Frame Building Heaven-Meet the Makers at Signature Cycles

Greenwich, Connecticut was the place to be yesterday afternoon. Four representatives from four legendary bicycle frame building companies came together at Signature Cycles for a one of a kind event. Meet the Makers was billed as, “A premier and exclusive meeting of four of the world’s finest Custom Frame Builders in one location to discuss the story of their success building the best bicycles on the planet and what they have planned for the future.”

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Gary Smith, Ben Serotta, Rob Vandermark, and Bob Parlee

Gary Smith, Ben Serotta, Rob Vandermark, and Bob Parlee

When I realized that I wouldn’t have time to get to Indianapolis for the NAHBS, I was disappointed. Then, I stumbled across a press release on-line that mentioned this special event much closer to home. Driving to Greenwich, one of the most affluent communities on Earth, at a time of world economic turmoil, was an experience in itself. I pass through from time to time, but this time, it triggered all kinds of thoughts about success, excess, and greed. They often mix together. Enough about that. Still, you can’t shake the thought from your head when you see bicycles selling for more than $20,000. That’s right…more than a lot of automobiles sell for these days. 

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Paul Levine of Signature Cycles.

The main event was preceded by a morning ride around Southwestern Connecticut. I didn’t make the ride, but several of the builders joined a group of local cyclists to tour the area roads. That must have been fun. 

I made the trip down the Merritt Parkway and I-95, with my long time friend; Craig Damaschi. Back in high school, Craig is the guy (kid at the time) who really got me into cycling. We were both runners on the cross country team, but we both preferred bikes. He had such an intense passion for the sport of cycling and adored its European roots. His Italian heritage gave him a cool flair that was perfect for the sport. He had all the bike magazines and he had the hottest bike (a 50th anniversary Scwhinn Paramount built from Columbus SLX tubing) of anyone I knew. It put my Shogun to shame. I upgraded in due time! Craig even had the coolest Oakley sunglasses. When I learned of the Signature event, I immediately thought of Craig. He has returned to cycling after years of dabbling in cars, motorcycles (don’t let his mother read this), marriage, and fatherhood. Actually, he isn’t dabbling in either marriage or fatherhood. He is neck deep in both, which is how life evolves for many of us. That only means less time for bikes. So a little childcare help from our in-law’s allowed for a Saturday diversion to travel to the fantasy world of Signature Cycles. It was just what the doctor ordered. 

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Craig Damaschi, the new Serotta Meivici AE, and Ben Serotta.

The event featured Bob Parlee of Parlee Cycles, Ben Serotta of Serotta Bicycles, Gary Smith of Independent Fabrication, and Rob Vandermark of Seven Cycles. My expectations for the event were high. Signature Cycles is not your ordinary bike shop. They have showrooms in Connecticut (Greenwich) and New York (Central Valley and Manhattan). Signature focuses on the high end of the bicycle market and specializes in custom fit. They only carry five brands, including the four mentioned, and Guru. Signature is not the place to bring your broken down and rusty Huffy for a spring tune up. To compare Signature with other retailers is difficult. It would be like going to a car dealership that only sells, Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Aston Martin. How is that for a list of marquis brands? I actually know a dealership like that in Coral Gables, Florida. It is called The Collection. I wonder how they are fairing in this economy? Needless to say, Signature Cycles has quite a “collection” of bicycles. 

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Signature’s Paul Levine (President), Lori Hoefer (Store Manager), and Soren Klingsporn were our hosts for the day. They did a wonderful job at creating a cool atmosphere to hear these influential icons of the industry speak. This is the kind of customer appreciation event that can do wonders for your image, but the 65F degree March weather outside the building threw the Signature team a curve ball. The weather was the likely cause of some empty seats in the room, which seemed to be the only disappointment. This group of speakers deserved to have a full house. The complimentary refreshments were a nice touch, but the main course was the question and answer session with the company leaders of Independent Fabrication, Serotta Bicycles, Seven Cycles, and Parlee Cycles. 

Paul Levine did a nice introduction and as moderator, went through several rounds of questions, including a “speed round.” Paul spoke of his business and said that Signature’s big goal is to be the #1 dealer in the world for each of the five brands that they carry. They have succeeded with Serotta and Seven, and are on their way to reaching that goal with the other brands. Clearly, he has a passion for the business that is on par with each of the speakers. 

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It was interesting to learn of the diverse backgrounds of each industry leader. Gary Smith is a professional business manager. He came from The Timberland Company, a much larger sporting goods manufacturer/retailer to join Independent Fabrication (a co-op) in what he referred to as a “downshift.” Ben Serotta started on his own as a steel racing bicycle frame builder. He has been in the industry for more than 30 years and has worked with many of the world’s elite cyclists. Rob Vandermark has a background in sculpture and joined fledgling Merlin Metalworks in the late 1980’s and spent half his career involved with Merlin’s titanium bicycle manufacturing operation. Then, he founded Seven Cycles with three partners. Bob Parlee had a long career in the outdoor industry with stints in the boat building market and ski industry. His knowledge of composites came from building boats. He is partners with his wife, Isabel, who joined him at the event and was equally as articulate at talking about their small business. 

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Each member of the panel answered questions about their business model, their favorite bike, their most difficult project, how they got their start in the business, who their biggest hero is, and how they balance innovation with running the day to day operations. They each described their favorite movie, the last book they read, the materials their company’s work with, their marketing strategy, their favorite place to ride, and the economy. After Paul Levine’s questions, the audience had its chance to to ask their own. The eclectic nature of the questions revealed more than you would have gotten from a standard interview in one of the industry magazines. I was glad I attended to hear the answers in person.

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The speaking panel was followed by a raffle that had enough schwag for just about every one of the 30 or so people in attendance. Most everyone walked away with a nice gift. When the panel broke up, each builder retreated (with members of their staff) to a corner of the shop. In addition to Signature’s inventory, each builder brought some of their newest bicycles to display. Many of these cutting edge bikes came straight from NAHBS in Indianapolis. These show bikes included: 

  • Independent Fabrication’s prototype carbon fiber road bike. 
  • Independent Fabrication’s high end titanium commuter bike.
  • Serotta’s Meivici AE road bike. 
  • Serotta’s new titanium/carbon cyclo-cross bike with new logos.
  • Parlee’s flagship Z1 road bike. 
  • Parlee’s high end commuter bike. 
  • Seven’s Parcours high end titanium commuter bike (Rob’s favorite).
  • Seven’s Sola 007 tandem titanium mountain bike. 

Zipp Speed Weaponry was also in attendance. The Zipp representative showed off their latest wheel and component creations, which are just phenomenal.

It was so much fun to mingle with the crowd and chat with the builders about their bikes and their businesses. This was truly a unique event. With spring around the corner, it offered some sweet inspiration. I’m ready to get out and ride! 

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