Handmade bicycles

JOHNSTOWN – When Scott Hock came back to his hometown, after having moved away following the eighth grade, he had never worked in the bicycle manufacturing industry, although he loved to ride them.

He had no idea that less than a decade later he’d be instrumental in bringing the handmade bike industry to Johnstown.

Hock’s personal journey and his career path have proven as circular as bicycle wheels. He got into bikes after he moved away from Johnstown, but didn’t get into making them until he moved back and got a job at Saratoga Springs-based Serotta. After that company, which had changed names to Saratoga Frameworks, closed in March, Hock was offered a job as director of operations for Toronto-based No. 22 Bicycle Co. The company has decided to locate its framebuilding facility in Johnstown, boomeranging Hock’s career path to within seven blocks of his house.

“I consider myself a bike nerd,” he said. “When I moved to Oregon, I wasn’t very active. I had always tried to play the mainstream sports, and I was never very good at them, so when I got to Oregon I met some people who were into mountain bikes, and I got a decent mountain bike and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Hock said he worked in a bicycle shop from the time he was 17, first selling them and eventually repairing them. The shop he worked for had a custom-made Serotta on its sales floor.

“I didn’t know that Serrotta was a close as they were. I never knew I had lived only 40 minutes from where they were produced. They made some of the best bikes in the world,” he said.

Hock worked for Serotta and its successor company for about eight years. He said he learned how to make bikes there, staying late, gaining new skills, eventually moving up to the title of lead designer.

But then things changed. Serotta, which had been known for creating high-end custom-made titanium bicycles was acquired by another company and the business model shifted to contract manufacturing. Periodic layoffs became the norm and eventually the company closed.

Hock was laid off March 11, but only a few days later Mike Smith and Bryce Gracey, the co-founders of No. 22 Bicycle Co. called Hock with a job offer.

Smith, who has a law degree and a masters of business administration, said he and Gracey had formed their bicycle design company two years ago and had been contracting with Saratoga Frameworks to build titanium bike frames for their clients. When the company closed it left a queue of uncompleted No. 22 Bicycle Co. jobs and no one to finish them. Gracey said he and his partner saw an opportunity to hire-up Serotta-trained talented bike makers and get into manufacturing for themselves.

“There are very few places in the world that are making very high-end titanium bikes, it’s a very hard material to work with and it takes a huge amount of experience and we saw this pocket of guys who had been building for decades at the top of the industry, so when [Saratoga Frameworks] closed, that kind of forced our hand,” Gracey said. “We basically had to go to where the guys are, they are our biggest asset. There is no way we could do this without their skills.”

Titanium and the experienced workforce they hired from Saratoga Frameworks – including Hock, Frank Cenchitz and Bryar Sesselman – are the key components to Smith and Gracey’s strategy.

Gracey explained that some of the advantages of handmade titanium frame bicycles include durability, the bike’s alignment and the quality of the weld work necessary to build them, but in recent years the popular features of lighter carbon framed bikes have dominated the market of the serious hobbyists and bike racers.

“Titanium has not been seen as a contemporary frame material and some people think it’s beginning to get a little antiquated. What we’re trying to do is create contemporary titanium road bikes that respond to modern features, including oversized bottom brackets,” Gracey said.

The new designs of No. 22 Bicycle Co. include bigger “head tubes” than was typical of the old Serotta bikes, which creates greaters “stiffness” in the front end of the bike, a sought-after quality that gives greater control to the bike rider. The larger head tube also accepts more modern front pieces, known as “forks”, which have tapered steerer tubes, giving greater control and enabling more power to be transfered from the peddles to the wheels.

Michael Yakubowicz, who works for high-end cycling products distributor Stage-Race Distribution, said he sees great potential in No. 22 Bicycle Co. bikes, which his company plans to sell to bike shops across the U.S.

“We’ve had our eyes on No. 22 basically since their inception, but the really big step that caused us to get involved is the use of former Serotta employees being behind the brand now,” he said. “The amount of workmanship that goes into these bikes brings a tremendous value. The price point for this company is also lower than some of their competitors, you’re really getting a handmade quality bike for less.”

No. 22 Bicycle Co. manufactures bike frames, frame sets, which include the fork as well as custom built bikes. Frames are priced in a range around $2,500, while custom bikes are closer to $4,500.

Smith said the costs of operating in Johnstown are “fantastic” and will help the company keep its overhead low, while it tries to grow. The company has signed a two-year lease for a 4,000 square foot manufacturing space inside the Johnstown Knitting Co. building at 309 West Montgomery St.

“The nice thing about Johnstown is there are spaces available like this,” Hock said. “We could have gone to Troy or Ballston Spa or Amsterdam, but we liked this space and it’s definitely nice that I’m seven blocks away.”

Gracey said he expects his company to grow to producing hundreds of units a year, with sales in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Asia.

Hock said he and his team have just completed working through the queue left over from the closing of Saratoga Frameworks, with the first shipments leaving the facility June. 27. He hopes to have three models of bikes in production before the end of the summer.