame arrives at his house, or is he really working with the company, interacting with the program manager on component choices and the frame design with the design engineer? We address his riding style, his riding habits, any physical limitations he has, and why he needs or wants a custom-made frame."
"We have, basically, three frame options. One is $2675, one at $2975, then our upper end, the full aero model, is $3950. Now, the individual who wants couplers, that's a $1500 upgrade, but they get all the tools and the travel case."
Pointing to the bike on the bike stand, I ask, "What does this guy cost?"
"His component selection is all campy. He has the Look Keo Carbon Pedals and the Columbus Muscle Fork in the front, which is all carbon. He has the Cinelli Ram Limited Edition handlebar, which, again, is all carbon. He has a U.S.E. carbon aerodynamic seat post. He's got the Physique carry-on saddle and an aerodynamic wheel set. Zipp carbon-fiber water-bottle cages and the Zipp carbon crank arm. MSRP on this bike is about $9400."
What does a $10,000 bicycle look like? Well, since you asked, it looks nice. It looks different than a $500 Trek, although I couldn't tell you right off the bat exactly what the difference is. The paint seems different, subdued blues and reds and greens. The tires seem wider and others narrower than a Trek's. The frame is sleeker, simpler. If I had all the money I wanted, plus an extra $10,000, I'd buy one.