Pursuit Cycles’ lightweight carbon fiber custom bikes are attracting fans across the country
The frame of a Pursuit Cycles bike is made of carbon fiber and weighs only 1.5 pounds. A Strong Frames titanium frame is, by comparison, a hefty three pounds. Both of these businesses were started by Carl Strong, and until recently were run by a small shop the size of a two-car garage behind his home in Bozeman, Montana.
Strong builds some of the lightest bikes in the world, stripped down to the essentials to go as fast as possible, and sells them as one-off custom bikes for $8,000 to $15,000 to a very niche audience. “Our typical customer is a very competitive middle-aged man with a Type-A personality who may have raced bikes in his youth, and now that the kids are grown, he wants to get back into it,” Strong says.
The bikes aren’t flashy to look at, although they often have very individual paint jobs. Their unique qualities are only fully appreciated when you lift one with a single finger or mount it. All told, he could weigh 15 pounds. It’s no surprise that Strong has a huge reputation in the bike world. Strong Frames dates back to 1993 and Pursuit Cycles, which now dominates the company, from 2016. Strong came to build bikes from a long history of racing.
“I grew up in Seattle and started riding BMX and dirt bikes,” he says. “I built a minibike in shop class in ninth grade around 1978 and took it home. Later, in the 1980s, I got into motorcycle road racing.
Strong, 58, quickly grew the previous business and had 10 to 12 employees producing 1,000 bikes a year. “But I discovered that I wasn’t making any more money than when we were smaller,” he says. “So I downsized – to 125 and then 50 bikes a year – and hovered around that level for 20 years.” It’s a very small team, with a few halves. It’s also a family business: Strong’s wife, Loretta, keeps the books and does photography. The dogs watch.
Luke Middelstadt, who studied in the neighboring state of Montana, is Pursuit’s production engineer. It shows penta a carbon process that begins with a small bundle of sticky flat sheets he took out of a freezer. “It’s a bicycle frame,” he says.
Working from a small space filled with vintage machine tools, the company uses expensive modular unibody construction to manufacture larger frame sections in molds. Sheets of raw carbon wrap around the bladders of the frame parts (filled with a proprietary material to keep them stiff). Orientation matters: pull the carbon fiber sheets one way and they’re stronger than steel, pull them the other and they tear easily.
The intricate sections are glued together using aircraft-grade adhesives, then (with additional carbon fiber on the joints) cured by baking. It’s cheaper to tie lots of small parts together, but the unibody method produces a stronger, lighter bike.
The leap from titanium to carbon fiber was complex. “Carbon fiber takes a lot of engineering,” says Strong. It helps that the state of Montana produces a lot of skilled engineers.
Jared Nelson, a Montana State product but now an assistant professor in the department of sustainable product design and innovation at Keene State College in New Hampshire, is Pursuit’s director of engineering.
“Building bike frames isn’t easy on its own, even with ordinary metal materials, but composites add a whole new level of complexity,” Nelson says. “Instead of starting with the shape, like in a metal tube, you start with a pre-preg carbon fiber sheet and wrap it around a shape to get the shape. And you’re not working with a material that reacts in the same directional way.
The wheels, which are not made in-house, are carbon fiber but with stainless steel spokes – a solid carbon wheel would be subject to dangerous crosswinds. Bikes are unique. Order one and it will arrive in about three months, completed to buyer’s specifications.
Strong bikes are not garage decorations. Jon Davis, a magazine publisher in Fairfield, Conn., and his editor wife, Evelyn Rubak, own two Strong Frame titanium bikes and have covered thousands of miles at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Weekend trips of fifty miles are common.
Davis ordered a 15-pound Pursuit carbon fiber bike and describes an extensive process that included taking several body measurements, followed by expressing personalized preferences on everything from the seat, top tube, handlebars, wheels and gear group. Maryland owner Tim McTeague says, “Even though a Pursuit bike [and] isn’t cheap, it’s actually no more – and sometimes less – than a top model from the big boys. And all the little things attract attention, which is often lacking in today’s market.
Davis adds, “There is something nice about having a custom bike built by a guy who only makes a few every month. I read all the articles I could find and watched all the videos before I started buying my first bike. Now I’m a super fan. Pursuit bikes come in three basic models: All Road can handle any surface, including gravel and dirt; the Pure Road is designed for high speed on asphalt; and the Soft Road is a balance of the other offerings, with two sets of wheels recommended.
Pursuit will soon be moving to larger premises in Bozeman, but the company likely won’t change much. The money that comes in tends to go back into the business to buy more tools and learn more techniques. Strong describes carbon fiber as the next step up from titanium and part of a philosophy of continuous improvement. That’s why the company is called Pursuit. “It’s about always getting better,” Strong says.