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|July 24-30, 2008
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From the ground up
Bike builder gains esteem with each handcrafted frame
by Dave Philipps
On a recent afternoon, the Ground Up garage suddenly filled with an eerie lavender glow that meant Eric Baar had started building another frame.
He leaned over a web of metal tubes, welding mask down, nose inches from a tiny snake of lightning jumping between the metal and an arc-welding torch in his right hand.
Zap... Zap... Zap....
Each tiny bolt melted the metal in front of his eyes, joining two tubes at an angle measured to the tenth of a millimeter.
Baar is custom-bike builder. His one-man factory, Ground Up Designs, crafts bike frames from scratch, by hand with precision and flair that have built him a reputation as one of the best framemakers in the state.
Track bikes, road racers, tandems, burly mountain bikes, even midget-size racers called pixies — Baar builds them all.
“Nothing is stock. Everything is custom. The only thing I always start with is the customer’s needs,” he said after he flipped up his mask.
Baar, 31, has been making frames for nine years. He has a long brown ponytail, big mutton chop sideburns and librarian glasses. He tends to wear pants cut off midshin with fat-lace sneakers, and while working he likes to listen to a mix of hardcore death metal and classical concertos.
His welding is solid, precise and fastidiously neat. His small, cinder block workshop is anything but. Old frames dangle from the rafters with dismembered bike parts of every description and vintage. A 70-year-old lathe powered by a leather belt, which slaps rhythmically when turning, is almost buried in fine aluminum shavings left from handmade parts. Every flat surface is flooded with heavy metal tools, cigar boxes of assorted metal bits, and lengths of raw tubing waiting to be turned into bikes. The windows are covered in dirt. A calendar of “lovely ladies and beautiful bikes” hanging on the door is a month behind.
“My favorite thing in the world is to see dawn coming in the windows and realize I’ve been working all night,” Baar said. “That usually means I’ve done something really creative.”
Baar, from South Dakota, went to engineering school to become a machinist. If he’d followed that path, he’d be using a computer to make precision parts. Instead, in 1999 he went analog. He decided he would take a few files, a torch and some tin snips and make a bike. Things grew from there.
“I love bikes, and I love to make stuff. It was natural for me,” he said.
He moved to Colorado Springs in 2000 to build bikes for Tomac, a small bike company based in the city at the time. He made his own frames after hours, mostly for friends, and got a reputation for solid, cool designs.
When Tomac closed in 2001, he decided to go off on his own, and Ground Up was born. He’s now made 183 bikes — about as many bikes as a Chinese bike factory could churn out in an hour.
No. 1 priority
In a lot of ways, custom bicycles are like microbrews. They are made locally by a handful of people obsessed with craftsmanship. And while the vast majority of the population is happy with the mass-produced versions, true aficionados gush about the variety and quality offered by the smaller artisans.
And like microbrews, there is a hefty markup. Mass-produced frames rarely cost more than $1,000. Custom frames never cost less. Baar’s start at $1,200 for a basic steel road frame and climb to several thousand for elaborate titanium. Relatively speaking, his prices are a bargain. A custom Moots frame, made in Steamboat Springs, will set a rider back about $3,500. A custom Black Sheep, from Fort Collins costs $6,700.
Baar’s price includes $300 to $400 worth of tubes and other materials. The rest pays for Baar’s labor and expertise. Even so, he’s not getting rich. He gave up driving years ago because he couldn’t afford to stay in business and maintain a car. He lives in almost monastic simplicity.
“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices,” he said looking at the machinery that clutters his workshop. “Not driving, not doing a lot of things people do, even to the point of not really looking for a girlfriend because I’m afraid of losing all this.”
Not that Baar doesn’t have fun. Friends are always stopping by to hang out while he works. He is part of the social glue that holds the city’s bike community together. When he wanted to quit building bikes a few years ago and get a real job after losing his lease, local bikers wouldn’t let him. They pleaded. They lectured, then they found him a new shop and helped renovate it.
Crowds come over to the shop every Tuesday night to race pixies — tiny BMX bikes intended for 5-year-olds — on a special downhill track he built on the hilly lot around his workshop and house. The track drops through a tight hairpin turn, cuts around a 22-foot-long 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood that Baar parked for good when he gave up driving, and dives down in front of his house to a steep tabletop jump where, Baar said, “people regularly wreck themselves.”
After the downhill race, riders head to a banked, circular dirt track Baar built in front of his shop. It’s only about 14 feet in diameter, and Baar calls it the “Dizzydrome.” Packs of pixies race around and around. The last rider standing wins.
There is often live music accompanying the race.
Amateurs to Olympians
Baar doesn’t advertise.
People seek him out when they have a need. The way to his shop is hidden, though. It’s a wonder anyone finds him. A tiny sign off a quiet suburban street directs people up a steep, rutted dirt track. A small, pink cinder block garage sits in a clutch of elms with crickets chirping lazily in the heat. The only sign it is a bike shop is an artistic installation of a handful of bike frames half buried in the dirt near the front door.
Still, people find him.
Joanne Kiesanowski, an Olympian who races for her native New Zealand but lives in Colorado Springs, has had two track bikes built by Baar. Often at competitions, she has to ride sponsors’ bikes, but said nothing beats her custom bike.
“I love it, it’s awesome,” she said.
She may get to ride one of his bikes this summer in Beijing.
Baar has made a lot of top-level bikes for top-level riders. Photos of them winning races hang on the walls of his shop. But he also crafts bikes for regular guys.
Allen Beauchamp, an amateur rider in Colorado Springs, made a pilgrimage to Baar’s shop for a beginner track bike to ride in the velodrome.
“It was pretty cool,” Beauchamp said. “We talked over what I needed. He got me all measured, then he started scribbling numbers on a scrap of paper. You could see the gears turn in his head.
“I said to him, ‘You’re seeing my bike in your head aren’t you?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, and it’s cool.’”
They selected a combination of tube that would be sturdy but light. A month later, Beauchamp had a bike.
“It’s a missile. An absolute missile,” Beauchamp said. “It’s stable, forgiving and as responsive as I could imagine.”
He’s already scheming about the next bike he wants Baar to build.
A perfectionist’s plight
The bike Baar is building right now is for himself. It’s a titanium road frame. The first titanium bike he’s ever built.
Titanium is hard to work with, he said. When heated about 800 degrees, it reacts with the air, becoming brittle and oxidized in seconds, so Baar has to weld the tubes in a bath of inert argon gas.
“And you have to have it spotlessly clean. You can’t even touch it,” he said as he wiped the tubes down wearing cotton gloves. “I’ve had these tubes cut for a month, but I’ve been too chicken to try welding them because I’m afraid I can’t make it perfect. Now, I guess I’ll find out.”
He slipped his welding mask back over his face and leaned in over the spotless metal. He tends to be obsessive about perfection — always wondering what he can do to make a weld or an angle just the slightest bit better. To get his mind off it, he plays guitar badly. He says when your work demands perfection it’s important to have a hobby “you don’t mind sucking at.”
Zap... Zap... Zap... The little lightning from his torch danced over the molten metal. After a minute of complete concentration he lifted his mask, inspected the weld, and said “That’s pretty much as good as it gets.”
GROUND UP DESIGNS
Styles: Anything you can dream up
Cost: Starts at $1,200
Construction time: 1 month
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