Framebuilder Profile: Wes Williams of Willits Bikes
Wes Williams of Willits Bicycles doesn't pull any punches when it comes to bicycle design. The creator of the modern 29 inch wheel bike and maker of custom titanium and steel bikes let me know early on in our conversation, “I have no tolerance for people who can't see my vision.”
His vision is of large wheel bicycles more likely than not with road bars equally capable of handling whatever you throw at it on and off road with a fast, smooth ride. This has provided William with a core legion of followers, but also quite a few detractors in the bike industry who weren't ready for his out of the ordinary design. Still, his dogged commitment to a design he believes is best has eventually yielded results with 29ers being one of the fastest growing segments of the bike market.
The genesis of the 29er
Williams has been in the bike industry for over 25 years beginning with Ibis after he learned welding and framebuilding. He became the shop manager, one of the designers, and a master welder at Ibis helping the company to grow. A driving curiosity and unwillingness to accept the status quo lead him to experiment with larger wheel sizes when building his own frames on the side.
“I realized that we were all riding wheel sized for children's bikes, not adult bikes,” Williams told me. He maintains that since the early safe bike frame, adult bikes have always had wheels the size of 700c or 27 inch and children's bikes have had 26 inch wheels and smaller. The reason mountain bikers adopted smaller wheels in the 1970s had to do with the explosion of the automobile culture in the U.S. a generation earlier. After World War II, the adult bike market died with adoption of car driven suburban culture. Only children's bikes survived and cruiser versions of these that were made for teenagers became the bikes the pioneers of the mountain bike movement adopted. Williams believes it was this lead to 26 inch wheels as the standard rather than a conscience decision.
In 1988, Williams built his first large wheel off road bike. At the time, he called them 28ers because he was very limited in the size of tires he could get.
“In those days, I was nearly impossible to get a tire larger than 700x 40mm,” he explained. “I ended up finding some 700x47mm tires Continental had that were discontinued and only sold in the European market as commuter tires. I ended up buying all their stock and those were the tires I spec'd on my bikes for quite a while.”
Williams believed he was on to something once he started riding the bikes. He sees 26 inch wheels as inferior on the trail because they require handlebars and cranks that are too long to make up for the momentum disadvantage of the smaller wheels. Since 29 inch wheels can be run at a lower pressure, you get better suspension that pneumatic tires naturally provide with air.
“I see a lot of guys really fighting the bike on 26 inch wheel bikes,” he continued. “On 29ers, the bike does more of the work for you and teaches you better to rider off road.”
'Cross Bike on Steroids
Wanting to follow his own vision and tired of the lack of recognition he felt he was getting at Ibis, Williams moved back to Colorado in 1994 to start Willits and a bike shop, Crested Butte Bikes. As he began to churn out bikes, he ran into problems breaking through in a bike industry used to putting bikes into easy categories.
“There was one magazine I sent a bike to, and the thing sat un-ridden for over six months,” he said. “The reviewer didn't know what to make of it. He ended up ripping the bike because he didn't understand it.”
From early on, Williams built his 29ers with road drops because he had come from a road background and liked the versatility and comfort of the setup. When he showed me the titanium model 29er with drops that he showed off as one of the first 29ers at Interbike a decade ago, he called it a “cross bike on steroids.” While Salsa has gotten notice lately for its Fargo model of 29er with road drops, Williams earlier mixing of road, cyclocross, and mountain bike let many bike industry journalists scratching their heads.
Wes Williams has not helped is case by being impatient with those who have not seen his designs as a step forward. He's clearly frustrated by the slowness of the industry to embrace his ideas, and he admits to sometimes being an emotional guy. Criticizing those who have held onto the established standards, he said “26 inch wheels are stupid and so are the guys riding them.”
Statements like these have not earned friends among those resistant to change. Williams told me he believes there are bike industry and media people who have worked to downplay his contributions to the market. One wonders if some of this might be self inflicted with a vinegar over honey approach to his critics.
Still, he has had an effect. When he debuted his 29er drop bar bike at Interbike, only one other bike maker was making 29ers. Today almost every major bike maker has a least one 29er in their line up. While he does seem battle worn, Williams also said he was satisfied with these results. “Willits has made a world wide impact with no money,” Williams concluded.
Nothing like ti
Willits are available in both steel and titanium, but Williams passion is clearly for titanium. “There is nothing like ti,” he exclaimed.
All the Willits bikes are hard tails because Williams does not like the inefficiencies of suspension systems. He feels they are compensating for the short comings of 26 inch wheels, and that a 29er can give a great ride without this compromise.
A lot of thought has been put into how to create natural suspension in the frame. Williams begins with an under built tube design and an aggressively raked fork (called W.O.W. fork- Weird Or What) for passive suspension. He then adds struts to the front from the headset to the fork to allow the fork to move in a more controlled manner on rough terrain. Add to that the suspension of low pressure large tires and you have an incredibly smooth ride.
I test rode both the road drop bike and a single speed and was surprised at how fast they rolled compared to other mountain bikes I've ridden. “A while back, I went on the [Violet Crown] Freewheeling ride, and most of the guys were surprised I could keep up,” Williams told me.”I actually blew by the group on the down hills because of the larger wheel size.”
All Willits bikes are custom, but most customers are replacing current bikes they are happy with so there is relatively little fitting. Frames start at $1,450 for steel and $2,650 for titanium with about a twelve week turnaround time.
The future of Willits
Williams moved to Austin in 2004 get away from Colorado's cold weather and got a new workshop setup with the help of Hill Abel of Bicycle Sport Shop. The original idea was to sell Willits through BSS, but the two had disagreements over how the partnership would be run. Now, Williams sells this brand directly to the public through his South Austin workshop where he has recently decided to tackle improving the drive trains of paddle boats.
He is running his shop as a one man operation with some unpaid assistants helping and learning the building trade. He has set up full production facilities including painting and powder coating so Willits can also repair and restore old frames. More than anything, Williams is looking for some outside investment so he can expand Willits beyond its small volume capacity right now.
In the meantime, Willits will continue to made high quality, custom 29er bikes for riders of all sizes. “I [build] for customers so they can rider a better bike,” he concluded.
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Elliott McFadden is the co-editor and a writer for Austin On Two Wheels, The Online Magazine of Austin Cycling Culture.