Custom bicycle manufacturer fabricates titanium, ferrous materials, aluminum to thrive in competitive market
Firefly finds the right geometry and alloy combination for every rider
Firefly Bicycles, a 2011 start-up in the custom bicycle business, is thriving despite the sluggish economy and a competitive marketplace. The company’s three founders are using their previous work experience in bicycle fabrication and their enthusiasm for cycling to stay ahead of the competition.
If you wanted to take a leisurely spin through your neighborhood, traverse some backwoods trails, or subject yourself to a grueling 100-mile race and all of the muscle aches and saddle sores that go with it, you’d probably hop onto your bicycle and go.
Ideally you wouldn’t use one bicycle for all three. Since the first bicycles were developed in the middle of the 19th century, their designs have become much more refined. Depending on the activity, you could choose one that maximizes comfort for casual riding; speed for road racing; durability for unpaved trails and obstacles; or some combination of the three for other activities, such as triathlons and cyclocross.
Likewise, since the first successful airplane took to the skies early in the 20th century, aircraft have become specialized for dozens of unique roles. Military aircraft include fighters; bombers; fighter-bombers; high-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance aircraft; low-flying submarine hunters; and on and on. Civilian aircraft include commercial jumbo jets that move more than 800 passengers at a time; single-seat, ultralight aircraft piloted by hobbyists; four-seaters used mainly for recreational flying; and versatile, unstable aircraft designed specifically for stunt work in air shows.
Variety isn't the only thing that bicycles and aircraft have in common. High-end bicycles and aircraft are made from some of the same materials. Not similar materials. The same materials. One industry actually feeds the other.
“The titanium used in the bicycle industry usually comes from the aircraft industry,” said James Medeiros, a co-founder, frame builder, and director of research and development for custom bike manufacturer Firefly Bicycles, Boston.
“When a big aircraft manufacturer orders a quantity of titanium tubing, often it's less than a standard mill run, so they end up with more than they need. The surplus goes back to the marketplace, and some of it works its way into the bicycle industry,” he said.
Titanium has ideal characteristics for both applications: high fracture resistance, durability, corrosion resistance, and a high strength-to-weight ratio. However, these qualities don’t come cheap. At a typical wholesale spot price around $10 per pound, titanium shows up only in top-tier bicycles.
Titanium isn’t the only material used in bicycles, of course. Steel, stainless steel, aluminum, niobium-doped chrome-moly steel, and carbon fiber—another material used in the latest aircraft these days—also have a place in manufacturing custom bicycles. However, for all of its importance, choosing the material isn’t the first step in designing a custom-fit bicycle. Good bicycle design starts with a series of conversations.
Transportation in Dozens of Designs
The earliest bicycles were primitive, to say the least. They didn’t have pedals, but relied on the rider to make a running motion to propel the bicycle along. When pedals were added, they drove the front wheel directly. The so-called high wheeler had a large front wheel, up to 60 inches in diameter, so that one revolution of the pedals propelled the bicycle more than 15 feet. The large wheel also helped the bicycle over ruts, rocks, and other obstacles, providing a smoother ride than a smaller wheel would. Still, with pneumatic tires and suspensions in the future, the ride was anything but comfortable. The term boneshaker was used to describe the high wheeler. It wasn’t a safe ride, either. Riders coined the term header to describe the crash that came immediately after the front wheel made contact with a large obstacle that it couldn’t overcome.
Many variations soon followed, such as the unicycle, tricycle, quadricycle, and dicycle, which has wheels side by side, the rider sitting between them. The chain drive, pneumatic tires, a series of gears, and suspension systems led to the modern bicycle.
For many children, learning to ride a bicycle is their first big accomplishment and a first small step toward independence; for adults, a bicycle might be linked to a good workout or an excursion for touring, relaxing, or sightseeing. A bicycle also represents something deeper.
“It’s an integration of man and machine,” said Tyler Evans, Firefly’s welder and creative director. “It almost crosses into prosthetics.” Kevin Wolfson, Firefly’s frame designer, agrees, and he would know. He started racing before he knew how to ride a two-wheeler, having won his first race on a tricycle. He has given up tricycle racing, but he continues to compete these days in road races and cyclocross, a competition in which racers alternate between riding and carrying the bicycle over obstacles. Despite his long racing career, or maybe because of it, Wolfson hasn’t forgotten the thrill of riding as a youngster.
“For most of us, riding a bicycle is the first time we experience speed and danger,” he said. He would know that, too. Interested in learning about how people think and their motivations, he majored in neuroscience, the study of cognition, thought, and emotion. The field is based on sciences such as biology, chemistry, and mathematics to understand the physical basis for these phenomena.
As the company’s lead frame designer, Wolfson’s role is to ensure every rider’s bicycle fits well, like a prosthesis. His first tool is intuition. A lifetime of racing has exposed him to a multitude of designs, so he has seen plenty of geometries that work and plenty that don’t. He combines this background with several conversations to delve into what the rider wants to do, and how he or she wants to do it. Wolfson’s second tool is an adjustable, stationary rig that looks like a bicycle.
“A bicycle has three contact points with the rider,” Wolfson said, referring to the saddle, pedals, and handlebars. It sounds simple, but it’s deceptively complex. Saddle height and handlebar height are obvious adjustments, but others come into play, such as the saddle’s location relative to the bottom bracket (setback), the distance from the saddle to the handlebars (reach), and the difference between the seat height and handlebar height (handlebar drop). Even toe overlap, the interference between the rider’s toes and the front wheel, is a factor. From the relatively upright body position of a casual rider to a racer’s aerodynamic crouch, Wolfson determines the best position and, based on the rider’s body style, designs a frame to suit.
Finally, Wolfson asks each new customer to bring his or her existing bicycle to the fitting session.
“Seeing the current bike helps, whether or not it fits well,” he said, by giving him some insights into the customer’s posture and how his or her current position can be improved.
Working up a Work Order
After working up a geometry that aligns the rider’s body with his riding goals, Wolfson uses the dimensions from the fitting rig to create a work order. From there, the work order goes to Medeiros (see Figure 1). Medeiros’ work experience includes a stint as a bicycle messenger, so he’s steeped in cycling culture. A degree in astronomy didn’t get a lot of traction for a career, but his admirable work ethic got him a job offer from one of the companies he made deliveries to, a bicycle manufacturer. Before long his strong mechanical aptitude and inquisitive mind emerged as vital assets. Evans, a recreational rider before he got into this business, brought a little more experience to the company. After completing a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he had worked for two bicycle manufacturers before co-founding Firefly with Medeiros and Wolfson in 2011. Their educations are as varied as their work experiences are similar, and this is perhaps Firefly’s greatest strength.
Medeiros takes up where Wolfson left off, pulling tubes from inventory. The parts list for a frame contains just eight tubes: one head tube (or fork tube), which connects to the top tube and down tube; the seat tube, which connects to the top and down tubes; and the four tubes that secure the back tire to the rest of the frame (two seat stays and two chain stays). The workpieces aren’t necessarily standard profiles, but can have up to 10 sides and often are butted, which increases the wall thickness near the tube end, giving the welder more material to work with when joining one tube to another.
After cutting the tubes to length and machining the components, the Medeiros and Evans use a custom jig to locate and orient all of the components (see Figure 2).
From there it’s a matter of making sure everything is clean, which is the first rule in welding titanium, and the tubes are properly purged before striking the first arc. The frame builders don’t work progressively front to back or top to bottom, but mix up the locations to prevent too much heat buildup. Dispersing the heat makes the frame easier to work with and reduces the likelihood of warping. Evans did just a little welding in college, mainly in bronze, so his work in steel, stainless steel, and titanium for bicycles is the bulk of his experience. He started with titanium.
“It’s very stable,” he said. “Some other metals have unstable puddles.” Evans also noted that the weld puddle has clean edges that make the puddle easy to see. The outcome is a crisp, consistent weld bead (see Figure 3).
The Devil Is in the Details
Custom-made bicycles have more than a custom fit. Firefly has a handful of other ways it customizes bicycles.
- Wheel size. For many years the standard wheel size for mountain bikes was 26 in. In the early 2000s, 29-in. wheels—the standard size for road bikes—gained more popularity with mountain bikes. These days bicycle manufacturers use any of three sizes for mountain bikes: 26, 27.5, and 29 in.
- Brakes. Caliper brakes, the mainstay braking system for adult bicycles for many decades, are no longer the only choice. In the late 1990s disc brakes caught on in mountain biking, and eventually they crossed over to road bikes. This isn’t a simple change, but requires a frame modification. A disc brake system requires more distance between the chain stays than a caliper brake.
- Finish. Polishing followed by blasting is Firefly’s most common finish. Some customers specify anodizing, which Firefly does on-site. Evans found that anodizing itself can be customized. Using the recommended voltage is one thing, but increasing it causes the process to bite further into the metal, which appears to give the surface a discernible depth.
- Some Assembly Required. In most cases, Firefly puts together entire bicycles, which includes mounting the wheels, calibrating the brakes and derailleurs, and verifying that everything works as smoothly as it should before delivering it to the customer. However, some customers like to do some of the work themselves, so Firefly occasionally ships a unit that consists of frame and fork only.
Beyond these two finishes, some customers specify paint, and Firefly can oblige (see Figure 4).
Staying the Course
Although Firefly hasn’t had to weather a business downturn yet, the founders have been in the industry long enough to know that they need to be prepared for one from time to time. Data from the recession of 2009 provides a warning. Consumer spending on recreational goods dropped from $318.1 billion at its prerecession peak in 2008 to $294.7 billion in 2009, an 8 percent drop, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The competition is intense, but the owners of Firefly have diversified their products as much as possible to dilute the risks associated with a niche product. For example, the high-end bicycle market goes through somewhat milder business cycles than the rest of manufacturing does. While the average consumer might be reluctant to spend more than $1,000 on a bicycle in good times, Firefly’s priciest products are more than $20,000. This caliber of bicycle might be a luxury good more than a recreational good, but regardless of how it’s defined, Firefly’s owners have found that a recession usually doesn’t have a substantial impact on this caliber of customer. Second, the company isn’t focused solely on this end of the market; it uses a variety of materials and components to make bicycles at various prices to suit as many customers as possible. Finally, it has a lot of geographic diversity, having shipped bicycles to customers all over the world.
“When one country is affected by the business cycle, sales in that country might dip, but that’s offset by sales from customers in other countries that aren’t affected as much,” Wolfson said.
Likewise, the founders think that the long-term prospects are excellent. Although the custom bicycle market is small, it has been around for a very long time. Despite a few ups and downs over the decades, and the easy availability of inexpensive, off-the-shelf bicycles, it thrives because many people place a great value on riding unique, handmade products that fit perfectly.
“People want a connection to the builder and to the bicycle,” Wolfson said.
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