It's a cold mid-winter day in the Colorado Rockies, the time of year of when most outdoor enthusiasts have tucked their bikes into the back of the garage, and pulled out the ski quiver. But out on the western edge of Steamboat Springs, in a three-story building on Copper Ridge Drive, cycling is always front and center. Welcome to world headquarters of Moots, longtime maker of fine titanium road, mountain and cyclocross frames.
The night before, RoadBikeReview made the sometimes sketchy drive up and over a snow-slicked Rabbit Ears Pass, then down into Steamboat. Now, led by marketing manager Jon Cariveau, we're going to find out just how a handmade titanium bicycle frame comes to life.
Our tour starts in the main showroom of a 15,000-square foot building that houses the company's manufacturing, administration, and sales staffs, plus two upper-floor employee apartments. All told, 25 people punch the clock at this clean, no-frills locale. Cariveau, an elite level amateur cyclocross racer in his spare time, has worked at Moots for 16 years. Who knows how many of these tours he's conducted.
"We have an open door policy here at Moots," he explains. "So on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the general public can come in and tour the facility starting at 10 a.m. We get more visitors in the summer, but even in the winter people will come by when they are taking a day off from skiing."
[youtube width="600" height="361"]httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIaOVcSOZY8
First stop on the tour is this showroom, whose highlight is an array of point-of-purchase displays showing off the bike maker's latest wares in road, cross and mountain bikes. Each bike is spec'd with top shelf components, and each one sports that famed grayish bead blast finish that's been a staple of Moots bikes for years. No fancy paint jobs here.
"We do that for its consistency and the fact that we don't have to deal with paint and breathing it," explains Cariveau. "Of course if a customer wants to get their bike painted, we can prep the frame for paint and send it off to their favorite painter. But most people don't. There's just something about the look of titanium that people are really drawn to. And if your bike happens to fall over when you stop at the coffee shop, you don't have to worry about the paint chipping. Ti doesn't chip."
Moots started down this road of craftsmanship over showmanship back in 1981, when original founder Kent Eriksen started building road frames in the back of a bike shop. Steel was the material of choice then. Mountain biking didn't officially exist. (The origin of the Moots name comes from a rubber alligator-shaped eraser head Eriksen owned as a child. Squeeze the eraser and it made a noise that sounded like, "Moots!")
For the first decade, Moots worked with nothing but prestige steel tubing, adding its first mountain bike in 1983, around the same time guys like Gary Fisher and Tom Ritchey were messing around with fat-tired bikes in Marin County, California. Finally in 1991, Eriksen, who eventually sold his stake in the company, switched over to building exclusively with titanium.
"Ti had become more available to builders and it just made sense to switch," says Cariveau. "You didn't need to paint it, and the lifespan was much greater than a steel frame. The idea was to build a product that would last since handbuilt frames are so expensive to begin with. With titanium, there's no rust, no corrosion. And as anyone who's ridden a ti bike knows, it has a really special ride quality."
Today, Moots is cranking out about 1500 of these "special" frames, plus an array of seatposts and stems. Eighty-five percent of the frames are stock sizes, with custom jobs accounting for the remainder of production. Everything is sold exclusively through a distribution network that includes 125 authorized North American dealers, plus distributors in Europe, Asia, Australia, and beyond.
Moots mountain bike frames range from $3250 for the MX 29-inch hardtail, to $4995 for the MX Divide 29-inch dual suspension. The road line starts at $3495 for the Vamoots CR (frame and fork), and tops out at $4630 for a Vamoots RSL (frame and fork).
"Even in the winter, things don't slow down much around here," says Cariveau. "Part of that, we think, is because in this age of cookie-cutter carbon fiber bikes everywhere, people are growing weary, and circling back to something that is of high build quality and high value and longevity. They are looking to invest in something that will serve them well."
Moots wasn't always so confident in its building material choice. In the early 2000s, as the bike industry made its headlong charge into all things carbon fiber, the company found itself at a crossroads. But while many of its craft-builder competitors succumbed, Moots stayed true to its roots.
"Sure we investigated some of the material-blend technologies that were out there, but in the end with our build principals we didn't want to go there," recalls Cariveau. "Now we are the mainstay in titanium bikes, and we have huge brand loyalty. It was a decision that served us well in the long run."
Bike Building Headwaters
Actual bike production begins on the building's main floor, in the mitering room, or what Cariveau calls the headwaters. It's here where all raw materials are delivered from several mills in the Northwest U.S. Up on the rooms west wall is a large stack of uncut tubing of various wall thicknesses and diameters. Cariveau says that at any given time, Moots has about $350,000 worth of titanium tubing on hand. Raw material cost is roughly $25 a foot for the most commonly used 1½-inch tube size.
All the tubing is seamless, which Cariveau explains is better than its seamed cousin. "Seams create a weak spot and don't miter as well," he says. "We use all seamless drawn tubing that is certified for roundness and straightness."
The tube shape variety means Moots can build a larger array of frame sizes. Its 2013 catalog lists nine stock sizes for its road frames (48cm to 62cm) and six MTB size options.
"That's a very important distinction for Moots," says Cariveau. "A 48cm road bike needs different tube diameters and wall thicknesses than a 62cm in order for it to have the proper ride feel and ride quality. Otherwise you'd end up with a bike that was too harsh or too noodly."
Each road bike is made up of eight tubes, which are cut to proper lengths and angles in the mitering room using any number of vintage Bridgeport milling machines. "Most of these are from the mid-70s, but they are still extremely accurate," explains Cariveau. "And because they are less expensive we are able to load up on them and have each one be dedicated to doing just one job. That way the process and set-up never changes, which allows us to be more efficient and accurate."
This area also serves as the tube manipulation center. Using a variety of simple yet elegant tools such as a bender roller, workers can add curving or ovalization to a tube. Moots also has its own CNC department, which allowed it to create these tools in house. "This gives us control over quality and lead times because we are not at the mercy of another machine shop," says Cariveau.
During our visit, we got the chance to bend a downtube for a full-suspension cross country bike. It takes all our weight (175 pounds) to start the bend. "It's a method we used on a smaller scale for years on our chainstays and seatstays," explains mitering supervisor Nate Bradley. "Here we've just brought it up to bigger scale. Everything is contained in the roller and mandrel, so no material escapes out the sides or deforms."
Cleaning Then Welding
After all the mitering and bending is complete, a complete tubeset is dropped into a box and sent down the line for cleaning and welding. The cleaning process, says Cariveau, is exceptionally important when welding ti because the chances for contamination are very high. Any cutting oils or greasy fingerprints can ruin a weld joint and make it brittle. To avoid this, freshly mitered tubes are first buffed with a buffing wheel, then immersed in an ultrasonic cleaner, which Cariveau calls a glorified jewelry cleaner.
"There's a hot soap solution on one side and a (loud) ultra sonic action on the other," says Cariveau. "Twenty minutes later they are ready for drying. After cleaning, tubes are only touched by cotton-gloved hands. This alleviates any chance of mucking things up with finger grease or any other contaminate."
When the tubes are dry, it's time to weld. Following a frame-size specific blueprint, tubes are loaded into an Anvil brand jig. Initial tubeset attachment is done via tack welds, which sets the frame in place for more robust welding down the line. All this welding is done with the aid of argon gas, which purges oxygen from around the tube, which otherwise would contaminate the welds.
Once fused together, frames are hung from the ceiling awaiting their turn with a mainframe welder. At this point each frame is also given a yellow tag, showing who its final owner will be and who works on the frame during the production process. The end result is something akin to a certificate of authenticity. It's also proof of the high degree of care and craftsmanship that goes into these frames.
When it's time for mainframe welding, frames will come down off the hooks and go into a freehand welding stand. Next each frame is double-passed welded, meaning the tack weld is fully completed, and then 6/4 ti weld rod is used to add a second weld.
"This is a point of pride for Moots," says Cariveau. "A lot of people only do single pass, meaning they don't complete that initial fusion pass, just ad the weld rod. But that can be narrow and erratic. Double pass is smooth and wider. We do it that way because you get more penetration and strength."
It takes 2.5 hours to complete just one frame. Even the cable stops and water bottle bosses are welded to each frame (no aluminum inserts or pop-rivets here). The entire process is meticulous, if not tedious.
Off To Finishing
A hand stamped serial number on the bottom bracket begins the finishing process. It reveals the full ID of the frame, size, and date made. Next frames are squared, reamed, and faced, assuring that whoever builds up the frame wont have to make any alterations, and that the frame wont wobble or bobble when roaring down a steep decent. This work is checked on an alignment table. Frames that don't measure up are pulled out of production.
Next frames are bead blasted, giving them the unique Moots look. A headbadge and decals are added, and then final checks made. "One thing people always get a kick out of is the fact that we use lemon pledge on all our frames during the finishing process," says Cariveau. "The frames are really dried out when they come out of the bead blaster, but the waxy material in the Pledge actually fills in the pours of the ti, giving it shine and keeping it from absorbing grease or finger prints."
Make What You Need
Around the corner from finishing, is the CNC department. This small array of computer-controlled machines allow Moots to make about 80 percent of the add-on parts for its frames (headtubes, bottom bracket shells, dropouts, brake bridges, etc.). The rest come in from California's Paragon Machine Works.
"We make our own threaded shells, cable stops, face plates, you name it," says Cariveau. "Everything is designed here as well, which allows us to do prototyping and tooling very quickly. That's something the big guys just can't do because they are working on lead times that are 4-5 years out. It's obviously also a huge quality control feature. We can test things in house and make sure bad product never goes out the door."
Next to the CNC machines is a huge stack of cardboard boxes, each one containing a brand new Moots frame that's at the end of a 6-8 week journey through the production process. Some are destined for U.S. bike shops. Others will head overseas to places such as China, Korea, and all over western Europe. No matter where they end up, they'll all take a little part of the Colorado Rockies with them.
"Our location is a huge part of our identity," says Cariveau. "It's part of our history and our heritage. Right outside our door is world class singletrack and tons of great road riding. Plus the people who work here bring a passion for bikes into what they do. Living in Steamboat, riding bikes here, building bikes here, it's special - and it's something we've been doing for 30 years."
And while Cariveau would never mention it, even the infamous Lance Armstrong is a Moots fan. In a tweet posted on December 5, 2012, the disgraced cyclist expressed his excitement regarding a photo of a Dura-Ace 9000 equipped Moots RSL road bike being built up at the Mellow Johnny's bike shop in Austin, Texas. "@mellowjohnnys @mootscycles can't wait to ride it!," posted Armstrong on his Twitter feed in response to a @mellowjohnnys Twitter picture of the bike being built up [see: https://twitter.com/lancearmstrong/status/276441701269254145 and https://twitter.com/mellowjohnnys/status/276383458283110400/photo/1].
It's probably the first bike Armstrong's ever had to pay for - and he choose a Moots.
Check out our initial Sneak Peek: Moots Factory Tour.