Three shows ago, in Portland, Dave Kirk introduced his JK Special, a lugged frame and fork built with the most advanced steel tubes available. His idea was to keep what’s good about a steel frame while cutting weight as much as possible. The JK range has been expanded considerably since, and Dave brought his own prototype frame and fork as an example of the model that is now called the JKS X, essentially a JK S built with double-oversized, or XL, tubing. When I asked Dave, who is tall and slim with a boyish looking face, what specifically had made him want to build a bike like the JKS X, he said that Columbus Tubi recently reintroduced their MAX tubeset, which might be called the ancestor of current double-oversized steel, but despite some backward looking fondness for it from certain framebuilders, that tubeset was never particularly good. Dave recalled to me the requests from professional riders when he built at Serotta, and the pros, without fail, asked for a less punishing frame. MAX bikes, he said, were, “kick-ass for thirty-five miles, then you wanted off.” Still, It could be said that those frames—among the stiffest ever made—were necessary for the largest, most powerful riders, particularly those who liked the Spring Classics, but Dave thinks contemporary XL tubing is a far better choice. It’s telling of his personality that Dave doesn’t have much interest in nostalgia—a Reynolds 953 tube that is much lighter and better-riding than a MAX tube is superior, no question. His large, candy blue JKS X weighs 16.9 pounds without any exotic parts. And because the tubes are quite thin, the bike rides the way Dave likes while still retaining good torsional rigidity. Dave has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about torsional rigidity.
Why, I thought, if Dave seems not to care much about what might be called the non-functional aspects of frames and frame building, does he persist in making his “Terraplane” seatstays? I’ve always thought the Terraplane bikes looked elegant, perhaps a bit vintage, but always beautiful, especially the larger sized ones with their heavily curved stays. I prodded Dave a bit, asking him if it weren’t a little paradoxical that he goes to such trouble to make something that couldn’t possibly be as functionally important as it is aesthetically pleasing. He said that he built jigs to measure flex in the rear triangles of frames when developing the Terraplane; in their final iteration, most rear triangles give about five vertical millimeters (it was revealing to discover that Dave changes the bends to suit different frame sizes and rider weights so that every frame flexes the same amount). In fact, the Terraplane, in Dave’s mind at least, is perfectly functional, and it looks the way it does because the design demands it. He was at his rhetorical best when he described not the sensation of suspension that the Terraplane provides, which it doesn’t, but the way the rear wheel stays planted over rough pavement, especially in fast, technical corners. When pressed, he admitted, “life’s too short to look at ugly stuff,” and so betrayed a bit of aesthetic appreciation on his part for his creation. Many builders claim that a beautiful bike comes from the intent to build the best-working bike. I don’t believe all of them, but Dave Kirk impressed me with his sincere desire to improve the craft of frame building though functional innovation.
When I asked Dave to refer me to a builder whom he thought shared his ideas about frame building, he told me “Nick Crumpton,” which seemed odd—Crumpton builds frames of carbon fiber exclusively. But the more I talked to Nick, who is energetic and talkative with a graying beard, the more I understood why Dave suggested him. For fun, I asked Nick why he thought Dave said I should come to his booth: “I’m not afraid to walk away from a sale; I don’t do this for the money.” This sounded rash, but Nick’s displays were crowded with people looking at and touching the matte black frames. “And I have no idea what other [frame builders] do,” he said. Dave Kirk had mentioned exactly that about himself, and I began to understand something about the best builders: they work to improve themselves vis-à-vis their own work, not the work of others. Nick explained at length how he had come to carbon frame building in the nineties after building steel bikes and deciding there was no future in that material (the irony was not lost on him). He said he had a desire to do things the way that seemed best to him, which often meant he disregarded industry practices that were once held as infallible, though Nick has since availed himself of overthrowing convention, many of the processes he experimented with in isolation have since been implemented in the aerospace industry among others.
Nick’s sense of aesthetics is even more inclined to the minimal and stripped-down than Dave’s, and his bikes are almost always the same shade of black with red or white logos; he generally brushes off talk about the way a bike looks. “Don’t ask me to convince you,” he said, meaning don’t ask him to justify anything he does, because he has the utmost confidence in his methods and ideas. It became clear to me that Nick is not boasting when he says this kind of thing. He told me about the way he likes espresso: he bought a “single group machine adapted for home use,” thinking, he said, that he could reproduce the kind of coffee he liked at espresso counters. He had conceived that “everything would be perfect” once he had the right tools, but his espresso was terrible. That is, until he did some research. Nick Crumpton clearly likes research, another affinity he has with Dave Kirk, and found that the better the bean and machine, the more technique and expertise play their parts. So he did what he always does: a sort of trial and error process of refinement until he had a cup that made him happy. And he takes his espresso without milk infusions. That is, black, like his bikes.