Riders Write: The story of Black Lightning

Originally posted on May 4, 2012 at 11:59 am

Editor’s note: We love to hear from readers who want to share their story with others. Got something you think Dirt Rag readers would be into? Send it to editor@dirtragmag.com.

By John Frachella

Your single speed issue (DR #163) was great. In fact, it might have been one of your best issues ever. Although I liked it, I found it very amusing, especially since the whole issue was largely dedicated to singlespeed 29’ers. What amused me in Dirt Rag #163 has to do with a bike I own – an older bike whose importance in time seems to have only just arrived.

In 2004, I wrote a Dirt Rag interview of frame builder Don McLung of Salida, Colo., (DR #106). Things haven’t changed much in eight years. Don still builds frames, just like he used to. His small company, Backyard Bicycles, is still located in the same humble shop on the banks of the Arkansas River. Don still doesn’t have a web site and he isn’t (nor has he ever been) in the yellow pages. He continues to build “purpose-built 29er single speeds” (as quoted from DR #163). However, Don’s not really into that kind of language. He simply says he builds “cruiser 29’s” and he refers to them as “one-speed’s.

Ten years ago, Don built me a 29-inch one-speed cruiser. I call it “Old #7” because it’s the seventh cruiser he ever built. It has a bent seat tube, short chain stays and a slack head angle – things that are popular today, but weren’t when #7 was built. Today’s hot singlespeed 29’ers, (like Kona’s Honzo, Santa Cruz’ Highball, Canfield’s Nimble 9, Sam Whittingham’s Naked Looney, and Todd Ingermanson’s Black Cat Bicycles, to name just a few) have short chainstays somewhere between 16.2 and 16.9 inches. That’s cool, but the chainstays on Old #7 are 16”. That’s pretty hard to match, even by today’s standards.

Actually, Old #7 was supposed to be Don’s personal ride. As he was making it, a customer called unexpectedly to order a custom cruiser. Turns out, Don didn’t have enough money to purchase the frame tubes for this guy’s bike. Don needed cash so he asked me if I wanted to buy his seventh frame. The whole deal seemed perfect. This was a frame that Don had built for himself. Seven’s my lucky number. Integers of seven define the date of my birth (7-28-49). How could I refuse?

Over the phone and from over two thousand miles away, Don asked what color I wanted. I said black, powder coat, if possible. He wasn’t working with a paint shop in those days so he asked Wes Williams of Willits Bicycles (then in Crested Butte, now in Austin, Texas) to do the honors. Wes had this modified pizza oven to which he’d adapted a swing arm that threaded into bottom brackets. That’s how Wes centered and suspended freshly powder-coated frames for baking, at least back then. And that’s how the paint on Old #7 got baked. According to Don, while my frame was cooking in the oven, all the fuses in Wes’ shop blew, sparks a-flying. Everyone figured that the paint (and possibly the entire frame) had been ruined, but luckily everything came out just fine. After that, Wes dubbed my bike “Black Lightning”.

A few months later, I drove my van from Maine to Salida, where Don had my bike frame hanging from twine that was tied to rafters above homemade jigs in his totally Spartan shop. When I walked through the door, instead of greeting me, Don sauntered up to the frame and pinged it with his fingernail. It rang out like a bell. It; vibrated like a tuning fork. It was alive, a spring, kinetic energy just waiting to be released. My heart skipped a beat, maybe two. Don just stood there and grinned.

I wrote a different piece for Dirt Rag in 2004, an interview with the then U-24 US Champ, Mr. Adam Craig (DR #108). In the interview, I asked Adam how many bikes he’d own when he decided to eventually retire from racing. First on his list was “ A rigid 29-inch single speed, sealed against the elements and designed for zero-maintenance so I can go kayaking or skiing with the thing on the roof all winter without giving a shit about it.”

When he won the World Single Speed Championships in 2007 in Scotland, he scored a custom Black Sheep titanium frame of his choice. Adam, faced with the prospect of custom designing a timeless bike, had to look no further than Don, who Adam respected as someone who’d figured out how to make 29ers ride properly. Adam came out to my place for a ride on Old #7 with a tape measure and a plumb bob in hand so he could quantify the magic of a Don bike and transfer that magic to his SSWC memoirs. A definitive nod of the head for Don’s one-speed design.

Then my wife wanted a Don bike – but Don wouldn’t make her one. My wife is 5’0” (with her shoes on) and Don said he couldn’t build a 29’er for someone that small. He said it wouldn’t ride well. Then, after mulling it over for a few years, he came up with the idea of making her a small, triple triangle frame. Her bike is Don’s 22nd. By then, Don had found a professional painter, so her frame escaped the pizza oven torture test. The Duce Duce (#22) looks like a 29’er for a little kid but it still has Don’s magical geometry as well as his signature bent seat tube, a short wheel base, ultra short chain stays, and his custom box crown fork.

My wife doesn’t sit “on” the Duce Duce as much as “in” it, but she’s never ridden as well on any other bike. Unfortunately, when we moved from Maine to a very hilly part of Oregon, she couldn’t muscle up the big climbs with only one gear. I was conflicted: should I have someone scab on a derailleur hanger and ruin a one-of-a-kind Don frame? Enter Jeff Jones, Ashland, Oregon frame builder extraordinaire. We ran into each other at a mountain bike gathering in Oakridge. He recalled that I’d written the Don McLung interview in Dirt Rag. I told him about my wife’s Duce Duce and he suggested a Shimano Alfine internal 8-speed hub. Presto, now my wife rides the hell out of her Don Bike and I didn’t have to desecrate a Don frame.

So, does my 8 year-old interview with Don still hold water? You be the judge:

Why do you only build 29-inch frames and forks?

Well, bigger wheels are clearly a better choice. Actually, before mountain biking became an industry, 26-inch wheeled frames weren’t even a consideration for adult use. If 29-inch tires had been available, 26-inch mountain bikes would never have happened.

Why do you bend your seat tubes?

Curving the seat tube tucks the rear wheel under the rider and keeps the chainstays short. If you don’t bend the seat tube on a 29, the shortest you can make the chainstays is 17 inches, and to get that you have to steepen the seat tube angle to 73 degrees. I’m not a real fan of a high up in the air seating position. I’ve always liked to sit lower and further back. I keep my chainstays at 16 inches because the bike takes on a more instinctive kind of handling. It turns more on your center of gravity and you have much more traction both climbing and breaking.

How do you design your forks?

I like to build a fork with the rake in the blade as low down as I can get it, so it flexes at the bottom and gets stiffer as it comes up to the top. The front end starts with my own two-plate fork crown, which lowers the stack height by over an inch compared to a unicrown. This is important because of the 29-inch wheel. It helps to make my bikes quick and stable like a road bike, not floppy and slow like a chopper.

Today, ten years later, Old #7 still inspires. The fork struts provide stiffness without sacrificing spring. The struts cleverly mounted to the steer tube with a clean, circumferential, hand-forged ring while, at the bottom, they’re threaded and bolted underneath, to the fork legs. Very, very clean. The pump peg and the raised diamond water bottle bosses add even more class. Don’s fillet welds, painstakingly hand-filed, are pure art. And the non-driveside dropout seconds as a bottle opener. Essential stuff.

To me, Old #7 is the 29’er against which all other 29’ers will always be judged. It’s not that other people have “copied” Don, because they haven’t – they just discovered the same truths that Don discovered, all on their own. Thus, their designs, however similar to Don’s, have singular merit. I strongly believe that no one really “invents” anything, ever. Things that we believe we’ve discovered were already inherent in nature in the first place. Don’s just an older dude, so he discovered inherent stuff in nature earlier.

Bottom line: Don’s bikes ride like a dream, are pure ‘butta’ and are timeless – simply because Don is a man with true vision.

Don started building 29’ers in 1999. So far, he’s built fifty-eight frames. He charges $2,500 for a custom cruiser frame with a box-crown fork with struts. Don says his waiting list “depends on how hard I want to make myself work”. He’ll give you disk brake tabs, an eccentric bottom bracket and he’ll even adjust your geometry for a suspension fork if you want (however none of that is available on his cruiser style, double top tube frames – Don wants his cruiser design to remain old-school). Generally, Don’s head tube and seat tube angles are 72 degrees and recently he’s figured out a way to make his chainstays even shorter than 16”. What a guy!

For old guys like Don and me, the more things change, the more they stay the same, from Dirt Rag #106 to Dirt Rag #163 and from long before 2004 to long after 2012. In reality, there’s not much new under the sun – except for a change in our collective awareness as bicyclists of what makes a good 29’er.

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