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Darren Crisp: an American in Italy

Cycling is full of traditions, always has been and probably always will be. Traditions such as the very best road bikes are made by hand from steel tubes in workshops in Europe, while in the US frame builders are willing to experiment with new ideas, concepts and materials.

So what happens when an American decides he’s going to set himself up as a frame builder in rural Italy? What you get is Crisp Titanium – the one-man business owned and operated by Texan-native Darren Crisp which specialises in custom titanium road frames.

Following the opening of its dedicated London store – B1866 – last year, Brooks the legendary bicycle saddle maker, has been inviting luminaries of the hand-made bicycle world to visit the outlet and offer frame fitting session there. Among the builders who have offered a made-to-measure service at B1866 for limited periods have been Dario Pegoretti, Ricky Feather, and Darren Crisp, and it was while Crisp was in residence at B1866 that CycleTechReview caught up with him to talk about what it is like to be an American building Ti frames in Italy.

Texas may now be known for cycling thanks to disgraced Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong settling there and opening his Mellow Johnny bike shop, but when Darren Crisp was growing up there being a cyclist marked him as some kind of freak. He tells tales of having bottles and cans thrown at him when he went out riding and even of having locals taking potshots at him for the simple reason he was on a bicycle. For most people that would be reason enough to move away, but Darren left the US to go to Italy because of his career choice, the fact that a move to Italy enabled him to immerse himself in cycling culture was simply a secondary benefit.

The work Darren was doing when he moved to Italy was architectural design for retail construction, which entailed him building the fittings for high-end retail stores for the likes of Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Prada. Fortunately, this meant that he spent his days welding stainless steel, titanium, and various other high-end metals. He says of this time, “I was working on $90 million stores and that meant the company I was working for was happy to invest in all of the latest technology. I was really able to hone my metal working skills through my day job.”

While Darren had been a hobby frame builder for many years, having built his first frame back in ’95 using True Temper steel tubes and Henry James lugs with photocopied pages of Talbot’s frame building book as his guide and a sheet of plywood used as a build table, it was the New York terror attacks of 9/11 that by a strange turn of events gave him the option to first try titanium frame building.

Despite living in Italy at the time of the attack, Darren was in New York for a project to deliver a new store for Prada, but the ensuing security lockdown meant all work stopped. With time on his hands, he attended a titanium frame building course at the United Bike Institute (UBI) tutored by US titanium frame building specialists Mike DeSalvo and Jim Kish.

“Up until that time I didn’t really know what defined a custom titanium frame, what it meant to build one for someone else’s use where you have to take in multiple considerations, whether that be structural considerations, or marketing considerations, product liability, and on and on… that I’d never really thought about,” says Darren about the beginnings of his move to full-time frame building that began with his attending the UBI course.

He continues, saying, “When I decided to make the transition to frame building full-time, it was really simple, despite going from a fully equipped fabrication shop to just using hand tools. One of the restrictions of the job I was doing was, with it being such a large scale operation, I would get lost in the process as more and more people got involved. My creativity was getting lost; with frame building it is the opposite.

“The work that I am now doing is, how do I make a ti bicycle frame stand out where the casual observer might notice there is something special going on, but not because of flashy paint jobs or stickers? I want there to be a characteristic that is intrinsic, and if you look at my frames it is basically the work I did for 15 years in architectural design, making simple shapes as elegant as possible and with very clean lines and edges.”

The ‘special something’ that Darren talks about was easy for him to create when he began building full-time, as at that point he had the time available to really get to understand what each customer wanted from their Crisp Titanium frame. The ordering process would include not only going for a ride with Darren but often joining him for dinner too, all of which gave ample opportunities to discuss bike fit and handling requirements.

However, today with an 80 bike wait list, the design process has had to be streamlined. Yet Darren still manages to maintain contact with customers on his wait list as he explains, “A bike is just a bike, it is everything else that happens before I start the build that makes the experience fulfilling for my customers as well as for me. I can’t make people wait just because it is a Crisp frame, because after all it’s just a bike frame and I could name you 20 people who could build a ti frame, but at the end of the day it is about my finding a common philosophy with my customers and friends and giving them something that gives them joy when they ride it. Something that they can connect with.”

However, as Darren is quick to point out, being able to craft such frames is not as simple as spending all day in the workshop, welding torch in hand. “There is a fine line between making a business work, finding a model that works that gives me the satisfaction as a builder and gives me the freedom to not be under such a strain that I start losing creativity.

“The problem with expanding is that as the amount of work you have increases, the amount of creativity and passion you have that you can put in lessens because you just don’t have the time. Your innovation becomes depleted with the stress.”
The amount of creativity that can be put into each frame is also to a certain extent dependent upon the customer needs and current trends in cycle design as new standards gain wider recognition. While Darren has built with BB30 bottom bracket shells he no longer uses them, preferring instead to build with press fit bottom brackets as he feels they are a more viable solution. Similarly, the current move toward tapered steerer tubes is something he does not feel is particularly necessary for most riders, but he also acknowledges the need to find a balance between need and desire.

“Most of the projects I work on don’t need any of the latest design trends, but I’m also fulfilling the desires of a customer who has come to me and knows what I can do. Standards come and go at the moment, and if I build a frame I want it to still be viable in 20 years’ time. I sometimes have to sit the client down and educate them about what I do and what they can expect and what they’ll receive when we finish a project together. It’s a constant learning process, and as a frame builder, you have to make mistakes when you start out and know how to learn from them. At the beginning, I wanted to be a Pegoretti or a Colnago, and I learnt from their experience but I had to make my own mistakes. It’s informed me as a builder, about what works and what doesn’t, about how my product can evolve.”

It is how he uses the knowledge he has gained that marks Darren out. His philosophy about building frames has been concentrated and refined over the years, and at the same time shaped by the dominance of cycling in Italy. “One of the challenges of build a Ti frame is to make a frame that is not boisterous, but that is elegant and can ride next to a Pinarello or whatever the bike is in the group, and that allows the rider to enjoy what a bicycle is. The rider shouldn’t have to answer questions, the bike should answer the questions. And so I’m the one holding the torch now for Italian artisan style frame building; a single guy fabricating something by hand and trying to put something into it, and that’s why customer come and seek me out. A lot of them have tried carbon fibre and all the other trends and they come back to more traditional ideas.

“I know the people who buy my frames are buying them for a specific reason. They’re not buying just to keep up with the latest marketing trends. They are buying into a creative philosophy, an artistic philosophy, and a cycling philosophy, and they come to me with lots of experience and having done a lot of research about what they want. We can then sit down and talk about it so that the finished product is built by us together. That discussion is the part that adds the most value to the project, you can’t get that if you just go to a store and buy a bicycle, no matter how exclusive it might be.”

It is this desire by riders for a bicycle that is more than the sum of its parts that drives the custom frame building industry and that is seeing an increasing number of new builders taking on the challenge of crafting unique frames, as could be seen at the recent Bespoked Handmade Bicycle Show in London, and Darren is ready and willing to offer advice to anyone who wants to take up the welding torch.

“If you have the means of supporting yourself don’t just jump into it. The passion that drives you to start is going to have to drive you to the finish. When you start out with grand ideas of frame building you have to temper that with the knowledge it takes a lot of hard work. I can’t begin to explain how much work. If you’re a young guy and you don’t have family or commitments then just do it. You only live once and that’s the best time to try it before life ties you down.

“If you can work on it and figure it out before you try and make a living from it that’s the way to go. My first frame broke, and when things like that happen you have to learn from the experience. I knew I couldn’t build frames for other people until I could build one for myself that didn’t break. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices. The important thing is to do a business plan. You’re not just building a bike frame, you’re building a future. You have to build a service for your product 20 years down the line. How many frames a month can you build and be able to survive on? It’s a business and the first rule of business is you have to make money. The reality of my life today is that I’m only welding two days a week. The other three days I’m doing the work that makes the business a business and keeps it a success; things that people don’t even begin to think about…”

Yet despite how this last comment may come across, there is no denying how passionate Darren is about custom frame building. Not only was he excited to be involved with the Brookes’ frame builder programme, about which he said, “I’m almost ashamed to be here when I think of the frame builders they could invite to come and do things like this,” but he was also attending Bespoked and plans to exhibit at the 2015 event to taker a closer look at the ideas and designs being developed by new builders and to catch up with old friends in the business.

If he does make Bespoked in 2015 with his own builds it will give many more people the opportunity to get close to some of the most exciting and innovative titanium road frames currently being made in Europe.

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