When I was a kid looking at glossy mountain bike magazines in the 90s, I could see all the angles and recognize the geometry of brands as clear as day. I would wonder about the people who made the bikes; and I wanted to be one. Even today, I still flirt with the idea of rebooting my life as a frame builder: leaving the world behind to go deep on learning how to build jigs, tig welding and filet brazing steel.
Craftsmanship has always been something for which I have great respect. When a creator has the time and space to go deep into their craft and build a process to make something beautiful, well that's simply admirable. There's nothing I love more than coming across new craft people doing their thing. That's why I started the indie bike builder list. The list is an annual compendium of brands, builders and small batch makers that have caught my eye over the years.
One of my favorites from this year's list was Corvid Cycles from Colorado. Corvid is a custom titanium shop headed up by builder Chad Corbin. There was something about Chad's bikes that instantly stood out for me among others. What is clear from Chad's bikes is a genuine appreciation and embrace of 'the beauty of simplicity'. That raw titanium and raw carbon look will get. Me. Everytime.
Chad and I were supposed to meet this summer, but unfortunately my trip to Boulder was canceled. However, I still wanted to talk to Chad—many framebuilders out there have fantastic stories and Chad is no different. His story is one of career pivots, learning, and experimentation. He also has some great thoughts around inclusivity and the future of cycling. Alas, I don't want to give it all away... so here it is.
I started building lugged steel frames in the early 2000's. I learned from a combination of now defunct internet forums and books like the Paterek manual. Like many builders, I started framebuilding as a hobby, making bikes for friends—I never thought it would turn into a career. Fifteen years later, my partner and I decided to take a year-long sabbatical from work (which, for us both, ended up as permanent leave). During that time, I had the opportunity to take a titanium frame-building class at the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon.
The following summer, I purchased a welder and a bunch of tubing—and I started practicing. When we returned to Colorado in the fall, I found a job at Janus Cycle Group, the parent company of Dean Titanium and Merlin brands. After a year as the lead builder and production manager, I decided to start Corvid Cycles.
Fun, versatile, clean, refined, and—most importantly—one-of-a-kind. I build each bike to fit the rider's use and riding style. Although I have different models, each bike is custom and unique. Custom may mean specific geometry to accommodate a special need, additional mounts for a specific accessory, or tweaking the design to accommodate a non-standard mix of components. In four years of business I haven't built two identical frames, and I hope I never will.
This is a hard question because there are aspects to each model that I love to build, and others I find absolutely tedious. I'm not a huge fan of the flat mount process, but it speeds-up the back end of the build by eliminating the brake mount and brake bridge. If it weren't for that, and all of the internal routing that usually accompanies gravel bikes, I'd probably say the GRT.
The Sojourner is also quite a fun frame to build, but the Pinon shell adds some complexity to the back end and requires a lot more weld time. Most Sojourners also end-up with 20 or more bosses for bottles, bags and other accessories, so that can get a bit tiresome. I actually love welding in the bosses, but drilling, deburring and brushing them is an exercise in patience.
I guess the CORAX would be my favorite because it is fairly straight-foward as far as building goes, and since I'm a mountain biker at heart, I know it will be a super fun and versatile bike for the owner.
Each frame material has its place according to its strengths and weaknesses. Carbon and aluminum are great for lightweight road racing bikes but can be stiff and lifeless. Those qualities can be used in full suspension mountain bikes to prevent flex so that the suspension can do its job. Steel is a lively, springy material, and makes great road, gravel and hardtail mountain bikes, but must be painted and maintained to prevent corrosion. I don't have experience with bamboo or wood, so can't comment there.
Ti is a really interesting material that is somewhat lively and springy like steel, but has a “softness” (aka compliance) that contributes to its famous ride quality. It's a little heavier than a comparable carbon or aluminum bike, but much more resistant to impact and less likely to fail catastrophically. Compared to steel, it is lighter and doesn't require paint since it doesn't corrode. I've been riding Ti since the 90's (!) and am a bit biased, but I think it is a great material for road, gravel and hardtail mountain bikes, where comfort and durability are more important than weight.
Every bike starts with an interview to understand the rider, what they plan to do with their bike, how they ride, what type of terrain they will be riding on, etc. Each interview takes an hour or more and is the most critical part of the process. Everything I build is custom, so making sure I understand the rider well at the beginning is super important. The interview also tells me which components the rider wants, what their budget is, and ultimately allows me to create a quote. If the customer decides to place a deposit, then we work towards developing a frame design based on the rider's dimensions. More often than not, I will have the rider visit a bike fitter so that we can be sure that what I design fits perfectly.
The production process starts with cutting and mitering the tubes. I will then build seat tube and chainstay sub-assemblies, and weld in cable ports if the design requires. The tubes and sub-assemblies are then placed into a fixture and the frame is fully fused (welded) without additional filler wire, ensuring a sound, full-penetration weld. Titanium is highly reactive with oxygen at high temperatures, so the frame is filled with argon and the weld area flooded with argon to keep the weld area from being contaminated. After the fusion weld, the frame is removed from the fixture, placed in a bike stand, and welded a second time with filler wire to strengthen the joint. I then install bridges and bosses, ream, face, chase and hand brush before final assembly.
Boulder has a large biking community that appreciates and supports local builders. Although most of my builds leave the state these days, the opportunity to build for and receive feedback from local buyers, and in return, receive free word-of-mouth advertising is huge for a small business. I'm also grateful for a large community of local builders who are always willing to help if needed. And of course it certainly doesn't hurt that we have access to some of the best road, gravel and trail systems around to help me design and test my bikes.
Like me, my partner Shan is a recovering engineer who turned her hobby into her profession. She's been slowly building the foundation for making custom bags over the last few years, first by working at a local outdoor gear repair service, and then by making custom bags for me and friends. This experience has allowed her to see how all sorts of outdoor textiles are constructed and how to best repair them. In the last year she has been making custom bags for many of my bikepacking builds, and her company, Reroot Outdoors, will have its official “debut” during the Philly Bike Expo in late October. It's been great to be able to provide custom bikes and bags under one roof, and I'm really excited to see her grow her business. She'll be the first to admit that her social media and web presence needs some work, but you can find her at rerootoutdoors.com or @rerootoutdoors on Instagram.
I founded Corvid Cycles with an audacious statement: "Titanium Bicycles for Every Body". The statement is a deliberate play on words meaning not just bodies of varying size and shape, but also of varying ability, reflecting my long-term goal of providing access to bicycles for those with physical disabilities. But in the context of the events following the summer of 2020, I realized the meaning must expand to encompass all of those communities underrepresented in cycling.
“Our industry is predominately white, male, & middle to upper income. It is inaccessible to women, people of color, the LGBT+ community, & those with special needs.”
It is no secret that the bicycle industry, and indeed the greater outdoor industry as a whole, lacks equal representation. Our industry is predominately white, male, and middle to upper income. It is inaccessible to women, people of color, the LGBT+ community, and those with special needs. To that end, I have pledged to donate a portion of my annual profits to supporting individuals and organizations devoted to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in cycling, and in the broader community. This is an ongoing effort.
Balance. The last two years have been crazy busy with increased demand, compounded by shipping delays and component shortages—which have drastically increased the time I put into each build. That said, I really can't complain because business has been excellent and I have a healthy wait list of builds in the queue. But—I'm feeling a bit crispy after two difficult years. I'm planning to make more time for myself, to keep myself physically and mentally healthy, so that I can continue to produce for a long time. In practice, that means taking a few builds off the calendar so that my partner and I can take more trips with our bikes throughout the year. In terms of building, I'll be officially announcing a new model that I've been building “off menu” for the last two years that fits between my GRT gravel model and my MAP drop-bar MTB.
Chatting with Chad brought up some fantastic themes that really hit home for many of us.
The idea that work and career don't have to be a constant, single direction. That we are allowed to rethink what it is we do on this earth, and to follow our passions. In fact, we sometimes have to take a leap in order to land in a place that will be most rewarding to us. Having gone through some massive work-related changes myself, I admire stories like Chad's and wonder if I have shifted enough.
The idea of inclusivity in cycling is something that I think and write about a lot. It's great to see that even at the indie builder level someone is considering what this means and how to approach it.
And finally the idea of craftsmanship: what Chad is doing is beyond aspirational. It takes guts to stay small and honest in what you build. I imagine with Corvid's growing success, Chad will have some decisions to make about the direction his company and bikes take. Wherever that leads, we will be following along.
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