What a difference a few years can make. In the late 1990s, titanium was the ultimate in exotic metal, considered perfect for elite bicycle frames in both road and mountain bikes.
But as with any trendy fashion, today’s wonder material can quickly become tomorrow’s passé pile of tubing. In the early 2000s, as the black magic of carbon fiber wrapped its glossy cloak around the collective imaginations of cyclists everywhere, titanium fell by the wayside. Even the most savvy fabricators in cycling were forced to turn their backs to titanium and its marvelous properties. Carbon reigned king, sweeping all others under a rug of 3k cosmetic weave.
But the fact that the titanium shop at Lynskey Performance in Chattanooga, Tennessee is bursting at the seams is testament to the fact that ti tubes didn’t die out completely. The mega-metal just went underground for a few years, and now Lynskey is back with a vengeance.
A Quarter-Century Legacy
Actually, Lynskey was only out of the game for a few years, and it was partly by choice. The Lynskey family founded Litespeed titanium in 1986, then sold the business in 1999. But it wasn’t long before they itched to get back into the bike biz, and in 2006 Lynskey Performance was born.
Visiting the Singletrack.com office on the way to Singlespeed World Championships this fall, Lynskey marketing manager Jamie Pillsbury related the story.
“The trade show of 2006 was our first year back, and at that point we’d only built maybe 30 or 40 bikes, so it was really just getting things going,” he said. “But they wound up selling, I think, 280 bikes at Interbike. So it was like, ‘What do we do!?'” Pillsbury said, noting that at the time Lynskey had just one welder and a handful of production guys.
“Now, we have almost 40 employees, and we’ll do maybe 3,000 bikes this year,” Pillsbury said, adding that the company is now cramped for space in their current location.
The workload is welcome. Lynskey does a fair amount of private label and original equipment work by building titanium bikes to spec for other brands in quantities from just a few up to 300 frames.
“It’s allowed us to grow and develop new stuff by having steady work coming in,” said Pillsbury.
Those bikes use the tubing, geometry and specification of the brand that orders them and don’t wear Lynskey decals — but they can’t hide their signature weld quality from these titans of ti in Tennessee.
Clearly, the Lynskey family believes in titanium, despite the modern lust for all things carbon fiber.
“I think carbon is a great material for what it is. But people have come to the realization that there’s a lot of similarity between brands,” Pillsbury said.
And with titanium, Pillsbury said that “if nothing else you’ve got better durability.” That’s in addition to the freedom of customizing ride quality, frame geometry and any number of personal touches that aren’t possible with bike frames minted from a high-pressure mold.
It was the performance side of the equation that Lynskey always wanted to chase in the first place. The freedom to select different frame tubes, butting profiles and shaping, on top of frame geometry, is unique to hand-built metal frames. And the company takes full advantage.
“That was our goal with the Helix road frame: To come up with the stiffness and similar performance characteristics of a carbon bike, but translate it into a ti bike,” Pillsbury said.
And modern features that carbon bikes quickly incorporated, like tapered head tubes, BB30 bottom brackets and asymmetric chainstays are not neglected either. With in-house engineering and production, Lynskey can easily adopt new frame features to more closely achieve weight and performance parity with competing carbon fiber frames.
“That’s what’s been cool for us is being able to then take the initiative to work in all those little features – BB30, InSet headsets, Lefty head tube; all those little feature we can incorporate,” he said.
Lynskey can tap several levels of customization on top of around 20 stock “Houseblend” models.
“You tell us what you want to do with the bike, and we work from there,” said Pillsbury. “That’s our angle. It’s very much performance oriented.”
Houseblend models are stock in terms of tubing, performance and geometry. Lynskey dealers and customers can order a model in their size and have a stock bike in short order. The next level of personalized performance is Houseblend Custom, in which the basic, stock Houseblend models get custom geometry to ensure perfect fit. And at the top of the hierarchy is the Pro Build program, in which every detail of the bike frame is tweaked, tuned and built to order for one specific customer’s needs.
Pillsbury brought a few bikes for us to check out in person, including a Helix road bike, a Pro 29 mountain bike and the company’s first custom 650-B mountain bike.
Helix tube shaping is unique to Lynskey. Pillsbury explained that it’s designed to add significant stiffness without additional weight, but he winked and shook his head “no” when asked if he could describe how it’s made.
The Helix tubes look like they started life as square-ish tubes that were then twisted into a smooth, even spiral. Or maybe they were originally shaped on a mandrel, starting life in the proper shape with no reworking. In any case, Helix tubing is part of what makes Lynskey frames distinctive, and the mystery just makes the bikes look even sweeter.
Extensive tube shaping like this is a hallmark of Lynskey’s “Level Four” customization within the Pro Build program. In Level Four, every aspect of the frame is attacked to offer pure performance for competitive riders. On the other hand, at the entry point of the Pro Build program, “Level One” custom bikes are built for sport riders, with round 3-2.5 titanium tubes butted for light weight. A Level One bike won’t be as stiff and snappy as a Level Four race bike, but it will be comfortable and light for the long haul of a century ride.
At the end of the day, if you can imagine it, Lynskey can build it. Call them up, and according to Pillsbury, chances are you’ll get to speak in person with David Lynskey himself, builder by hand of an estimated 80,000 titanium frames over his lifetime.
Eighty-thousand bikes might be a small fraction of the carbon bikes cranked out of a single mold, but if you’ve read this story this far, chances are, you might be ready to break the mold. Lynskey knows how you feel, and he’s got the torches hot and ready to help. [nggallery id=57]