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.”