27 May 2021

Just about a bike: Matt Chester MuTinyman singlespeed

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Near as I can figure, Matt Chester, a resident of Leadville, Colorado, began fabricating and selling bicycles made from titanium tubing out of his home workshop sometime early in 1999. Per his now-mothballed website, he only built bikes from Ti, focused his work exclusively on singlespeed bicycles, and tried very hard (though not always successfully) to convince all of his customers to get their bikes built with 29" (700c) wheels.  He refused to install disc-brake tabs, entirely shunned eccentric bottom bracket shells, yet nonetheless eagerly charged people for repairs to other manufacturer's broken or damaged titanium frames.  

Also, near as I can figure, sometime around 2003, Matt Chester, now a resident of Poncha Springs, Colorado, had moved his operation down-valley to the south and was building his bikes in a friend's garage.  It would seem that, around this time, Chester began to carry-out a kind of haphazard, perhaps even initially unintentional, deceptive scheme amongst his customer base, apparently taking new orders along with hefty deposits, purchasing tubing and supplies for older as-yet undelivered orders with the new-customer money, and hoping everyone, including his friend (a mutual friend of both of ours, as a matter of fact) who was leasing him shop space in his garage, would remain none the wiser (which, by the way, he did not; he got wise).  As with most such schemes, Chester's seems to have eventually come apart, as he most likely fell further and further behind in fulfilling his orders. It appears he was at times years behind, failing to deliver to those who had put down $1000, $2000 or more, anything but empty promises of "Soon," proffered only after persistent pestering via email.

Finally, near as I can figure, by 2006, Chester's operation was likely failing in earnest, possibly due to recurrent concussive traumatic brain injuries he occasionally complained of which rendered him unfit or unable to work, or possibly because he met a girl and refocused his life-goals around being with her instead of making bikes, or possibly because he became fixated on the fact that, as a Canadian, she offered him a way out, beyond the reach of his increasingly disappointed and often angry customers.  Regardless of his motivations, and with little forewarning, he announced mid-2006, on a now defunct Livejournal blog that he was officially going to stop framebuilding, presumably with a number of orders still unfulfilled and deposits unreturned.

In the end, near as I can figure, at some point prior to 2010, it seems he and his wife/girlfriend had moved to a small town near Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  A handful of customers, some of whom had ordered their bikes as far back as 2002, report that a few of their bikes were finally delivered via international shipment through Canada/USA customs in early 2011. Chester, likewise, made a few posts to his Twitter account as recently as 2015 and perhaps a few posts justifying his actions under a pseudonym in at least one of the many mostly angry forums and threads bearing his name at mtbr.com. And then the well basically runs dry. 

No one knows how much real cash money Chester absconded with, if any.  No one really knows how many of his frames went undelivered. Other than Chester himself, no one knows much about the actual whys and wherefores of his apparent inability to honor his commitments to his customers.

All anyone really knows is that, while he was productively making bikes, Chester made some (comparatively) very affordable, very fun-to-ride bikes out of a difficult to conjoin, quite highly sought after, genuinely exotic material.



And now, a decade or two later...

We also know that, of the bikes that were delivered to customers by Chester between 1999 and 2011, especially it would seem, those of the vintage that were fabricated in his friend's garage in Poncha Springs, Colorado, many of those bicycles eventually failed, broke, cracked, or snapped into disparate worthless pieces.

As it has gone with mine, a 2003 (Poncha Springs) Matt Chester MuTinyman 29" singlespeed, serial number #whothehellknows 1.

It busted. A lot.

I bought my Chester some five years ago from the person who was its original owner. In fact, he's another mutual friend of mine and the guy in Poncha who was renting Matt Chester shop space in his garage.

Small world, huh.

Chester now
My friend, the guy who originally arranged with Chester to have the bike built for himself is, to put it mildly (and especially in comparison to myself), something of, shall we say, a man of means. So, once the frame-build was finished, he had the bike shipped down the road from Poncha a few short miles to where it could be assembled by the good folks at Absolute Bikes in Salida, Colorado, with what, in my world, I can only describe as "quite a bit of (classic 2003-era) bling," silver Chris King hubs and a black King headset, Stans ZTR hoops, Fox F29 80mm fork, Hayes Oro hydraulic front disc brake, black/silver Pauls rear v-brake lever, Avid Black Ops Research rear v-brake, XT M760 175mm cranks, 36t Blackspire ring... it's a sweet now-vintage build and I've done little over the years to alter its stance.

Chester then
I did replace the Thudbuster post with a 27.5mm KS dropper, and the too-narrow Answer Monkeylite carbon bars and too-short 50mm Salsa stem with a much wider (725mm) blue anno SpankSpoon unit (matches the top caps on the Fox fork), along with a more appropriate 80mm silver Thomson stem.  And I also took off the larger-than-lifesized horseshoe-shaped carbon Shimano brake booster and replaced it with a one-of-a-kind brushed tubular steel Vulture Cycles brake booster (handmade for me in Oregon by Wade in the 1990s on IRD Rod Moses' jig, I'll have you know).  It looks a hell of a lot better on the Chester than that fugly ol' Shimano thing ever did. Works just as well, too. Possibly better.




After owning the bike for more than a dozen years, my friend listed it quite unexpectely on Facebook one evening several years ago now (at a time when I was still a part of that compromised clusterfuck of a website) for a very fair price, along with a couple other bikes that he said he wasn't riding very often any more.  I  contacted him as soon as I saw the ad, and gave him every penny he was asking for it without any negotiation. I think we both felt we were getting a good honest deal. That's always nice.

Anyway, after about four years of pretty legit riding by me all over our local shield volcano, the bike's seatpost seemed to get super creaky as I was headed out for a shred one morning.  I stopped to apply a tiny bit of lube to the post and noticed, as I was preparing to slicken things up, that there was a tiny crack visible in the weld on at the top-tube/seat-tube junction.  On further inspection, I noticed there were also cracks on both the seat-stay welds... and beneath the top-tube/seat-tube joint... and at the head-tube/top-tube... and who knows where else. I made myself stop looking and gingerly rode home, back the way I'd come. I've broken bikes before, but never so catastrophically. There was no question, the frame was cooked. End of story. I was sad to see her go.

She had been a real hoot to ride.



Then, one afternoon not long after that, I flipped the story of my broken titanium Chester past Kyle, the general manager of Absolute Bikes in Flagstaff and, as I would soon come to learn, a skilled fabricator of various alloys of metal looking to try his otherwise experienced hand for the first time at the intricate art of welding titanium.

"I'm set up and ready to work with titanium," he told me after listening sympathetically to my tale of woe. "Haven't actually done it yet. All I need is a guinea pig. You pay for the materials and I'll do the labor for free if you'll let me practice my techinque on your Chester."



Deal.  I mean, the bike was going to be wall art otherwise, so what was there to lose?  Thus, a few hundred dollars in Ti tubes and rods, a number of months of patiently waiting, and voila! 

The bitch is back!

She's got a brand new carefully mitered and affixed top-tube 2, and a super sexy collar-gusset at the top of her seat-tube now. And a whole bunch of damn good looking, albeit raw and unpolished, Ti welds 3 in all the places where she needed them, which, as noted above, was several.

Do I think it's going to break again?  Oh, yeah.  Based on what I saw, how the frame failed in so many places simultaneously, it seems inevitable.  If you look carefully, Kyle also ran a tracer bead down another short crack he found in the downtube near the headtube. And then there's the bottom bracket shell joints, where so many of the stresses riding are concentrated in one area, those welds are key to a bike's survival. And I'm pretty certain Chester probably didn't spend any more time building-in frame integrity there than he did anywhere else.  So yeah, I think it's going to break again.  When?  Who knows.  How?  Hopefully slowly and with a lot of warning and not in a way that kills me (I don't often take it off sweet jumps and get, like, three feet of air).

But, for now it's great to get to shred my resurrected zombie-Chester again, for however long I'm able. And I'm gonna.

'Cause she is still a hoot to ride!



Footnotes


1. Chester never put serial numbers on his bikes.

2.
 Based on what little I know of frame building, and the way this frame cracked so catastrophically in so many places, seemingly all at once, I've come to suspect that Chester could probably have been a lot more precise about how he cut and mitered his frame tubes prior to assembly.

3.
Chester's tube-joinery has always looked a little too smooth to me, like it was finish-filed, akin to what a frame-builder often does to complete a fillet-brazed frame.


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