Bicycling Magazine: Seven Sola – Titanium Runs Through It

by Richard J. Cunningham, courtesy of Mountain Bike Action

Seven Cycles’ founder Rob Vandermark was already fooling with bicycle frames when Merlin Metalworks, the seminal seed of the titanium mountain bike industry,was conceived. He learned to craft the silvery metal there, and also discovered the beauty that can be expressed by bare tubing wrought by craftsmen into a functional frame. Vandermark ultimately splintered off on his own, taking a handful of Merlin’s titanium junkies with him.

Armed with a utopian dream of producing perfect one-off custom frames in a classless workplace, Vandermark put together a business plan and scared up enough funding to make a go of it. “Seven” became a reality in 1996—a 1000 square-foot shop in Somerville, Massachusetts. Seven has now expanded—seven times larger—to a new site in nearby Watertown. The crew still builds one frame at a time to an individual customer’s geometry, or to Seven’s specifications. Although titanium is the material of choice there, Seven also produces frames with a blend of butted steel tubing and a unique chassis with a carbon fiber seat tube and chainstays, bonded to a titanium or steel main frame.

Meet The Sola

Seven’s Sola is its elite titanium frame. Like all Seven’s chassis, you can it order any geometry you please, or pick from a menu of options, and your Sola will still cost a cool $2595. Ours was built with Seven’s stock numbers, and was equipped with an A-type universal disc brake mount. Tube-guides are welded to route the disc brake hose to the rear dropout and, of course, there are no vee-brake bosses. The main frame pipes are Seven’s “Argen” butted tubes. Unlike most butted tubing, the thicker portion is on the outside, making the outer diameter greater at the ends of the tubes. This reportedly increases the stiffness and strength of the chassis. Except for the 6-4 alloy dropouts and some fittings, the Sola frame is entirely 3-2.5 alloy titanium.

Seven’s literature waxes eloquent about their attention to detail, and this frame does not disappoint. The lustrous, brushed-Ti finish is accented by beautiful welding throughout, and its curvy, S-bend rear stays are as sexy as an inanimate object can be. The head tube is eccentrically machined to add thickness where the frame tubes join—to shed a few grams, and to showcase its cast alloy head badge. The Sola’s graphics are pleasantly understated to let the elegant chassis speak for itself.

The only less-than-elegant aspect of the Sola is its dog-ugly seat clamp arrangement. Perched atop this sleek, burnished titanium masterpiece is a dull, bead-blasted external clamp with exposed threads that appears to have been stolen from a Russian submarine. Ah well; nothing, as they say, is truly perfect.

Outfitting The Perfect Hardtail

When you purchase your custom frame, the choice of components is as personal as your bike’s geometry. Our Seven was appointed with Seven’s Ti handlebar and stem, Hayes hydraulic disc brakes, a RockShox SID Race fork, and a Selle San Marco Strada saddle. The wheels were Mavic CrossMax Tubeless hoops that rolled on Hutchinson python tires. All the rest was Shimano XTR, with the signature gray color that blends perfectly with brushed titanium. There was nothing to complain about on this list.

Riding the Sola

Anyone who competed during the golden age of NORBA cross-country racing will appreciate the feel of the Sola. Its long, low stem and traditional frame geometry are a tribute to a period when climbing and pedaling efficiency were our only concerns. Heave-ho on its titanium handlebars, stomp on the pedals and it will accelerate straight and steady. Jump out of the saddle, sprint and it will follow your every move. Within the speed range and breadth of difficulty imaginable on a cross-country circuit, the Seven seems infallible.

The Sola feels light, but not feathery like modern aluminum lightweights. Perhaps this is because the titanium chassis carries more weight in its upper tubes. At 23.2 pounds the disc-brake-equipped Seven is very light. A strong cyclist can ride most rollers in the big chainring—and level the lion’s share of single-tracks in the middle ring. Perhaps it’s scientifically true that riding a bike that weighs a couple of ounces less won’t make you a significantly better rider, but the emotional high of spinning around the hills on a sub-24-pound mountain bike seems to counter that argument.

The titanium frame has a tiny lag to it that precedes each power pulse—about half as much as a good steel frame—which is a good trait. This “spring” effect is the quality that steel hardtail lovers revere—it’s the essence that makes a frame feel alive. Too much flexibility in a frame, however, and it will handle and accelerate like a wet noodle. Many early titanium mountain bikes lacked enough rigidity to please aggressive riders. The Seven’s frame exhibits no bad habits in the flex department. Its blend of butted pipes and beefy rear stays can take anything you dish out. The Sola’s steering department could be more stiff. Its handlebar and stem arrangement seems to wind up when you are climbing hard and really honking on the bars.

Overall, we find it hard to fault the Seven Sola. There are some who would want to tame the Sola’s fast steering and try to make it more of a freeriding machine. Others might want to extend its fork travel, or choose more flexible frame tubes to enhance its rough-trail worthiness. We like the Sola’s purity of purpose. It has been carefully honed into the essence of the racing hard tail—why would you spend this much money to experience anything less? Every aspect of the Sola is meant for is the race track: its tubeless tires rolled like they were hovering over the trail surface; its Shimano XTR ensemble was designed on the World Cup XC circuit; its SID Race fork owns more titles than any other slider—and the Sola, in disguise of course, has been ridden to the podium by many luminaries. Don’t mess with success.

MBA’S Last Word

You have to be a committed hardtail junkie to dish out 2600 bucks for a frame. The total cost of our test bike easily passes the $5000 mark—that’s enough to race the entire national circuit on a budget. The proof lies in the ride though, and the Seven is one of the sweetest hardtails we’ve tested. The other motivating factor is the long lifespan of a titanium frame. If you really are the kind of rider who knows exactly what you want—then why fuss with a long sequence of hardtail purchases when you can buy one that will last a lifetime? It’s all about choices at Seven.

Teacher’s notes: If you are an experienced hardtail enthusiast, think long and hard about your frame geometry, riding style, and personal fitness—then call Seven and order the last bike you’ll ever purchase. The Sola is the end of the line in the evolution of the conventional hardtail mountain bike.

Ordering Your Sola: What You Get For $2595

We asked Jennifer Miller, the Market Development guru at Seven, to answer some questions about ordering a frame. Remember, when you order yours, you should be prepared to wait a spell. Although Seven is a top producer, the best frame builders’ turn-around times are about one month. Glitches always crop up, so pad your expectations.

MBA: Do you have to specify all of the geometry when you order a frame?

Jennifer: Since we build every frame to order, the handling is dictated by the needs and desires of the rider. However, if a customer was simply to choose a Sola Ti in one of our Signature Sizes, instead of getting a custom, they would be getting geometry that leans toward race handling. I should add that one can choose a Sola Ti in one of our Signature Sizes with a more relaxed geometry as an option. Also, even if a customer chooses one of our Signature Sizes, he/she can still opt for a custom tube set, which would allow them to get just the right balance of frame stiffness and compliance.

MBA: What if a customer asks for a really stupid bunch of numbers?

Jennifer: In the case where a dealer or end customer requests geometry that we think will compromise the performance of the bike, we would provide a recommended geometry and explain the reasons for our recommendation. There have been one or two rare occasions where someone has asked for something so wacky that we have declined to build the bike. We have some dealers, however, who often order frames on what we call our “Specs as Requested” form, and they take full responsibility for the frame’s geometry. These shops are generally very experienced and highly competent in this area, so usually we won’t make a recommendation to the contrary.

MSA: Rob Vandermark’s signature appears on the Seven’s frame. Does he personally oversee the geometry of every frame, or does Rob set down general guidelines that your individual builders adhere to?

Jennifer: We have four custom specialists at Seven who will generate preliminary specs based on a very comprehensive set of criteria Rob has created, but these specs are all subject to Rob’s approval. Rob has the final say.

MSA: Is it true that every frame Seven produces is custom built?

Jennifer: What Seven brings to the table really stems from our unique manufacturing methodology. We build every frame to order, so basically, we sell a frame and then we build it. We have no finished goods inventory and we are completely flexible to create just about anything our customers can dream up in terms of how they want their frames to handle, feel and even look to a certain extent. Also, each craftsperson here works on only one frame at a time. We never work in batches. This individual attention enables us to have great attention to detail and quality craftsmanship.

MBA: Who is your target customer?

Jennifer: Our target mountain bike customer is really no different from our target customer in general which is anyone who seeks to enhance their riding experience through the optimum fit, handling, performance, and ride characteristics of their bike. One benefit of a Seven that I haven’t said too much about is our ability to completely tailor the frame’s tube set according to the rider’s weight, riding style, and preferences. This has been an extremely attractive feature for bigger, more powerful riders who never thought they could get the stiffness and responsiveness from Ti that they needed, and for smaller riders who have felt beaten up by their frames. Through the precise selection of tube wall, diameter, and butting length and placement, we can address all of a rider’s considerations for weight, durability, and ride characteristics.

Jennifer Miller’s Thoughts on Being an East-Coast Frame Builder

“Geographically, of course, we are an East Coast builder, but I think any other meaning to that has more to do with our heritage and experience than to any particular design elements that you can call East-Coast anymore. As you know, most of us spent the better part of our adult lives at Merlin prior to Seven, and some, including Rob, go back as far as the early days of Fat City. Also, the East Coast, particularly the Boston area where Seven is, has an extraordinary number of colleges and universities. This makes for a very diverse, educated, and creative labor pool, which we have been very fortunate to draw upon. Plus, I think there is a very good work ethic out here.”

Bicycle Retailer and Industry News: East Coast Scene Strong in Wake of Fat, Merlin Changes

by Adam Vincent

Seven Cycles is one of the East Coast companies that contributes to half of all high-end sales in the United States

BOSTON, MA For nearly twenty years, New England’s bike makers have been building on what Chris Chance started at Fat City Cycles.

But even though Fat City is now gone and Merlin has moved, the region shows no sign of decline as a major hub of bike making and cycling culture. Fat City loomed large over the New England scene from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s, creating bikes and an attitude behind them that would help make mountain biking what it is today.

“If there is a defining moment for local frame building, it’s Chris making the first mountain bikes on the East Coast. It sparked creativity that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Rob Vandermark, president of Seven Cycles.

That creativity bore some of the first high-end steel mountain bikes and the first titanium mountain bike frames. Fat City employees would later found titanium builder Merlin. Ultimately, no fewer than 17 bike and component builders emerged from Fat City. “There is an entrepreneurial spirit there. If no one from Fat City went on to do their own thing, the bike business would be very boring.” said Jeff Pedersen, Specialty Racing Products president and a former Fat City employee.

The Boston Globe estimated last year that Boston’s bike and component makers accounted for nearly half of U.S. sales in the high-end market. More than 100 years before Fat City existed, New England and particularly Boston were creating cycling in America. The first U.S. bikes were made near Boston in the mid-1800’s.

“There’s a lot of heritage here, deeper probably than anywhere else,” said Richard Fries, publisher of The Ride, an East Coast cycling magazine. In more modern times the region’s manufacturing base and large pool of intellectual talent—Boston alone has more than 40 universities—has helped. “I think there is a strong culture here because the kind of town Boston is and its manufacturing base makes it the scene. You don’t see that in the west coast,” Vandermark said.

When Chance sold Fat City in 1994, others stepped up to prove how strong the bike building culture was there.

It was then that Independent Fabrication was created in Somerville, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. A dozen former Fat City employees, without jobs after the sale, formed their own company, which quickly became a player in the high-end frame business. Independent took over where Fat City left off, capitalizing on the niche for handcrafted, unique bikes.

“People don’t look at our bikes as just steel bikes. They are buying more into it. They are trying to say something about themselves,” said Steve Elmes, Independent’s vice president of sales and marketing. The East Coast heritage helped too, Elmes admitted.

Though Seven doesn’t label itself as an East Coast company, its roots are undeniable. President Rob Vandermark designed bikes for Merlin for 10 years before starting Seven with other Merlin employees in 1997. Today the company is one of the largest custom builders in the country.

Meanwhile, Merlin moved to Tennessee in July under new owners, JHK Investments. The JHK official said they intend to make a few changes to the brand and its design philosophy. Merlin’s former neighbors, however said they are sad to see the company leave their neck of the woods.

But as companies like Fat City fade away, newer companies—such as frame and paint shop Vicious Cycles—step up.

“With these companies leaving, it will just create a new crop of companies. It happened when Fat left in 1994 and it will probably happen again,” Seven’s Vandermark said.

Voice of America: Bicycle Entrepreneur

by Larry Freund

Although bicycles are a big business in the United States, with annual retail sales of more than five-billion dollars, U.S. bicycle manufacturing has been declining. But a small company near Boston, Massachusetts, is reversing that trend, and perhaps pointing the way to the future of manufacturing. Correspondent Larry Freund reports from New York.

Freund: An old garment factory in Watertown, Massachusetts, is the home now of Seven Cycles Incorporated, a company founded by entrepreneur Rob Vandermark in 1997, when he was 29. His concept was simple: building custom-made bicycle frames from lightweight titanium rods, using a manufacturing technique called single piece flow.

Vandermark: It is the idea of making what the customer needs in the quantity that they need it at the time that they need it. And for Seven, that is when a customer calls. They are almost invariably ordering one bike at a time, so we can only make one at a time. So that the piece—in this case it is a bike frame—one piece or one frame flows through the system at a time. So rather than somebody working on a thousand parts in a machining process, they will work on one part until it is complete and then start on the next part.

Freund: Mr. Vandermark says people in the industry thought it was a big mistake to start his company, with so many of the bicycles now sold in the United States imported from such countries as China. But Internet commerce specialist Evan Schwartz says Seven Cycles may be a model for future industry.

Schwartz: This is really an overturn of mass production, which started with the industrial revolution over 200 years ago. And it used to be that you would make the product and then sell the product. Now, on the Web, the customers construct their own personalized product. They pay for it and then you, as the manufacturer, produce it. This company called Seven Cycles started taking orders from people over the phone and getting their measurements and the type of terrain they ride on, producing a custom frame and mailing it out to the customer [retailer]. And this has led to them being the biggest custom bike builder in the U.S.

Freund: The manufacturing process at Seven Cycles is described by Business Week magazine editor Joyce Barnathan as mass customization.

Barnathan: There is a lot less waste if you know exactly what your consumer wants and you provide it. And you do not have to carry the inventory. And in fact, in some cases you do not even have to have capital, because the consumer will pay up front (in advance) exactly for the product that he or she wants at the moment.

Freund: For the Seven Cycles company, the manufacturing formula has meant success. Founder Rob Vandermark says the firm expects to produce 16-hundred bicycle frames by the end of this year and is expanding into related component parts.

Vandermark: Each year, we have exceeded our projections on almost every front: for revenue and profit and units shipped and labor-hours per frame. It could not have been going better. The bike industry is a very competitive industry. There are a lot of small, one-man builders that do it because they love it. So it is a very passionate industry. And it is always difficult to make a living in a passionate industry.

Freund: The bicycle maker maintains a network of retailers and distributors in Europe and Asia, and hopes to double the proportion of its sales outside the United States from 15 percent to 30 percent.

Business Week Online: Why Seven Cycles Is Racing Ahead: The Net

America’s No. 1 Custom-Bike Frame Maker Uses Its Web Site to Personalize Service, Speed Production, and Reach More Cyclists With Just a Small Staff

by Valigra

Former bicycle racer Rob Vandermark, 32, figures he has won the race to bring an old-style, low-tech business into the Information Age. In the two years since co-founding Seven Cycles Inc. (www.sevencycles.com), Vandermark’s company — so named because seven is a lucky number in many cultures — has sped to first place among the 250 or so custom bicycle-frame builders in the U.S. The Internet, he says, has been the key.

How so? Labor-intensive, mom-and-pop shops still dominate the custom bike market, and people seeking state-of-the-art frames often have a tough time finding craftsmen to make exactly what they want. But thanks to the Net, that has become a lot easier. Seven uses its Web site to let customers get deeply involved in the frame-building process, enabling them to design their own high-end bike frames and track their development all the way through the process. And the Web lets Vandermark reach — and service — more customers than rivals can, and with more of a personal touch than ever before. Mom-and-pop shops are able to make only 20 to 30 frames a year. Seven makes 1,000 frames annually.

Key Database

Here’s how it works: Seven’s frames are sold through a network of 125 dealers in the U.S. and distributors in 15 other countries. Dealers help fill in Seven’s four-page questionnaire asking for 50 or so details of the customer’s size and riding habits. That information is fed into a spreadsheet, and Vandermark uses the specifications to design the custom bike. The specs also are kept in a database, making it easier to develop future bicycles. “This database is part of what has allowed us to build custom bikes with such a small staff,” Vandermark says.

Before a single tube is cut for a bike, Vandermark and co-founder Matt O’Keefe call each customer and review their order, within 24 hours of receiving it. It then takes about 28 hours to build the frame. It can take six weeks or more to get the bike, partly because of Seven’s order backlog and partly because of customs delays on international deliveries.

One customer checked the status of his bike up to six times a day on Seven’s “Where’s My Frame” page.

What makes someone pay $6,000 for a bike they will not get to road-test first? Web-driven personalization can make all the difference, Seven dealers and customers say. Just ask Mike Tierney, 51, a Canadian fireman and cyclist who rides more than 100 miles a week. Tierney took to the Net to search for his dream bike, one that is high-performance, light, and custom-built to his own measurements and riding habits. He settled on Seven’s “Sola” — a $2,500 titanium frame. After buying the frame, Tierney had to add another $2,500 worth of hand-picked components such as hubs, spokes, and handlebars to complete the bike.

The cost was offset, though, by the attention Tierney got from Vandermark and his 19 employees. Tierney corresponded regularly by E-mail with Vandermark about his frame as it was being built. Tierney also checked — up to six times a day — on Seven’s “Where’s My Frame?” Web page, where customers can track the status of their bike as it goes through production, find out what’s being done with it in each phase, and learn who’s working on it. Tierney was so pleased with his finished Seven that he posted a photograph of it on his personal Web site.

Expert Hand-Holding

He’s not the only one high on the customization. Many of Seven’s customers have sent Vandermark disposable cameras to get a picture of their frame as it goes through each production step. And some customers are so keen to get their bike that they show up, in person, at Seven’s Watertown (Mass.) factory — a World War II-era structure formerly occupied by the Goddess Bra Co., which made 52 styles of bras. Seven’s bike frames come in 200 sizes or can be customized at no extra charge.

Letting customers tune in throughout the process is the kind of hand-holding that can come with Net service, Vandermark says. That isn’t lost on Seven’s dealers. “When the customer sends an E-mail, they get an answer from the bike’s designer. If you go to other major bike makers’ sites, all you get is some high-school kid reading out of a catalog,” says Scott Fader, a sales executive at Belmont Wheel Works, Seven’s largest dealer. The Boston-area bike shop sells more than 60,000 bikes a year, 100 of them Sevens.

Customers can reaffirm their decisions at each visit, and that helps Seven dealers sell more frames.

Seven’s Web site is one of its big selling points. Bill Revard, a Seven dealer at the Bike Line Inc. shop in Indianapolis, says Seven’s site is set up so customers can reaffirm their decision every time they log onto it, and that has helped him sell more Seven frames. The site gets more than 7,000 hits a day and more than 200 E-mail messages a week, which are answered within 24 hours by Vandermark, O’Keefe, and other Seven staff. The site also includes photographs of Seven’s staff and bike models, plus technical articles and reviews comparing Seven bikes with the competition’s. Says Vandermark: “Part of our success is that we are tied to a business model that includes the Internet.”

So far, so good. Last year, revenues hit $1.27 million, and the company posted $50,600 in profits — an uptick that came earlier than expected. With revenues expected to reach $1.9 million this year, Vandermark turned down a second round of venture financing.

But how much can the bike-frame maker grow and still stay No. 1 in personalization? “Our business can only get so large, and not larger,” says Vandermark. But he’s not worried about it, and neither are dealers like Fader of Belmont Wheel Works. “What’s special about Seven is the way everyone works together,” he says. For Vandermark, seven is proving to be a lucky number.

Bicycle Retailer and Industry News: Manufacturing Space Increases Sevenfold

Seven Cycles Completes Second Year with Success

by Jill Janov

Watertown, MA Despite a sluggish market, Seven Cycles rode strong sales of its high-end bicycles into 1998. The company, which produces some of the most expensive production frames in the industry, reported more than $1.25 million in revenue last year, with sales climbing 244 percent in 1998 over 1997. The young company, in its second year, is already showing profits and growth continuing in the first quarter of this year.

“We started the business at the hardest time to start a new business, when the market was in a downturn. But it hasn’t hurt us to be in the high end. Certainly the high-end is doing better than the rest of the market,” said Rob Vandermark, president and founder. The company’s frames retail for between $1,495 and $2,975, with the most popular model selling for $2,595. Vandermark also attributed his company’s early success to a focused mission, extensive frame-building experience, a hard-working staff and a connection to its customers.

Last year, the first full year of production, the company expanded its product line from 16 to 33 models, moved to a larger factory and cut operating costs. While the company doubled its production, the staff only jumped from 11 to 15 employees–a 36 percent increase. This made it possible for operating expenses to dip by more than 55 percent per frame sale, slicing overall operating expenses by 60 percent in 1998. This happened even as Seven moved to a new factory, seven times larger.

The number of retailers selling Seven’s bikes jumped from 75 to 125 last year, as sales per dealer increased nearly 50 percent. The company’s top five retailers are in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto and San Francisco.

“We could have taken on more dealers, but we wanted to make sure we were supporting our current dealers and giving them good territory bases. We thought more about the revenue per dealer rather than our expansion of dealers,” Vandermark said.

International sales for 1998 amounted to about 10 percent of the company’s revenues and increased by 8 percent, up from 2 percent in 1997. The company expects the number to jump to 16 percent this year. With 13 distributors worldwide–up from 7 last year–those in Canada, Japan and Italy handle the bulk of Seven’s international business.

The company nearly quadrupled its revenue per dollar spent on advertising in 1998. Internet sales, which links shoppers to retailers, have increased 7 percent.

Seven’s 1999 line has a straight-gauge titanium frame at a lower price point, a steel tandem, a redesigned rear suspension mountain frame and short-travel suspension road and cyclocross frames. In 1998, Seven introduced the Odonata, a custom, titanium and carbon-fiber frame that weighs 2.48 pounds; a custom short-travel suspension frame; a titanium tandem and custom titanium stems.