Since he was a kid growing up in Florence, S.C., Curtis Dobbins has had a thing for bikes. Riding them, naturally, and because he was an inquisitive lad, tearing them apart and figuring out how to put them back together. He began riding seriously in high school and found work as a mechanic in a local bike shop. He moved to Raleigh in 1981 to go to N.C. State and got into bike racing at a time when Raleigh was one of the country’s hot spots (the old Capital City Criterium offered as much as $20,000 in prize money, enough to attract some of the nation’s top cyclists).
“I raced for about 13 years and found early on that I was a much better mechanic than racer,” says Dobbins. Save for a brief stint in Hawaii a couple years back, Dobbins has spent most of the last two decades as a mechanic at REI’s Cary and Durham stores. During his time here he’s become something of a cycling legend, a legend who’s about to embark on a third cycling passion that’s been simmering for years. Curt discusses what’s next in this GGNC e-interview.
GGNC: So what’s this passion about to come to the fore?
CD: During this time I had a keen interest in frame building … . I met McLean Fonvielle who was building custom frames in Durham and had him do some upgrades to the frame that I was then riding. We became friends and discussed my becoming his apprentice. This didn’t come to be as McLean passed away in early 1983. I floundered for a bit and without a good way to really learn the trade put it on the back burner for a bit.
A few years later I had another friend who had an interest in frame building so we decided to teach ourselves as much as we could. About 15 to 20 frames later life got in the way of frame building. Two children, McLean and Maggie “Magpie,” and the need to provide for a family kept me away from frame building for a long time.”
GGNC: When did you decided to start building frames again?
CD: Skip to the recent past and flame continued to burn. I always felt that I could build quality frames and still wanted to try and give it a go. I had an acquaintance in Massachusetts who has been building and painting frames for about 20 years. He offers a week-long course so I decided to see if I still had my chops. Toby Stanton owns Hot Tubes in Shirley, Mass., and in February of 2009 I made the trek up north and spent a week with Toby. He not only confirmed the idea that I could be a frame builder but became my mentor and true friend. After I had been home about six months with my new Magpie cyclocross bike I was itching to be building frames more regularly. I was speaking to Toby and before I knew it I had been invited back up to Massachusetts to build another frame. This time not for the instruction, but to make use of the well equipped shop, I built a touring frame. … Now I am trying to get my business up and going
GGNC: You’re focusing on cyclocross and touring frames — any particular reason?
CD: The reason I chose to build the cyclocross and touring frames is two-fold. First, because I was lacking these in my quiver of bikes. And second because I feel that both of these bikes will be tools for selling my frames. Cyclocross has become very popular here as well as the rest of the country and I feel that I can tap into a little of that market. I also have some short tours planned and need a touring bike to show off.
GGNC: What’s your goal? Is there a niche you hope to fill?
CD: I hope to sell custom, hand-built steel bicycles. I will offer fully lugged, fillet brazed, tig welded or a combination of methods for frame construction. I think that right now there is a resurgence in hand-built bicycles and there seems to be a void in this part of the country. New England and Portland seem to be the hotbeds currently, but there is no reason that I can’t get a little piece of the pie.
GGNC: Why do you think there’s growing demand for hand-built bikes?
CD: I think people want a bike that is special. There are few downsides to having a custom steel bike. You may have a little weight penalty but for most people I think this is a non-issue. I think that potential customers also like the idea of having some input into their bike frame.
GGNC: How does one order a hand-built bike?
CD: The ideal way would be to meet with the client, take body and current bike measurements, discuss the type of frame and take a deposit. This could also take place over the phone or with email. When I get within a few months of the promised delivery time, the client and I would discuss the details. This could include lug designs, braze-ons, paint etc. I will be offering complete bikes as well and will also build custom wheels to go with your new ride.
GGNC: How much will your bikes cost?
CD: The fork and frame will run about $2,000.
GGNC: You were going to name the bikes Magpie — but there’s a problem?
CD: Magpie has been my daughters nickname since before she was born. She and I suit this name very well. [He includes the entry for “magpie” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which includes these definitions: a person who chatters noisily; one who collects indiscriminately.] This was the perfect name for my bikes, so I thought. The short story is that First Bicycle Component from Taiwan applied for a trademark for Magpie in September. The Magpie is the national bird of Taiwan. I imagine that their lawyers are better paid than my lawyers so I have decided to call my company Cycles Marguerite.
GGNC: When do you expect to start selling your Cycles Marguerite?
CD: I have not really offered up frames for sale yet, though I already have about 29 potential orders. I am inching ever closer to taking deposits, which means that I will be setting deadlines for delivery. Optimistically, I will be taking deposits within two to three months and it will take about a year or so to complete the frames in my queue. As I get my shop better equipped and increase my speed, I hope to be building between 40 and 60 frames per year.
There is, however, one prototype Magpie/Cycles Marguerite already in existence. For some reason, Curt has allowed me to test ride that bike, a crossbike, for a week or so. Follow how the bike and I are getting along at JoeAGoGo on Twitter.
Photo: Curt Dobbins and Magpie No. 1 in the Durham REI bike shop.