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A shortish history of modern American frame builders

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A shortish history of modern American frame builders

Old 11-29-21, 10:30 AM
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Doug Fattic 
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A shortish history of modern American frame builders

The general population of adult Americans did not ride bicycles until the bike boom of 1970. Before then they were for kids to get around until they finally got their driver’s license. I saw my 1st “ten speed” when I was a freshman in high school in the fall of 1961. One of my classmates rode one to school and I was amazed. I thought the best bicycles were 3 speed “English racers”. That is what bicycles with upright handlebars and a 3 speed internally geared hub were called back then. They certainly were sporty compared to the heavy single speed wide tired bike with a bike front basket usually associated with newspaper delivery that were the most common in the 1950’s.

During my sophomore year in high school I went with my dad and mom to Rwanda (where he went as a short term doctor) and then on to India to a boarding school to continue high school. During those travels I did occasionally see a ten speed in Burundi and Singapore. I had to delay getting one for myself until we got back. Finally at Christmas in 1963 my dad gave me an inexpensive 10 speed he bought from Western Auto and in 1975 I got an upgrade to a Schwinn Super Sport. I almost never saw any other adult in Southwest Michigan riding a good bicycle in the 60’s. All that changed in the 70/71 school year. I was teaching English in Japan and was reading either Time or Newsweek magazine that had an article titled “Americans discover the 10 speed bicycle”. I was amazed when I read this. In the fall of 1971 I began a master’s program in education and by then everything had changed. 10 speed bicycles were in high demand and everyone seemed to be wanting or riding one.

Americans that wanted a top level bicycle at the beginning of that bike boom could either buy a Schwinn Paramount or something made in Europe. US builders before WWII had either died or retired. It took a few years for this demand to be met on this side of the big pond since there was no infrastructure for learning how to be a framebuilder in the States. Our modern history begins with Albert Eisentraut who grew up in Chicago and moved to Oakland, CA. He was able to observe frames built at Oscar Wastyn Cycles in Chicago (the shop still sells bicycles). Emil Wastyn came from Belgium before the turn of the century and his son Oscar built the 1st Schwinn Paramounts in the 30’s. It isn’t clear if Albert was just inspired by this Chicago connection or actually learned and incorporated their methods into his own building procedures. In any case Albert was also a teacher that went around the country offering classes. A number of our earliest builders got their start by taking one of his classes.

There were a number of us that went to Europe in the 70’s to learn the craft. I began my search for a place in the summer of 1973. Bill Hurlow (one of England’s finest) told me in 1974 when I was picking up a frame he made for me that he got on average 2 letters a week from Americans asking if they could apprentice with him. I was able to go in the summer of 1975 to Ellis Briggs in Yorkshire. I’ve been thankful for that opportunity ever since. Others that I can think of that made the trip across the ocean is fellow Michigander Matt Assenmacher at Bob Jackson, Peter Mooney at Ron Cooper, Sachs and Weigle at Witcomb and Jeff lyons learned from Bill Philbrook. Each of us had a different experience. There were many that figured it out on their own.

It is my dream that someone will document the stories of these early adventures. I’m always curious what motived them to start and what obstacles they had to overcome. Mine weren’t insignificant. When I was at the Philly show this year, I asked some of those framebuilders that exhibited where they learned, what inspired them among other questions. It won’t be too long before it isn’t possible to ask us about our learning experiences because we will be dead or have dementia. This information should be collected before it is too late to get a most accurate picture.
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Old 11-29-21, 11:00 AM
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Although Dave Moulton came from England to the US, his blog does explain/express a lot of what you suggest. I think it would be a great book!
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Old 11-29-21, 11:36 AM
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Fwiw

.
...there was a whole "do it yourself, how hard can it be, you can make your frame jigs out of plywood" frame building school centered around Proteus in College Park, Maryland, near the U of Md when I was there around the early 70's. That's when the Proteus book came out. As you can imagine, results were mixed.
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Old 11-29-21, 11:42 AM
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I agree.

When i first got into high end bikes, I bought the book "the custom bicycle" which included a bit of personal stories and philosophies of various builders, and I got tired of the way they authors seemed to say the same thing about every builder they profiled. I would be wary of falling into that trap....
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Old 11-29-21, 11:44 AM
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It would also be great to document the differences in style, philosphy, how the frames are made, etc. It would also be interesting to see how many modern framebuilders took an official class, such as UBI or from Doug.
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Old 11-29-21, 11:53 AM
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Doug, sounds like you're off to a good start and obviously have the background for such a task. Passion goes a long way, I think it will be an interesting read! Maybe Jan Heine would be interested in publishing?
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Old 11-29-21, 11:58 AM
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Here's a link to a 1971 Time article on the bike boom:

https://web.archive.org/web/20110604...#ixzz0cQ58UgTW
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Old 11-29-21, 12:00 PM
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Thank you, Doug. I didn't know of you until I found BF. Never knew you until now.

Peter Mooney was a member of the racing club I joined in 1976. Several times I met him on the road. He would ride with me and teach me (a biggining racer) skills like bumping/safe contact. (Peter was and I am sure still is one of the steadiest and skilled riders I've ever ridden with.) Peter didn't talk much about his work or bikes but he was always on a bike with lugs we could barely have imagined if they weren't there in front of us. Several clubmates also rode his bikes

Two years later; my post head injury year, I crashed in a race that meant a lot to me. Peter sacrificed his chances to help me get back on (and place). I knew from that day he was building the bike for my journey through the TBI years.

1984, I was living in Alameda, CA. I'd crashed the Mooney and bent the fork. Learned that Eisentraut was 2 miles from my house. Went. Ed Litton was the only one there. He straightened it; obviously knowing what he was doing and inspiring confidence. I had Peter build me a new fork and send it bare. Ed then painted both fork and frame. (Ed - fairly early nect generation in your timeline, Doug.) Mark Nobilette cleaned up the seat lug a couple of years later when I was back in school in Ann Arbor. Currently the frame is at TiCycles with Dave Levy (move a braze-on and add a WB boss), then to its third paint job. (42 years, 50,000 miles and it has found a new life as a classic English fix gear road bike. With a triple, 3 chain lines and 3 very different gears. (I'm younger than Peter, but not a lot.)

Doug, a fun link to the previous heyday of US cycling - I went to the trade show in Seattle ~1995 and met Doris Kopsky; first US Woman National Champion. She had a booth with her trophy and bike, (a custom build by her dad, a pro racer when she was young).
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Old 11-29-21, 12:12 PM
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It would be fabulous to gather this history before things get lost in the mists etc! I have a beautiful steel Bella frame, which I think was built by Ed Blank in the Boston area in the 80's, but I can find little to nothing else about him on the web.
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Old 11-29-21, 12:12 PM
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Old 11-29-21, 02:29 PM
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@Doug Fattic- thru the years(decades), did you ever look into building with aluminum? If you did look into it, why didnt you pursue?
Just curious from a historical perspective since even though aluminum came to be the preferred material for a handful of years, it really wasnt picked up by small builders.
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Old 11-29-21, 03:32 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr View Post
@Doug Fattic- thru the years(decades), did you ever look into building with aluminum? If you did look into it, why didnt you pursue?
Just curious from a historical perspective since even though aluminum came to be the preferred material for a handful of years, it really wasnt picked up by small builders.
No I never had the slightest interest in making aluminum frames. There are several complications in making one. 1st you need to have an AC tig welder. Titanium and steel can be welded with a DC welder. Adding AC costs more money. Before companies started making inverter AC welders, they seemed like they were the size of house and cost about the same. 2nd aluminum has to be teated after it is welded. Most builders don't want to make or buy an oven big enough or hot enough to do the treatment. And aluminum was being done by many production manufacturers and it is hard to distinguish what makes a custom one better than say a Cannondale.

I did take UBI's 1st titanium welding course exactly 29 years ago. I just texted my colleague Rich Gangl and asked where we ate Thanksgiving dinner on the way to Ashland. I'm not a big fan of titanium either. Although I certainly like it better than aluminum.

The aesthetics of a bicycle frame are very important to me and lugs allow for individualized treatment that can show off the skill of the builder. This desire to be creative with lug design is what got me into building in the 1st place. I hate the look of beaded welds on an aluminum frame. And if I were to file them off then it would now just look like a Cannondale. For some riders, a custom frame is just about the quality of the ride but for me a frame has to look good too. Also super light wall steel tubing is a joy to ride. I doubt many cyclists have ever tried riding one that fit properly. It isn't about weight savings but rather they have a lively ride I couldn't get on ti frames I made. Production companies avoided light heat treated steel because they might get broken if ridden by an obese person and they take more care and skill to build than most companies would want to be bothered doing.

Steel, titanium and aluminum all have about the same strength to weight ratio. Meaning that aluminum is 3 times lighter than steel for the same volume but you need 3 times as much aluminum to make it stiff enough. The weight savings can be in places like the bottom bracket shell and dropouts. But that isn't enough savings to make a difference for a recreational rider. Racers stopped using steel frames in about the mid 80s when they got serious sponsorship from big bicycle manufacturers. I might add that it is faster and cheaper for a production company to make an aluminum frame and that is part of the reason for its popularity.

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Old 11-29-21, 03:42 PM
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Subscribing so I won’t miss any contributions to this fascinating thread.

Thanks, Doug, for starting it, as well as all your interesting contributions throughout this forum. I also the hope that it will eventually turn into a book, filled with wonderful stories and acres of bike p**n.
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Old 11-29-21, 03:51 PM
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Originally Posted by Doug Fattic View Post
No I never had the slightest interest in making aluminum frames.
I figured it was an aesthetic issue since you definitely have a good bit of artistry and design in many frames I have seen.

I wasnt sure if there was much of a concern from a business perspective back in the late 80s thru early 90s about having enough demand to continue. Between aluminum as a material taking off and MTB bikes being the dominant category, I could understand if some builders felt pressure to expand beyond steel and lugs.
Its great that there has been a resurgence in steel and lugs to the point where it is a solid alternative with genuine interest.

One more question since I would consider you one of the more traditional builders- do you build/teach with thru axles and disc brakes? With Shimano having announced DA and Ultegra will be both electronic and disc only moving forward, there is little at the top of road groupsets that will be available with rim brakes and mechanical shifting.
I wasnt sure if that has changed how you are building/teaching, or if you have said 'nope, I will only handle rim brake and mechanical'. Typically class frames and ones you build are a labor of love and not inexpensive, so I would think higher tier groupsets would often be used.
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Old 11-29-21, 06:06 PM
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Diane Jenks (formerly Diane Lees) has been doing her "Outspoken Cyclist" podcast for 10 years, and has interviewed a number of USA frame builders. While the interviews aren't structured as a history of frame builders, they do provide some info about how they got started. It's certainly worth listening to the interviews for anyone interested in the frame builders and their careers.

The podcasts can be found here: The Outspoken Cyclist ? WJCU

I don't see a search function on the website, so finding a particular interview might take a little work. A few that I found with minimal effort:
Jeff Bock Outspoken Cyclist ? 10/30/2021 ? WJCU
Rolland Della Santa https://outspokencyclist.com/2016/12...ember-10-2016/
Chris Kelly Outspoken Cyclist ? 7/31/2021 ? WJCU

edit: with a bit of specific searching, I found interviews for Richard Sachs and Peter Weigle...
Richard Sachs -- https://outspokencyclist.com/2020/01...nuary-11-2020/
-- https://outspokencyclist.com/2018/05...1-may-19-2018/
Peter Weigle -- https://outspokencyclist.com/2017/11...vember-4-2017/

She has done a ton of interviews, so if there is someone in particular that is of interest, it shouldn't be too hard to find.

Steve in Peoria

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Old 11-29-21, 06:13 PM
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Originally Posted by steelbikeguy View Post
Diane Jenks (formerly Diane Lees) has been doing her "Outspoken Cyclist" podcast for 10 years, and has interviewed a number of USA frame builders. While the interviews aren't structured as a history of frame builders, they do provide some info about how they got started. It's certainly worth listening to the interviews for anyone interested in the frame builders and their careers.

The podcasts can be found here: The Outspoken Cyclist ? WJCU

I don't see a search function on the website, so finding a particular interview might take a little work. A few that I found with minimal effort:
Jeff Bock Outspoken Cyclist ? 10/30/2021 ? WJCU
Rolland Della Santa https://outspokencyclist.com/2016/12...ember-10-2016/
Chris Kelly Outspoken Cyclist ? 7/31/2021 ? WJCU

Steve in Peoria
Albert Eisentraut, too: https://outspokencyclist.com/2014/09/897/
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Old 11-29-21, 10:11 PM
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Originally Posted by mstateglfr View Post
I figured it was an aesthetic issue since you definitely have a good bit of artistry and design in many frames I have seen.

I wasnt sure if there was much of a concern from a business perspective back in the late 80s thru early 90s about having enough demand to continue. Between aluminum as a material taking off and MTB bikes being the dominant category, I could understand if some builders felt pressure to expand beyond steel and lugs.
Its great that there has been a resurgence in steel and lugs to the point where it is a solid alternative with genuine interest.

One more question since I would consider you one of the more traditional builders- do you build/teach with thru axles and disc brakes? With Shimano having announced DA and Ultegra will be both electronic and disc only moving forward, there is little at the top of road groupsets that will be available with rim brakes and mechanical shifting.
I wasnt sure if that has changed how you are building/teaching, or if you have said 'nope, I will only handle rim brake and mechanical'. Typically class frames and ones you build are a labor of love and not inexpensive, so I would think higher tier groupsets would often be used.
Thru axles and disc brakes are a complication to a home/amateur/newbie builder. They require more accuracy in the build that pushes the limits of what someone is capable of doing without greater skill and professional (read expensive) equipment. This need for accuracy requires a start further along the learning curve. When students come to take one of my classes, I ask about their future goals. If they want to make more than it is best from a learning perspective to start with an easier project. My degrees are in education and know that success in teaching a craft involves managing the emotions of a student as well as showing them what to do. If they get frustrated or discouraged their motivation and enthusiasm drops. Success at easier projects is a building block for doing more challenging ones. This is why starting with horizontal dropouts makes a lot of sense if one has ambitious future goals. However there are some students that just want to be part of the process and don't mind me doing the hard parts so it is possible to use my vertical milling machine and my expensive fixtures to hold dropouts for thru axles accurately. The cost of that equipment would be out of reach of many of my students.

I should also say that my philosophy of teaching expects each student to make a professional quality frame. Their frame will be straight and wheels center, their shorelines clean and no joint is cooked or malnourished. That expectation requires a lot more from me as a teacher. Explanations and demonstrations have to be clear. Practices have to start at a level they can do and build towards competency for every kind of joint. And they have to leave with reminders of the overwhelming amount of material that was presented in class and so easy to forget the details so they can do it again. There are of course students that will not be able to do this on their own now or in the future. Some realize that they lack sufficient talent or interest in doing the kind of work that leads to successes. This is where I can step in and do whatever is necessary so they can leave class with a frame they can be proud of even though it will be the last one they will ever want to make. However even those that would love to make more can get tripped up with the cost of necessary equipment or finding space to use it.
l
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Old 11-30-21, 12:25 AM
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I am wondering where in the timeline come dedicated aluminum MTB shops… Not just Cannondale. I sort of know Sherwood Gibson’s story for instance just due to proximity but there were others.

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Old 11-30-21, 06:01 AM
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Some East Coast builders not mentioned so far: Bill Boston of New Jersey, Alvin Drysdale of New York City, and John Hollands of Reisterstown, Maryland.

From what I've read, Drysdale was the only builder from the 6-day racing era still building frames in the early 1960s. Bill Boston evidently began building frames around the same time as Albert Eisentraut and was very highly regarded by his peers. John Hollands was a former British Navy welder who liked building lugged frames with Reynolds 853, or so he told me when I brought a mid-1960s 531 Peugeot track bike to him to straighten the rear triangle after a crash. (He said that, while it was obvious that little time had been spent on filing and cleaning up the lugs of the Peugeot, his alginment table showed that the frame had been very carefully aligned at the factory.)
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Old 11-30-21, 06:59 AM
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Originally Posted by Trakhak View Post
Some East Coast builders not mentioned so far: Bill Boston of New Jersey, Alvin Drysdale of New York City, and John Hollands of Reisterstown, Maryland.

From what I've read, Drysdale was the only builder from the 6-day racing era still building frames in the early 1960s. Bill Boston evidently began building frames around the same time as Albert Eisentraut and was very highly regarded by his peers. John Hollands was a former British Navy welder who liked building lugged frames with Reynolds 853, or so he told me when I brought a mid-1960s 531 Peugeot track bike to him to straighten the rear triangle after a crash. (He said that, while it was obvious that little time had been spent on filing and cleaning up the lugs of the Peugeot, his alginment table showed that the frame had been very carefully aligned at the factory.)
I've chatted casually with Bill Boston a couple of times about his history. Once I visited him at his shop sometime in the 70's and another time at an early NAHBS. He did like a month long tour of various English builders in the early 70's I believe and that is how he got his start. That is just a bit later than Eisentraut. I remember specifically he visited Johnny Berry in Manchester England. This stuck in my head because Johnny's widow sold me much of his equipment in 1975 after he died and I had it shipped back to the States. I still use Johnny's bench vise and alignment table. I love using that vise still because it has so much framebuilding history. A few hundred of my students got their start on it too. I've assumed it was made after WWI.

Here is a pic of Johnny Berry's vises on my primary workbench. His fork alignment fixture is between the 2 vises.

Bill Boston's family tree included Jim Redcay that worked out of Lambertville NJ. And then Jim worked with Tom Kellogg in PA. Jim gave up framebuiding to be technical editor at Bicycling magazine. I had a couple hour visit with Jim in Lambertille around Christmas time in 1975. He showed me his gravity feed Binks Bullows made in England spray gun. That was my introduction to a spray gun with cup on top instead of the more unusual suction cup underneath. They make so much more sense for the small volumes of paint used in spraying a bicycle frame. I got one for myself when I started painting in 1976. Almost everybody uses a gravity spray gun these days. My preference now are midsize Iwatas that are made in Japan.

This was Johnny Berry's alignment table. Johnny used a fixture similar to what is on the table except mine are many generators removed from the original. I have them laser cut and etched in Ukraine.
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Old 11-30-21, 07:43 AM
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Many hours in this shop!! Great times!!!
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Old 11-30-21, 08:46 AM
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I would pay $100 for a big book on American builders - pics of the builders’ work would be an important part for me.

Don’t forget the CF guys - Calfee, Parlee, etc.
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Old 11-30-21, 09:59 AM
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this is a valuable discussion and there might be a book in it.

After the intial cadre of builders returned from Europe in the mid 70s, the craft spread out to a larger group of builders, mostly clustered at the coasts

Also the influence of Masi CA, and Mario Confente's "giant leap" in terms of elevating the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail is worth noting

As is the work of Tom Ritchey who had some innovative design ideas, including fillet brazing

Builders of this period really raised the bar and established the US as a center of expertise in framebuilding.

/markp
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Old 11-30-21, 10:43 AM
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Originally Posted by mpetry912 View Post
this is a valuable discussion and there might be a book in it.

After the intial cadre of builders returned from Europe in the mid 70s, the craft spread out to a larger group of builders, mostly clustered at the coasts

Also the influence of Masi CA, and Mario Confente's "giant leap" in terms of elevating the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail is worth noting

As is the work of Tom Ritchey who had some innovative design ideas, including fillet brazing

Builders of this period really raised the bar and established the US as a center of expertise in framebuilding.

/markp
and Price, both Richard Sachs and Ben Serotta noted the $400. Launch price of a Confente USA frame left them thinking.
paraphrasing, what was done to demand and get that high a price?

As I recall both were making frames at that time in the $225. Range. Not sure if wholesale or retail. Confente did not discount to dealers.
at least the frames that were sold through the shop I worked for.
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Old 11-30-21, 11:12 AM
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you make a very good point. "what the heck could possibly be in a bike frame to make it worth $400" (in 1975)

well the answer was, craftsmanship. Not just lug filing.

Mario, Tom Ritchey, Richard Sachs, and a few others really "raised the bar" for bike frames in those years

and served as a model or example for many others that came along after

/markp
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