The Norseman cometh
Framebuilder sets titanium and steel roots in Durango

Local custome bicycle framebuilder Tom Joyner, of Norse Cycles, relaxes in his Durango shop earlier this week. Joyner, one of three local framebuilders, has built more than 15 frames since going into business last year, mostly for cyclists looking for hard to find sizes or set ups./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Maybe it was destiny. After all, with a name like “Joyner,” some might say a career in welding was meant to be. But for Durango bicycle builder Tom Joyner, it was more of a circuitous route.

The father of three, who owns Children’s House Montessori with wife, Shalley Parmenter, was actually pursuing a career in solar installations when the mood to try his hand at custom framebuilding struck.

“I have a master’s degree in art and welding experience, so I guess it wasn’t too far off,” said Joyner of his decision to attend a basic framebuilding class at the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Ore., in 2007. An avid cyclist himself, Joyner’s first undertaking was to build a lugged frame, which uses the processes of metal brazing and melting. “It was a cyclocross-commuter, sort of a multi-purpose bike,” he said of his first class project. So, inspired by his initial endeavor, Joyner launched directly into the next: a more advanced tig-welding course.

Although still finishing up his solar program at San Juan Basin Tech, Joyner decided in 2008 to focus his energies instead on his first love: bicycles. “I decided I really wanted to make a go of it,” he said.

And thus, in the spring of 2008, Norse Cycles was born, a nod to Joyner’s half-Swedish heritage. “My mom still has her green card,” he said.

Working from a small basement shop below the Durango Cyclery, Joyner started off slow, making “bro-deal” bikes for friends. “I just wanted to get my bikes out there and people riding them,” he said.

A regular on the Thursday night singlespeed rides, Joyner’s first customer was fellow singlespeeder and friendly neighborhood bartender, Glen Shoemaker.

“I agreed to be his test monkey, the first man in orbit on a Norse,” said Shoemaker, who bought a titanium 29er singlespeed frame last year.

Shoemaker, who had been riding a Surly Karate Monkey, said he went the custom route after going through three of the steel Taiwanese imports. “I’m the kind of guy who breaks stuff a lot,” he admitted. “It was a challenge for (Tom) to build a solid frame for me.”

However, the months at the drawing board and on the workstand finally paid off. “I absolutely love it,” said Shoemaker, who is entering the “meat” of his second season on the new custom ride. “That’s the dream, to have a bike built for you and to have it be titanium on top of that.”

Several frames awaiting the final touches hang on Joyner’s shop wall. A typical frame takes six to eight weeks, depending on extras./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Although custom frames cost more, and titanium is about twice as much as steel, Shoemaker said when you consider the longevity of titanium and the precision of the fit, it’s quite reasonable. “It’s kind of like a lifetime buy,” he said. “I’m hoping, praying, I never have to replace it.”

Unique cases such as Shoemaker’s that keep custom framebuilders in business, said Joyner. From May to December 2008, he built 15 frames, mostly for locals with specific fit or performance needs. “Most of the bikes I build are for people who can’t buy one off the shelf,” he said. One such example is the custom purple cyclocross frame he built for local racer Terrina Tafoya, who had trouble finding a bike to fit her 5-foot frame.

In addition to hardtail and cross bikes, Joyner also builds custom touring, road and even cruiser bikes. “I’ll pretty much build anything, as long as it’s safe and no one’s going to get hurt,” he said, adding a disclaimer for operator error and overzealousness.

The demand for such custom handbuilt boutique bikes is not only strong in Durango, now home to three framebuilders, including 3D Racing’s Chris Herting (and another newcomer so fresh no one seemed to know his name), but across the nation as well. The 2009 North American Handmade Bicycle Show drew 5,000 spectators and 66 vendors to Indianapolis in February, offering everything from the exquisite to the exotic.

In that experimental vein, Joyner also admits to having a few niche projects of his own in the works, including an extra fat-rimmed mountain bike for winter riding and a 650B singlespeed with an eccentric bottom bracket. Long used for road bikes, the 650B standard rim, at 27.5 inches, is now crossing over into mountain bikes for people looking for a middle ground between the rolling power of the 29er and the maneuverability of 26ers. “Right now, there’s only a few companies making 650b tires, but just like the 29er craze, it’ll grow, and then there will be even more choices,” he said.

Despite the dizzying array of options – including everything from tubing, to wheel size to gears, or lack thereof – Joyner said the basic pillars of bike geometry and design have withstood the test of time remarkably well. “Bicycles have been around for more than120 years, and in that time, there’s been a lot of weird geometry and experimentation, but most of it isn’t viable,” he said. “There’s a small range of head tube and seat angles that work. But there’s a lot of room for exploration within those parameters.”

Using those parameters, Joyner said he likes to conduct an “interview” of his prospective clients, finding out their likes, dislikes, riding style, etc. “From there, we collaborate on a basic design, and I make recommendations based on what I know works and what doesn’t,” he said. “Obviously, the goal is coming up with a bike that will last forever.”

Unfortunately, forever doesn’t come cheap, or quickly. Custom Norse steel frames run $1,100, with singlespeeds costing a few hundred extra for sliding drop-outs. Titanium frames are about double the cost of steel, and all bikes have a six-to-eight week turnaround. But Joyner notes a custom bike will not only turn heads on the dirt, but win points off as well. “The one thing that gets overlooked is, you’ve got this whole local movement. Well, you can’t get much more local than buying a frame made right here in Durango,” he said. “Talk about a low carbon footprint.”



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