Interview - Walt Wehner of Waltworks

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If you are into mountain biking and have been in Colorado for a while or into 29ers you probably have heard of Walt Wehner of Waltworks Custom Bicycles. 303Cycling caught up with Walt and asked him a few questions.

[303cycling] Give us a little background on Walt Wehner.  How did you get into bikes (i.e. building, racing etc.)
[Walt] So I got into bikes (and by "got into" I mean "rode bikes recreationally") starting in 1998 when, believe it or not, some weirdo was stalking my girlfriend, and showed up as we were getting ready to go climbing at a crag in Los Alamos (my hometown). So we bailed on the climbing, got out of there, and she suggested a mountain bike ride instead. I took out her father's beat-down rigid mountain bike from about 1985 and crashed it about 20 times on the technical trails behind her house. Horrible, horrible experience. But in order to keep up appearances, I told her that I'd had "fun" and that I'd love to do it again. Fortunately, she held me to that (thanks Alisa!) and the second time was actually enjoyable. From there I was hooked.

I got into racing because all my friends told me I should, because I didn't get tired riding up big hills like they did. Did my first race in 1999 at Sandia Crest in New Mexico. It was hilarious - I lined up in black dress socks, cutoff sweatpants, and one of those 1980s helmets that looks like the bastard child of a styrofoam cooler. My idiot friends had told me to do the expert/pro (categories are combined at a lot of NM races) race, so I was so intimidated it was ridiculous. I waited until everyone had gone to actually start riding, figuring I'd just try to keep up with the slowest of the shaved-leg/team kit dudes.

As it turns out, I passed all of them on the climb (it was a long climb) and was briefly winning the race, but then the trail turned downhill - and in my excitement I didn't even *see* the first switchback until I had sailed off of it into a ski run. Where I promptly crashed, separated my shoulder, and gave myself a concussion. Needless to say I did not win that race.

Chris Miller - Photo Credit: Mike Cubison

I got into bike building on a whim, essentially, when my friend Scott Feldman noticed that Anvil bikes was selling a blemished frame jig for half price. Figuring I'd be able to turn around and sell it easily if needed, I bought it (Thanks Don!) and started making what must be the world's crappiest bikes (I'm not joking, I can show you the first one if you want to see it, it's awful - but it's still going). I got better at it, people who I didn't know started offering me money to build them a frame, and it sort of snowballed from there. If you had told me 10 years ago that I'd be building custom bicycles for a living I would have laughed in your face.
[303cycling] You were one of the first vocal proponents of 29ers that I know of. Did people think you were crazy thinking 29ers were the next thing?
[Walt] Well, I mostly dealt with people who were coming to me specifically to *get* a 29er, so no, not really. I'm sure there were plenty of people who thought 29ers were stupid, but I didn't spend a lot of time building *them* bikes, so I wasn't exposed to that viewpoint a lot. And I'm not big into arguing about that kind of thing - just ride what makes you happy.

Humorously enough, the first 29er I saw was in 2001 or 2002, owned by my friend AJ (his company, Victory Circle Graphics, does all my decals). He rode with us to the top of Green Mountain, and then, claiming time pressure, bailed down the fireroad back towards his house. I remember saying "yeah, that's about all the 29ers are good for, riding fire roads". Until I rode one, I thought they were stupid. So I wasn't really as far ahead of the curve as some people seem to think!

[303cycling] You only work with steel.  Why only steel?  Is there still a strong market for steel in the age of carbon?
[Walt] Steel is a great material because it's relatively inexpensive, easy to work with, available in a zillion configurations, and durable/repairable. I can build someone a really nice steel frame that weighs 4 pounds and will last a lifetime for $1200, and they can get a really sick complete bike for under $4000. Aluminum is not something people traditionally want in a custom frame, it's harder to source materials, and I'm not a fan of most of the aluminum bikes I've ridden. I think titanium is cool, but the price is too high to justify it. And carbon is great, but if you want custom geometry and a warranty, steel is the way to go.

Photo Credit: 303Cycling

Basically, if given a choice, I would ride a steel bike every time. So it makes sense for me to sell what I know, and what I love, rather than something I don't really care for.
[303cycling] What do you think of trail access around Boulder and specifically West TSA?
[Walt] I think the growing population of the front range, as well as the growing popularity of hiking, trail running, mountain biking, etc means that we really have 2 choices. Number one is to really restrict access to our public lands, and number two is to use best practices and smart design to let more people enjoy the land we've got without getting in each other's way - I'm talking about stacked loops to distribute users away from the trailheads, chokes and obstacles to slow people down, open sight lines - the whole enchilada. Our current trail system (especially the West TSA) is really poorly laid out, since it's basically a network of social trails that have been recognized and made official.

Obviously I hope number 2 is the choice we end up making, but we'll see.

Better behavior from all users would help. Mountain bikers should all have bells - there is nothing better to communicate to other people on the trail 1) I'm coming up to pass you, and 2) I'm friendly and not a douchebag. I've thought about carrying a bunch of bells and just giving them away on the trail, but I'm not sure how people would react.

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