Kirk Pacenti

 MG 0283-lrr Kirk Pacenti-bwaKirk Pacenti is a designer and entrepreneur with two decades of experience in the bicycle industry. He has been obsessed with bicycles since childhood, and has pursued his passion professionally for nearly as long. Following an aerospace machining apprenticeship and a frame building course at United Bicycle Institute, Pacenti went to work for Keith Bontrager in 1994, where he honed his expertise in frame design and fabrication.

After a short stint as a production shop manager for Giro and a long ride across the country with his future wife on a pair of custom-built touring bikes, Pacenti moved to Seattle to work for Match Cycles, a contract frame-building company founded by Tim Isaac, whose expertise dates back to his days as one of the early frame builders for Trek bicycles. Pacenti worked on a wide range of projects at Match, including building frames for Rivendell and Hampsten, as well as the 60th anniversary Schwinn Paramount frames.

In 2000 Pacenti relocated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to take a position as a custom frame designer for Litespeed and Merlin. There, he further refined his innate understanding of the craft of bicycle building. In 2003 he branched out on his own to run full-time, a business he started to supply a growing number of custom frame builders with lugs, tubing and frame components, as well as design and consulting services.

In 2004 Pacenti began sketching out a mountain bike design that utilized the then-obscure 650b wheel standard. While the 650b wheel—sized midway between the established 26- and 29-inch standards, and also known as 27.5—had been in production in Europe for decades, never before had it been used in a modern mountain bike application.

As a frame designer, Pacenti was frustrated by the physical constraints of incorporating a 29-inch wheel into a modern suspension design. And as an avid rider he found himself at odds with certain performance attributes of the larger 29-inch wheel size. For Pacenti, the development of a 650b mountain bike category was a natural evolution in mountain bike design. Pacenti showed the first production 650b mountain bike at the North American Handmade Bike Show in 2007, and has been supporting the fast-growing 650b wheel size standard ever since with a range of innovative tire and rim designs.

Beginning at Bontrager

In 1994 I was really into single-speeding—I’d grown up racing BMX, and single-speeding was like an extension of that—and I was working at Keith Bontrager’s factory in Santa Cruz, California. I was just this guy who loved riding bikes, but I had access to all these machine tools, working in a place where if you wanted something and couldn’t find it, you figured out how to make it yourself.

I knew putting a huge stack of spacers on a standard freehub wasn’t the right way to rig a single-speed, but that was all we had. I thought, with all the extra room from having just a single cog you could make a dishless wheel with a flip-flop hub—you’d have a stronger wheel, and if you blew up your BMX cog you could spin the wheel around and keep riding. So I drew up a design, and had Bullseye make them for me. It was the very first dedicated single-speed MTB hub, and building it kinda set the path for the rest of my career.

Process and Design

I came from a manufacturing family—my grandfather was a foreman at Sikorsky, my father worked at Sikorsky, my grandmother was a toolmaker during WWII. I was always exposed to making things—I learned to read a micrometer when I was seven years old—and that’s how I learned to design things. When I was eight or nine I wanted to draw a motorcycle—my uncle had one, and I remember my grandfather taking me outside, saying, “Here’s the frame, the gas tank…” Design was always in me.

I learned a ton about production processes at Bontrager, where I’d gone to work after taking the United Bicycle Institute framebuilding course. I’d done my machinist apprenticeship at an aerospace shop where cost was no object—if you needed a tool you just went and bought it; they had a climate-controlled area just for materials storage, so you wouldn’t be taking aluminum out of a hot warehouse and having it shrink on you as it cooled. Bontrager was like a cave in comparison, it was the stone age, but the process was fantastic. Every single part was aligned, at every step—you’d weld a dropout to a stay, and align that before you’d take it to the next step; you’d align the wishbone seatstay as an assembly before passing it on. It was exacting, everything was super-precise, and you almost couldn’t mess it up—as long as you followed the correct weld sequence you’d end up with this perfectly aligned frame with very little tension in it. To this day, I’ve never seen a shop that turned out better, nicer frames than Bontrager—and I’ve been to dozens of bike factories all over the world. It all came from the process, and I’ve tried to carry that lesson with me always.

Custom Frames and Bike Lugs

After Trek bought Bontrager I worked at Giro as production shop manager, but left to ride across the country with this amazing girlfriend on a pair of custom touring bikes I’d built for the trip (that girl is still amazing—we’re married). And then I landed at Match Cycles in Seattle, working for Tim Isaac, where I built frames for Rivendell and Hampsten, and made Schwinn’s 60th Anniversary Paramounts.

In 2000 I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to work as a custom frame designer for Litespeed and Merlin, and it was my dream job. I’d do all the interface with the customer, I would design the bike and then hand it off to a guy for detailing, and he’d fill in the cross-sections and dimensions. Working like this I could do three custom bikes a day—that’s almost 3,000 frames over the course of three years, which really, really taught me a lot about fit and frame geometry. That was one of the highlights of my career, getting to design bikes for world champion triathletes and a Tour de France team—it was a real feather in my cap. Tim DeBoom won the Ironman in 2001, 2002, and I designed those bikes. And Robbie McEwen won the Australian national title and Tour de France green jersey in 2002, on my bikes. I can’t say I’m the reason they won—those guys could win on anything—but I know the bikes I designed didn’t hurt them at all. And Robbie’s 2002 bike is his favorite, which is a huge compliment.

I also started a part-time business in 2001. No one had produced a new lugset in probably 15 years—everybody used Henry James, which are terrific lugs, but they’re just plug-and-play. I thought a good lugset should allow the builder to do some carving and expressive work, that was his. So I designed my own lugs, and began supplying other framebuilders. I started with a few designs, gradually added more, and in 2003 became my full-time business, supplying custom builders with lugs, tubing, frame components and design consulting services.

The Light Bulb Moment: 650b

In 2004, the 29er thing was in full swing with MTBs. But it wasn’t sorted out yet—everyone was trying to make a 29er that wouldn’t handle like a pig. They were manipulating designs to accommodate the wheel, and it wasn’t working. If you got 50 mm or 80 mm of travel in a 29er fundamental frame design just went out the window. The reviews back then on 29ers were so bad. When you look at the first production 29ers, like the Gary Fisher Procaliber, it was just a 26” bike with 29” wheels, all they did was lengthen the chainstays. It’s way off the ground, with a trail number like a downhill bike.

I’d learned about 650b wheels from Grant Petersen, who was using them at Rivendell, and from all my experience designing frames I knew it was the perfect size. MTB geometry evolved independent of wheel size—the chainstay being 16-3/4” long has nothing to do with the tire being 26”; the chainstays could have been much shorter—but I realized that a 27.5” wheel would just about use up all the available real estate in a 26” wheel frame. It was the biggest wheel size that would fit into these proven geometries that had evolved over almost 30 years. All we had to do was drop the bottom bracket a little bit, and tweak the head angle to maintain the trail number.

I showed the first production 650b mountain bike at the 2007 North American Handmade Bicycle Show. It was such a radically new concept I had to cut and hand-sew a pair of WTB 29” tires to fit the rims (the first 650b MTB tire, the Pacenti Neo-Moto 2.3”, wouldn’t see production until later that year). Since then, the whole 650b/27.5” thing has really taken off. The market has spoken, or at least the manufacturers have.

The Rim Chapter

I got started in the rim business in 2009. I figured if I had Pacenti tires I should make rims—it seemed logical. Salsa had a 35-mm rim, and it was 700 grams but it was getting rave reviews because of what it did for the tire. I thought, Why does it have to be a 700-gram rim? I think the industry had fallen into this mentality that a 25-mm rim is a cross-country rim, 28-mm is trail, and 35-mm is downhill. But if, as a trail rider, you wanted that wider footprint and volume, you’d have a wheelset that was a pound heavier. Anyone can benefit from a wider rim, but almost nobody needs a rim that heavy, because they don’t need strength like a DH rider. That was the beginning of MTB rims I call “Trail wide, XC light.”

In 2011 the guys at Fair Wheel Bikes came to me saying, “We need a road rim that’s 23-mm wide and 27-mm tall and 450 grams.” And the rims were really, really nice. With that extra width, you put a 23- or 25-mm tire on there, the sides of the tire become tangent to the braking surface. You don’t get this light bulb profile with a 19-mm rim, it increases the volume, you can lower the pressure, corner harder, it hits all the right boxes.

I feel like a pretty lucky guy—all my life I’ve gotten to ride bikes, design a lot great stuff that makes riding better. And to me, that’s what it’s all about—making bikes better.

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