Don Walker has been building frames for over a decade. His name has become synonymous not only with track bikes, but also the annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show, which he runs. Based out of Speedway, Indiana, Don has also become well-known for traipsing around in a kilt at the bike shows.
RBA: How did you get started as a frame builder?
Don: When I was a kid growing up, my entire neighborhood went “bike crazy” when I was like 14. All the teen boys were buying road bikes and riding them to Folsom Lake and back. I was the only one in the neighborhood to take it a step farther and start racing bikes. I read an article about bicycle frame building in the early ’80s and that got me thinking about doing it as a hobby. I had forgotten that dream of building when I was a teen until I was racing in 1990 and my road bike had an issue with a cracked BB shell. I took it to the bike shop across the street from the airport hangar where I worked and the on-staff frame builder was really cool. After several chats he said “You seem to have a real interest in frame building. I am getting a new jig, you want my old one?” My answer was an immediate yes! I felt that with the skills I had as an aircraft mechanic, I should be able to make a good bike.
RBA: Any particular frame makers who inspired you?
Don: I grew up in a family that didn’t exactly support my new habit of racing bicycles. So I never really owned a track bike until after I moved out. I raced the 1983 U.S. Track Nationals on a borrowed custom Ron Cooper track bike. This was my first exposure to fillet brazing, and after looking over the smooth transitions to each joint on that bike, I was in love. I decided that if I ever wanted to build, I would build fillet-brazed bikes, which happened eight years later. I knew in high school that I wanted to build, but financial aspects prevented it from happening.
RBA: Is the ride quality of steel more important than the weight savings of carbon?
Don: I am not sure that carbon has all that much of a weight advantage at this point. I would say that if you took a steel frame and a carbon frame that weighed the same, the ride would be very similar. The main issue here is that six ounces of steel, in the right places, makes all the difference in the world. Weight, at least to me, is meaningless in the performance of a bike. A 16-pound bike, in my experience, really rides like a 16-pound bike. I doubt that anyone can tell that they are on a 16.5 pound bike if the bikes were identical except for the weight. As Richard Sachs says, “Weight is a marketing gimmick when there is nothing else to sell.”
RBA: What is so important about a dropout?
Don: Dropouts are important for many reasons. First, it’s the contact point of the wheels to the frame, so it has to be aligned precisely so the bike tracks properly. Next, it is also an aesthetic point with two tubes mating to each dropout. A well-done dropout can be a beautiful thing.
RBA: It seems you have a preference for track bikes.
Don: Yes, I love track bikes and track racing. I love the idea of a simplistic bike, but a bike that’s made to do nothing more than go fast. Track racing is a different beast altogether than road racing. Track bikes have just one gear and you have to choose the right one for the event, and although you may be the strongest rider out there, you still might lose because you aren’t the smartest. You have to know your own limitations and the limitations of those you race against and use that knowledge to win. Track racing, to me, is the purest form of bicycle racing.
For more info go to www.donwalkercycles.com