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Commentary: Serotta’s shakeup takes some soul out of U.S. framebuilding

Ben Serotta's early success was a major influence on Lennard Zinn and other U.S. framebuilders, and the brand's reshaping cuts close for them

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In 1978, while I was Colorado College student, I wanted to be just like Ben Serotta, and in an attempt to do just that, I applied for a Watson Fellowship (which I did not get). My application proposal for the study grant was to go to Europe and learn framebuilding as an apprentice to Old World framebuilders.

Suffice it to say that I have admired and been inspired by Ben Serotta for over 35 years. So, the news that his business was restructuring and that he had been fired was hard to hear.

Serotta started his framebuilding business in 1972, and he did things that few other domestic builders had done or have done since. When most others were just doing lugged construction with standard-diameter tubes, he sourced distinctive True Temper tubing made for his “Colorado” model frames, the most obvious being the seat tube that flared at the bottom to a much bigger diameter. We other framebuilders somewhat affectionately, as well as enviously, called it “baseball-bat tubing.” Serotta relatively seamlessly transitioned from steel construction to titanium when the ferrous material fell out of favor. He seemingly adapted to the carbon revolution as well, first with titanium/carbon combination frames, and then with manufacturing full-carbon frames and forks, in custom sizes, in the USA.

Colorado framebuilder Mark Nobilette started building bikes in 1973 (in Michigan), the year after Serotta had started up. “I hadn’t heard of him,” Nobilette said. “But I became aware of him shortly after. When I started up, the only other framebuilders in the U.S. that I knew about were Eisentraut, Schwinn, and Gus Betat.” Serotta set an example that Nobilette and other framebuilders could aspire to. “He was our one of our few success stories — somebody who could go from a guy like me to forming a big corporation,” said Nobilette. “Tom Ritchey is the only other one I can think of.”

When other framebuilders were on Cloud 9 if a single pro rider was using one of their frames, Serotta had many of the best riders in the country on them, racing the biggest races in the world. And the riders generally loved and appreciated his work. Due to her long friendship with Ben, 1984 Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter once told me that her only regret from winning the road race at the Los Angeles Games was that her bike (which was painted like a Raleigh and which has been since immortalized by artist Taliah Lempert, had not been built by Serotta (it was built by Marinoni).

“I remember being really envious of him [Serotta] when he was able to get bikes into the Tour de France on the 7-Eleven team,” said Nobilette. The bikes carried the Huffy brand, and Serotta was probably getting paid very little, if anything, to build those bikes, but who can put a price on the value and personal satisfaction of supplying the custom bicycles aboard which Davis Phinney was winning Tour de France stages?

“I dreamed of being like Colnago and riding in the commissaire’s car,” continued Nobilette. “Ben came the closest to being there.”

The 1970s and 1980s were a time in which small builders could have their frames under top riders, because all pros’ bikes, being lugged and made with standard tubing diameters and angles, looked the same without paint (at least to the casual observer). As riders demanded lighter bikes that were still custom-sized, Litespeed, during the 1990s, made titanium bikes for pro riders, like Lance Armstrong, that were painted to match their sponsors’ brands. Craig Calfee in the early 1990s became the first to equip an entire Tour de France team with carbon bikes, and even though he works with and pioneered the use of the material all bikes in the pro peloton are made of, Calfee no longer has any presence in the Tour or other major races. Molded carbon construction, in which the shape of the bike is at least as distinctive as the paint job, has killed the custom frame business from pro riders, and builders like Dario Pegoretti, who only made bikes for pros, have had to establish brands of their own or go out of business.

Yet Ben marched on, continuing to grow his business. September 11 and the early part of the current economic downturn hit all framebuilders hard, and the dominance of Asian carbon bikes hurt all domestic builders. Ben’s business seemed on the brink a number of times, but somehow, until now, he always managed to bounce back somehow and continue to build an ever-more iconic brand.

Will Serotta’s demise have a noticeable effect on the bike market as a whole? Probably not, but some of the soul will have gone out of it. It was a pretty cool thing that he was able to do what he did, and the opportunity for that to happen again is remote. As Nobilette said, “I hope that doesn’t signal the end of small framebuilders making their way up in the bike world.”

For those of us with bike brands that are also our own last names, to hear that, “he no longer owns any part of the company or brand that he launched 41 years ago,” is sobering. I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that Ben will indeed bounce back to build bikes another day.

Editor’s note: This article originally described Andy Hampsten’s 1988 Giro d’Italia-winning bike as being built by Serotta. John Slawta and LandShark supplied Hampsten’s Giro-winning frame.