The Americans Are Coming!

Hark! What's That I Hear? An All-American Component Grouppo???

By Chris Kostman

Orignally published in Bicycle Guide, November/December 1993 and later in Wire Donkey Bize 'Zine, Vol.11, No.128, October 30, 1998.

Let's start with a little time travel.

It's 1980: Do you know where your bike is from? Well, it's got Italian tubing, Italian components, and Italian tyres, rims, bars, stem, and saddle. If it's good, it must be Italiano. Riding helmetless, you feel part of some ancient Old World society, like a singer in a Gregorian chant group. In other words, you can't speak Latin, but you like the way the music sounds and you feel part of something important.

Now we jump to 1990 and things have changed: Your bike's got Japanese tubing, Japanese components, Japanese everything else. You can't pronounce half the names, but the stuff works great. You love roof racking your Japanese mountain bike on top of your Honda and heading for a spin on Pacific Coast Highway. You're trendy.

And now it's a step forward to 1995, and a whole new paradigm has set in: the all-American bike. That means the tubing, the miscellaneous parts, and the complete component group are all made right here in the good ol' U.S. of A. Your bike weighs 16 pounds, tackles road and trail with equal aplomb, and looks like a genetic mutation that's part Rambo and part NASA. You love technology and, of course, you drive a Saturn.

No Fooling...

While there are numerous companies here in the States that are churning out bicycle components, three stand above all others for the breadth of both their vision and line-up: Grafton Performance, Magic Motorcycle, and Ritchey Design. All have fabulous parts, ground-breaking new designs in the works, and at least two of them plan an all-American component group within a few years.

Grafton Performance: Knocking on Shimano's Door
Perhaps the first U.S. manufacturer to start ruffling the feathers of the perennial component market dominator is Shimano's Orange County neighbour, Silverado-based Grafton Performance. The first company to put out a high performance cantilever brakeset (back in '89), Grafton's now also makes cranks, bottom brackets, and pedals for road and mountain bikes. Completely new products are in the works, including a radical, derailleurless (he's not saying how) front and rear shifting system and a tubular aluminum crank that's stiffer and stronger than anything else on the market and100 grams lighter, too.

Grafton's goal? To be "if not the first, then at least the best all-American component group manufacturer," says John Grafton. "We hope and plan to have a complete group on the market within three years, and we'll introduce our shifting system and tubular cranks at the trade show this September."

Speaking of trade shows, Kozo Shimano dropped by the Grafton booth last Fall and announced that the American upstarts were "a hard act to follow." Later, six Shimano staffers dropped by the booth to fondle and photograph the Grafton components. One might think this would make Grafton nervous - near duplicates of Grafton parts, at least aesthetically speaking, are now being marketed by Campagnolo, Clark Kent, DGI, and Gravity Research, for example - but Grafton has no problem with the competition. "A lot of our popularity is based on how we run our business. We guarantee our parts for life and provide direct and immediate dealer and consumer support," says John. And the copycatters don't seem to have done any damage to Grafton's sales performance, either: In the first three months they were available, Grafton sold 1400 pairs of their new cranks and are currently backordered 1200 sets. On average, they sell 500 cranks and 350 brakesets a month, not bad for a company whose original goal was to sell10 sets of brakes a week.

Though voted "most likely not to succeed" while in high school, John Grafton "always had a mechanical bent." He tore apart watches, radios, and even a V-8 engine when he was 14 years old. Importantly, he always made a point of putting his dismantling projects back together. Eventually John and his wife Cindy opened up a tool grinding shop that made custom metal cutting tools for machine shops. They worked 24 hours a week and spent their free time either hang gliding or racing motorcycles at up to 130 mph off-road. Then running injuries lead the Graftons to the mountain bike. "We feel lucky that we stumbled into cycling. Now we live, eat, and breathe mountain bikes," explains John Grafton.

Though used to 130 mph on a motorcycle (he says "motorsickle"), Grafton quickly learned that a mere 50 mph on a mountain bike was not what it could be. In fact, it was the eight mile downhill behind the Graftons' house in the tiny silver-mining town of Silverado, CA, that led him to component designing. After the 8 mile kamikaze finish to his daily ride, Grafton's hands "would be totally dusted." Since he had a machine shop in his home, Grafton decided to take things into his own hands. His first set of cantilever brakes were featured in Mountain Bike Action and the phone's been ringing ever since. At first, the brakes took John and Cindy 18 hours a set to make, but things have changed dramatically in the three years since the beginnings of Grafton Performance. Now there are seven employees in the offices and the manufacturing work is handled by eight different Southern California machine shops. With the new designs aimed at a complete group within a few years in the works, that expansion will certainly continue. Of course, Grafton is quick to point out that "the idea was to have fun, not to make a business. We're a fluke!" But fluke or not, they're a force to be reckoned with.

As for Shimano, the Graftons have no grand scheme to topple the Goliath. However, Grafton will point out that "What's going to hurt Shimano is the way the public sees them. They're perceived like Godzilla and that will hurt them far more than the competition from us." Perhaps the component giant would do well to send its PR team over to fondle and photograph Grafton's reputation, dealer service, and personal rapport with its customers...

Magic Motorcycle: What Price Americana?

One of the latest U.S. companies to enter the component fray comes under the unusual moniker of Magic Motorcycle. The name denotes not only Magic's origins, but much of its current workload in the worlds of automotive, aircraft, and motorcycle engineering. And it is precisely this know-how from the hi-speed, hi-intensity, motorized world that gave Magic the self-conviction to enter the bicycle component industry just 18 months ago. The world's most expensive bike parts around and, according to Magic, the world's lightest, stiffest, strongest, and best bicycle components around.

No, the folks at Magic Motorcycle are not humble. But then again, they also have a lot to brag about. Magic is a family-run organization - Dad Alex Pong, 52, son Skookumchuk ("Skooks"), 28, and daughters Pollie, 21, and Alexis, 19—and together they have turned out some nearly unbelievable creations.

Consider Magic's V-twin engine in comparison to Ford's 302: The Ford engine measures 24" by 21" by 28" and weighs 541 lbs., while Magic's engine, designed from a clean slate from the ground up, measures 13" by 11" by 28" and weighs just 65 lbs. Sound impossible? There's more: the Magic engine is completely dismantleable with a single allen wrench and every single bolt holding it together is identical. Says Alex, "That's the kind of design skills that we bring to the bicycle industry," an industry in which Alex finds "very little engineering going on."

Strong commentary, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Magic's current recipe includes completely original (unorthodox?) cranks, bottom bracket, hubs, and complete wheels, while a unique shifting system (like Grafton, Magic's not saying how it will work, except that it is also derailleurless) and hydraulic brakes are both in the development stages. Pedals will follow and the other holes filled in as well to produce a complete all-American group. The timeline? Two years max.

All Magic components start from a clean slate and utilize pure engineering design mated with the sheer love of cycling that the Pong family has. (Magic isn't really new to the cycling world after all. Alex was an Olympic hopeful in '68, plus he invented an injection molded 20" mag wheel in '66 and a new road brake design—of which 10 or 20 were sold—in '71. Son Skooks races motorcycles and mountain bikes.) By the way, Alex, though a practically peerless engine, aircraft, and bicycle component designer, is also a high school dropout.

Magic's clean slate approach has resulted in a crankset that mates hollow, bonded, two-piece cranks with an aluminum bottom bracket spindle. Magic claims the system is 2.155 more efficient, 1.42 more twist resistant, and 1.81 times stiffer than the mass-produced cranks on the market. Plus, chainrings are available in any size from 20 teeth on up, in any color, in any custom length, and the road setup weighs in 275 grams lighter than a Shimano Ultegra setup. The price of all this exotica? $645 for cranks, rings, and BB.

Wheels receive the same no-holds-barred approach at Magic. The hubs integrate the freewheel system into the center of the hub, allowing for a truly dishless wheel, a silent freewheel mechanism, cogs available in any size (and any color) from nine teeth on up, and a wheel system where the spokes on BOTH sides of the hub share in the drive load. What's more, the wheels are spoked with ultra wide aero spokes (12, 16 or 20 in number for road or trail) free of the usual 90 degree bend at the hub and pinned in place to prevent unwinding. Heady stuff, indeed, including the price: $1328 for a pair.

With their shifting system scheduled to debut this summer and the hydraulic brakes to follow in the fall (if all goes as planned), it looks like Magic may be the first U.S. company to actually offer the bulk of a complete component lineup. Only 200 cranksets have yet seen service, no doubt due to the price, but the company is backordered over $100,000 each in both cranks and wheels, proving that price is still no obstacle to some cyclists. Still, affordability lingers as the apparent roadblock to success in the quantity of sales department...

So then perhaps it comes as no surprise that Magic claims to have something extraordinary in the works in that department as well. And it may just be their biggest coup of all. Stay tuned.

Ritchey USA: Race-Proven Designs Made the World Round

Tom Ritchey's name is certainly not new to the bicycle and component manufacturing scene. In fact, he's so well known that an introduction to Ritchey in these pages could be construed as an insult to our readership. Let's shortcut by simply highlighting that he is one of the original fat tyre pioneers, a prolific frame builder, and a designer of some of the best received tyres, rims, parts, and components in the industry. At the age of 35, Ritchey sits actively atop, more accurately, in the middle of, an empire that spans three continents. His story and his products, are, in a word, amazing.

Miscellaneous Other American
Component Manufacturers

An incomplete sample listing:

ActionTec, Silverado, CA.

Aerospoke, Milford, MI.

American Classic, Canal Winchester, OH.

Bullseye, Burbank, CA.

Chris King, Santa Barbara, CA.

Cook Brothers Racing, Santa Ana, CA.

CQP Bicycle Components, Mission Viejo, CA.

Critical Racing, Montrose, CA.

GripShift / SRAM Corp., Chicago, IL.

Hed Design, White Bear Lake, MN.

Interlok Racing Design, Selma, OR.

Joe Murray Components, Blaine, WA.

Kingsberry USA, Lima, OH.

Manitou, Colorado Springs, CO.

Marin Mountain Bikes, San Rafael, CA.

Marinovative Componentry, Sausalito, CA.

Mathauser Hydraulic, Los Altos, CA.

Matrix/Trek, Waterloo, WI.

McMahan, Carpinteria, CA.

Nuke Proof Industries, Grand Rapids, MI.

Off-Road/Ocean State International, Woonsocket, RI.

Paul Price Components, Chico, CA.

Paragon Machine Works, Greenbrae, CA.

Profile For Speed, Chicago, IL.

Ringlé, Trenton, NJ.

Salsa Cycles, Petaluma, CA.

Scott/Mathauser, Sun Valley, ID.

Scott USA, Sun Valley, ID.

Specialized, Morgan Hill, CA.

Specialty Racing Products, Harvard, MA.

Sun Metal, Warsaw, IN.

Wheelsmith Fabrications, Menlo Park, CA.

White Industries, Novato, CA.

Wilderness Trail Bikes, Corte Madera, CA.

Winners Products, Anaheim, CA.

Ritchey's product lineup is diverse: It includes tyres, rims, spokes, skewers, and even rim tape for the wheels; plus cranks, bottom brackets, cantilever brakes, as core components; and bars, stems, seat posts, saddles, and bar ends to boot. While the focus is on mountain bikes, there are road versions of many of the different offerings. Ritchey's motive for getting into the design and building of bicycle components? "I've ridden and raced what's out there and I've broken them. Plus I wanted to go faster and try to improve my chances of winning races."

This desire, meshed with the tutelage of engineering greats like Jobst Brandt and his own father, plus the demands of his own elite level racing led Ritchey to many firsts in the bicycle industry: serious off-road tyres like the Quad, released in '83, bullmoose handlebars, cartridge bearing bottom brackets, released in '78, the Unicrown fork, and welded cromoly stems, some even like the "new" AheadSet system and released back in '75. Always ahead of his time, Ritchey even built his first frame in '72 at the age of 15.

Ritchey also approaches his component design and manufacturing differently than most of the other American manufacturers. "It's important to make things in the U.S., but more so to make them right. I'm not going to crash and burn my company just to make parts in the U.S." So while his products are designed and marketed in the States, he has them built by whoever he believes is best qualified to do the work, regardless of location. In all, some ten Japanese companies, ten Taiwanese companies, and several U.S. and European companies build for Ritchey, including Sugino, Nitto, Dia Compe, Sun Metal, DT, and Ambrosio, to name a few. Ritchey and ten employees keep tabs on the entire enterprise from their world HQ in Redwood City, CA.

The result is a wide array of components that emphasize lightness, durability, and proven manufacturing techniques. On the surface, while some products carrying the Ritchey label may appear to be only refinements of an existing product, the truth is otherwise. "Using my name is not just marketing hype. There's a purpose, a reason, and years of story, testing, and research behind each and every product that carries my name," explains Ritchey.

Examples: The Ritchey bottom bracket adopts the standard loose ball bearing design with a hollow nickel-chromium spindle and a unique, further outboard bearing placement to further support the pedaling load. His seat post features force directional triple butting; the pillar walls are thicker, and thus stiffer, to the front and rear. The headset weighs just 67 grams, has locking all steel needle bearings and the lowest stack height on the market. Even products as apparently straightforward as bar ends, brake pads, and spokes feature Ritchey proprietary exclusivity: the bar ends are the only available that are three dimensionally butted and free of glued or welded joints; the brake pads have a unique mud-shedding design and more sidewall clearance for cramped fork crowns and ultra-fat tyres; the spokes are forge butted and are the first private label job ever taken on by DT.

The proof that his approach is sound lies in his products' immense popularity in the after market, the appearance of Ritchey products as original equipment on the bikes from around the globe, and the singular success story of the Ritchey factory team. The race team is also integral to the design and testing of new components, as well. And Ritchey is proud to note that "Other parts companies may call themselves 'world's best,' but we're world champion!"

Unlike Grafton and Magic Motorcycle, though, Ritchey claims to have no plans to enter some markets that he considers already well-covered, such as the hub and derailleur markets. He prefers to focus his attention on those bicycle components which he feels truly need his design attention. That means we'll never see a complete Ritchey design component group, but we will continue to see, ride, and enjoy a continual flow of other new products from one of the industry's most dynamic and innovative designers and riders. Still, the question lingers: Do we really believe that Ritchey isn't working on a shifting system?

Conspiracies and Catastrophic Failures?

Interestingly, Grafton, Magic, and Ritchey approach manufacturing of their core components, cranks for example, from three distinctive approaches. This is not without controversy.

Ritchey has his cranks cold forged, like the top line production cranks available from Shimano, SunTour, Specialized, Mavic, and others. (Low end cranks, making up 98% of the crank market, are gravity cast.) Ritchey contends that this is the only legitimate, safe manner to construct a crankarm. "There's no dispute amongst metallurgical Ph.D.'s about this. When you have the option of forging, the forged crank will always be stronger, and that's by definition." He sees the CNC machining method used by after market crank producers like Grafton and others as "a joke, a shortcut to making product quickly." Casting himself, in his own words, as the "concerned father," he warns consumers that "There's almost a conspiracy to cover up the (crank) failures of the little guys. I guarantee my crank would last three times longer in fatigue testing than any CNC crank."

Grafton sees things differently, noting that "if cold forging is so good, then the aircraft industry would be using it. Any product, at least occasionally, is going to break, but cold forged is second to (CNCed) billet in durability and integrity. The main reason people go to cold forging is because it's cheaper." His cranks are CNC machined out of 7075 T6 billet with a 83,000 psi rating, the best material available, at least in block form, to date.

Magic agrees, but also avoids the argument being directed in its direction by building their cranks in an inherently stronger and more durable, hollow, two-piece, bonded design (although made of 70,000 psi billet). Pong also notes that cold forging sees little use in the aircraft industry, and adds "It has been proven that forging's advantage is insignificant, if not bogus. Our product is not any more dangerous than theirs is. The question is moot."

Perhaps it's time to call in our own Ph.D.'s and fatigue testing equipment. And in the meantime, let's all cut it out with the conspiracy cover-ups We don't want Oliver Stone on our case.