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Local mountain bike builder reverses the technology

Article by Stephanie Janard

Recreation – October 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Ardent mountain bikers seem to share an urge to continually push their limits a little further with every ride. Maybe that’s why you see so many in Central Colorado — the rough terrain is both a challenge and an adventure, and the steep trails, rocky roads, and tight curves supply a true barometer of what the body can physically endure.

Who makes up the mountain biking scene in this region? You may immediately visualize your prototypical marathon athlete, but in actuality mountain biking attracts many types of people, and you can come to the sport at any time in your life — no matter where you live, who you are, or what profession you follow.

Matt Chester wholeheartedly espouses this ideology. In fact, he eschews any cyclist who takes the sport — and himself or herself — too seriously. He scorns the bike that is loaded with all of the latest accouterments (thereby, weighing the bike down and burdening its owner with endless maintenance), and the rider who is bedecked with more pulse-monitoring equipment than an intensive-care unit patient.

Matt Chester on one of his bikes on the outskirts of Leadville
Matt Chester on one of his bikes on the outskirts of Leadville

That’s not a philosophy you necessarily expect from a well-known mountain bike frame builder, but Matt does and says the unexpected a lot. First off, he graduated from the prestigious Georgia Tech with a degree in materials engineering, then opened up shop in the high-altitude mountain town of Leadville as an all-titanium, single-speed, mountain bike frame builder.

A single-speed bike has one gear, and is considered harder to ride in some ways than your typical geared bike which allows you to shift to different gears to handle hills.

On a single-speed, you are definitely going to work as you ride. On the other hand, you are more apt to learn the correct technique to riding, and you won’t have as much equipment to maintain — so riding stays simple and pure.

Although single-speed mountain bikes are becoming increasingly popular, they are still considered a niche market by frame builders, and titanium is a boutique metal in an industry that still builds predominantly steel bikes. So why did Matt pick this gig?

A former bike messenger in Atlanta, Georgia, Matt recalls, “The mid-90’s brought in a new class of mountain bike racing — mainly long single-day epic loops of 100 miles. The Leadville Trail 100 was one event that I attempted and really enjoyed. I made a good number of friends here, and then someone offered me cheap shop space. I had planned on building frames while I was still in Atlanta, and I knew I would do it in a relatively remote mountain community somewhere.”

Matt chose the Central Colorado region as the place to build his bikes for a specific reason: “It’s the epicenter for the 700c/29-inch wheel mountain bike movement. Basically, it’s a return to some of the bicycle design ethics that existed before the days of the modern 26-inch wheel mountain bike and the cycling ideals that are exhibited throughout the rest of the world. For instance, in the Third World you rarely see a 26-inch wheeled bike; that ideal only exists as the modern mountain bike evolved here in the 70’s from adult cruisers and BMX bikes. Instead, you generally see 700c, 27-inch, or 28-inch rims on bikes that are actually used for transport and utility. Why? Bigger wheels roll better…especially on rougher surfaces! Plain and simple.”

In other words, in rough terrain, it’s nice to have a larger diameter wheel to help clear obstacles and washboards more easily.

As for choosing titanium as his exclusive frame material, Matt likes working with the alloy because he can. Being a one-man show allows him to make such decisions. Titanium can be pretty demanding to work with, and each bike part takes Matt a fair amount of time to clean, weld and finish. But the payoff is worth it — titanium makes for an extremely light bike that is utterly resistant to corrosion, with a fatigue life that is much better than other metals. Because of this, buyers of Matt’s custom-built bikes accept the occasionally lengthy lead times on their orders.

Matt’s streak of independence is reflected in his personal reasons for moving to Leadville, and setting up a one-man frame-building shop. He is not looking to “maximize profitability.” Rather, he says, “I do what I think is right in regards to building bikes. Not caring about material wealth and being happy with simple pleasures like clean air, long bike rides on a comfortable bike, and uncluttered low-stress living amongst like-minded friends certainly has a correlation to living in this area. I don’t think there’s a single person around here that would tell you any different.”

The people who take up mountain biking are diverse, and so are Matt’s customers, but they all have a common thread. “I’ve kept my prices low enough that I attract the more stereotypical single-speeder,” he says. “You know, the poor guy or gal who’s aggravated with the technological bandwagon that’s sweeping cycling and yearns for a fun, simple, challenging experience on a bike. Someone like me, actually.”

[On the trail]

Matt appreciates the simple life. “Simplicity is the goal as opposed to having a rig jammed with as many gizmos as possible to isolate riders from the trail and make their “extreme adventures” as painless as possible. This ridiculous style of bike is usually prominently displayed hanging from a rack attached to a behemoth SUV westbound from the Front Range.”

However, Matt points out that not all of his customers are strictly single-speed riders. Many people like owning a few different styles of bikes and then pick and choose for a specific ride.

Those who are inclined towards simplicity will be drawn to Matt’s description of single-speed riding. “It allows an individual to really learn how to ride a bike…rather than just hang on and rely on ultra-low gears to bail him or her out climbing up the steeps,” he says. “Momentum is your friend…with only a single gear, you really learn to let gravity help you carry speed into the next hill. Sometimes the gear you’ve selected will be much too large for certain climbs, so you have to really grunt it out and produce some power. Conversely, on the down-hills and flats, the same gear will be much too small and you’ll have to spin the cranks super fast to keep some speed up. It’s really, really cool to be the most important component on your bike! Single-speeding really augments that. Your mindset will determine whether it’s fun and challenging or hard and stupid.”

Matt’s favorite rides include the Hagerman Pass Road in Leadville that runs above the gorgeous Turquoise Lake, and in the Salida area, the Monarch Crest and Rainbow trails. He also recommends that riders new to Central Colorado should check out the huge network of Forest Service and county roads. You can get more information about Matt Chester’s bikes and the single-speed scene at or email him at

Other frame-builders and bike shops in Central Colorado

Don McClung, Owner, Backyard Bicycle Company

Don is a local legend in the Salida cycling crowd; his single-speed, 29″ wheel bikes are known for their distinctive antique appearance, based on the style of bicycles from the early nineteen hundreds — but get them on a single track trail in the mountains of Central Colorado, and they really rip.

Don gravitated to single-speed bikes when he noticed, “Everything was continually wearing out on my geared bike. Unfortunately, mass-marketed bikes are designed to ensure constant maintenance; in fact, the true spirit of riding has become lost in a marketing jungle. There’s too much equipment on the bike and the rider never really learns how to ride the bike by himself or herself.”

By opting to ride — and subsequently build — only single-speed bikes, Don got back to the pure simplicity of mountain biking, and has been a deciding influence on the trend in this region. You can reach the Backyard Bicycle Company at 1-719-539-7146.

Wes Williams, Owner, Crested Butte Bicycle Company

Wes is the primary force behind Central Colorado’s 29-inch wheel movement. He’s been building his Willits Brand Bicycles in Crested Butte since 1994; before that he worked as a frame-builder for nine years at IBIS, the now defunct bike manufacturing company.

Wes specializes in “Big Wheel Mountain Bikes” — either steel or titanium. He’s a leader in the pervading philosophy among frame-builders in this region that 26″ wheels are impractical. “I won’t bother making them; it would be a disservice to the customer. I try to remind people that before the automobile was invented, bicycles were a main source of transportation. As early as 1895, the 29″ wheel was the definitive standard.” Check out Wes’s geared and single-speed custom models at

Absolute Bikes

Owner Shawn Gillis opened Salida’s largest bike shop three and a half years ago. The store is housed in a 100-year-old historical building downtown; presently on display until December is the “Mountain Bike Hall of Fame” from Crested Butte. Visitors can view the very first original mountain bike, built in the late 1970s.

Absolute Bikes primarily sells the “Specialized” and “Gary Fisher” brands and offers clinics in “Bike Fit and Maintenance” at various times during the year. Customers learn how to fit the parts of their bikes in proportion to their bodies, and to maintain their bikes. The store also rents bicycles — including children’s, beginners, town and more advanced mountain bikes. Visit or call 1-719-539-9295.