By Zack Vestal
Just in time for fall, Fort Bicycles is rolling out some great deals on cyclocross frames. A Fort all-aluminum Cross.Max frame is now selling for $349, and the carbon-aluminum Cross.Max.SSC is just $549. Both are sold as frames only (no forks), but Fort does offer SRAM, Campy, or Shimano build kits as special order items.
The recession-busting bikes are part of owner JJ Rudman’s plan to keep the company’s momentum going, and he sees ‘cross as the perfect niche for his brand. In addition to selling the two cyclocross frame models, plus a complete line of road and triathlon frames, he’s currently building a ‘cross team in Colorado to help showcase the Czech-made bikes.
“My big push for the company is my branding – the idea that these frames are hand-made in the Czech Republic,” said Rudman. “I visited the factory in Ústí nad Orlicí (about two hours East of Prague) last year and met some of the most interesting people.”
Interesting indeed — the story behind Fort is unlike that of almost any other European cycling company.
The biggest frame manufacturer you’ve never heard of
The inception and successful growth of Fort Frames could be called a direct result of the failure of the Soviet empire. As the grip of communism loosened, and free market opportunities arose, a surge of new business enterprises took root across Eastern Europe. One of them was Fort Frames, the Czech frame building business founded in 1992 by a group of cycling enthusiasts and young engineering grads.
The Soviet era made for lackluster economic performance in most of Eastern Europe, especially its manufacturing sector. But cycling has always had a strong place in this region’s culture. Not only have strong riders emerged, including one of the company’s founders Radovan Fort (four time Czech national cross country champion), but a post-Soviet technological renaissance boosted the region’s profile as well. This combination created fertile ground for Fort’s founders to grow their framebuilding business into a successful enterprise.
Now, Fort Frames employs almost 30 people and produces over 10,000 frames per year, sold under their own name as well as other European brand names. The majority of frames are sold in Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Great Britain with the US, Finland, Spain, and Austria showing significant growth.
Gregg Dion opened Fort Bicycles in the United States in 2002, starting that year by selling just 6 frames. “He did a great job and had quite a ‘cross team hitting the MAC races,” said Rudman. “Gunnar Shogren was one of his ‘cross riders for years.” Dion grew Fort to around 200 frames per year, and Rudman took over the company in February 2008.
Craftsmanship, performance and value
New to the company, Rudman was impressed by the Czech handwork that goes into Fort frames.
“The welders looked like they were straight out of an ad promoting ‘old world craftsmanship’ and the guy at the alignment table could have been in the 4th Rocky movie…’I must break you,’” he said, jokingly. “It was one of the best experiences of my life and that’s what I want to get across, the idea of something truly unique and that has a personality and back-story,” he added.
Impressively, Fort is able to offer frames at reasonable prices in the United States, despite price increases across most of the cycling industry. Rudman says, “Because of the relative strength of the Eastern European economies, experienced workforce and elite riders, Fort can offer a very price and quality-competitive product.”
Fort Bicycles is a small operation in the USA, with low overhead and a virtually nonexistent marketing budget. By keeping costs in check and focusing on consumer direct sales, the company is able to pass on low prices that reflect the factory-direct nature of the business.
But inexpensive framesets don’t equal “cheap,” Rudman is quick to point out. “’Cross is a big thing and taken very seriously there,” he said. “These frames are ‘cross racing frames to the point of not having water bottle braze-ons.”
The Cross.Max frame retails for $349, and $549 with an AlphaQ CX10 carbon fork. It’s a no-frills cyclocross frame, welded from double-butted aluminum and available in five sizes (52 through 60cm, in 2cm increments) and two durable powder-coated colors (white or yellow). Like any good ‘cross frame, the cables are routed on top of the top tube, which is gently flattened for shouldering comfort. A front derailleur pulley is available to accommodate top or bottom pull derailleurs. The rear derailleur hanger is replaceable.
Rudman’s other frame, the Cross.Max.SSC, is the flagship model, welded from butted 7005 T-6 aluminum and featuring carbon seat stays. It shares all the features of the Cross.Max model, and comes in red/black or blue fade. With an AlphaQ CX all-carbon fork, it is available for $799, and $549 without a fork.