A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit a lovely nest of the small domestic bike industry in Northern California. My first builder to visit was Curtis Inglis, winner of this year’s Best Mountain Bike award at NAHBS with his tangerine fat bike. Raised in a family of roadies, Curtis fell in love with mountain biking later in life after getting out of the Air Force. Within a year of his first ride, he found himself as the new builder for Retrotec, a then fledgling bike brand out of Chico, after its first builder had left. A few years later, Curtis would shacked up with his friends the SyCip brothers in San Francisco. Whereas Curtis had been mostly self-taught, Jeremy SyCip was armed with formal building education and years of apprenticeship. It was there that Curtis honed his skills as a builder, learned how to build in straight tubes (initially a challenge) to establish his Inglis brand, and took control of Retrotec.
Twenty-four years on, Curtis has found a good rhythm in his one-man shop in Napa, at the heart of his which is his tube rolling machine, the vehicle by which he creates all of his obsessively curved, cruiser-style Retrotec frames.
BIKERUMOR: You start mountain biking later in life. So the whole scene looks like it does in the early 90’s and everything is straight tubes and all this crazy emerging, future-forward technology. And within a year of getting on your first mountain bike, you’re building for Retrotec. Out of all those bikes at that time, all that emerging technology, why did you gravitate to Retrotec?
CURTIS: The look of those bikes stuck out so much. The original classic. Bob Seals had a race team that had some pretty fast guys. You’d have in the top ten one or two of these guys on these cruisers and they looked amazing. They were really weird looking. It was something from my childhood. All of us kids had Stingrays growing up. My next big bike was a King Sting.
BIKERUMOR: Oh you kids.
CURTIS: The kids… my dad was a total Schwinn freak, so as kids, all his road bikes were Schwinns all through our childhood. So to see a cruiser out racing with all these modern looking bikes- I was stoked. I was going to sell my complete Diamondback to buy the frame. So I called Bob and was working out pricing and his welder left. So I told him I was a welder. Went up there and interviewed. I had a friend make a proper… like, um… a um… resume?
BIKERUMOR: So you’ve written a lot of those then, huh?
CURTIS: It’s pretty funny. Every once in awhile I’ll find it and oh man, this is so embarrassing. Because if you knew Bob, reading this… It was like “After my time as a welder in the Air Force” and it has all the technical terms names for what that it, Aircraft level blah blah blah, and my two year degree in drafting, and it goes on and on. You know, the guy was probably sitting there naked, like “Hey! I read ‘Welder.’ That’s what I need.” I was 24 years old trying to be very “I’m going to get this job at this company.” It was supposed to only last for like a summer and then move on- my big plan was to get a job on a fishing boat. Like up in Seattle. That was my big grown up job was going to be that. But bikes kinda sidelined that.
BIKERUMOR: Like a welder on a fishing boat?
CURTIS: No. Just as a fisherman. I had a friend out of high school that was making tons of money and every time I saw him he was buying a house, going to Europe for a month. It was nuts for that age to be making that kind of dough.
BIKERUMOR: But it all fell through.
CURTIS: All for the best at this point.
BIKERUMOR: So Bob Seal is sitting there naked, reading your resume. That’s pretty good stuff.
CURTIS: Yeah. I’m not saying he was but… he probably was.
BIKERUMOR: Then talk about how the brand was handed off.
CURTIS: So Retrotec was always the vehicle for Cool Tool. Cool Tool was the primary. It’s what we made money with. It was everything. Retrotec was the vehicle for that. Retrotec was like, you’re going to go to a race, you want to stand out, you need to have something that’s gonna put you above the fray of all the other bike companies. So that was Retrotec. You’d go to a race and there would be all these bikes and all you would notice was that guy in a tutu riding a cruiser.
BIKERUMOR: So these fast guys for Retrotec were wearing tutus?
CURTIS: Bob wore the tutu. The other guys sometimes wore costumes too. Once Bob sold Cool Tool, he didn’t need Retrotec. He was moving towards music and that kind of stuff. For a couple years, I was working on Inglis, the straight tubed stuff that I do.
BIKERUMOR: So why did you start Inglis? When and how did that come along?
CURTIS: I started Inglis probably ‘95 or ‘96. That was that slow time with Retrotec when Bob wasn’t really pushing Retrotec- that’s when Bob got rid of Cool Tool to Gerber. He wasn’t feeding me anything. I wasn’t positive what he was going to do with it. He could have just handed it off. I’d taken all the machines, all the tooling I had, so I knew the dude wasn’t going to start production again. I was cleaning nightclubs and building bikes inside. It was just that time when, you know, things go up and down. It was definitely a slowing- definitely one of those moments were steel bikes weren’t cool, or whatever. And so he wasn’t motivated as much. And orders weren’t coming in and, oh man, I was “I won’t have a job if I don’t come up with something.” So I was living in San Francisco and I started building Inglis’ primarily at that point. I had done a couple up at the ranch, but it was at that point that I started building all that straight tubed stuff.
There were still things we were working out on Retrotec. Still design stuff that needed to get worked out. Things were coming back broken. Like when one out of thirty bikes come back cracked and you’re repairing them. But if you build bikes out of straight tubes you don’t have that problem. Ross Shafer sat me down once and gave me a big long speech. “You have a flaw in your design and you can’t have a lifetime warranty on bikes that are super light” cause at the time they were fairly light cruiser bikes. He really showed me that you can’t do that, you’re going to lose your ass all the time. And things got better. As time went on I learned more and more about building and the early bikes were all straight gauge tubing, and the seat tube would break off- these light seat tubes and it was before seatposts got really long, and people would run with the seatpost at the edge and break off the seat tube. Before 400mm seatposts, when 300mm was all you could get.
And we didn’t use proper headtubes back then, man. We just used straight gauge. And half the headtube would get reamed out. And it worked just fine! As long as the person never ran their headset loose.
So it was interesting to come from that and then move in with Jeremy in San Francisco and have somebody teach me properly. Like oh no, there are these things called headtubes and they come from the supplier. And they are the right size. You don’t ream anything out, hardly. But back then, you could get away with… early on… Then the bikes just got better and better.
BIKERUMOR: How was the manufacturing infrastructure in San Francisco?
CURTIS: Salsa was in Petaluma. There was a time when every bike I made came with a Salsa stem. Ibis was there. On the east coast you can buy machines for pennies on the dollar whereas out here there was almost none of that. You couldn’t just buy an unbelievable lathe. You couldn’t just put out a call for a Bridgeport. Ibis would bring a whole train car back full of machines. That way they could start their business out here. When Jeremy and I were in the city. You got everything from Nova. Nothing was connected by the internet.
BIKERUMOR: Did you build any of the Tube bikes at Retrotec?
CURTIS: No, they were done before I got there. That was something Bob and the previous welder had come up with. They developed both those bikes together. And when they split ways, Bob wanted to keep the classic cruiser and the welder wanted to keep the Tube frame. By the time I got there, I always wanted one, but I never made one. One of our racers was diagnosed with cancer and passed away and he had a big collection of this stuff. He had one of those and he sent it to me before he passed away. Then I actually ended up getting a RetroFlex as well. It was another bike that we made really early on. This thing. So this is a ProFlex back end with a Retrotec front end. So we had a racer, he really- we needed a full suspension bike for him to race downhill. This is what we came up with. So Bob and I worked on this together. So the seat tube is ProFlex. THIS tube is ProFlex. But then the rest, we just stuck a Retrotec on it. We didn’t know how to do this. So we would go to nationals and the bumpers would blow up every run. So you’d roll over to ProFlex and they would give you new bumpers, and you would do a new run, and they would blow up… so RetroFlex… It pretty much sucks that I lost my friend, but out of that, I have some pretty cool things to remember him by.
BIKERUMOR: What’s that in the corner?
CURTIS: That should have been put upstairs…
BIKERUMOR: We don’t have to talk about it…
CURTIS: No… that was a full suspension Inglis, yes. That moment when you thought you needed to make…
CURTIS: Yeah.. And you know everything was going to full suspension and downhill and all that. I took this to the Sea Otter, pulled it out of the back of the Valiant. Rolled it over to where they were doing downhill runs at the Sea Otter and I’m all proud. You know. This is so cool. And then I looked at all the people that were downhillers and, it’s like, half of them are walking around on crutches and the other half are trying to get themselves to be walking around on crutches. It’s like the segment of the population that you don’t want to build bikes for because they all just love breaking bikes. It’s a badge of honor if you break your stuff, it’s a badge of honor if you break your bike…
BIKERUMOR: And you’re like: this seems like a great market to get into.
CURTIS: So I turned right around and put it in the trunk… I did make a couple of those. One for a guy that rode it for years. At the end of the day it was his “B” bike that he would ride when he broke his other one. Just pull this one out and keep riding. When I have down time I was thinking what I could use this back end on and build a front end just for fun, but that hasn’t materialized.
BIKERUMOR: What’s that back end?
CURTIS: Risse Racing. They are a company here in California that makes shocks and they made these back ends as kind of a modular. It’s funny how quickly you realize that these people are not who I want to make bikes for. They just love breaking stuff. It’s like, you can break anything if you put your mind to it. It just seemed like a bad idea.
And this is my first 29er that I ever made.
BIKERUMOR: How do you feel about that arc?
CURTIS: Sucks. That’s pre-tube roller in-house. Before you could get chromoly butted downtubes. This is a tandem lateral tube that I un-ovalized slightly. But yeah. So I rode this thing for five or six years, sold it to a friend of mine, he rode it for another six or seven years. He cracked it a few years ago and right before a ride we noticed it was broke. He took it to Jeremy, he lived over there. So we pulled the bottom bracket out, welded it up, put the bottom bracket in. And I said it could last like a week, or it could last like, forever. Anyway, six or seven years later it finally cracked again. And I said, this time I’ll re-weld the crack and put a tube in and see how long it lasts again.
BIKERUMOR: What’s the best curved bike in this shop right now.
CURTIS: I would say that touring bike.
BIKERUMOR: Are those full sized drawings?
CURTIS: Yep. For a long time I thought I was doing my customers a favor by doing full sized drawings. If you’d have a couple guys come in all the same size, you could draw one on top of another. Up until a few years ago, that’s how we did it.
BIKERUMOR: So you’re in BikeCAD now.
CURTIS: It’s unbelievable. It’s so good. I’m a nincompoop when it comes to these things. I ask the dumbest questions. The first couple years I didn’t know how to get the curves in the drawing.
BIKERUMOR: So you and Jeremy SyCip have been friends forever. What is the rumor that you would like to start about Jeremy SyCip?
CURTIS: Ha. I’d have to think about that one. There was a rumor that was really funny… it’s not really a rumor that I’m starting but it was a rumor that was around, that the SyCips were stoners. It was actually started by one of their employees. It’s the funniest thing like, you’re talking about definitely not the squarest people around, but definitely not stoners.
BIKERUMOR: That’s a pretty good rumor. I like that.