BOZEMAN - Carl Strong, who has built more than 3,500 custom bicycle frames over 17 years, hasn't given up on his quest to build the perfect frame.
"My goal is to get better with every frame and continue the never-ending journey toward the perfect frame," Strong wrote in a recent blog post on his Web site, www.strongframes.com. "As you might expect, the improvement from one frame to the next is infinitesimal and nothing the owner would or could ever know or recognize."
These are exciting times for custom bicycle frame builders like Strong. Cyclists searching for the ultimate ride are willing to plunk down thousands of dollars on bikes made specifically for them.
In the cycling world, going custom is the equivalent of bypassing off-the-rack suits hanging at the local department store and taking a walk down London's Savile Row, where skilled tailors measure your body and stitch a custom suit.
"The custom frame niche has really taken off," Strong said during an interview at his shop in east Bozeman. "Builders are just flooding into the marketplace." The custom bike segment has become so popular that it has even spawned related industries, such as businesses that design and manufacture the specialized jigs, fixtures and tools used to build frames.
Things were much different when he started the business in 1993, said Strong, a lifelong cyclist and racer who started tinkering with bikes while he was in junior high school.
"When I got into this business - I had a partner at the time - there was no such thing as this business. We ended up building a lot of the tooling ourselves," Strong said.
Custom frame builders have their own ideas on how to build the best bikes. Some prefer classic lugged-steel construction, in which the bike frame takes shape by soldering tubes into elaborately shaped lugs.
Strong specializes in welded frames. Delicate beads laid down by a TIG welder join the frame's tubes.
"I like a welded frame because it gives you a lighter overall product and more flexibility in the materials that you can use," Strong said. "Every builder's personality shows through in the end product, and my personality is a no-nonsense approach. Some people like to put on a lot of extra stuff, but I'm more performance-oriented. If something isn't necessary, I leave it off."
Strong's frames range from $1,650 for a steel frame to $3,200 for a titanium frame. That doesn't include the price of components such as wheels, handlebars and brakes.
Because most of his business comes from out of state, Strong rarely meets face to face with his customers. Nevertheless, he takes his customers through an intricate 10-step design and build process using e-mail and telephone.
"I try to differentiate my brand from my competition because my design process is very detailed. It's heavily customer-oriented," Strong said. "I spend the whole period of time, from when they place the order and through the time I'm working on the design, so that they can make small decisions."
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Strong's blog often includes photos of frames that are being built. The photos often leave customers drooling.
"Is it just us custom first timers or does everyone get a little excited at the first mention of their build being in the lineup?" wrote one customer. "It's like being an 8-year-old at xmas all over again."
Strong normally builds about two frames per week. But when the tulips sprout and customers are anxious to get rolling, he manages to complete three or four frames per week. Even then, he takes his time and never rushes a project, he said.
Cyclist Cecil Pegram of Billings says Strong provided unbelievable customer service when he ordered a titanium and carbon fiber road bike a couple of years ago. There was a delay in sourcing the special couplings that are used to join the frame's steel and carbon parts. So Strong offered to build a steel frame, which Pegram rode until his titanium and carbon bike was completed.
"He made me this wonderful steel frame to my specs. It was even the same color as my regular frame," Pegram said. When the original frame was completed, Strong swapped out the parts and Pegram was on the road, but not without some regrets.
"Two weeks afterwards, I asked Carl if I could buy that steel frame because it was a sweet ride. But he had sold it. I was kicking myself," Pegram said.
That attention to customer service earned Strong a customer for life.
"Whenever somebody says they're shopping for a new bike, I tell them to check out Carl," Pegram said.
Most of the frames Strong builds are for road bikes, cyclocross bikes and hard-tail mountain bikes. He uses steel and titanium and most recently has been building custom frames from carbon fiber.
The growing popularity of custom frames has opened the door to people who lack the skills or abilities of an established professional. A few years ago, Strong became a founding member of the Framebuilders Collective, a group of custom builders who joined together to "support and promote" ethical frame building.
Although he's still looking to build the perfect frame, Strong isn't discouraged. He loves coming to work every day.