Inside / Out at Bender Bicycle Company of Fort Collins, CO

I’ve always wondered if there was something special about the water in Fort Collins that makes it a hotbed for legendary bicycle frame builders. Is the Poudre River’s clean mountain water that so famously supplies New Belgium, Odell, and numerous other local breweries in some way responsible for the wildly beautiful frames made by the likes of Black Sheep Bikes, Oddity Cycles, or Moonmen Bikes? Well, the answer is probably not, but Fort Collins’ water is delicious and it’s a great place to build bikes. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting with the Choice City’s newest framebuilder, Will Bender, of Bender Bicycle Company. Will has been making frames part-time for a handful of years now, with some truly beautiful machines under his belt, and he just recently moved into a new shop space to start building full-time.

Below, let’s take a look at Bender Bicycle Company as well as some of Will’s recent customer builds!

I enjoy a good origin story, particularly those like Will’s that eschew nine-to-five traditions in favor of a self-guided career. Will was originally trained as an architect but grew unsatisfied with the profession and looked to graphic design and building bicycles to better realize his creative visions. After architecture school in Colorado and subsequently working at a firm in San Francisco for a few years, he moved back to Fort Collins for a job with an engineering firm doing 3-D modeling where he learned more about various forms of manufacturing, including CNC machining.

Still not fully satisfied with his career path, Will took a job as a graphic designer and printer for Pine Printshop, while dabbling in building bikes for friends and accumulating tools and equipment. While working at Pine, he attended UBI’s frame building school in Ashland, OR to determine if his passion for designing and creating usable objects could intersect his life-long obsession with two-wheeled machines for an enjoyable future in custom bike fabrication.

And then the pandemic hit. Print orders slowed and Will’s hours were reduced. Seeing this an opportunity rather than a setback, Will worked out a deal with Pine’s owner to carve out some space in the back of the shop where he could make his framebuilding dreams into a reality. After learning about Will’s background, now, when I look at a Bender bike I clearly see a concoction of equal parts architecture and design with a hefty dose of riding experience and trail time thrown in.

I mentioned earlier that Fort Collins is home to some of the most legendary builders currently working in the industry. It’s a scenario that would make it either very intimidating or accommodating to be the up-and-coming builder in town. Fortunately for Will, the builders have created a culture of support in the community. When Sean Burns of Oddity Cycles heard that Will was setting up his own shop in town, he invited Will up to Oddity on a fairly regular basis. Will helped with production, and was rewarded with insight into the intricacies of Sean’s processes. The two remain close, ride together often, and Will occasionally benefits from being gifted Sean’s second-hand tools.

When I asked Will why he thinks a fairly small city like Fort Collins has been home to quite a few legendary (and unconventional) framebuilders over the years, he pointed out the ease of underground cultures to exist and thrive there. There’s a sort of punk rock vibe just beneath the city’s college town facade. Geographically, it isn’t that easy to get to – there is no interstate running right through town, so you have to want to go there, leaving it to be somewhat insulated from trends or other pressures. For designers, artisans, and innovators, a sense of creative freedom exists — this is the case for bike builders today as it was for John Gill in the 1960sh, whose “invention” of bouldering as a sport around Horsetooth Reservoir was unique and revolutionary as the rest of the climbing world was focused on bigger walls, faster ascents, and better gear.. And, for those into making bikes, there’s world-class riding for all disciplines right out the door.

Located in Fort Collins’ North College corridor, which is a thriving bastion of eclectic commerce in the city, Will’s shop is just off HWY-287 tucked behind a carnicería and adjacent to Launch Skate. The rectangularly-shaped space currently contains a simple and utilitarian tooling setup, emblematic of Will’s ascetic. A Hardinge TM-UM anchors the room and can be used as either a horizontal or vertical mill. Will also added digital readouts to it, making it even more versatile.

Situated next to his welding table is a frame jig from Benchmark that will soon be supplemented by a fixture from Todd Farr, adding to Will’s collection of Farr Tools including a fork jig, chainstay fixture, and brake mount jig. For bending chainstays and seatstays, he uses vintage “Handy Benders” in a variety of sizes. Everything else in his shop are fairly basic hand tools. As with most framebuilders, Will says that he is always on the hunt for more machines, whether they are necessary or not.

Relatively speaking, Will hasn’t been building bikes all that long. Looking at some of his recent builds, though, it’s hard to tell. His bikes span the gamut from suspension-corrected hardtails, rigid 29+ touring rigs, and even gravel bikes. If it’s dirt-centric, Will’s stoked to build it and he’ll make it ride and look damn good, too. Even before my friends introduced me to Will, I remember being wowed by one of his hardtails I’d seen on Instagram – it’s classic lines compliment a shreddy geometry and it’s finished with a stunning paint scheme that both accentuates the steel chassis and appeals to anyone that enjoys vintage autos.

Will keeps the first frame he built at UBI on display in his shop. While the rough patina’d chassis is striking in its own right, it’s a representation of how far he’s come as a builder, particularly when paired with his recently completed “Sherbet Shredder” – that’s my name for it, not Will’s, lol. It’s all built up now, with color-matched fork and looks stunning!

Will wants his frames to be recognizable and he’s taking a more subtle approach than the super swoopy designs of his neighboring builders. For instance, he designed a proprietary 3-D printed chainstay yoke that features symmetrical arms mirroring the contours of the yoke’s bridge and also the brake bridge he uses on most frames. He’s also utilized a wishbone seatstay design on a few recent frames (shown above), which further compliments the overall frame aesthetic. For tubing, it’s typically a mix of Columbus, Dedaccai, and Tange with butting profiles that are dependent on a rider’s size and riding style. He bends his own chainstays and seatstays using 4130 tubing. Additionally, Will enjoys helping his customer make design decisions when it comes to componentry, paint schemes, and color choices. Need a rigid fork to accompany your Bender frame? Sure, Will builds those too. While his builds have all been custom to this point, the design language and detailing among them is harmonious.

The Bender shop van is a petty remarkable companion to the operation. Will has imported a couple of 90s Toyota vans over the years and is currently rolling in a 1995 HiAce Super Custom. It’s super cherry, with low miles, and has every available factory option except for the integrated tea kettle.

Will had three recent customer builds at his shop when I visited waiting to display at his booth at the upcoming FoCo Fondo event. He provided brief overviews to accompany my photos of each bike. Let’s check ’em out!

Hardtail 29er MTB

This bike was built for my neighbor Tony, a big bike nerd with a garage full of bikes new and old, including a couple of fully restored very early Stump Jumpers. Tony was looking for a new hardtail with some modern geo. Tony is a very tall guy, so a custom bike is his best option for dialing in a proper fit. The bike was designed around 29×2.5 tires, a 130mm Rock Shox Pike Ultimate fork, and SRAM X01 AXS drivetrain and AXS dropper.

Knowing that the paint was going to be a high flake metallic gold we kept most of the parts black to let the frame shine. We did add in some gold Industry Nine Hubs to splash a bit more color into the bike.

To me this style of bike is one that will last a lifetime and take you anywhere you want to go. It’s designed for comfort on those long days in the saddle, snappy for bumps, jumps and rollers, and stable for fast descents. I design a hardtail like this to be the bike you want to grab for most rides.

Rigid 29+ Dirt Tourer

This bike was built for my friend Eric, who is also a bike nerd (common theme, I know…) Eric came to me looking for a bike for long and loaded exploring. He wanted a bike with bigger, more squishy tires, and room for all the bags and racks.

We designed the bike around 29×2.8 tires, a rigid-but-suspension-corrected fork, and SRAM Eagle drivetrain. I made the front triangle as big as possible to fit a big framebag. The frame has a lower bottom bracket to keep the bike in a very stable, upright riding position for comfort, and semi-slack headtube for shred-ability.

I also built the fork for this bike. It was built as a segmented fork, with sleeved legs. This was both an aesthetic and functional choice.

700c Gravel Bike

This bike was built for my friend Taylor. Taylor was somewhat new to cycling and wanted to jump into the gravel scene. This bike was designed with pretty classic gravel geo. Taylor lives in Fort Collins, where you can ride out your front door and easily access pavement, dirt roads, and singletrack all in one ride. This bike was built for this type of riding with 700×42 wheel/tire combo and 1×11 drivetrain.

The parts spec is modest, yet baller with SRAM Rival drivetrain, Paul Klampers, Simworks post and stem, Hunt Wheels, and Ultradynamico tires.

I’d like to thank Will for the hangs and hospitality while I was in town. It was a real treat. Be sure to follow along with Will on his Instagram!