By Patrick Brady
New England has long been considered a bastion of independent high-mindedness. As both the spiritual and geographic home to revolutionaries such as Ben Franklin, Boston, Massachusetts, has long been a home to independent thinkers. It might seem odd that the 1980 union of bike builder Chris Chance and a former roadie for Aerosmith by the name of Gary Helfrich would spawn—more than 10 years later—six bike companies. After all, Chance and Helfrich only set out to build a better mountain bike. Seven Cycles and Independent Fabrication are among those descendants.
When Chance began building bicycles, he made lugged road bikes. It wasn’t until he met Helfrich that the two began experimenting with TIG-welding bicycle tubing. The decision to use welded, as opposed to brazed, tubing joints would affect each of the companies that would emerge over the years. The first outgrowth from Fat City Cycles (Chris Chance and Gary Helfrich’s original company) was Merlin—started in 1986 by Helfrich, Mike Augspurger and Gwyn Jones. Not long after, Helfrich left to start Arctos Machine in Camp Meeker, California, and Augspurger struck out on his own to form One-Off Titanium. Augspurger would later relocate to western Massachusetts. In the years since, no new spin-offs emerged until some former Fat City employees set up shop as Independent Fabrication in the spring of 1995 following the sale of Fat City Cycles and its subsequent move to South Glens Falls, New York. (Chris Chance has since repurchased Fat City Cycles and moved to Stowe, Vermont.) Seven Cycles was created at the beginning of this year. Both Seven and Independent Fabrication elected to stay in the Boston area.
Seven Cycles’ Axiom
Seven Cycles’ founder, Rob Vandermark, is matter-of-fact about his departure from Merlin. “I’d been at Merlin nine years. I wanted new challenges,” he said. Not to say that working for one of the most respected fabricators of titanium bicycles was boring—far from it. Vandermark credits Merlin with giving him an environment in which to find his wings. As the designer of Merlin’s V-Bend chainstays and S-Bend seatstays, he had quite an impact on the appearance and ride of a Merlin. To hear him tell the story, the impact was the other way around.
Vandermark’s start at Merlin was inauspicious at best. He says on his first day there some nine years ago, he spent the day wadding up newspaper to pack frames for shipping. He almost didn’t go back. But he did, and in no time he was learning how to weld. As a dropout from Massachusetts College of Art, where he majored in sculpture, Vandermark knew a thing or two about working with metal, but he admits his welding experience was pretty limited—it was mostly stick welding, and as he put it, “messy.” Once Merlin hired welder Tim Delaney, Vandermark really learned how to weld because he was willing to say, “No, do it like this.” Ever quick to give credit to others, Vandermark says Delaney is the man responsible for setting the standard and establishing Merlin’s distinctive puddle weld.
Leaving Merlin’s familylike atmosphere was incredibly difficult for Vandermark, despite having a five-year business plan and a driving vision. After all, he considered everyone at Merlin personal friends. Vandermark says ending his longtime relationship with master builder Tom Kellogg, the man who set Merlin’s geometry, was difficult. “It was tough not working with Tom. He was sort of a mentor. We were on the phone daily,” Vandermark reflected.
Vandermark’s decision to leave Merlin may have been a little easier to make due to the fact that some of his closest friends at Merlin left to pursue other challenges of their own. When they learned of Vandermark’s new company, each of Seven’s founding employees came knocking, one by one—welder Tim Delaney, purchaser Jennifer Miller, machinist Matt O’Keefe and sales manager Lisa Rodier. As of this writing (early June) the company has doubled in size to10 employees and has been shipping frames since March.
Ask Vandermark what makes him get up in the morning and he’ll tell you it’s all about making the best bike he can, the best bike he knows how. He says, “The price-is-no-object bike is what drove us.” Aware that the fledgling Seven will get compared to Merlin, Vandermark acknowledged, “Since we come from Merlin, our work is cut out for us … I’d be hard-pressed to find a company with higher standards than Merlin.” Regardless, it seems as if Vandermark plans to try.
Seven’s catalog is short on marketing hype and long on the down and dirty. There’s an introduction page, a couple of pages on materials and design and several pages devoted to frame specs (two mountain models, road, crit, touring, cyclocross, triathlon and track), culminating in a nearly overwhelming custom-sizing chart called the Seven Custom Kit. I say nearly because for the patient and devoted customer, the Seven Custom Kit can result in a machine of uncompromising fit. The kit requests six body measurements, 10 measurements taken from your current bike and then has a battery of questions about how you want your bike to handle, desired riding characteristics (stiff or soft), reach and whether you have back, shoulder or neck pain associated with riding.
When we began talking about sizing my test bike, Vandermark suggested we use Seven’s Custom Kit to establish the dimensions for a custom machine. A Seven Cycles frame isn’t cheap, but if you can afford a Seven bike, you can afford it in custom sizing—there’s no additional charge. Based on my measurements, Vandermark decided that a 59-centimeter seat tube (center to center) and a 58.5-centimeter top tube would fit me best. He spec’d a 13-centimeter 0-degree-rise Salsa stem and, in keeping with my request for the bike to be a stable handler (on a scale of I to 10, 1 selected a 4—skewed toward stability), the bottom bracket height was set at 26.6 centimeters. The head tube angle was 73.5 degrees, matched with a 4-centimeter-rake Wound Up fork. I also specified the bike be stiff (9 on the 1 to 10 scale of stiffness).
No custom bike would be worth a damn without a selection of and-picked options. You can request a third set of bottle mounts, a second set of rack mounts, a chain hanger, a pump peg, how your cables are routed (the company suggests head tube-mounted and threaded shifter cable stops), and the folks there are willing to discuss anything else you can dream up.
Seven Cycles offers frames crafted from both titanium and steel (reasoning that it can create a more affordable frame from steel than titanium). Toby Stanton of Hot Tubes was selected to paint Seven’s steel offerings. Stanton, a good builder in his own right, has high praise for the upstart company. “[The Axiom) is the nicest-looking bike I’ve seen from a welding and finish-work standpoint, They’re finicky; everything has to be flawless.” He related how the folks at Seven called and asked him to file smooth a nick they found on a dropout as they were packing the frame up to be shipped off for painting. “if they hadn’t told me where it was, I’d never have noticed it,” he said.
A quick look at my test bike is enough to elicit lusty oohs and aahs. The head tube is elliptically machined in the midsection so it appears as if there are reinforcing collars at the top and bottom. The weld quality is smooth and uniform in a way that even the aerospace industry could admire. The seat collar selected for the road bike, Vandermark claims, requires very little pressure in order to hold the seatpost because it clamps over a greater length of it. The dropouts are machined in-house, as is the brake bridge.
Vandermark credits Ashley Korenblatt, former Merlin CEO, with teaching him everything he knows about business. When Vandermark decided he wanted to embark on his own, he began by drawing up a five-year business plan. In it he outlined how many frames he wanted to deliver on a yearly basis, the number of dealers he needed in his network, an operating budget, the number of employees needed and how large the business would have to be before it would need a space of its own. Vandermark admits he has been overwhelmed by -the upstart’s success. Off the record, he’ll name the number of frames they’ve built, but on the record all he’ll say is that they are way ahead of his projections. What has also surprised him is the breakdown of what they are selling. Currently, 70 percent of Seven’s sales are road, and 70 percent of the bikes are made from titanium. Vandermark originally thought road sales would be in the minority, as would titanium. He says he’s happy to adjust.
I used to think that 80 percent of what made a great bike ride well was the fit. As it turns out, I think I was wrong. After riding a custom-sized bicycle, I think 90 to 95 percent of a good ride is fit. The only way for me to know for sure would be to ask Vandermark to build another bike of the same dimensions from bar stock and give it a ride. Without a doubt, this was the finest-fitting bike I’ve ever ridden. I’ve talked in the past about how I like bicycles that move with me, that seem to flow with my natural movements and don’t require me to shift my weight around unnecessarily. The Axiom felt natural in a way that no other bike I’ve previously ridden has.
Bear in mind that much of what this bike delivered is what I requested. That it handled in a way I liked isn’t much of an issue—that Vandermark was able to interpret my requests in a way that seemed telepathic is the impressive part. Stand on the pedals and the Axiom delivers a natural acceleration worthy of a pro bike. Cornering is deliberate and confident, and it responds well to handlebar input for countersteering in the tightest bends. It is noticeably light, at 17 pounds 9 ounces, but this frame’s most telling characteristic comes from the titanium tubing. As a responsive sprinter, I can’t criticize the Axiom’s stiffness; it is exactly what I requested. The bike does have an underlying resilient character that gives the frame a gentler feel than the newer steels we’ve reviewed lately. It is a balance wholly new to me, and I find it entirely engaging.
Fact is, when I consider all the factors I look for in a bike save fit, handling, workmanship and weight—the Axiom tops out as the top or among the top bikes I have ever ridden. Do I think it’s worth $2495? Unhesitatingly. I’ve never wanted to call a bike “the best I’ve ridden” but this one is.