Ti Cycles: Factory Tour!
Like a few other posts, this story starts at the Seattle Bike Show. I was wandering around the annual show at the Seattle Expo Center when I stumbled across the Ti Cycles/Ren Cycles booth. I was drawn to a Ren Cycles titanium touring bike with S&S Connectors. I have always wanted a travel bike with S&S connectors. They allow to break your frame down so that the whole bike, rims and all, fit in a standard sized piece of luggage. While I was at the booth, I struck up a conversation with Eric the Operations Manager of Ti Cycles and Ren Cycles. We had a lengthy conversation about Titanium, bike materials and S&S connectors. As I left, I told Eric about CYCLEBUTTCRACK and asked if I could arrange a tour.
Fast forward to early May and I am standing on the side of a hill in Northwest Portland. What a great place to build bikes! Ti Cycles and Ren Cycles headquarters are only a few minutes from downtown, but it feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle. They are housed in a two story garage down the hill from the founder’s home.
Dave Levy, Ti Cycles founder has been building bicycle frames since the mid 80’s. In his years of experience, he has found that the bike industry can be a fickle beast. So he has worked to diversify the products and services that they offer. Ti Cycles makes between 60 and 100 custom Titanium and Steel framed bikes a year in their Portland shop. Since people are not always willing to wait 11 months for a custom Ti Cycles bike, Dave created Ren cycles. Ren Cycles come in stock sizes, are manufactured overseas and finished the Portland shop. As a result, Ren Cycles bike frames are about ½ the cost of a Ti Cycles frame. In addition to making bikes, Dave and his crew can repair your crash damaged bike. Dave does Factory authorized repairs for Moots. They can also modify your existing bike. Ti Cycles also manufactures a line of components including stems, bars, seat posts and forks. They also import and sell tubing to other fabricators. If that were not enough, Dave also teaches frame building classes and offers custom fabrication. Wow! Ti Cycles may have a small shop, but their fingers are certainly in a lot of pies.
Dave has created a diverse business, but it is obvious from Ti Cycles name that his focus is on titanium. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to ride many different types of bikes made from an array of materials including wood, carbon, steel, aluminum and combinations of those materials. However, I have yet to turn a pedal on a titanium bike. So one of my first questions for Dave and Eric was… Why titanium? What are its advantages and what are its disadvantages? This question really grabbed Dave and Eric’s attention. In struggling to write this post (factory tours are the hardest posts to write) it became clear that in order to describe Ti Cycles you also have to describe the advantages and disadvantages of the dominant material they use.
Advantages of Titanium
- Titanium is a lightweight material. It is heavier than aluminum, but is lighter than steel.
- It is resistant to corrosion. It is not necessary to paint or other finish to protect titanium. It acquires a thin protective oxide film when exposed to oxygen that protects it from corrosion. Riding a bike in the frequently damp pacific northwest, I know that this is a huge advantage.
- Titanium is strong having similar strength characteristics to steel.
- Durability is a huge advantage with titanium. It is able to withstand many, many stress cycles. Another way to think of this is to bend a paper clip or wire back and forth repeatedly until it fails. If you did this with a paperclip of titanium, steel and aluminum… The aluminum would be the first to break, followed by steel and titanium. In a bike that means, you can expect a titanium bike to last a long time. In fact, people consider a titanium frame a lifetime bike.
- Titanium is flexible. This property is related to its durability. A flexible material can absorb energy, deform and return to its original shape without failure. Titanium can deform much more than aluminum and more than steel. On a bike this means that a titanium frame can absorb road chatter and vibration leading to a smoother more comfortable ride. Try riding a few miles on chip seal on an aluminum bike and a titanium bike and you will really appreciate this material virtue.
- Like aluminum and steel, titanium can be recycled. The same cannot be said for carbon. Carbon recycling typically involves grinding it up and using the material as filler in another product. I have written about this previously in the blog in ‘Carbon Concerns… Is carbon all it’s cracked up to be?’ In fact, if you recycle a titanium frame, you are likely to get a few bucks back.
- Titanium bikes can be repaired. As mentioned previously, Ti Cycles performs factory authorized repair for Moots. They repair a couple titanium framed, crash damaged bike a week. Work on other bikes like Lightspeed is done on a time and materials basis, which can be pricey, but it’s cheaper than buying a new frame. To repair a damaged frame, the damaged tube is removed, and replaced with a matching tube. This may sound simple, but often chain stays or seat stays often use odd sized tubes with complex curves. Fabricating new matching tubes takes considerable skill and patience. If the frame to be repaired is made of carbon and titanium, the two materials must be separated prior to welding. This at least doubles the price of a repair. As you could imagine Dave is not a big fan of carbon/titanium frames. After the frame is welded, new decals are applied and the frame is ready to go. After all the effort, the end result is a bike frame that is as good as new. In some cases, carbon bikes can be repaired, but the repair often alters the bike’s ride characteristics. Aluminum can be welded, assuming it is not heat treated or some unusual alloy as most aluminum bikes are. Steel can be welded, but will have to be repainted.
- Titanium frames can be modified. What is the point of having a lifetime bike frame if it cannot be modified? Frame builders have been building titanium bikes for a while. You know there are a few hardtail mountain bikes out there with cantilever brakes! Yuk! Ti Cycles can weld on mounts for disc brakes braze on new cable guides and cut the frame to add S&S Connectors. Yes, I am really quite obsessed with S&S connectors. After a few trips across country trying to manage an enormous bike box, breaking down a bike and putting it in a standard sized suitcase sounds like a breeze.
Titanium has plenty of advantages. So why don’t you see it everywhere? Obviously the disadvantages of titanium have something to do with it.
- Titanium is expensive. Shortly after meeting Eric at Ti Cycles, I asked him if he welded the frames. He casually handed me a piece of tubing from one of the neatly arranged shelves. Eric explained that tube was worth about $250. They can’t afford to have a novice welder or fabricator making mistakes or practicing on such expensive material.
- It is really hard to work with titanium. Well, I recently read that working with titanium is not harder than working with other metals, it is just different than working with other metals. When machining titanium, you need the right tools and you need to run your cutting tools at the right speed for proper results.
- Welding titanium is tricky. With other metals a good clean weld is very important. With titanium, it is critical. Contaminated welds are a leading cause of titanium frame failures. Welds can be contaminated by both surface contaminates (dirt and grease) and air contaminates. To overcome this, Ti Cycles machines and fits all the individual frame parts on the appropriate jigs. These pieces are then cleaned in an ultrasonic parts washer once used in a medical office to clean the equipment used for colonoscopies. (Ha! You can’t make this stuff up). The now pristine titanium parts are once again assembled in the jigs ready to be welded. Normally, it is important to weld under a cloud of inert gas to minimize the likelihood of air contamination in the weld. With titanium, this is even more critical. In fact, the weld is shielded with a cloud of inert gas at the welder and the air within the frame must also be purged in order to assure a quality weld free of air contamination. Dave has devised a series of air injectors designed to fit within the tubes and inject them with inert gas (back purging). Although not technically necessary, Dave also back purges his steel frames to ensure the highest quality welds. Finally, the welding can begin. The tight spaces within a bike frame mean that machine or robot welding is not practical. It takes a skilled hand with lots of experience can make the gorgeous welds are routine at Ti Cycles.
I have always thought that titanium bikes had a simple elegance to them. They are typically not adorned with distracting carbon fiber weaves or flashy paint jobs. Instead they are understated with their soft naked gray metal. I had heard that Titanium was a challenging material, but until I visited Ti Cycles, I had no real grasp of the skill and challenges the material presents. Ti Cycles is also the first custom bike builder I have visited. Obviously this adds another level of complexity to the process. The vast majority of bikes are handcrafted. The difference between mass produced, inexpensive stock bikes and custom bikes is the skill of the craftsman building the bike and how well they fit the end user. Someday I will own a custom bike, but first I would settle for getting to ride a titanium framed bike and see if it is really worth all the effort and expense.
About the photos. Between some scheduling difficulties, not bringing my camera or photographer or camera most of my pictures sucked. Also Dave was not currently in production at the time of my visit. Most of the photos in this article were provided by Ti Cycles. Thank you and thank you for letting me come pester you at your shop!
P.S. – I had no place in this story for this, but check out this purple anodized Ren Cycles bike. It is a $600 option and takes an extra 6 weeks, but damn! That is a dead sexy ride! http://www.rencycles.com/customize/anodized-finish
I have an affinity for purple bikes. 🙂
Post a comment below and send me an e-mail at Lance@CYCLEBUTTCRACK.com with your address and I will send you a free Ti Cycles or Ren Cycles sticker!
Contact Ti Cycles at http://ticycles.com/ or at firstname.lastname@example.org.