John Parker, founder of Yeti Cycles, got his start in the mountain bike-mecca town of Durango when he moved his company here in 1991.
It seemed like a natural fit for the company after Yeti rider Juli Furtado won the 1990 Mountain Bike World Championships at Purgatory Resort.
In 1995, Parker sold Yeti, moved from Durango to Hollywood and went underground. He traded in the bike industry for the film industry, until an idea for a comeback came to him.
Three years ago, he saw someone riding a fat bike on the beach in California. He was amazed by the fat-tired cycle and decided to buy one for himself. “All the sudden, all my creativeness and all my interest was piqued,” he said.
Underground Bike Works is Parker’s latest project, joining a handful of other handmade bike manufacturers in Durango. The frame builders, including 3D Racing and Myth Cycles, do things a little bit differently. Their bikes are infused with personality and character, foregoing the industry standard of mass production in Asia.
Parker believes the bike industry has reached a saturation point, so he decided to focus on selling a limited run of hardtail bikes called Revivals.
They will be made in Vermont by Frank Wadelton, aka “Frank the Welder,” a former Yeti employee. In the future, a portion of Underground’s bikes will be made in Asia, and a portion will be made in the United States. All will be assembled in Durango.
The hardtail bikes feature plus-sized tires – bigger than standard mountain bike tires but smaller than ones on fat bikes. The bike fits a new genre of riding that Parker calls “fun-duro,” a take on the popular “enduro” segment of the mountain bike market.
“They climb like a billy goat and they go down a single trail like an amusement park ride. They’re just a lot of fun to ride,” he said. “It’s essentially a race bike, but you don’t have to be a racer to own one or to ride one.”
Underground Bike Works will be a consumer-direct company, subverting the traditional model of using distributors to sell to bike shops. The bikes will be sold online and in the Durango showroom.
“I always felt that when I had Yeti, I left a lot of money on the table,” Parker said, referring to distributors. “In the end, they were making more money off of each unit than I was, and I’m doing all the hard work,” he said.
For Chris Herting, a holdover from Yeti’s Durango days, bike building has been a life-long pursuit. He began making bikes at the age of 10, modifying road bikes to make BMX bikes.
Herting was a co-owner of Yeti with Parker, where he was instrumental in building the Yeti C-26 bike that Furtado won the 1990 worlds on, and John Tomac was famous for riding one with drop bars.
Before meeting Parker and joining Yeti, Herting had been making custom bike frames since the 1980s. In 1992, he left Yeti to set up his own one-man shop, 3D Racing.
Operating out of his home shop on the Florida Mesa, Herting does not make production frames, opting to instead make the best bikes possible by custom-tuning the frame to the individual.
“It’s not anything revolutionary or anything, but just really listen to the customer,” Herting said. “You can’t cram someone into a racing bike if they’re not a racer.”
To do this, customers can meet with Herting in person to discuss their specific needs, such as measurements, flexibility, injuries and what they like or don’t like about their past bikes. If they can’t come to Durango, Herting has them get a bike fit and measurements taken by a reputable bike shop where they live.
One of Herting’s favorite bikes he has built is a road bike frame he made about 17 years ago, he said. It was light, torsionally stiff, vertically compliant and had the best power transfer of any bike he has ridden.
Herting shoots for stiff bikes that ride well. Currently, he has a new gravel bike featuring dual top tubes, which are a signature look he has been making for about a decade.
“You can see it, and it stands out in a crowd of bikes even if it doesn’t have decals on it,” he said.
Herting and Parker influenced mountain biking during the birth of the sport. Both are critical of bigger companies in the industry.
Herting says the industry moves too fast from trend to trend, and companies should slow down and spend time doing things the right way.
“They make flag poles round for a reason – because the wind blows all different directions and you need the same stiffness in all different directions,” he said. “Where bike tubes, they change the shape, where it looks really cool, but it doesn’t serve the purpose that a bike frame needs, so it’s just changing for the sake of changing.”
Underground isn’t the only new company in town. Myth Cycles, a one-man operation started by Eric Tomczak, has been in business for about a year.
Tomczak went to school for welding and then began working for King Cage, a local company making high-quality water bottle cages. He learned how to build bike frames from King Cage owner Ron Andrews, and built his first frame in Andrews’ shop.
The first frame Tomczak built was a tandem mountain bike because there was nothing on the market that he liked. Including the tandem, Myth Cycles offers four regular production frames in addition to fully custom frame-building.
Producing a few stock frames allows the company to keep prices down. If somebody does not want a fully custom bike, they can order a stock model and still get a hand-built bike at a cheaper price.
Tomczak’s bikes are more than just a product. They’re about stories, local manufacturing and the customer, as well as builder really caring about the connection to the bike.
“Bikes are so important to those who really, you know, live and breathe it,” Tomczak said. “Bike people are really bike people. My favorite part of that culture is the stories that come from, especially, bike-touring trips.”
Stories and myths – about bike rides and riders – are behind Myth Cycles’ name.
“The myths that we create on our own – we’re are sort of legend in our own stories,” he said. “I just really, really appreciate what people get to take out of bikes and the experiences they have on bikes.”
Tomczak has a vision for American-made bikes. He would like to see more products made locally in the U.S. He wants consumers to have more of a connection with the products they buy. That’s the essence of Myth Cycles. They are bikes made with care for people who care about the experiences they have on them.
Tomczak compares his vision to the popularity of the craft brewing industry. People can buy beer by going into the building where it is made, and he says, the same can be done for mountain bikes.
With every bike he builds, Tomczak feeds his dream of what American products should be.
“The idea of the inventor tinkering in his garage and coming up with something really cool and developing some huge company from that, I guess it’s kind of that nostalgic American dream,” he said.
“I would love to live my whole life and still see that.”
A fourth company in town, Durango Bike Co., declined an interview request by The Durango Herald for this story.