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Lynskey: Factory Visit

Lynskey has been working with titanium for three generations and, if the current interest is anything to go by, it won't stop there.

James Spender
11 Nov 2015

You don’t order Pepsi round here unless y’all want to get chucked out,’ says Mark Lynskey in a soft Southern drawl. ‘This town was built on old Coke money. In fact the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant was opened here in 1899. We used to be heavily industrialised here, but now it’s mostly tourism that brings the trade.’

‘Here’ is Chattanooga, and although that loss of manufacturing means it’s now rows of neat houses, gentrified barbeque shacks and boutique coffee shops that radiate away from the Tennessee River, there is still at least one hive of industry: building number 3911, just off Highway 317 down a little cul-de-sac called Volunteer Drive. From its beige, corrugated exterior there’s little indication of what’s going on inside, the only clue is a familiar looking roof rack attached to a monstrous Ford truck out front. 

Lynskey factory

Before we’re guided to the entrance, Mark takes us on a detour to a slatted hut within a fenced enclosure adjacent to the main building. ‘I just got to feed Grayson,’ he says.

It’s a surreal moment as the remnants of last night’s barbeque ribs are chucked over the fence, and out of the hut (which has an air-conditioning unit and satellite dish) bounds a giant, tan-coloured wolf. ‘We take him out for walks and things. He’s technically wild but really very tame,’ says Mark, adding, ‘Aren’t you boy?’ for reassuring measure. The Lynskey family, it seems, do things differently, and that includes the way they make their bikes.

At home with the Lynskeys

Although the Lynskey name has only adorned the down tubes of high-end titanium frames since 2006, the family’s history in that most coveted of bicycle metals stretches much further back. In fact, ‘dynasty’ might be a better word to describe the family behind the company. 

Evolving out of a machine shop run by their late father, Bill, Lynskey is now owned and operated by siblings Mark (sales, marketing, design), David (design, plant manager), Chris (engineer and computer programming), Tim (finishing) and Theresa (shipping manager), together with family matriarch Ruby (financial manager). Alongside Ruby in the office is Mark’s daughter, Stephanie (marketing manager), while out on the shop floor can be found Chris’s wife, Toni (lead welder), Mark’s son Liam (today on sandblasting duties) and Liam’s great uncle, Bill (technician). 

Lynskey tool

‘I can’t even tell you how long Uncle Bill’s been with us – since back before we were born, probably,’ says Mark, nodding towards an elderly gentleman in a crisp white work shirt who’s fastidiously cutting sheets of titanium. ‘He’s semi-retired now, but he’d still work five days a week if we let him.’

Bill, it turns out, has seen a thing or two – from the brand’s early machine shop days, to its transition from Litespeed to Lynskey, to its current throughput of $50,000 (£33,000) worth of titanium alloy every month. As we tour the cavernous factory, the humming bass of heavy machinery punctuated by the trebly tick-tick-ticking of welding guns, Mark begins to unravel the story behind the brand.

‘My brother David was a runner at college, but he had knee troubles so had to quit. Instead he took up cycling, and before long he was competing at regional level. That must have been 1984 or ’85. Back then our father was running a company called Southeast Associated Machine, doing industrial contract work, so it wasn’t long before David thought, “Heck, making things is what we do – I’m going to make my own bike. We’ve got some titanium over here in the rack. It’ll be light, it’ll be strong, that ought to be pretty neat.” So he bought this book about how to build frames – I think he still has it – and I clearly remember standing out in the shop and going through it, saying, “OK, so they call that a chainstay, that makes sense because it’s near the chain. That one’s a seatstay then.” That’s truly the level we were figuring things out at. David reckoned on a 60cm size frame, and we got it built, started switching over parts from his old bike and then very quickly we learned what toe-overlap was. It was probably the only 60cm bike in the world with four inches of overlap!’

However, despite ‘not having got the whole geometry thing perfect yet’, David’s bike was a hit among his friends, who soon began pestering him to make frames for them.

Lynskey tubing

‘It was a hobby at first, until one day the owner of the business next door came in to check on some work we were doing for him and he brought this friend of his who was really into triathlon. He spies David’s bike – you know how tri geeks are just magnetised to equipment? So he says, “What’s this?” and we explain it to him. “Do you sell ’em?” he says. “Well, we could I guess, but do you know how expensive that would be? Would anyone buy them?” He was like, “Yeah, you really need to do this!” It turned out he was one of the people who started Triathlete magazine, and he helped us get a little booth at this bike show in Long Beach, which would later move to Vegas and become Interbike. David built a couple of frames to show there, and that really kicked us off.’

Those early bikes debuted to the industry in 1986 under the name Litespeed, and by 1989 an addition was built to the Southeast workshop just to make bikes, with Litespeed hiring its first employee, Eric Barnes. ‘Eric’s another one who’s still with us today – hey Eric?’ says Mark, jovially slapping Eric on the back as we pass through the tube mitring stations, where technicians are busily mitring and lining up the pre-cut tubesets on top of frame-sized paper blueprints.

Learning fast

The early 1990s saw an explosion in the popularity of titanium, yet in those early days Litespeed had little competition. In fact what competition there was worked in Litespeed’s favour, with the only other big name in titanium at that point, Massachusetts-based Merlin Bicycles, passing on contract work from other bike brands to Litespeed.

‘We’d spent our lives making stuff for other people, so it was only natural. Our first contract was with Marin, but by 1993 we were making bikes for 21 different brands, and by 1996 we’d stepped away from industrial work to do bikes full-time,’ says Mark. ‘It was during this period that we really started to understand bikes. When you’ve got Ugo De Rosa, Irio Tommasini, Eddy Merckx, all these cycling gurus coming to you, and you’re good listeners, you can really learn what makes a bike tick.’

Lynskey chair

Evidently the Lynskeys were very good listeners indeed. Their bikes quickly gained a good reputation, not least as rebranded machines raced by a number of professionals in the mid-1990s, including a certain Mr Armstrong, who pedalled a Litespeed-built Eddy Merckx bicycle to victory at the 1993 World Road Race Championships. 

‘It’s not like we’d hang out and have a beer, but he’d come in with Steve Hed [of Hed Wheels], who he worked with very closely at the time, and we’d chat for 45 minutes about technical issues. We did bikes for him at Trek too.’

Offers to buy Litespeed came thick and fast. At first there was little impetus to sell, but all that changed when a gentleman by the name of Leon Hirsch appeared on the scene.

‘Leon had created US Surgical, a company that had pioneered surgical staples and scope technology. He sold up [reputedly for $1.4 billion] and started an investment company with his business associates, and we were their first investment. He tabled this offer that made us go, “Er, sure, here are the keys!” They needed someone to run the company so I stayed, and over the next five years we bought five other companies, including Merlin Bicycles.’ Litespeed continued to do good business, however Mark resigned from the company in June 2005.

Lynskey jig

‘It was this global company, and I found I was spending half my life in the sky, and that was taking me away from what I loved doing – making bicycles – so I quit. 

‘By September my mom Ruby’s on the phone saying what are you going to do? And unbeknownst to me she’s also on the phone to my brother David saying you’ve been sitting on your butt for too long! We sat down at Thanksgiving in November and had a talk, and by January 2006 we had leased a building and started buying manufacturing equipment. The initial plan was just to make custom titanium frames, but after a while the demand from dealers for stock models was so high we started doing those too. And that’s where we’re up to today as Lynskey Performance Bicycles.’

Tall and funny lookin’

The Lynskey portfolio is now burgeoning and includes road bikes, full-suspension downhill bikes, breakaway frames, tandems and children’s tricycles. Today the factory turns out around 140 bikes per week, closing only for national holidays, and if you come to Lynskey with a suggestion for a one-off bike it will do its best to accommodate you.

‘You have a lot of people that get into the bike business because they like bikes, but do they really know how to make them effectively? What sets us apart is that we started out as manufacturers in the chemical, industrial, military and aerospace industries, and then we got into bikes, so we know the building process, the limitations and the material inside out. That really helps when you get NBA players coming to you asking for 72cm frames. One guy wanted inch-and-a-half tubes, so we had to explain that you just can’t do that – we don’t want a bike out there that rides like a noodle. We had this little guy working for us at the time and that bike was so big he could nearly step through the middle of it without stooping.’

It’s not just NBA players who have sought out Lynskey either. Perhaps its most famous customer was the late comedian Robin Williams.

‘He’d get a bike from us every two or three years, and it was hilarious. He’d call up and start using one of his characters’ voices to make us guess who it was. I think the very last one he ordered from us he actually called up my daughter Stephanie pretending to be Mrs Doubtfire.’

Lynskey lathe

To validate this, Mark points out a picture in the company showroom of a smiling Robin Williams with his new Lynskey, along with a host of other newspaper clippings about bicycles built for Tour riders, dignitaries and Olympians. Arguably most telling of all is a framed, scrawled picture entitled ‘Pencil Sharpner’ (sic), which shows a pile of pencils going through a fan operated chipping machine and coming out in recycled chips, all under the watchful gaze of a cartoon mouse.

‘Oh, that,’ chuckles Mark. ‘I was in second grade at a school where all the teachers were nuns. I drew that at the back of class one day and one of the nuns caught me, so she made me mail the drawing home with a letter saying “I did this instead of my arithmetic”. Why is there a mouse in the corner? He’s just checking things out, making sure everything’s running OK.’

At the moment it seems things are running rather more than OK for Lynskey, but having seen the operation and heard the stories, that’s no accident. These people really do live and breathe manufacturing titanium, and the bicycle industry should consider itself lucky the Lynskeys chose it in which to ply their trade.

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