Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Darren Crisp: American Ti Framebuilder in Tuscany

I met Darren Crisp at the Milan bike exposition in 2007. His CRISP TITANIUM frames attracted a large gathering all day. I recently asked Darren to share his story about how he came to be working and living in Italy, and to discuss his framebuilding. Darren's reply:

-Why Italy?

I studied architecture back in 1990 here in Castiglion Fiorentino. It is a wonderful place to live and is very conducive to creativity, and the culture is very stimulating, coming from conservative Texas. The first time I came here, I knew immediately that there was something here to “discover” about this ancient and mysterious place. Medieval walled towns, Etruscan ruins…and great food and obviously great cycling. I came back after finishing my degree in architecture to race bikes here in Tuscany. Coming from the Texas plains, the hills of this region were a welcome change and offered me new places to explore on both the road bike and the mtb. Using my architecture degree to the max, I washed dishes in the local school for almost two years to afford me the possibility to learn the language and to race throughout the country. I had an accident on the mtb in 1994 and had to move back stateside for insurance and medical reasons and got back into metal fabrication in Mississippi. But the fire was lit, and it was only a matter of time before I was back over to Italy and back on the bike, in the shop, and building.

I came back over to Italy in 1997 to work for a private company that builds exclusive high-end retail fashion stores (and using all their expensive tooling to build my frames from 8.00-midnight..). Prada and Dolce & Gabbana were our main clients but we also collaborated with Gucci, Calvin Klein, etc. My responsibilities as Project Manager were to take architectural concept drawings and produce a real, working final product. I was responsible for the development of the executive drawings (turning concept into something build-able), production (research, development, and implementation of the drawings), and installation (logistics, coordination, and physical installation on-site) of the metallic parts of these commercial structures. I worked with engineers to produce the end product and oversaw (and labored) the installations in various sites around the world, pretty much any place you’ve seen one of these stores, I was involved since 1997. Lots of welding. My company specialized in stainless steel, nickel steel, nickel-silver, and titanium, along with all the usual ferrous materials. It was a great learning process because I had the best engineering and fabrication minds available in the world to collaborate with, alongside the best designers and architects. I think my take on bicycle design could only be influenced by the design work that I did while working with these folks. Clean lines, no frills, form follows function, high-tech and the desire to build a better product. Hi volume, low-cost was never our methods, and I still maintain those characteristics with CRISP Titanium.

-What kind of frame building do I do?

I started building bicycle frames in 1995, using TRUE TEMPER steel and Henry James lugs for the majority of my work. With the passing of time, I had the possibility to upgrade my tooling and try new materials like aluminum and scandium. In 2001, I had the opportunity to attend the United Bicycle Institute to study Titanium Frame Design. This pretty much sealed the deal. I had ridden some titanium frames previously and found them very intriguing because of their ride quality. Before 2001, I had quite a bit of experience working with titanium, just not in the cycle sector. It was a pretty complex situation that year because I was working on a project in New York at the time (Prada Epicenter) and we were asked to leave the premises because all of the union metal workers were called to Ground Zero with the fabrication equipment which was used for debris removal. I was actually flying in to NY the day of the attacks for a month-long architectural installation. Instead, we were grounded for security reasons. I was not allowed to help out at Ground Zero as I had a crew of Italians that spoke no English with me, so I had to arrange for their return. After doing so, I was able to hop on a plane and make it to UBI for the titanium classes.

I do not have a standard model of bicycle frame. This was my original premise for developing my business. Yes, it makes it slightly more difficult to market my product as the general public is used to seeing geometry charts and having to select pre-built frame sizes and colors out of a brochure. That’s about as custom as it gets these days. When I built my first frame (lugged steel, which I still ride when on vacation) I was working for a blacksmith in Mississippi. There were no bike stores that carried a bike that even came close to fitting me. It was during that time that I realized that there must be lots of people in my situation (maybe not in Mississippi) and began to imagine what the process for others was like and if they had to sacrifice good fit to have a decent bike. That philosophy still holds true today with Crisp Titanium. I develop wonderful relationships with my clients because we all share a profound passion for cycling. It gives me great pleasure to collaborate with these folks to create the bike that they have dreamed of for a lifetime, but have never had the opportunity to own. I guide them with my fabrication experience to insure a safe, functional ride that meets their riding desires, and they respond with input regarding the aesthetic details and other important characteristics. During the construction, I send photos of the building process so they can participate in the experience, and in the end they get a CD of the complete build (usually 50+ photos). This participation really adds to the experience and my clients really enjoy seeing the “birth” of their new bicycle.

That strategy is still going strong today and I don’t plan on changing anytime soon. I can cut my titanium tubes to ANY length to reach my design criteria (or that of my clients) and, while I could save a quite a bit of money with standardizing my work, I choose to not to because it only limits the possibilities of good design and fit. Standard bike sizes will always be around for the masses, but my clients come looking for me because they know that each bike will be custom tailored to their needs and not a frame that I “pull from the shelf.”

Darren's website is http://www.crisptitanium.com/. Darren invites cyclists to visit his workshop which is located between Cortona and Arezzo in the town of Castiglion Fiorentino. Contact first via the contact information at his website.

Photos: examples of the variety of the custom frames that Darren builds: ultralight (4.92 kg w/o pedals), a randonneuring frame, road frame (built for BB30), a Rohloff hub equipped mtb, commuter with belt drive, road frame

Stories, including cycling trip stories, for the Italian Cycling Journal welcome; contact veronaman@gmail.com

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