Myth Cycles: Frame builder Eric Tomczak shows how to build your two-wheeled dream machine

Words and photos by Ben Brashear

There aren’t too many custom bike builders, let alone bike companies, that broke into the market by building a tandem mountain bike. Everyone has heard the saying that tandems will end your relationship, but for Durango, Colorado bike builder Eric Tomczak, it was the very thing that helped to define his relationship and the very ethos of his company, Myth Cycles.

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Myth Cycles is a nod to going against the grain, challenging common paradigms and misconceptions within the cycling industry—everything from steel bikes are too heavy to ride to the emphasis on racing weight to the very idea that bike builders should hide their trade craft secrets from the curious onlooker or prospective newcomer to bike building. The name is also about creating your own mythology, getting out and riding every chance that you get. You have to get out in order to tell a good story with your buddies over a cold beer and to tell a tall tale to your grandkids once your body refuses to climb into the saddle. “Our stories are all we really get in the end,” Tomczak says, “and they better be worth telling.”

Tomczak started his welding education and career with the intention of becoming a bike builder. In 2010 he graduated from welding school with an emphasis in TIG welding and CAD design, yet instead of going straight to building frames he wanted to gain a metalsmith’s approach to working with a variety of metals and design elements. He went to work for Ska Fabrication building assembly line products and de-palletizers for craft brewers, and he joined with the legendary tooling designer Ron Andrews of King Cage, building water bottle cages. Andrews developed his chops building custom parts for MIT, Fat City Cycles, Yeti and Intense Cycles among many others and provided a calculating Tomczak with a wealth of education.

It was the production environment, welding up to 500 water bottle cages per day, that shaped a strong desire in Tomczak to be efficient. It’s that same production mentality that now shapes his approach to bike building. “You begin to analyze each step of the process. Something will take me one minute twenty seconds to do and then you try and see if you can get it down to fifty seconds. If you can do that then over the course of a day it adds up to a ton of time,” he says.

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It was during his workday that Tomczak also became efficient in capitalizing on Andrews’ knowledge from his days designing tooling and assembly fixtures. Tomczak was tenacious in learning assembly logic, weld sequencing, welding wire and tube diameters and how to build his own tooling and assembly fixtures for bike production. “I would ask questions and talk bike geometries until Ron would get so tired of it he’d leave the shop,” Tomczak laughs.

For the intrepid cyclists and those curious enough to consider building your own bike, Tomczak is pulling the stops and sharing his process in what it takes to build a custom frame. There are hundreds of steps to building a bike but he helped to narrow the process down to the essentials. There is not a lot of literature on bike building and a lot of bike builders are protective of their process, he says. He does recommend that you seek out a local bike builder to learn from or to even attend the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland or Portland, Oregon. Here’s to building what may become your favorite two-wheeled machine or… fostering a new-found respect for the difficult task bike builders everywhere take on to keep us happily rolling through the hills.

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Step 1: Design

The most important step of the entire design process is deciding what you want out of your bike. This comes down to ride quality, where you will be riding your bike, what you want to carry, rider height and riding style and what frame material you will use. This is usually a long conversation with Tomczak’s customers and ends with a bike-fitter providing custom-tailor measurements.

This will dictate seat tube angle, chain stay length, head tube angle, top tube length, hub width and bottom bracket height. For those starting from scratch Tomczak advises starting with geometries from a bike that you already like.

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His production frames are designed for versatility— slack head tube angle for stability downhill, steeper seat tube angle for long ascents, mid-length chain stays allow for agility and climbing and a higher bottom bracket height provide clearance and work well with a dropper post. This is his Wyvern production frame which, is designed for high country rides and longer mountain touring.

Materials: His favorite is air-hardening 4130 Chromoly available from Vari-Wall Tubing in Ohio. Air-hardening combined with double-butted tubing and a huge variety of tubing diameters and wall thicknesses allow for a custom tuned ride specific to rider weight, is very durable and is easy to repair. Steel provides a damp ride that absorbs vibrations well and snaps back in a controlled fashion unlike any other material. It’s the ‘feel of steel.’ Titanium is also another great option but requires even more skill to weld.

RattleCAD is a free CAD design program and BikeCAD Pro is a great tool.

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Step 2: Preparation

Gather all of your raw materials together. This includes your top tube, down tube, drop-outs, brake tabs, seat tube, chain stays, seat stays, braze-ons, etc. Most tubes are sealed in plastic and are coated in oil to prevent rusting. In order to get a solid weld, the metal must be clean of any contaminants. Use a denatured alcohol and rag.

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Step 3: Miter or Coping

In this step, you will cut the top tube, head tube and down tube in order to fit into place and provide a close tolerance fit at each tube junction. Use a magnetic angle finder to set the angle of your cut, this number is subtracted from 90 degrees and is derived from your CAD design. Secure each tube to be cut in a vice and use a hole saw to cut the tube. Tomczak uses a v-block style mill vice to keep everything secure. This is also when you will drill any bracket attachments for racks and for your bottle cages – doing so ensures that everything will be in plane. Deburr each cut and drilled hole with a metal file.

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Step 4: Set the Jig

A jig or fixture to hold everything in place is essential to producing an end product that is straight and rides true. Tomczak built his own frame jig but they can be purchased starting at around $1300. Get your CAD drawing and set the bottom bracket height and seat tube angle. Dependent on bottom bracket width – road, mountain or fat bike – will determine the size “puck” required to hold your bottom bracket in place. Most road bikes are 68 mm wide, mountain are 73 mm and fat bikes are usually 100-120 mm. Make sure to orient your bottom bracket properly, advises Tomczak. Remember that one side is a reverse cut thread. Jigs can be purchased from Anvil Bikeworks or Henry James Bicycles to name a couple. You can find a great how-to for those wanting to attempt to build their own jig here.

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Step 5: Welding

Test fit your top tube and down tube and chain stays to make sure that everything will align properly. After doing so tack weld the chain stays to the bottom bracket. After double checking that the chain stays are the appropriate length, you then can tack weld the dropouts on. Move on to tack welding the rest of the main triangle – top tube, head tube, down tube. Do not attach the seat stays yet.

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Step 6: Check Alignment

Once everything has been tack welded pull the frame from the jig and using a ‘scratcher’ on an alignment table or a solid surface, you can ensure that the frame is straight and has not warped during the welding process. If anything has warped, Tomczak advises ‘cold-setting’ the frame and making any adjustment in alignment without adding heat. Heat will stress the metal and potentially weaken it. “The best thing you can do is make sure your angles are spot on before welding,” Tomczak says, “and by welding at least 95 percent of the frame in the frame jig.” A weld can pull and warp as it cools. Check that the head tube is parallel to the seat tube. Check that the head tube and the seat tube are perpendicular to the bottom bracket.

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Step 7: Seat Stays

Place the frame back into the frame jig and finish weld the main triangle. Fit your seat stays. This measurement is established by measuring from axle centerline from the drop out location to the top of the tire. Dependent on what tire you want to run – 27.5 x 3 or 29 x 2.2 or 26 x 4.8, etc – will dictate where you bend the seat stay for tire clearance. Tack weld the stays into place. Pull the frame from the jig and finish weld the seat stays into place. Warping is not a concern here because the tube angles are triangulated and pulling or warping is uncommon.

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Step 8: Install Brake Tabs, Cable Guides and Braze-Ons

Many bikes do not require brake tabs but install ‘em if you need them. Clamp braze-ons and cable guides into place and install the seat stay bridge at this point.

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Step 9: Chase Threads

Using a Park Tool’s reaming and facing tool, ream the seat tube to remove any metal burrs, chase the threads in the bottom bracket and face the bottom bracket. Ream and face the head tube. This step insures that all surfaces are smooth and removes any warpage that may have occurred during the welding process. For specific tools and detailed process advice, check out this tutorial from Park Tool.

Step 10: Powder Coat or Paint

Tomczak powder coats his frames because it’s a durable paint choice that well last through the daily abuses of bike riding. An average powder coat is 3-5 mm thick and is hardened in an oven around 450 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also break out a rattle can for something that requires less specialized equipment but you’ll be frequently repainting your frame.

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Review: All-City Pony Express

Trends come and trends go, but the venerable steel bicycle always remains in style. All-City is one bike company that’s keeping the torches burning for chromoly creations. Those would be welding torches, and the creations include bicycles for road, track, cyclocross and even a singlespeed mountain bike.

The brand’s latest model, the Pony Express flat bar road bike, shares the exact same frame as its drop-bar Space Horse. When All-City realized that a number of customers were purchasing the versatile Space Horse framesets and building them up with flat bars, the company decided to offer a flat-bar build. Boom—the Pony Express!

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THE BIKE

Let’s take a closer look at that frame. The “612 Select” sticker refers to a chromoly tubeset built to All-City’s specifications. The blend includes double-butted main tubes, tapered seatstays and ovalized chainstays. The frame is strong and stiff enough to haul a maximum rear load of 30 pounds, but it’s not drastically overbuilt like a true touring bike. According to All-City, the goal was to produce a frameset with light-duty hauling capability without harshing out the unloaded ride.

The frame features rack/fender mounts, and the fork has two eyelets on each drop- out and one mid-fork eyelet on each blade. The fork is rated for a maximum 20 pound load. Features like these reinforce the practical and versatile nature of this steed. At any moment this city scoot could duck into a nearby phone booth and emerge as an adventurous bikepacking rig—or a grocery-getting workhorse. Good luck finding a phone booth these days, so perhaps a dark alley will have to do.

All-City’s investment cast stainless steel dropouts are more than eye candy. The semi-horizontal rear dropouts have an adjustable set screw that maintains your desired wheel position before/after wheel changes. They’re singlespeed compatible, should you get the urge, and you can get the rear wheel in/out with full-coverage fenders in place.

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Looking even closer at the frame reveals useful and practical details such as reinforced bottle bosses and a pump peg. The internally routed rear brake cable is an aesthetic win in my book. One of my favorite frame (and fork) details is a rather mundane one: an electrophoretic deposition coating that acts as both a rust preventative and a primer for the final paint. Because rust never sleeps—but it can kill a frame.

The 1×10 drivetrain features a SRAM Apex rear derailleur and an 11-32 cassette mated to a 42 tooth FSA Vero crank- set that’s protected by All-City’s Cross Wizard chain guard. Inside the 68 mm threaded bottom bracket shell spins a square-taper BB. There’s nothing fancy nor cutting edge here—just plenty of tried and true to go around.

This iron horse gallops on Kenda Kwest 700×35 mm tires. The 31.8 handlebars rise 15 mm, sweep 5 degrees and measure 620 mm wide. When it’s time to say whoa, the Avid Single Digit 3 linear pull brakes and Avid FR-5 levers reign in the stampede.

All-City offers the Pony Express in six frame sizes, all the way down to 46 cm. Hooray. That’s good news for shorter riders, or anybody that understands the importance of proper bike fit.

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THE RIDE

When it comes to “the ride,” the Pony Express delivers. This is a lively feeling bike that showcases the sweet ride of steel done right. Not too stiff. Not too flexy. Just right. The resilient frame felt smooth and took the edge off minor vibrations. Despite its supple ride, the bike accelerated energetically and never felt flexy or imprecise. All-City nailed it.

The lugged-crown fork has curved blades made from tapered 4130 chromoly tubing. Not only is the entire package visually appealing, but the fork did a good job of eating up vibration and chatter caused by rough surfaces. In my experience, most straight-bladed forks feel harsh in comparison to a curved steel fork like this one. It’s the perfect partner for the fine feeling frame.

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The bike’s geometry put me in a comfortable, upright riding position. Head-up is the way to go when navigating city traffic or taking in the scenery during a pleasant trot through the countryside. I felt well-centered over the bike, which, combined with its quick steering, made the Pony very responsive to subtle weight shifts. Its snappy handling felt appropriate for a bike slotted as an around-towner or daily commuter. This peppy pony is plain fun to ride.

I found the gearing well-suited for flat or rolling roads, but challenging on steep terrain. The setup worked fine for commuting, city cruising and recreational rides on back roads—even if I found myself climbing out of the saddle on a few hills that I was used to spinning up. While the ample braze-ons and quoted 50 pound carrying capacity tempted me to turn the Pony into a pack horse, I’d want to swap to some lower gearing before doing so. Along those lines, the frame has braze-ons for front derailleur cable stops, so a multiple-chainring conversion is an option for those so inclined.

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All-City went with linear pull brakes, partly because of their light weight and simplicity. They also help keep the price in check. Disc brakes continue to gain spec on road bikes of this ilk, and I’ll admit to being enamored with the concept, but I never felt the need for more braking power than the linear-pull Avids delivered. Excellent modulation at the lever sealed the deal and me a fan of these stoppers. Had my testing been in wet, wintry conditions my opinion might have been different. Or maybe not.

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The 35 mm Kenda Kwest tires rolled comfortably and efficiently on pavement. They’re more rugged than supple, making them a good choice for a bike that’s designed for the mean streets. And they didn’t blink when I detoured onto gravel roads and other unpaved surfaces. If you want to maximize the bike’s off-piste potential, All-City says that the frame has clearance for up to 42 mm tires. That could come in handy for aggressive gravel or dirt road adventuring.

I found the All-City Gonzo saddle comfortable. At the opposite end of the cockpit, the 620 mm handlebar felt appropriately sized for a city-oriented bike, though I’d have preferred something wider. Perhaps that’s my mountain biking background leaking through.

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CONCLUSIONS

I’m a big fan of flat bar road bikes. Years ago I converted a cyclocross bike to flat bars and never looked back. Nowadays it makes me smile to see well-executed flat bar road bikes like the Pony Express adding to this growing category. The classic silhouette and lively ride of this fine chromoly frame combined with well-chosen components is a winning formula in my book.

Price: $1,150
Weight: 23.8 lbs without pedals
Sizes: 46, 49, 52, 55 (tested), 58, 61 cm


This review originally appeared in Bicycle Times #44.

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NAHBS Preview Part 3: Salt Lake Locals

The North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) is coming up next weekend, March 10-12. We’ve been taking a look at some of the new up-and-coming builders that will be at the event this year in a series of preview articles. In Part 1, we saw bikes from Australia and Russia, and in Part 2, we learned about the students of the Cal Poly Frame Builders club. In this NAHBS preview edition, we focus on a couple of the builders who are local to the Salt Lake City area, home of this years show.


Salt Air Cycles 

Salt Air Cycles, based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, was founded in 2014 by Matthew Nelson. His background is in architecture, but he caught the framebuilding bug about 7 years ago as an avid mountain biker and bike commuter. In 2011, he took a course at the United Bicycle Institute (UBI), and walked away with his first creation, a fillet-brazed steel cyclocross frame, and the motivation to build more.

While becoming involved in the local racing scene, he honed his framebuilding craft, producing handmade bikes for his friends and family. He was still working full-time as an architect when he started Salt Air Cycles, but his brand quickly gained a small, loyal following. Soon after, he was able to leave his architecture job and pursue framebuilding full-time. He also sponsored a local cyclocross team that rides his lugged steel bikes.

Nelson builds almost any type of bike, except tandems and full suspension. “I take a lot of pride in being a versatile builder. As long as it’s steel, I’ll make it,” he says. Most of the bikes he currently makes are fillet-brazed, while the remainder are lugged construction. They’re “new world bikes, made the traditional way,” each cut by a saw and file, and assembled with a torch. He puts a lot of attention and detail into each frame, so that when it leaves his shop, it not only meets his standards, but also every expectation of the customer.

“My favorite bike is whichever one I happen to be working on in the present,” says Nelson. “Thus far, it’s been an incredible ride, with enough inspiration and gratification to fuel further growth of the brand.”

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Cerreta Cycles

Until 2013, Ken “KC” Cerreta was enlisted in the United States Air Force as an aircraft machinist and welder for nine years. In 2013, he transitioned from the enlisted corps to the officer corps and is now a program manager who leads large scale Air Force acquisitions and manages development projects. It didn’t take long before he missed working with his hands. An avid cyclist, KC began his start as a frame builder in 2014 after he attended the North American Handmade Bicycle Show as a spectator.  Having a background in machining and welding he researched what it would take to build a bicycle frame and by the end of 2014, his first frame was complete.

Now a Captain in the Air Force currently working on the F-16 aircraft and sole owner of Cerreta Cycles, KC continues to build wherever he is stationed, which is currently at Hill Air Force Base, just north of Salt Lake City. He specializes in fillet brazed steel frames and hopes to grow Cerreta Cycles to the point where it can become a full time profession.

“One aspect of why I feel builds distinguish myself from other builders is the attention to detail each frame receives,” says KC.  “With a history of fabricating aircraft parts where the tolerances are very small, my frames are looked at the same way. To me, there is no room for error and that is how I approach each build.”

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If you’re headed to NAHBS, be sure to stop by the New Builders Tables and give these guys some love. Also be sure to check out the rest of our NAHBS preview content, or take a look back in time to our coverage of the event from previous years.

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