Black Cat’s Todd Ingermanson opens up about Oakland single speeds, punk bands, and metal bikes.
Black Cat Bicycles in Aptos, California is the frame building operation steered by Todd Ingermanson. Photo by Dain Zafke.
“From the back of the dirt lot at the bottom of Nisene Marks, there is a dirt road that goes southeast, and skirts a pump track. My place is on the corner. The shop is in the garage with a red truck parked in front. The door may or may not be open depending on the wind.”
Those are the directions I followed to Todd Ingermanson’s shop, the one man operation behind Black Cat Bicycles, a custom frame building operation located right in Aptos, California. Once inside the garage (the door was open so the wind must have been favorable), Ingermanson opened up about why he builds steel bikes, and how he got started down the bespoke road in the first place.
Mtbr: Where did you grow up, how did you get involved in bikes in the first place?
Todd Ingermanson: I grew up in a family where, for instance, my dad would decide to build new kitchen cabinets for the house. Then I graduated into a punk rock scene, where if you wanted t-shirts for your band, you figured out how to print them. Add to that that I cut my cycling teeth riding one speeds in Oakland, and the scene there was so full of frame builders and custom made frames that it really didn’t seem like that big of a stretch to make your own. Add to that still, my comfort with an oxy-acetelyne torch from my metal smithing days and a couple friends who were frame builders in past iterations of their lives, and the bug just bit.
Mtbr: What did you like most about building bikes?
Todd Ingermanson: It was really fun to explore bike geometry in almost real time. I was mostly building for myself for a long time, so there was no pressure to perform. It was just, ‘I wonder what happens when I change this…’ One thing led to another and I got a job as an apprentice of sorts and things just grew slowly.
Ingermanson makes sure that every bike rolling out his door lives up to his extremely high standards. Photo by Dain Zafke.
Mtbr: So why did you start building frames?
Todd Ingermanson: I originally started building bike frames due to my own desire to have a 29er single speed that wasn’t made in Taiwan. When I started, 29ers were still very much a novelty, but it seemed like the bigger wheels and one speeds were a good pair. There was a gap between the “budget” brands and the super high end custom route, of which I couldn’t afford at professional bike mechanic wages.
Mtbr: What is your guiding principal or philosophy as a frame builder?
Todd Ingermanson: That’s a tough one. I’m not sure there really is a guiding light leading the way. Trying to make bikes that don’t suck is a good place to start. While things will never be perfect, the bikes I deliver are the best I can do. If I’m not perfectly comfortable pointing out each and every “imperfection” to a customer, the bike doesn’t go out. There are no smoke or mirrors, no bait and switch. Being up front and honest is the only way that things don’t come back to haunt you. Everybody wants their frame to be “the one” and that takes time, attention, and effort. So far I’ve been blessed that all my customers appreciate this, and allow this to happen naturally for themselves and for those they’re sharing the queue with.
Mtbr: What would cause someone to connect with your frames?
Todd Ingermanson: Well, I try and push myself to try things I’ve never seen on a bike before. Usually it means building new tools to accomplish the slight variances in what was available previously. Figuring out how to put an arc into a set of s-bend seat or chain stays is fun. There’s a lot of head scratching and piles of ruined tubes, but when it all lines up, it’s worth it. I figure if I’m challenging myself and doing things I like to see and ride then there will be a certain amount of people that will appreciate it and want something similar from me.
There also seems to be a theme of people liking the paint jobs I do. Often times people let me loose on what I get to paint, which makes things really fun for me and keeps me excited. There are some that like the more subdued monochromatic schemes, and some that like the more bold colors and designs. No matter to me; I like doing it.
Left: Bridgeport is the gold standard as far as Ingermanson is concerned. Right: Ingermanson admits to a lot of head scratching and the creation of piles of ruined tubes.
Mtbr: So who do you see as the Black Cat customer?
Todd Ingermanson: When paying an undue amount of attention to things like who’s buying my bikes, it can be really easy to find out who’s buying my bikes and start to focus selling bikes to those people. It would be very easy to think ‘Well, I make road bikes’, or ‘I make ‘cross bikes,’ which limits the people the frame builder would think of as their market. Keeping things flexible has served me well in that there are a bunch of people from all over the world I get to make bikes of all sorts for. By treating each person individually, it keeps things interesting for me as well. All of that said, I’ve never made a fixie.
Mtbr: What do you say to people who think that show bikes don’t truly fit into the handmade cycling community?
Todd Ingermanson: I don’t really get down on the trophy bike mentality that some seem to like to moan about. The usable life of a steel road bike frame could be as long or longer than the person riding it. If somebody buys a bike because they’ve got a bunch of dough and keeping up with the Joneses is their thing, who cares? That bike will be all the more pristine and ready to rip when their grand kid grabs it off the wall and shreds the shit out of it because they didn’t know it was supposed to be a status symbol. All the better.
Clean, even, and equal joints are the signatures of a good fillet braze.
Mtbr: What is your favorite type of bike to make?
Todd Ingermanson: They each have their own virtues: a road bike for its no-nonsense-point-a-to-point-b purpose; a ‘cross bike for its flexibility to gobble up miles, no matter the terrain; a touring bike for the potential energy of adventure; or a mountain bike for getting totally radical in the woods. Considering I really do enjoy, and use, all the aforementioned, I like building all of them. Whether it’s straight stayed road bike with no gimmicks, bells, or whistles, or a one speed mountain bike full of dramatic swoops, there’s a challenge of form and function in each.
Mtbr: If you could pick another builder to make you a frame, who would it be and what sort of bike would you want them to build? And of course, why?
Todd Ingermanson: Whew! No slow pitches here! That’s a good question. I’ll try and do it justice. I think frame builders are about the biggest bike geeks out there. And I think having a bike made for you is almost as much about the relationship you have with your builder as the nuts and bolts of the frame itself.
The bikes made by the people I’m lucky enough to call friends are the ones that stand out for me: A fillet brazed ‘cross bike by Rick Hunter for the brilliance of construction alone. A mountain bike by Sean Walling at Soulcraft for the personality that’s just gotta be oozing out of the tubes. A fillet brazed mountain one speed by Curtis Inglis at Retrotec, just so I could make him paint darts on every single tube. A road bike by Paul Sadoff at Rock Lobster, because they are the business. If there’s no holds barred, anything by Bruce Gordon, Peter Weigle, Ross Schafer Richard Sachs, Brian Bayliss, or Mark Nobilette. If the hands of time could be turned back, Albert Eisentraut and Mario Confente.
A finished Black Cat, this one a 29er single speed, creates a perfect blend of forward thinking and traditional craftsmanship.
Prices for a steel Black Cat start at $2,300, and go up depending on the chosen options, of which there are many. Matching steel forks range from $450-$550, and custom stems are also available for $325. If you’re feeling lucky, though, you can always enter Easton’s Dream Bike Giveaway contest, which will raffle off one of Ingermanson’s steel whips with all proceeds going to a charity of his choice.