I know Hernan Montenegro from the alley cat racing circuit, so I was caught off guard seeing him in the new builder’s row at NAHBS with a fresh shave. Hernan’s submission: a buttoned up carbon road frame with a custom saddle and a set of sophisticated integrated handlebars, all made from scratch by him. During our short 15 minutes chatting, we talked about how he went from a shop rat to a working with carbon, to then fulfilling his dream of becoming a bike builder, and the critical help he’s had along the way…
BIKERUMOR: What number bike is this for you?
HERNAN: This is carbon bike number five with my own name, but I also make bamboo frames as well. I’ve made like ten of those so far.
BIKERUMOR: Tell me about how you got your start. Were you attracted to bike building? Or were you more attracted to the material?
HERNAN: I was really good friends Aram from Predator, the owner. Predator Cycling is another company based out of LA. I would just hang out at the shop all the time. They used to make aluminum bikes; it was just this cool shop by my house. I hung out, like a shop rat. Then one day, they wanted to start making carbon bikes. I was like, “How do you do that?” you know? So I started making carbon bikes with them from day one.
BIKERUMOR: As they were learning how to make carbon bikes themselves?
HERNAN: Yeah, as they were learning how to work with carbon fiber. I worked for free; I worked for free for like two years. Hanging out, and you know, sanding bikes and cleaning up; learning the work. And eventually they hired me full-time. I became the head composite technician and frame builder. Then I quit. I had an offer to work at an aerospace company where I would make real money, rather than working for a small bike company.
BIKERUMOR: You gotta pay bills eventually. Was it a financial thing?
HERNAN: I got an offer at an aerospace company. Did the interview, got the job, and I didn’t take it.
BIKERUMOR: You didn’t take it?
HERNAN: My friend Spencer Cannon at Ritte Racing, I had lunch with him one day. He was like, “What do you really want to do?”
And I was like “I really want to keep making bikes.”
“You should do that!”
At the time they had a big shop, and they were like “You know, you can pick your corner and you can work on your project. And I already have work lined up for you.” He bought some of the tools I needed at first. So it was a huge help. Spencer painted this bike too; he came up with the paint scheme and everything.
BIKERUMOR: Wow, he actually painted it himself?
HERNAN: He actually painted it himself.
BIKERUMOR: That’s fantastic.
HERNAN: He inspired me to start my company. He told me how he started Ritte, and that he was then in a similar situation to what I was in. He was like, “You know, you have the talent to do something really cool.”
BIKERUMOR: So you made the frame. What about the handlebars?
HERNAN: I made the handlebars in one piece from scratch.
BIKERUMOR: The whole bar… so it’s not like you hacked it.
HERNAN: From scratch. It’s not like I wrapped up a bar and a stem. So it’s my design.
BIKERUMOR: So talk to me about how this beauty goes together.
HERNAN: They seat stays are from Dedacciai. The head tube, down tube, seat tube, bottom bracket from ENVE. Top tube I made myself at the shop.
BIKERUMOR: It has a nice taper to it.
HERNAN: It’s tapered and it’s flat, so when you’re waiting for a light to change you can sit on your top tube.
BIKERUMOR: What do you want Montenegro Manufacturing to look like in the future? What do you want this to grow into?
HERNAN: Most of the bikes I’ve sold are primarily to people I know and my friends. It would be nice to sell bikes at full price, you know? I do a lot of repairs and a lot of oddball fabrication – motorcycle parts and stuff like that. This is the first time… most people don’t hear about my company. I’m in LA. There aren’t a lot of other builders.
BIKERUMOR: It is a weird little builder desert down there. You go north and you’ve got Santa Barbara and a lot of stuff going on there…
HERNAN: Or you go south; there’s a bunch of builders down south.
BIKERUMOR: So you’re selling to friends right now. How long is it taking you to build a bike?
HERNAN: It depends on how busy I am with other projects, but it’s about 50 hours for the frame depending on what they want. I made a frame for myself from scratch, made all the tubes and everything, that was about a hundred hours without paint. This was about 40 hours.
BIKERUMOR: Is this bike for you?
HERNAN: It’s my new race bike.
BIKERUMOR: Good for you.
HERNAN: Right now it is 14.57lb (6.6kg) with a power meter.
BIKERUMOR: You just do crits and road races?
HERNAN: I do a lot of alley cat races. But this is for road racing. It’s my club race bike.
BIKERUMOR: Are you still building out of the corner of Ritte now?
HERNAN: No, I have a shop in downtown LA.
BIKERUMOR: Wow! What? How?!
HERNAN: It’s the only place that’s affordable to have a shop in LA. The building where we were at was torn down to become super expensive apartments. But I have a shop in downtown LA, like a 400 square foot shop.
BIKERUMOR: Are you doing this full-time?
HERNAN: Yes. Well… I work as a messenger sometimes. Whenever it’s the end of the month and I need to pay rent, I pick up a couple of shifts.
BIKERUMOR: So how long have you been doing this full-time?
HERNAN: I’ve been working with carbon fiber for five years. I’ve been doing this myself since 2013, really 2014.
BIKERUMOR: What are you stoked about?
HERNAN: I’m stoked I’m finally here and showing people my work, you know? I’ve been wanting to come before in previous years but I didn’t think I was all the way there yet. If I’m going to spend all this money to come to this event, I want to make the best impression possible.
BIKERUMOR: So you feel this is your best work at this time?
BIKERUMOR: You’re supposed to say “yes.”
HERNAN: Uh, yes. Yes. I’m happy with it. But every time I finish a bike, I think I could have done better.
BIKERUMOR: That’s how all the good builders think. Don’t lose that. So what’s the next crazy thing you want to try?
HERNAN: Spencer and I are thinking of designing a monocoque frame in-house. He designs all the Ritte frames. He’s a great designer, so we’re thinking we’re wanting to make a handmade monocoque frame. He would make a 3D model, we’ll make the mold, and we’ll make the frame.
BIKERUMOR: Sounds like a cool project. Anything else?
HERNAN: I would like to start making a stock line of frames. If you don’t want to wait a few months for a bike, you can go on the website and order whatever’s available.
BIKERUMOR: So you just have a couple lying around?
HERNAN: I don’t, but it’s what I want to do in the future. Offer build kits and stuff like that. If you want your straight forward American made carbon fiber frame for racing or riding, you can go on the website and buy one.