Interview With Black Cat Framebuilder Todd Ingermanson

Hardcore fans of handmade bikes are already familiar with Black Cat Bicycles. For everyone else, here’s the skinny: Todd Ingermanson started building Black Cat frames in 2002 and since that time he has produced some amazingly gorgeous fillet-brazed and lugged steel road, mountain and ‘cross bikes with a rad little punk rock edge to them. The beauty of Todd’s bikes is far from skin deep however. A good deal of engineering goes into Black Cats as well. Todd has helped to popularize the tricky to pull off, crazy short 29er chainstay trend (sub 16.5″) that is all the rage today. Not content to stop there, Todd has also developed an offset spider to work with Sram cranks to allow the use of a belt drive with his signature short stays. Todd’s biggest claim to unsung fame are his unique swinging single-speed dropouts. They were revolutionary when they were first introduced and represent the cleanest solution to single-speed chain tensioning that I have ever come across. The rest of the industry has taken notice and created numerous knock-offs, some of which are more blatant than others (I’m looking at you, Salsa).

Black Cat Swinging Single Speed Dropouts

Todd’s swinging single-speed dropouts offer an elegant solution to an old problem. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Todd has clearly been flattered.

Todd and I first met at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in 2008. Impressed by his work, and wanting to start building my own frames, I asked him what I should do to learn how to get started. He came back with a very quotable response, “Just start wrecking tubes. That’s what I did.” Todd’s get out there and do it attitude has served him well, as evidenced by the unassailable top notch quality of his bikes and his 1 year+ waiting list for one of his two wheeled creations.

While talking with Eric Benson, one of the owners here at Art’s, about how I dreamt of one day owning a Black Cat, he responded, “Todd builds those, right? You know he used to work for us.” Wanting to learn more about Todd’s connection to Art’s Cyclery, while sharing a bit about Todd’s development as a framebuilder, I put together this short interview.

Q: What motivated you to get into framebuilding?

A: I’m not sure. There were a lot of things that just kind of lined up and sent me in that direction.

While living in Oakland in the late nineties, previous to living in SLO, there was certainly no shortage of frame builders in the area. I’d go to some of the pirate one-speed races around the greater Bay Area and see Salsa, Ibis, Retrotec, SyCip, Hunter, Blue Collar, etc., and the folks that built them. It wasn’t unusual. Racing against the guy who built your frame was just the way it was. Oftentimes that guy handed you your ass and then proceeded to drink you under the table. Looking back, holy cow, did we have it good!

When I moved to SLO, there was none of that culture. People looked at the single-speed I rode and said that you couldn’t ride a single speed around there. “There was this one guy, Poncho, who used to, but he moved to Bolivia…” [Poncho is back and working at Sram now -ed]. “There’s some guys in Cambria, but they drink more beer than ride bikes.”  “It’s too steep/rocky/insert-excuse-here.” Everybody rode Specialized, Trek, Giant, Ellsworth. Nobody I knew was interested in what I was interested in.

Red and Black Black Cat

Todd is best known for his curvy single-speed 29ers.

Then I met Mark Greyson, a luminary in the bike scene in SLO. He had built bikes previously under several different banners, but had given it up. He introduced me to John Cutter, another local guy who makes bikes, among other things, and they just captured my imagination. It wasn’t some unobtainable thing. It’s just how it was where I cut my teeth, and I wanted to create that for myself. I asked Mark if he would teach me to build a bike and he said, “Sure!” He had the tools and I had the enthusiasm. Little did I know that his version of teaching me to build a bike was just letting me borrow some tools, a little advice, and turning me loose. He also neglected to mention that I had to build a jig first. In hindsight, there’s no other way for me to have done it. I’ve always had a vicious punk rock DIY streak in me, so there wasn’t an inhibitor. With Mark and John, it just seemed like something I could and should do. I had done a lot of fine art metalwork, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. There is a pretty steep learning curve, but those guys really helped me through and answered a lot of questions. They both just taught me to practice brazing and to break stuff. Ride quality figures itself out as you build more bikes for yourself and friends.

Smooth Unfinished Fillet Brazing

For anyone who knows what most unfinished fillet brazed frame joints usually look like will be extremely impressed by the quality of work that Todd does.

Q: How did your experience working at Art’s Cyclery influence that decision to become a framebuilder and/or the design of your bikes?

A: I’m not sure how much that experience rubbed off on me framebuilding wise. I’m sure there were indirect influences. Moving to SLO opened my eyes to riding on rocks though. I’d ridden rocks from time to time. Growing up in Arizona, there’s plenty, but up on West Cuesta, there ain’t nothin’ but. I grew to appreciate things like fat tires and disc brakes almost immediately.

Riding with Art’s coworkers like Eric Benson [now a part-owner at Art’s -ed] gave me an appreciation for a balanced approach to life: your job isn’t your identity. Don’t get me wrong, Eric works plenty hard, and I’ve worked harder at my job more than I could ever have imagined, but at the end of the day Eric is more than a buyer and I’m more than a frame builder [Eric unquestionably spends more time on his bike than he does in the office -ed]. You gotta go ride and live life if you expect it not to chew you up and spit you out.

Q: From a design perspective, what makes Black Cats unique?

A: Hmmm, that’s a tough one. I’m sure others could tell you better than I could, but I’ll give it a shot.

When it comes down to numbers, I think my mountain bikes have pushed the edges of what to expect from a “cross country hardtail”. Since I’ve been riding and building single speeds for a long time, that has really freed up my designs from the constraints that derailleurs put on things. No expectations of a front derailleur mean you can curve the seat tube to get a short chainstay on a 29er. Having a short rear end means that the quicker front end on the typical 29er 10 years ago, made the thing handle too quick. I just started slackening the angles to make the bike handle better. A 71 degree head angle going down the scree fields known as What Trail or Pick and Shovel on West Cuesta is terrifying. The terrain really did the pushing and I just responded.

Same thing with road bikes. Both Santa Cruz, where I’m at now, and SLO has world class road riding, but if you want to access all of it you have to ride dirt. Because of that, all my “standard” road bikes take 28c tires, the fattest that will fit through short reach brakes. I don’t build crit racers, I build road bikes that are comfortable to ride, on as much terrain as you’re willing to ride. If you’re not riding your road bike on dirt, you’re doing it wrong, plain and simple.

As far as an aesthetic goes, I’ve got a background in visual arts, so it just seems boring to me to use off-the-shelf parts when I can design and make my own that meet my expectations of form and function. If I’m using off-the-shelf parts and putting them together with off-the-shelf tools, then where’s the creativity? Anybody can do that. It’s really only a Black Cat when it’s built with the tools that I built with the parts that I made. I’m the only one that can build a Black Cat. The same should be true of anybody making something. How much better does dinner taste when you grow the food yourself? Same thoughts here.

Black Cat offset Sram spider for belt drives

Here is an example of one of Todd’s special offset Sram crank spiders for making the shortest belt drive chainstays around.

A willingness to blow a few hundred dollars wrecking tube after tube, and a few weeks making tool after tool, trying to figure out how to manipulate a tube a certain way, doesn’t hurt either. I’m a little hard headed that way, for better or worse.

Q: What type of bike do you enjoy building the most? The fancy bi-lam bikes? Singlespeed 29er’s? Road? Cross?

A: It sounds like such a cop-out, but I don’t have a favorite. The fancy bikes are fun because it’s so gratifying when it’s all done and it looks so cool, but at the same time, a classic road bike with a flat top tube and straight stays just looks the business and begs to be ridden hard. I’m easily swayed by the recipient’s enthusiasm into being stoked for them to get the coolest bike I can make them. I don’t like building for folks who seem to just care about aesthetics. I don’t want to talk about a paint scheme until we’ve talked about what adventures the bike is going to take you on. Pretty bikes hanging on the hook bum me out. Road bikes covered in mud and mountain bikes with a few dings and dents are where it’s at.

Green Black Cat

This may be the most beautiful mountain bike ever made.

Q: Anyone who follows your blog knows that you have an incredibly diverse and eclectic taste in music. What role does music play in the creative process on a Black Cat build?

A: Music is my coworker. Simple as that. We’ve all had that guy at the office or shop that when he’s in a bad mood it just rubs off on everyone. Same thing, only I get to steer the mood. Doing a lot of machining? Put on some Akimbo. Brazing? Three Mile Pilot or Portishead sets the pace. When I’m doing something like finish work on the frame, where it’s just throwing a lot of somewhat mindless labor at a task, I get to explore that one band or genre I’ve been meaning to check out. Just seems like a good way to use my brain. Concentrating on the subtleties of frame building while probing late 50’s bebop just seems natural.

Black Cat Single Speed Frame

A little bit of Todd’s preference for offbeat music finds its way into many of his paint jobs.

Let’s make it clear that I’m certainly no expert. There are vast areas where I’m completely ignorant. I have trouble remembering names of records, songs, band members, etc., and I’m not going to hold up well in any music theory debate.

On the blog I like to bring it up simply because it’s something we all do, obsessively or not. We can all listen to, and identify with, music. I don’t expect people to love everything that I love, that’s for sure, but we can all get into music on some level. I get it that not everybody loves ABBA the way I do.

Getting recommendations from people is great. It’s cool when they care enough to think, “Oh, if he likes this, then he should check out that.” Hopefully people come to the site to look at (what I hope are) cool bikes, but it’s great when I get to connect with somebody about music. Whether or not it leads to that person buying a bike is totally beside the point. I’d rather have a riding partner to talk about music with than just somebody to sell a bike to and have no other relationship with. Making and selling bikes is my job, but making and maintaining friendships is what makes it worthwhile for me.

Geez, sounds so cliche… I think the music is just a means to flush out and flesh out those relationships with people on the other end of the ethernet cable.

Thanks a bunch for taking an interest in my bikes. It boggles my mind that I get to do this for a living. Black Cat customers are the best! They let me be the reclusive weirdo/eccentric artist/obsessive control freak that I am.