Saratoga Springs

Ben Serotta getting back into custom bike building

He doesn't plan to have his own factory again
Ben Serotta, of Saratoga Springs, holds his bicycle at the Saratoga Spa State Park on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.
Ben Serotta, of Saratoga Springs, holds his bicycle at the Saratoga Spa State Park on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

The hiatus is over for famed bicycle builder Ben Serotta.

After his abrupt exit from the company he built from a cottage shop to a world-class racing bike factory, he took a few years away from performance bikes. But he found the passion for his craft too strong to resist.

He has resumed building custom frames, and while he doesn’t plan to have his own factory again — or come anywhere near the production levels he once reached — he is nearing a deal to produce semicustom racing bikes at an overseas factory.

At 63, Serotta has reached a point where he can do anything he wants in life — and building bikes is still what he wants.

But neither aspect of his new endeavor — not the handful of custom bikes he’ll build himself nor the larger number of factory-built bikes he’ll design — will dominate his life the way Serotta Competition Bicycles did.

“At some point, if you aren’t careful, a business can dictate what you do and who you are,” Serotta said.

Serotta started selling factory-made bicycles from his father’s Saratoga Springs hardware store while he was still in high school. After graduation, he apprenticed with bike builders in England, and, in the 1970s, he began building steel bikes in a tiny Saratoga shop.

Serotta’s business expanded steadily over the years. In 1993, it switched to titanium, carbon and composite frames, and in 1998, the business added a trademarked system to fit riders for custom bikes. 

The company grew to more than three dozen employees working out of a state-of-the-art fabrication shop and an 1850s farmhouse on Geyser Road, turning out 3,000 bikes a year with price tags of up to $15,000. Serotta bikes were ridden by top cycling teams and in numerous Olympic competitions.

Through it all — even as he sold the company he founded, bought it back and sold it again — Ben Serotta remained at its helm. But in 2013, new owner Divine Cycling Group announced a company restructuring that resulted in Ben Serotta’s departure. Not long after, production of the bicycles that bore his name ceased.

He seems today to not be happy with how that played out, though he does not elaborate.

When it was done, Serotta considered his options and decided anything involving race bikes would be too close to what imploded after 40 years of effort. So, he went in an utterly different direction: going to work for the company then known as Alta Bicycle Share and redesigning the Citi Bikes used in New York City’s sharing program, which last month recorded 726,400 trips.

“You couldn’t look for a more polar opposite,” he said of custom race bikes and shared public bikes. “It’s only related in that it had two wheels and was people-powered.”

A Serotta racing bike weighs about 15 pounds. A Citi Bike runs close to 50 pounds. More important, the Citi Bike has a very upright rider position, so arm, leg and torso length don’t have as much of an impact on ride comfort as they would for a rider hunched over on a racing bike.

In 2014, Serotta and his wife left Saratoga Springs, his lifelong hometown, and moved to Brooklyn to be closer to the bike share operation. Late in 2016, he began to think about the next chapter: the one shaping up now.

“I really enjoyed that, but after a while there was this itch that kept coming back that was unavoidable and I really wanted to get back into.”

Serotta has begun making custom frames at Frank The Welder, the Bellows Falls, Vermont, shop of bicycle fabricator Frank Wadelton. 

Buyers who don’t know the dimensions of the bikes they want — and some will, given their commitment to the sport — have several options for being fitted, though Serotta won’t do that himself as part of the new ventures.

One immediately noticeable difference is the brand name on the custom bikes. It’s not “Serotta,” but “A Modo Mio,” which in Italian means “In My Way” or “My Way” … as in Ben Serotta building the bikes exactly the way he wants, and the buyer specifying its fit and dimensions exactly the way he or she wants. 

Asked if he has a legal right to use his own name on his bikes after selling his old company, Serotta said: “That’s probably debatable, but I’m not going to have the debate. Truth is, I’m proud of that company, but I’m not trying to relaunch that company under a different name.”

In its final years, Serotta Custom Bicycles was a big operation.

“I was more of a conductor of the orchestra than a musician,” Ben Serotta recalled. Both roles were satisfying, but he wants now to be the musician again, at least in the work he does himself. He travels to Bellows Falls regularly and spends a few days at a time working on frames, with breaks to ride his own bike in the pleasant countryside. 

The arrangement also lets him avoid the continual expenses of equipment, payroll, technology upgrades and real estate.

“The silver lining,” he said, “is I’m pretty light on my feet.”

The other half of the new picture for Serotta is a venture that will build bikes at a factory in Taiwan in eight different sizes that he’s crafting based on his four decades of experience. With some fine-tuning, one of the eight sizes should be close to perfect for most of the bike-riding population. He calls them “semiproduction” — production bikes with a semicustom fit. 

Product development is nearly complete. Production details are still being worked out — a just-in-time model is being devised to limit the cost of maintaining finished inventory and components.

Serotta expects to announce its name later this spring.

These bikes will cost in the low- to mid-four-figure range, compared with $10,000 to $13,000 for an A Modo Mio.

The two distinct lines of bikes will have their designer in common at first, then share other things.

“They’ll sort of morph into one outward-facing business,” Serotta said.

In an interesting contrast to the last years of Serotta Competition Bicycles, when the bike frames were being made of carbon, the new bikes are being made of steel, the old-school frame material that was eclipsed by newer technology.

“As a designer I thought we had taken steel as far as possible, and I was bored with it,” Serotta said. But newer alloys have sparked resurgent interest among some riders willing to accept an extra pound of weight — a sizeable gain in the world of race bikes — for the unique ride qualities that steel offers.

“I wanted to do an updated steel bike to see what it’s like,” Serotta recalls of his mindset when he was done with the Citi Bike project. “There’s a love for steel that I was testing, and indeed it’s still there.

“It’s absolutely a material that stands on its own — it has a reason to be.”

The temptation is to look at him working in a small shop on a small batch of custom steel bikes as a return to where the whole Serotta Bicycle Saga started, but he said it’s really not.

“This time starting out, I know so much more than I did in 1972. This is a fresh start but with the benefit of 45 years of trial and error, good decisions, bad decisions,” he said.

“It’s no less satisfying.”

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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