Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #63, published in February 1998. Words and photos by Jeff Lockwood.
This story was inspired by our conversation with Frank “The Welder” Wadelton, head welder at Spooky Cycles, at the Interbike show back in August. And, let’s just say that he is an interesting fellow. When we got back to Pittsburgh and had our little meeting about the show, we decided that the whole idea of Spooky Cycles, including Frank, was interesting enough to warrant a trip to Connecticut and the following excuse for a story. Since I am the youngest (by 11 years) and most hip person here—and understand punk rock—I was elected to accept this mission. Besides, I really wanted to go up here and hang out.
It was a cold and rainy Saturday in November as I drove up to Danbury, Connecticut, the home of Spooky Cycles. Connecticut, as you may know, is also the home of one of the most corporate bike companies in the country. The geographical state where these two companies maintain offices is about the only thing they have in common.
Many people going to visit the bigger company will literally pass right by Spooky while speeding across Interstate 84. Spooky’s HQ, a mere 10 feet from the bustling highway, is obscured by trees, and the only thing even partially visible is the bright red Haulmark race trailer that is parked in front of the plain steel building. Similarly, and very often, many people tend to pass right by a Spooky bike on their way to buy a Cannondale. Spooky’s bikes seem to be hidden only by the sheer numbers of the big bike companies. But Spooky does stand out because of their attitude, not only towards the bike industry, but towards life in general.
The first thing that I noticed as I walked through the door of the Spooky headquarters was the abundance of various punk rock posters hanging on the walls of the office. The large disco ball dangling in the middle of the room caught my eye as well. No one was in the office, but I could hear activity just beyond the paper-thin walls. I looked around a bit and waited for someone to come to me (the door to the factory said “Spooky employees only”).
Before Kevin Hopkins, 28, co-founder and machinist, greeted me, I noticed a Ska Blazers CD laying by the stereo. I was very surprised to see that this ska band from my home town had a CD out. I was not so surprised that the folks at Spooky Cycles had a copy of it. In a corporate atmosphere where companies spend millions on being “rad” or “alternative,” the people at Spooky truly are different.
“People market their most radical looking riders with the bleached hair, the funky carved goatee, the tattoos and the piercings. That stuff doesn’t mean anything … it’s superficial. Fortunately for us it is all attributed to the lifestyle we were brought up in and it’s attributed to the lifestyle that is who we are. It’s not our market, it’s just who we are. And if that attracts people, then so be it. But, we’re not using it to generate profit. We’re not going to have to spend millions of dollars to get there.” says Adam Mitchell, head salesperson.
“Super” Dave, BMX guru and welder, has a rather large tattoo on his back of the Minor Threat album cover “Out of Step.” It depicts a black sheep running away from the rest of the pack. It may or may not be a personal statement for Dave, but in a rather corporate industry, it is the way of life for Spooky Cycles. Being a punk rock owned company that produces high-end hand made bikes. Spooky does seem to be out of step with the bicycle world. But, that step just may be ahead.
The company was started, and is run by, young men that look and think differently than the people in suits that make decisions at the big bike companies. One look at the Spooky catalog will make this fact very clear. It is fashioned after a seven inch (45 rpm record to you old people) sleeve. But, instead of a record, you get information and photos of their bikes and t-shirts, as well as some interesting messages. It is these messages that really help Spooky to stand out.
In addition to the usual copy and photos. Spooky laces the catalog with thought-provoking images and statements. One photo depicts the lead singer of a punk rock band wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with large white letters stating: “IT’S OK NOT TO DRINK!” Another blurb gives you the chilling facts of tobacco use. These themes are also touted on much of the clothing that Spooky markets.
Besides building and having fun on bicycles, a positive outlook on life, having an open mind and questioning everything are part of the solid foundation of Spooky Cycles. Most of the guys at Spooky are into punk rock and a few of them even consider themselves Straight Edge. For the record, Straight Edge is a lifestyle movement in the punk community that promotes positive living. People who choose to be straight edge don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol, don’t do drugs, fight to eliminate racism and generally live an open-minded lifestyle. Many Straight Edgers also choose to be vegetarian or vegan. Many people just dismiss these tattooed and pierced people as druggies, or freaks, but that is just what being close-minded is and that is just what people who are Straight Edge are not.
Aside from looking and thinking differently. Spooky operates unlike the bigger bike companies. During my visit, Wendell Robbins, the chief machinist, was practicing his welding. Everyone at Spooky is learning each other’s discipline. This makes for better communication, allows for extra work to be done on each other’s projects if needed and generally enhances the manufacturing process.
The decision making schematic at Spooky is very linear as opposed to the hierarchal processes set at other companies. The guys who founded and own Spooky Cycles are the very same people who research, develop, build, market and sell the bikes. “When we go on a ride and we’re not happy with something, we know what needs to be changed and we know how to change it. One of the important things about the company is that we all ride. So we know ourselves what happens with the bikes.” says Chris Cotroneo, co-founder.
Many of the bike mega-companies don’t like Spooky Cycles. They don’t like how they act, they don’t like how they look and, at nearly $5,000 per Project X downhill bike, of which they have sold over 50 of as of November, bigger bike companies don’t like how much money Spooky is taking from them. At the CABDA trade show in Chicago, a suit from another company came up to Chris, who sported a bleached mohawk at the time, took one look and stated: “I would never hire you! Who do you work for? What do you do?” Chris laughed and simply replied with, “I work at Spooky. And, believe me sir, I would never hire you, either.”
Here’s why: Spooky started back in 1993 when Chris, Kevin and another fellow named Bill were sitting around the dinner table after a ride. The ride had been polluted with complaints and whines about how the bikes which they were riding were designed for West Coast trails, or worse yet, the lowest common denominator of rider.
Instead of just sitting around and complaining, they did something. By the time they were through with dinner, complete plans for their dream bike were etched onto a napkin. This dream bike would be more East Coast friendly by having a steeper head angle, a higher bottom bracket, shorter chainstays and would be fabricated from Easton Taperwall aluminum. They came to the table with a dream and left with a drawing. Spooky Cycles was born.
They initially funded the company by making and selling t-shirts touting their company name, logo and positive messages. As the money began to trickle in, they decided to outsource the bikes. Since they all loved the way that Easton aluminum rode, they called Easton who put them in touch with Chris Herting who agreed to build the first bike upon which Spooky could put their name.
Herting did the first 12 slalom bikes that Spooky sold, but could not do more than five a month. So Herting referred Spooky to Frank The Welder Wadelton who was in Arizona at the time. He began doing bikes for them out of his Arizona shop. But after some time, Spooky managed to talk Frank, the oldest member of the Spooky family at 38 (and not necessarily into the punk thing), into relocating to Connecticut to build bikes for Spooky in their Danbury factory. Throw into the mix Wendell Robbins, 32, a machinist of Gravity Research fame; Super Dave Harrison, 24, a talented BMX welder and some college intern help by the name of Brett—and the rest, as they say, is history, baby.
The company slogan is “100% USA, 100% Love.” Every penny that Spooky makes is put back into the company. This is evidenced by the fact that most of the guys live in the same house. Located in New York, only about 20 minutes from the factory, you would never know that the house is inhabited by a bunch of punk rock guys who run a bicycle company. Two large huskies greet you as you approach a front door that is decorated with a traditional wreath for the holiday season.
On the other hand, the offices and factory spill with bikes. Beyond the walls of the office lies a rather large, high-ceilinged factory. Two CNC machines are flanked by numerous presses, milling machines, bare bicycle frames, welding tanks and a few drill presses. A Bad Religion poster hangs on a wall while Chris does prep work on some cyclocross tubing and Dave tinkers on a BMX frame. At 5,000 square feet, this typical steel structure is barely holding the activity that goes on inside its walls.
Spooky currently produces about 400 bikes per month (about 150 are Spooky Bikes, while the rest is contract work.) Aside from their revolutionary downhill bike, Project X, Spooky produces a dual slalom bike with an adjustable wheelbase, Metalhead, the hardtail Junebug (see the upcoming Dirt Rag #64 for review) and Darkside (yes, as in “Star Wars.” See Dirt Rag #49), a trials bike, BMX bike and a cyclocross rig. Production is expected to outgrow their present digs, and Spooky is looking to move.
Since I stayed for the evening, the guys at Spooky decided to take me out and see the sights. We were originally going to see Black 47 in concert, but decided to nix that idea in light of “visiting” the nearly finished Cannondale facility. Before I left their hospitality, we had eaten Chinese food, gone skateboarding, played Fusbol and tried to visit the Jehovah’s Witnesses at their world headquarters. They didn’t let us get even close to the campus. What irony.
Update: As of February 1, 1998 I am no longer the youngest person here (we got some interns) and Spooky has moved. Rapid growth, combined with a royal shafting from the state of Connecticut, has forced them to call Brewster, New York, home. Aside from doubling their shop space, Spooky has also increased their production capability by acquiring machinery from the ProFlex moving sale.
We’ve published a lot of stuff in 26 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.