Ben Serotta and the golden age of American cycling

INSIDE THE PRO’S CLOSET

By Bruce Lin

Photos: The Pro’s Closet

There was a time long ago before Lance and the fall, before marginal gains, carbon fiber and race radios, where American cyclists were rock stars with long hair, big sunglasses and neon bikes. Greg LeMond was showcasing his talent in Europe and the Tour de France, American riders took four gold medals on home turf in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and the Coors Classic, one of the biggest races in the world, was America’s own Grand Tour.

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Cycling seemed different back then, and the quintessential American hero was embodied by the young, scrappy upstart, the underdog who chased dreams and pedaled as hard as possible against the establishment. I remember when I was in that special stage of childhood where I could watch the same movie every day, and I wore out my VHS copy of American Flyers. As a kid, I dreamt of rubbing shoulders with the fastest racers in the world. Besides a yet-to-be-famous Kevin Costner, the film featured a group of riders who actually succeeded in living that dream. It was the legendary 7-Eleven squad, and they were the ones who really first brought American cycling into the limelight.

THE SLURPEE TRAIN

Without a doubt, 7-Eleven was a special team. Made in America, through the ’80s they rode American-made bikes festooned with corporate livery of American bike brands from the other end of the bike-building spectrum—Murray and Huffy. However, underneath the paint and brand decals, these bikes were all built by one man— a craftsman. He was someone as essential to the rise of American cycling as the riders and teams themselves, and his name was Ben Serotta.

In addition to the 7-Eleven bikes, Serotta built the bikes for the American Olympic team and another legendary American team of later years, Coors Light. His company, Serotta Competition Bicycles, became one of the dominant American builders of high-performance racing frames in the ’80s and early ’90s. Though they no longer produce bikes, the Serotta name and legacy is a cornerstone in American cycling history, and frames bearing his name are still sought after today.

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The two bikes featured here are bookends in a golden age of American cycling and bike building. Davis Phinney’s 1984 Murray is an example of the type of work that first brought Serotta and the U.S. recognition. Classic looks, reliable and well built, the Serotta-built Murrays were the old-school American workhorses that helped elevate 7-Eleven and its riders onto the world stage.

Scott Moninger’s 1990 Coors Light bike resides on the other end. With its eye-searingly yellow color, it was the culmination of Serotta’s years of experience and experimentation building for pro riders. The bike was designed for a powerhouse team, and it was at the cutting edge for steel frames and represented the direction high-end race bikes would soon take in the future.

PART ONE: PHINNEY’S 1984 7-ELEVEN MURRAY 

Ben Serotta began building bikes in 1972 at just 14 years old. By the early ’80s he had built frames for some of America’s top amateurs and was building the neutral support bikes for Campagnolo to supply in races. Before the 1984 L.A. Olympics, American manufacturer Murray signed on to sponsor the U.S. cycling team, as well as the legendary 7-Eleven team. There was one major problem, though. Although they wanted to equal the acclaim of their European counterparts such as Colnago and Cinelli, as a producer of low-cost bicycles and lawn equipment, Murray didn’t really have a clue what sort of equipment real bike racers used or needed.

“The Huffy frame failures are ultimately what led him to develop the Colorado Concept tubing that would vault Serotta bikes into the future.”

This is when Campagnolo mechanic Bill Woodul recommended Serotta to 7-Eleven’s team manager, Jim Ochowicz, and the rest is history. Ben got to work and brazed the majority of the team’s bikes, building enough in the first year to provide two bikes per rider. Like the rest of the team bikes, Davis Phinney’s was Murray-branded but featured a small “Built for Murray by Serotta” decal on the chainstay. The styling was fairly classic, per Murray’s wishes, with chromed stays and fork legs and an understated paint job. It’s built with Columbus’ high-end SLX tubing and a full Campagnolo Super Record gruppo that had a special chainring pantographed with the Olympic rings.

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An interesting note is that Phinney preferred running his brakes moto-style, with the front brake routed to the right lever and the rear to the left. Proponents of this style claim it provides greater control and power over the front brake, which does the majority of the stopping. Though Phinney was the star of the 7-Eleven team, he would end up racing this bike to a disappointing fifth place in the Olympic Road Race behind American gold medalist Alexi Grewal who was aboard a Colnago.

THE EURO BUG

This early 1984 frame still had what Serotta referred to as “criterium-focused geometry.” In the mid-’80s, the “Slurpees” were the outright criterium kings. Before their ventures into European-style road racing, crits were the mainstay of U.S. bike racing. The rider’s position was further forward and higher off the ground than their Euro contemporaries, necessary to maintain agility and acceleration out of corners. Over time, however, the geometry slowly changed to be more endurance-oriented as 7-Eleven began to take part in more traditional-style road racing overseas.

As a designer, Serotta always had a keen interest in geometry, and by 1984 he had developed the SizeCycle, an infinitely adjustable stationary bicycle meant for measuring the ideal frame geometry for individual riders. He worked closely with team mechanics to produce custom geometry for every rider on the 7-Eleven team. Phinney took full advantage of this, often asking Serotta to try tweaking various parts of the frame for him to change its handling characteristics. It was this sort of openness to experimentation that would fuel bike development for the 7-Eleven team through the ’80s.

The Murray sponsorship of the team lasted two years until it was replaced by Huffy. With this change came another big change—the move away from Columbus to True Temper tubing. At the time, Reynolds and Columbus were much bigger companies with solid reputations, but True Temper was American, an ideal supplier for an American team. However, they were new to the game and had to learn the hard way that, as Serotta says, “There’s a fine line between good enough and not good enough.”

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FROM GOOD TO BAD

The biggest issue Serotta encountered was that True Temper at the time used rolled tubing rather than seamless tubing. This meant it was sheet or plate metal that was rolled and welded rather than a solid ingot that had been punched and stretched into shape. That, coupled with metal contamination and increasing pressure to produce lighter frames, led to a rash of frame failures. To add further insult to injury, 7-Eleven rider Andy Hampsten chose not to race on his Serotta-built frame and ultimately won the 1988 Giro on a Land Shark he purchased for himself. “It felt like the end of the earth,” Serotta says. But he holds no ill will towards True Temper. At the time they simply didn’t know what they were getting into, and it led to a difficult period for him and his company.

The impact this had on Serotta was profound. In the process of working to understand the root of the failures, Serotta contracted the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and started doing lab-style testing and analysis. With their help, he developed testing equipment for metallurgical analysis and changed how he approached material selection and bike design. “From then on I was committed to taking responsibility for my materials,” he says. He soon realized he didn’t have to use the same stock tubing provided to other builders. The Huffy frame failures are ultimately what led him to develop the Colorado Concept tubing that would vault Serotta bikes into the future.

Part two: MONINGER’S 1990 COORS LIGHT SEROTTA COLORADO II

Like 7-Eleven, the Coors Light squad was an American team stacked with American talent. Rightly so, they rode a quintessentially American bike, which bore Serotta’s name on the downtube. Scott Moninger received this bike when he was a neo-pro, only 23 years old, and though he sold many of his race bikes, this is one of the few from his career that he’s kept. It represents a period he looks back at fondly. “It was kind of an arrival for me,” Moninger says. “I was teammates with guys I had been reading about for many, many years—Davis Phinney, Alexi Grewal and Roy Knickman. When I became the 13th member of the team, surrounded by all those guys, it’s where I wanted to be. It was the number-one team in the country.”

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The Serotta he rode that first year was the Colorado II. Like the Serottas of the Murray era, every rider was given custom geometry. Moninger chose to ride a comparatively longer top tube, about 1cm longer than what Serotta considered a standard length for Moninger’s height. Compared to the Murray, it looked thoroughly modern. Serotta had abandoned chrome on the stays and fork, as it added weight, and he found that it actually increased the risk of corrosion to the metal underneath. It was painted bright Day-Glo Yellow, as dictated by the fashion of the early ’90s, and built with a Shimano Dura-Ace 7400 kit. Moninger stuck with downtube shifters since they were lighter than the newer STI shifters housed in the brake levers.

The frame itself was far ahead of its time, featuring the Colorado Concept tubing Serotta developed. Most steel frames at the time still used smaller-sized tubing that was a constant diameter throughout its length. The Colorado II, however, had comparatively large, tapered tubing that flared all the way to an enormous (for the time) 36mm at the bottom bracket. This variable-diameter tubing improved stiffness and power transfer without losing the ride quality steel is traditionally known for. The top tube was also slightly ovalized at the head tube junction to improve the torsional stiffness of the front end.

Serotta was able to acquire this proprietary tubing through his relationship with Columbus. He was one of the most successful frame builders during the ’80s, and the press coverage from his relationships with 7-Eleven and Coors Light made him a desirable customer to work with. It also helped that the key people at Columbus were engineers. “They embraced the idea,” Serotta says. “Like me, engineers like testing ideas and trying new things. They liked the idea of finally doing something different than just straight double-butted tubing.”

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Along with the stiffer bottom bracket and head tube, the Colorado II also has an impressively short and stiff rear end. It’s under 410mm and features S-bend chainstays. Serotta originally stumbled upon the S-bend when building the pursuit bikes for the ’84 Olympic team. The U.S. coaches had tried multiple wheel combinations and finally settled on 24-inch wheels with ultra-short wheelbases. This allowed riders to tuck as close as possible behind each other to make the whole group more aerodynamic. Bike fit had been thrown out, and all the riders were on similar-sized bikes with seat posts jacked up to suit their height.

The problem Serotta ran into was that riders with larger feet were clipping the chainstays because the rear end was so short. His last-minute solution was to bend the chainstays to clear the rider’s heels. Surprisingly, riders reported back that the bikes felt faster and more responsive under power. It turned out that putting the bend in actually work-hardened the steel while also eliminating the need to put an indent in the chainstay for chainring clearance.

It felt new and strange enough at the time that Serotta didn’t actually implement the S-bend on his road racing frames until 7-Eleven went to the Tour de France in 1986. Still, some riders wanted traditional stays in order to blend in more with the Euro peloton. The new Serotta chainstays stood out, and the Europeans would often tease the Americans for riding bikes that “had been an accident.” Davis Phinney actually had Serotta build a bike that only had the S-bend on the non-drive chainstay, a sort of in-between compromise. By 1990, though, the S-bend had proven its worth and was proudly featured on both sides of all the Coors Light bikes.

Over time the S-bend chainstay has become a common sight on many modern bicycles. Likewise, tapered tube shapes had gone from the exception to the norm. Serotta began working with titanium in 1993, and, although it had been used as a frame-building material before, it really only became viable for racing bikes after the introduction of Colorado Concept tubing. The larger diameter and tapered ends allowed Serotta to take advantage of titanium’s weight and corrosion-resistance while tuning out the “noodly” ride characteristics of past titanium road bikes with traditional-sized tubes. This sort of large-tube construction would also be applied to the stiff aluminum racing frames that would come to the fore in the next decade. Coors Light also eventually made the move to titanium as steel declined in popularity for high-end race bikes.

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PART THREE: WHAT’S A MODO MIO?

Of course, as with most professional race teams, sponsorship and interest dries up, and 7-Eleven and Coors Light eventually ceased to be. The popularity of cycling in the U.S. was declining through the ’90s, until a certain someone brought American cycling back into the limelight in 1999. Through all this, Serotta continued producing high-end and custom bikes. He parted ways with the company he founded in 2013, and, unfortunately, Serotta Competition Bicycles has since stopped producing bikes. As a result, the Serottas still in existence today have benefited from a slight increase in value.

“The new Serotta chainstays stood out, and the Europeans would often tease the Americans for riding bikes that ‘had been an accident.’”

The good news is that as of this year, Ben Serotta is back, producing a small volume of bespoke, brazed bicycles. He’s doing it independently and in his own way, thus calling the project “A Modo Mio” (or “My Own Way”). He says after years away from building, his mindset has returned to where it was at the start of the Coors Light team, carefully selecting materials and components, brazing each frame himself to produce the best product possible. Living in modern times, he realized that he’s missed having a steel bike. “The pendulum will never swing back,” he says, referring to the ideal material for race bikes. “But, there’s a special sort of identity that steel bikes have.”

The Serottas here definitely have a special identity. It’s hard to look at them without remembering the greatness they inspired. I see Davis Phinney wrenching at the bars of his red Murray with his python arms in a sprint across the finish. I see Scott Moninger, a flash of Day-Glo Yellow, crushing it up a climb, stone-faced with his long hair flowing behind him. But, it’s more than just nostalgia for the riders and teams. Serotta brought America into the greater world of cycling. Without Serotta, the 7-Eleven and Coors Light we remember so fondly simply would not have been the same. He and his bikes were the foundation of a golden age when Americans rocked the world and could ride bikes as good as or better than anyone else.

SPECS

  • Davis Phinney’s 1984 7-Eleven Murray Serotta
  • Estimated value: $10,000
  • Frame: 1984 Team Murray Serotta
  • Fork: Serotta
  • Headset: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Stem: Cinelli 1R
  • Handlebars: Cinelli Criterium
  • Brakes: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Brake levers: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Front derailleur: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Rear derailleur: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Shift levers: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Freewheel: Regina CX
  • Chain: Regina
  • Crankset: Campagnolo Strada Super Record
  • Bottom bracket: Campagnolo Record
  • Hubs: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Rims: Wolber Super Champion
  • Tires: Tubular
  • Saddle: Cinelli Unicanitor
  • Seatpost: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Pedals: Campagnolo Super Record
  • Weight: 21 pounds, 3 ounces (without pedals)
  • Top tube: 55.5cm
  • Seat tube: 55cm (C-C)
  • Head tube: 12.5cm
  • Scott Moninger’s 1990 Coors Light Serotta Colorado II
  • Estimated value: $5,500
  • Frame: 1990 Serotta Colorado II
  • Fork: Serotta Colorado II
  • Headset: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Stem: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Handlebars: Cinelli 64
  • Brakes: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Brake levers: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Front derailleur: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Rear derailleur: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Shift levers: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Cassette: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400 Uni-Glide
  • Chain: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Crankset: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Bottom bracket: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Hubs: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Rims: Mavic CX-18
  • Tires: Vittoria Corsa CX/CG tubular
  • Saddle: Selle San Marco Strada
  • Seatpost: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Pedals: Shimano Dura-Ace 7400
  • Weight: 20 pounds, 12 ounces (with pedals)
  • Top tube: 55cm
  • Seat tube: 54cm (C-C)
  • Head tube: 12.3cm

Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series from The Pro’s Closet featuring bikes from the past and present that deserve a spotlight, either for their place in history, their technical merits or simply because we think they’re special. Besides creating a museum of vintage race bikes, The Pro’s Closet is the top shop for the resale of quality pre-owned bikes, parts and valuations. 

www.theproscloset.com

Also check out The Real Story Of The 7-Eleven Team Bikes if you enjoyed this story.

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