Pictured: (standing) Mark, Tim, David, Chris; (sitting) Stephanie, Ruby, Theresa
At a bicycle trade show in 1986, two East Coast companies introduced titanium bicycle frames in an era where steel ruled the roost, and carbon was just a twinkle in the industry’s eye. One of them became Litespeed, and eventually Lynskey Performance Designs, both launched by the large and industrious Chattanooga-based Lynskey family. Our online editor Adam Newman enjoyed some Southern hospitality in May, and captured the essence of the hands behind the brand —The Editor
Chattanooga, Tennessee, might seem like a strange place for a large, high-end bicycle company. Nestled along the Tennessee river in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, the city has seen cycles of demise and rebirth.
A series of battles during the Civil War took their toll on the population and the economy and in 1867 a massive flood destroyed nearly the entire city.
In the 1930s the city was booming as a major industrial and manufacturing center, earning the nickname the Dynamo of Dixie and inspiring Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” which was the world’s first Gold record.
Fast forward to the 1980s and things had come full circle as the scenic mountains that surrounded the city trapped air pollution and the decline of American industry kept unemployment levels rising like floodwaters.
And finally the dawn of the 21st Century brought with it a new generation of civic planners and investors who reclaimed the downtown neighborhood and created a vibrant and welcoming vibe, while major manufacturing—in the form of a $1 billion Volkswagen factory—has returned. There’s even a bike-share system!
So how is it that a mid-size company building—of all things—titanium bicycles, should find itself in a place like Eastern Tennessee? Despite the cliches, not everything in the South is slow and simple. With nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory developing the most advanced nuclear technologies in the world, and Huntsville, Alabama, putting people on the moon, there was no shortage of demand for high-tech materials and manufacturing.
And that’s how Bill Lynskey started, with his small machine shop building high-end chemical and chlorine processing equipment for industrial, aerospace and defense projects. As his kids grew older they naturally worked their way into the shop themselves during the hot Tennessee summers.
Despite their father’s success running Southeast Machine, Bill certainly wasn’t grooming his family to create an empire.
“It just sort of happened,” Mark said. “None of us were ever pressured to take over the business. It was just there for us.”
It was there that fate would intervene, as it often does, and lead to something of a revolution. In the mid-1980s when David Lynskey was nursing a knee injury he took up cycling, got hooked, and quickly began competing. All bikes in those days were steel but David quickly recognized the advantages of the material that he worked with day in and day out: titanium.
So with the help of his brother Chris, they welded up a bike and sure enough it worked. So well, in fact, that local cyclists started asking for one of their own. When they took one to a bike show in Southern California, the floodgates opened. Litespeed Bicycles was born.
If you were a passionate cyclist in the early to mid-1990s, you’ll recall nothing had the cache of titanium. It didn’t hurt that a poorly kept secret was that several pro cyclists were riding Litespeed frames painted over with their sponsor’s logos. A certain Mr. Armstrong rode one painted as a Trek in the 1999 Tour de France.
Then just like its home in Chattanooga, the peaks don’t come without descents. By 1999 the titanium bicycle market had peaked, aluminum was everywhere, and carbon fiber was looming on the horizon. Shortly after Bill Lynskey passed away the family sold the company to American Bicycle Group.
Several family members were disappointed or disagreed with the sale of Litespeed, but in the end blood is thicker than the bottom line and things have a way of working themselves out.
“While we may have had disagreements on methodology or something, I have the absolute faith that the best interest of the business and the best interest of the whole is what we’re trying to achieve,” Mark said. “We leave our egos at the door. It’s a huge blessing.”
Of the 40 or so employees at Lynskey, nearly one-third are part of the family. From accounting to quality control and shipping, they are spread throughout the company. With Mark’s daughter Stephanie handling some of the marketing and PR duties, there are three generations of family behind that name on the downtube.
In fact it was Mark and David’s mother Ruby, the family matriarch, who kept the wheels rolling. After the sale of Litespeed most members of the family took a few months to decide what to do next. Eventually Ruby started pestering her kids—as mom’s often do—to keep moving forward. Doing so wouldn’t be easy, Mark had a non-compete clause, and the company’s shop was gone.
“We had nothing. Zero.” Mark said. But starting from scratch in January 2006 meant the company was free to find its own path, including some creative business decisions, that have really helped it stand out in the marketplace.
They took a page from e-commerce and started selling their bikes online. Without a significant dealer base, they could start selling consumer direct without undercutting their own dealers.
Then they started offering financing. Customers can enjoy their bikes while paying for them, and since the actual collection is handled by a third party, Lynskey gets a quick and easy sale.
Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in Issue #31 of Bicycle Times. To make sure you never miss a bike review, order a subscription and you’ll be ready for the everyday cycling adventure.
Most recently, the company has launched an ambitious trade-in program. Customers can send in their old bikes or frames, its value is assessed via Bicycle Blue Book, and credit is applied toward their purchase. The used bikes are they resold on Lynskey’s own website or through eBay. The program has been a huge success, Mark says, with a dozen or so trade-ins per week.
You’ll also see no shortage of Southern Hospitality at Lynskey, where “complete satisfaction” really means just that. The web store usually has two or three frames that customers rode then changed their minds to select a different size or model. Switching frames out for fit might cost the company a bit up front, but a happy customer is much more valuable in the long run, Mark says.
Today Lynskey is certainly one of the largest bicycle manufacturers in the United States. While titanium may come and go in fashion, its legendary properties still make it an excellent frame material. Strong. Lively. Resilient. They are words that could just as easily describe the Lynskey family as the tubing.
After all, Mark says, “You can document more family businesses that failed then came together.”