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The Black Cat Molino: A Chat with Todd Ingermanson

Say hello to the Black Cat Molino, Todd Ingermanson's masterpiece that goes beyond a bike—it's a gateway into the world of custom bicycle building. Our conversation with Todd unfolds into a look at the craftsmanship of Black Cat Bikes and much, much more.

The Black Cat Molino: A Chat with Todd Ingermanson

When I first laid eyes on the Black Cat Molino on Instagram, it was love at first sight. The blend of artistry and sheer individuality captured in that single post was enough to make me pause and dive deeper. The more I explored, the more I realized that Todd Ingermanson, the mastermind behind Black Cat Bikes, was crafting not just bicycles, but stories on wheels. With over two decades of experience, having started building bike frames back in 2002, Todd has honed his craft from the ground up—transitioning from the kid sweeping floors in a bike shop to becoming a revered artisan whose bikes are sought after by enthusiasts around the globe. His approach to bike making, prioritizing unique needs and aesthetics over mass production, resonated deeply with me. The Molino checked so many boxes for what I consider not just a perfect bike, but a companion for adventures untold.

As I spoke with Todd, it became evident that every curve, weld, and every choice on the Molino tells a tale. Not just any tale, but a reflection of a craftsman who intertwines meticulous engineering with artistic expression. From the origins of the Molino to the thoughtful design decisions that distinguish Black Cat bikes, Todd opened up about the joys and challenges of constructing bikes that stand out in the crowd. I learnt a lot from our conversation, full of technical insights, philosophical musings, and personal anecdotes. Let’s go.

Can you give us a bit of background on Black Cat?

My name is Todd, and I build bike frames. I’ve been around the bike biz in a lot of different facets, from being the kid in the bike shop sweeping the floor, to working for major manufacturers, to owning my own tiny piece of the pie, but still sweeping the floor.

I started building bikes back in 2002, when 29er tires had just come out, but the bikes were extremely thin on the ground and I wanted one. I had done some metal fabrication in school, so I thought, “How hard can it be?” Well, I immediately found out how hard it is to make a bike that acts and rides like you want and expect by selectively corralling the variables. I built myself a lot of bikes trying to answer the question, “Why don’t they do it like this?” And finding out why they don’t do it like that. But, sometimes it’s a novel question, and you can get real results that do, in fact, make a better bike. Sometimes not, and the frame gets sheepishly and unceremoniously hung up on a peg. These days, after all these years, there are luckily a lot fewer frames on a peg.

How are Black Cats different? Oh man, I don’t know. I guess I try to design all the bikes from the perspective of my needs and interest and experience. I don’t design and build a bike because Black Cat needs a platform in the Red Hottt Gravel Segment, and I’m not out to sell a million units, so there’s no need to copy and paste a design in the interest of brand maintenance or company growth. Also, while trying not to be (too) cynical, I’m still asking that same “Why?” question over and over, for design functionality, while wearing my aesthetic heart on my sleeve. If I can make functional choices that look like aesthetic ones, I think things are going in the right direction. Maybe these factors line up to make my bikes somewhat different and recognizable? I don’t really know. I try not to think about it too much.

What sparked the Molino? What is the intention behind the bike?

The name “Molino” means windmill in Spanish, and is also the name of a historic logging camp that was at the mouth of the canyon I live on the eastern ridge above. The loggers stripped the redwoods from the mountain, but in this pursuit they also left some railroad beds and mule trails in some insane places that would otherwise be inaccessible, for better or worse. The Molino bike was designed as my idea of the best tool to ride in my neighborhood on our combination of steep dirt roads and even steeper trails.

In a larger context, the Molino is a reaction to the reality of people (myself included) wanting to get off pavement, while simultaneously acknowledging that trails have often become less friendly to bikes that aren’t 35 pound full-sus shred machines. There seems to be more and more of a divergence between what registers as a mountain bike and what is useful as a road bike, and the Molino is trying to find the ever-changing middle ground of expectations.

Perhaps living in a wealthy mountain bike Mecca, where even slight changes in overall bike design are immediately measurable in trail use and wear, things are a bit amplified. Around here, trails that 10 years ago were an absolute blast on a quick-handling rigid CX bike, are now terrifying and a lot less fun on the same bike. So, as a bike designer and builder, I have the opportunity to try and answer the question of “How do I keep having fun on my local trails and roads?” For the Molino, I’m leaning way more on the lessons I’ve learned in 20 years of 29er design, than I am from the last 100 years of collective road bike design. Modern “gravel” drivetrains have also done an excellent job developing for performance and friendly gearing, while reducing design bottlenecks (like front derailleurs), so it’s kinda on like Donkey Kong.

How does the Molino fit into the Black Cat line-up… say vs. the Hello Monsta?

The Molino is taking over from where the Hello Monsta(!) left off. The original Monsta was built for a very tall friend, back before component makers got on board with competent offroad dropbar parts. The resulting Hello Monsta was a mix of available standards using dropbar parts with MTB tires and gear inches. It was (and is) complicated to explain then and even more complicated to build and sell. The component game is now much more friendly toward the original intent behind the Monsta, so it’s time to move on to the new reality.

Do the tube bends have any benefit (other than simply looking stunning)?

I used to say no, it’s all aesthetic. But after building bikes with and without curved top tubes, the increased durability of a curved top tube has become apparent. I’m going out on a limb and say that I think it does have some durability benefit, where you’re trying to build in some flex. Top tubes are generally in tension when riding and going over bumps, so the curve seems to provide some amount of give and resiliency, though I’ve got zero real data to back it up other than failure rates of straight vs curved tubes over 20 years of doing both with the same exact tubes.

Seat stays are less ambiguous. More curves allow more compressive movement on an axial load (blah, blah, blah). Basically, turning a stiff column into a spring. Movement is a good thing, if it can be controlled. I try to use the curves as one more tool and variable in bike design to get what I want out of it, similar to things like tubing diameter, wall thickness, butt length, bracing angles, and all the other things that provide framebuilders something to think about while lying awake at night.

They look cool too. The combination of a convex top tube and concave seat stays, what I’m calling the “recurve,” gives a unique aesthetic, and an opportunity to build in a softer ride quality. On the Molino, I’m changing up some of the construction techniques I’ve used in the past to keep things interesting and challenging, while maintaining the Black Cat aesthetic.

Do bends affect geometry? If so, how?

Yes, bent tubes can definitely affect geometry. The easiest example is an S-bend chainstay. The “S” allows it to snake between the tire and chainring, and also the back of the crank arm, allowing a much shorter back end than what would be possible otherwise.

Curvy seat tubes can also facilitate similar geometry goals. Chainstay length has a huge impact on how the bike feels, and can change (relatively) dramatically for rider height. A limiting factor for short chainstays on 700c bikes is the rear tire hitting the back of the seat tube. If you can get that seat tube out of the way of the tire, it opens up a lot of possibilities, particularly for smaller riders and to produce quicker handling bikes.

As frame designers, we’re limited by the components’ clearance needs, which is dictated by human physiology, so we’re third on the list of deciding what we get to do.

As frame designers, we’re limited by the components’ clearance needs, which is dictated by human physiology, so we’re third on the list of deciding what we get to do. When you bend a tube, it can open some doors, but it can close others, so it all just depends on who I’m building the bike for and what the goals for the customer and bike are. Like I mentioned, tube bending is just one more tool to get where we want to go.

That stem...

HA! Yea... I built the first minimoose stem for flat bars for bikepacking like 15 years ago, but only for the stiffness consideration. People liked them for their aesthetics, so, ok, I’ll make 'em for that too! For dropbars, a stem with a 3” clamp width is obviously not going to work without a hideous removable faceplate, so I turned the whole thing into a hideous MC Escher-esque fabrication nightmare in order to thread the two halves onto the bar. I don’t ride with a computer, GPS, phone, or power meter on my handlebars, so why not stare at something debatably less weird on the 800ft climb up to my house at the end of every ride? I think they have zero pencil-to-paper benefit, and move in the exact opposite direction of the larger bike industry. But why not? They make more sense to me than aero socks. If people like 'em, I’ll build 'em.

Where do you find your inspiration and ideas?

Maybe they coalesce from the fog in the low blood sugar tunnel vision, on that last 800ft climb back to my house? Bicycles are only one way I burn through my time. I am also pretty obsessed with vintage motorcycles, furniture and architectural design, my Sweetie Pie and I are also refurbishing a fixer-upper house on acres of fixer-upper property, not to mention I’m getting ready to hopefully build a new shop. There are always a million projects and we’re constantly building stuff, so the membranes between the activities are pretty thin and permeable. The vintage Grand Prix motorcycles have the most bleedover in my eyes, but I don’t really know. Again, I try not to think about it too much.

When it all boils down, I’m just not sure that I’ve moved too far past asking “Why have I never seen it done that way before?” I honestly don’t know that I’m doing anything that interesting to anyone but myself, and when I’ve got a really hot idea for shaking up the entire bicycle world, I look at the Data Book and see that there’s a patent drawing from like 1903, that beat me to it by 120 years. So, yea, any chance of a genius self-diagnosis has left the building...

What can you tell us about the build kit and paint?

Thanks! As is the story with a lot of the last few years, “What’s in stock?!?” HA! Some of the choices were made by the customer, who is a very generous, long-time patron of mine. He gave some rough ideas based on a scene or two from the Big Lebowski (for real…) and some pics of a woodie wagon, and I took it from there. As I said, he’s very generous and allows a lot of room to play. His vague instructions are matched with an open mind, so it’s great fun.

What is the process for getting a Molino?

The process starts with a rigorous application protocol that entirely entails a deposit check that doesn’t bounce. Before or after that, a conversation about what you like, what bikes you had and have, what your local rides are like, what your expectations are, and anything else we deem important. It can be as bicycle specific as you like, or mostly about things neither of us know anything about, but wish we did, like 50’s Italian auteur cinema. As always, it’s my job to meet the customer where they are, wherever that might be in their experience. Sometimes someone is super picky, other times it’s their first custom bike and they have more questions than demands.

Once an outline is roughed out, it’s a study in patience. I make the bikes one at a time, and sometimes a project morphs into something more than initially anticipated. Sometimes things are pretty straight forward and go quickly, and other times there’s some twists and turns in what we end up building. In order to maintain full attention to each project in a one-human shop, the time spent has to be a variable, not a constant. Adding up unknowns means telling the future is pretty tough in regards to wait times. Right now, the wait is about a year and half, or so. I’m not likely meeting anyone’s upcoming summer vacation deadlines, that’s for sure.

What’s in the future for Black Cat?

Developing the Molino has unlocked a lot of potential projects that I’d like to do, including something with a little shorter chainstay and maybe one of those cute little (ahem, I mean, totally sick) gravel suspension forks. It’s a super versatile bike with a lot of potential for some really fun bike rides and set-ups. Trying to design a bike that’s as versatile as the current options allow and still ride really well for each individual, is harder than it might seem. It’s a super fun challenge that I’m going to do my best to work through.

Overall, it’s not lost on me that what’s going on over here at Black Cat might be a little unusual, and it’s a very long time to wait for a bicycle. I’m still a bit befuddled by this strange niche career. What an incredible opportunity to spend my time making stuff that greatly interests me. So as long as bicycle riders still want the bikes I create, I’ll still be here, probably trying to answer the questions that I’m still asking myself.

Thanks Todd.

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