Boston Business Journal: Pedaling the Product

Bicycle Frame Manufacturer Seven Cycles Inc. Takes a Ride to the Top of the Industry

by Roberta Holland, Journal Staff

Watertown All Rob Vandermark remembers about his first bicycle is that it was a cheesy gold color and a hand-me-down from his older brother. Vandermark, founder and president, and his colleagues at Seven Cycles Inc. are hoping the bikes they design and manufacture are a little more memorable.

According to company officials, Watertown-based Seven Cycles has become the largest custom-order bike frame manufacturer in the country, selling road and mountain bike frames to retailers who then put the bicycles together using brakes, gears and tires from other manufacturers.

Approaching its second anniversary in January, Seven Cycles had revenue of $520,000 in its first year. The company hit $1.1 million in 1998 sales on November 18 (1998), with total sales for year projected at $1.25 million.

“We started off kind of slow, and nervous, and we opened up pretty widely as the seasons peaked,” said Vandermark. “Some reviews came out and we started getting some exposure.”

Vandermark, 31, said the company is turning a profit despite his initial projections that it wouldn’t be profitable until 1999.

Seven’s frames are not for penny-pinchers. The frames alone cost about $3,000. The company also sells stems for about $350 and forks for around $325. When put together with the other elements, a typical bicycle costs more than $5,000.

Seven does not charge more for custom design. Customers ordering a custom frame fill out a survey that asks for everything from inseam and forearm measurements to questions about flexibility and whether they experience any back or neck pain.

“Seven tries to make the best product possible,” Vandermark said. “Price and cost are secondary to trying to push innovation.”

The company is located in a 7,000-square-foot rented warehouse in Watertown, of which Seven sublets 2,000 square feet. The private company has 12 full-time and three part-time employees.

Vandermark said he first became interested in bikes because his older brother was. But he stuck with it, working in a bike shop throughout high school and college and competing in local races.

Vandermark had been studying to be a sculptor at Massachusetts Colege of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts School when he dropped out in 1987. Answering a help wanted ad, Vandermark got a job with Merlin Metalworks Inc. in Cambridge, which was just getting started at the time, and is now a giant in lightweight titanium frame bikes.

Vandermark worked as a machinist, welder and product developer during his 10 years at Merlin. When Vandermark was at Merlin, he designed the bicycle Greg LeMond used to win the 1989 Tour de France.

When Vandermark split from Merlin in 1997, he took three co-workers with him. Now a total of 11 Seven employees, including Vandermark, came from Merlin.

He started Seven, with the help of two angel investors, who contributed more than $200,000 to help purchase equipment and to print the company’s brochure. Seven incorporated in January 1997 and shipped its first order for 20 bikes that March. The company benefited from some glowing reviews in trade publications and business took off from there.

Seven has 50 distributors throughout the United States and 12 overseas in Italy, France and Hong Kong. About 10 percent of the company’s sales are international.

“They’re kind of at the top of the food chain in terms of quality,” said Scott Fader, a sales executive at Belmont Wheel Works, Seven’s largest retailer. “They have an outstanding level of dealer support and they take care of the customer extremely well, making a bike ride the way a customer wants.”

Fader said the company has combined state-of-the-art technology with old-school craftsmanship.

Vandermark is set to begin another round of financing, and plans to again turn to angel investors in hopes of getting at least another $200,000. With it, he plans to expand Seven’s manufacturing capacity.

Many customers are professionals between the ages of 35 and 55, the younger snowboard crowd and women seeking a bike that fits their proportions.

While company employees joke that the company gets its name because people there work seven days a week, Vandermark said they just liked the number and its positive associations.

Vandermark said that the four original employees—himself, Jennifer Miller, Matt OKeefe and Lisa Rodier—had a combined 36 years of experience, which helped the company avoid a lot of mistakes and missed opportunities. Vandermark sheepishly admitted he is the only member of the company who doesn’t bike to work.

Ashley Korenblat, former president of Merlin and now owner of Western Spirit Cycling Co. in Moab, Utah, was Seven’s first customer.

“What they’ve done is really incredible,” Korenblat said. “You notice (the difference) and then you’re ruined if you go back to riding another bike. The performance is totally noticeable, even to an intermediate rider.”

Mountain Bike Magazine: Lucky 7

by Matt Phillips

Imagine being able to choose exactly how stiff you prefer your frame, how agile you like your bike’s handling—to personalize a bike to fit your riding style. Like to climb out of the saddle? The bike will be designed with that in mind. Plan to use the bike mostly for racing? You’ll get the geometry and tubeset specific to those conditions. This bike will be built using all of your body measurements, your current bike’s measurements along with details about your existing bike (what works and what’s causing you pain). And the real beauty is that you don’t have to leave your living room to get it.

A company called Seven Cycles can make this happen. Headed by ex-Merlin designer Rob Vandermark, Seven lets you decide exactly how custom—or not—you want your new bike to be. You can change one or two details on a stock Seven in 14 stock sizes (10-23 inches) available in steel ($1,500) or titanium ($2,600). Or you can create an original blueprint specifically for you. The best news is that any true custom work, whether it’s a pump peg or fully personalized geometry, costs nothing extra. So your Seven is either an expensive stock frame or a reasonable custom frame.

The neatest, or scariest, thing about the Seven custom program is that you do it yourself. Included in the catalog is a set of step-by-step instructions that explain how to measure your body and how to manipulate those numbers for your intended purpose.

To see just how effective the DIY customizing is, I went through the system just as any consumer would. The first thing I learned is that it’s prudent to have a friend help you with the measurements. Trying to do it alone is a pain, especially when you’re attempting to read a measuring tape while holding a book tight against your crotch and standing up straight. This doesn’t yield the most accurate measurements.

Once I had the raw numbers, I started to create my bike. This section reminded me of taking the SAT. You get a number from one chart, then use a set of modifier charts to fine-tune the figure. After working through this set of problems, you come to the multiple-choice section: How rigid do you want the bike on a scale of 1 (comfortable) to 10 (stiff)? How do you want to bias the handling, from 1 (stable) to 10 (agile)? What will you use the bike for? Do you want a 1- or 1 1/8-steerer? Do you want a 135 or a 145 mm rear wheel spacing? How many miles per week do you average? Where do you want your cables routed (four choices), and do you want to add a third set of water-bottle mounts, a second set of rack mounts, a chain hanger or a pump peg? In the end, you supply the component package for the frame.

Total time for me to get through the process: about two hours.

Once you have this info, you send it to Seven. The designers there look at it and call you with questions. You’ve done the initial work, but the folks at Seven are there to protect you from yourself. If your numbers look off, they’ll go over them with you. You receive a final spec sheet to review and sign, and this will become the blueprint for your bike.

This system is especially valuable if you have trouble finding a bike that fits you. While most riders don’t need to bother with the extra time, expense and hassle of getting a custom-sized bike because off-the-shelf bikes work just fine for them, for some people the extra hassle (which is minimal in Seven’s case) is worth it because they know they have a bike built just for them. Custom bikes make sense for riders who know they have an odd body type or who have never felt comfortable on a stock-size bike. For instance, I have longer legs and a shorter upper body than most people my height. Consequently, I have to ride bikes with ridiculous amounts of seatpost or run short stems to get the right reach. Either way, something gets compromised.

Rolling the Seven

My custom titanium Seven Sun came through the door with a 22.8 inch top tube, a 16.5 inch seat tube (center to center, 18.75 center to top), a 3.5 inch head tube, 71-degree head angle, 73-degree seat angle, 16.7 chainstays and an 11.6-inch-high bottom bracket.

I selected “8” for frame rigidity and “10” for agile handling. I started riding bikes in Connecticut and I was raised on East Coast-style mountain bikes, so I like a smaller, shorter bike and I’m willing to trade some high-speed stability for quicker handling.

The numbers were generated by Seven’s catalog, coupled with some tweaking by me and some final tuning that came during a discussion between the company and me. I was confident in the geometry but although numbers and theories are great for paper, in the real world you can’t beat seat of the pants. The ultimate test would be the ride. Had I chosen red when I should have picked black?

The result: lucky Seven indeed—jackpot! I really wasn’t expecting the bike to be this good. It’s nearly perfect for me. Even thought the numbers aren’t radically altered from an off-the-shelf bike, the difference is noticeable.

The bike rides just like I wanted it to, and it fits me better than any I’ve ever been on. It’s stiffer than most titanium frames, which helps with stability and sprinting, but it still delivers the traditional smooth, damped Ti ride. Much of this can be attributed to the gracefully bent seatstays.

The stability is also better than I anticipated, most likely due to the frame’s stiffness and low bottom bracket. The low bottom bracket was my attempt to eke more handling performance out of the bike. Because I do most of my riding in the West, a BB this low works because there aren’t many rocks or logs in your way. If I were back East, it would have to be higher. So far, the low BB has only done good things for my riding.

This bike is and does everything I’ve ever wanted out of a hardtail. For me, Seven’s custom kit was a noticeable improvement over stock sizing.

Final Bets

A bike in the Seven’s price range should be a two-wheeled work of art. And indeed, the Seven deserves to be hung in the Louvre. It’s gorgeous.

As I wheeled it around the Mammoth expo, it was interesting to note that all the people who stopped and fawned over the bike were industry folk. Employees of companies who make nice bikes were impressed with the workmanship and clean beauty of the Seven. The laser-cut head badge and the smooth seat collar got the most attention.

The overall profile also received its share of compliments. The size of the tubes, especially in the rear, are larger than normally seen on a Ti bike. In an age of fat aluminum tube popularity, the Seven isn’t left behind. It’s purely visual, we know, but the Seven looks like a beefy, strong bike—like a mountain bike instead of a road bike. The welds are smooth and consistent, like a tight stack of poker chips held at an angle.

In our search to find something wrong with the Seven, we had to dig deep. There are only two minor complaints. First, the seatstays and chainstays are so large that the dropouts look as out of place as a Mennonite in Vegas. The 6/4 dropouts are nice, but they look awkward against the large-diameter rear triangle. If Seven could beef out the drops a little, our visceral cravings would be satisfied.

Our second issue is that the bike doesn’t do much to distance itself from a Merlin. Merlins are great bikes, and Rob Vandermark had a lot of influence on how they look. The Seven’s finish is almost identical to a Merlin, and the seat- and chainstays are very close. Vandermark doesn’t apologize for this. He says he wasn’t going to risk the bike’s ride just to make it visually different, and calls the similarity, “A compliment, not a plagiarism.”

But he also says that although a Seven might resemble a Merlin on the outside, it’s quite different inside. For example: thicker, stiffer chainstays; brake bosses more on center with the seatstays for better braking; more mud clearance; and more vertical compliance. Plus, the custom kit is a level above Merlin.

When Vandermark and six other people started Seven, they wanted to make purchasing a custom bike easier. The price is high—there’s no denying that—but only if you compare it with a stock bike. A Seven is equal to or lower than many other custom mountain bike prices. And few of those bikes are as custom as the Seven. Besides geometry, Vandermark manipulates tubing sizes and butts (butting is done in-house) to suit individual riders.

This high level of customizing works well—at least for me—and makes the buyer an actual part of the bike’s design. Not only do you get a mountain bike that rides and fits excellent, but you feel especially attached to it because you helped shape it. You have something as individual as you are. Odds are, you’ll like it.

Bicyclist Magazine: New England Upstarts

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.

Metropolitan Geometry

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.

Finicky

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.

Happy Problems

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.

The Feel

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.