How is it that Fat City Cycles has maintained a cult following for over fifteen years despite being absent from the world of bicycles? Clearly the bikes being made were top quality and had great ride characteristics, but there must be something more that’s kept collectors infatuated with these old steeds. There are plenty of other vintage bikes out there though, so why are these bikes so unique?
In a previous post, I quoted Bicycling Magazine’s Matt Phillips as crediting the Yo Eddy for his inspiration for mountain biking. Matt also remembered that Fat Chance had a reputation for not only making the best bikes, but also for the wild and fun atmosphere surrounding them. One could certainly speculate that Chris Chance’s commitment to quality and attention to detail are underlying themes here, but he didn’t do it alone and that leads me to the subject of this particular writing.
When I was a teenager, I had found a steel frame hanging in a bike shop in Maine with a decal that read ‘Igleheart’ printed along the down tube in funny, mirrored letters. It was outdated and not being used anymore so it was affordable at the time. I still have it today. Although they’re not related, I remember the Igleheart logo reminded me of the Independent Fabrication (IF) logo, and I was also savvy enough to know that any true blue-blooded New England cyclist was always a diehard ‘IF’ supporter. I didn’t know, however, that these frame builders had more in common than similar looking logos. As I would come to understand, both prestigious builders were descendants of the extreme creative talent that made up the Fat City Cycles factory; particularly during the Somerville, Massachusetts era.
Historically, the small region of New England has been home to more independent frame builders than anywhere else in North America; maybe the world. I suppose Portland, Oregon may rival that reputation in the present day. I knew that Chris Igleheart and the folks at IF had been Fat City employees but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Only after moving to Durango and working for Ron Andrews at King Cage did I begin to see the bigger picture of the Fat City bloodline and all the talented and zany characters that went on to become well known in their own ways. Finally, with that, let me introduce today’s topic: the Fat City lineage and all the fabricators to follow.
I thought I had a decent understanding of the characters involved here. However, once I sat down to brush up on a few gray areas and formalize a bit of research, I was quickly overwhelmed by how many names I found. The spectrum runs the gamut from artists like Mike Pappaconstantine who created the image of Yo Eddy, to tool inventors, to frame builders, to water bottle cage makers. I realized that it was no coincidence that all these creative types had at one time worked in or been directly influenced by the same small factory in Somerville. As I tried to connect the dots, my mind started to race and I heard the sound of a stuck cassette tape being played in fast forward. If you experience similar symptoms while reading this, lie down, take a break, and drink water (or perhaps beer).
Lets start from the beginning. In 1972 Whitcomb USA built lugged bicycles in Southern Connecticut. Employees included the illustrious names of Richard Sachs, J.P. Weigle, and Chris Chance. The former two are still building bicycles under their own names to this day. Good luck trying to own one, they’re only the most highly coveted bicycle frames of the modern day. As for the latter of the three, well, the latter needs no introduction here. Anyway, Whitcomb USA fell victim to the ever-fickle bike market and by 1977, Chris Chance was brazing frames under his own name. Chris Chance and Gary Helfrich began discussing TIG welded bicycle construction and in 1982 Fat City Cycles was founded. This is where the flurry of fabricators begins. By 1986, Helfrich, along with Mike Augsburger and Gwyn Jones struck out on their own to found the first ever titanium bicycle brand: Merlin Metal Works.
The Merlin factory was located directly adjacent to Fat City Cycles and quickly set the standard in high quality for titanium bicycles. The titanium Merlin bicycles you can buy today are related only by a decal as the company was bought and sold over the years since it was founded. Merlin consisted of notable employees like welder Tim Delaney, Rob Vandermark, Fat City toolmaker Ron Andrews, and designer Tom Kellog. In 1989, Mike Augsburger left to start One-Off titanium.
The company consisted of Augsburger and infamous frame artist Leni Freid, whose wonderful custom illustrations adorn bike frames owned by loving collectors. One-off built beautiful titanium mountain bikes for a while and is still in business making custom hand cycles in western Massachusetts. Ron Andrews had moved to Durango Colorado and began producing his own design of titanium water bottle cages, King Cage, in 1991. Currently, King Cage is, of course, alive and well. At this time, take a break, let this information start to process, perhaps organize your thoughts with a visual flow chart. OK. Ready to continue?
Chris Igleheart had been building forks at Fat City. You know the ones. The iconic segmented BOI fork, the box crowns, the uni crowns, etc… If you have an earlier Fat, there’s a good chance that Chris Igleheart worked on the fork. IN 1990, Chris Igleheart began building his own frames and still does to this day although he’s relocated to Portland Oregon and now shares shop space with Ahearne Cycles. Igleheart remains one of the elder statesmen of frame builders in the US.
By 1995, Fat City was moving to the Serotta factory in New York. While a similar flowchart could be deduced from that factory, we will continue to focus on the Somerville crew. The Somerville employees were left wondering what to do after Fat City moved. After some deliberation, Jeff Buchholz, Ben Cole, Steven Elmes, Mike Flanigan, Lloyd graves and Sue Kirby banded together to form the one and only Independent Fabrication. The IF brand has become arguably the most successful and well known boutique builder of custom bikes in the US. IF is still in business today despite having moved from Somerville Mass to New Market New Hampshire in 2011 – More on that later.
Moving on…in 1997 Merlin’s Rob Vandermark decided to take a chance and start Seven Cycles. Vandermark had studied sculpture at the Mass College of Art and gradually learned TIG welding while working at Merlin. Seven cycles extended the offerings of high quality titanium bicycles although the company builds steel frames as well. Seven cycles is still alive today and has given rise to a number of modern boutique frame builders including Saila Cycles in 2004, Royal H in 2006, Tomii cycles in 2011, Sketchy cycles in 2007 and Icaru frames in 2008.
Let’s look at Independent Fabrication again. Several of the founders decided to keep moving, shaking, and creating. Jeff Buchholz went on to found Sputnik Tools, a company now located in Maine that manufactures high quality tools specifically for bicycle frame builders. Mike Flanigan started at Fat City in 1989, helped found IF in 1995 and in 2003 began his own brand of bikes: ANT Bicycles or Alternative Needs Transportation.
Mike was inspired by Grant Petersen’s Rivendell brand and wanted to pursue building utilitarian bikes with the motto “Not sport…transport”. Mike Flanigan built ANT bikes full time until recently and has since taken a steady job welding for Seven Cycles. Independent Fabrication employees also have ties to popular brands Geekhouse Bikes started in 2002, and Maietta Handbuilt Bicycles started in 2005. When Independent Fabrication moved from Somerville to New Market in 2011, a fallout similar to Fat City leaving occurred and some IF employees remained to found Firefly Bicycles, a high-end titanium brand.
We’re almost done. I couldn’t find a specific relationship between Fat City and two other brands. Spooky Cycles, founded in 1994, was based in Southwestern Connecticut and had a reputation for their hardcore punk philosophy and straight edge ethics. They may have gotten their start making t-shirts but eventually gained the momentum to build bikes. Also, groovy cycles may have Fat City roots but this builder is unfamiliar to me and I couldn’t confirm the vague online clues tying the two together. Any information on these two as well as corrections to the above information is welcome and appreciated.
That concludes this examination of Fat City genealogy. If you’ve been collecting Fats for years, this is probably old news and you fell asleep at the top of the page. If you’re a beginner collector, I hope you took notes and are prepared to take an exam on the material. I wanted to compile this information because I think it’s amazing that so many talented fabricators can trace their roots to Chris Chance’s Fat City Cycles but also, in an era of endless boutique frame builders, its important for the cycling world to acknowledge the influence of Fat City Cycles and all those employees from Somerville Massachusetts.