Review: Retrotec custom steel hardtail

Retrotec is more of a tribute to an idea and tradition than it is an actual company. Curtis Inglis builds his own fillet brazed Inglis Cycles frames on his family’s Napa Valley farm, but he also builds Retrotec frames…

By Joel Kennedy

Retrotec is more of a tribute to an idea and tradition than it is an actual company. Curtis Inglis builds his own fillet brazed Inglis Cycles frames on his family’s Napa Valley farm, but he also builds Retrotec frames, the brainchild of one Bob Seals.

After serving as a welder in the Air Force and then getting a degree in drafting, Curtis was riding his bike a lot and wondering what to do next. At the same time in the early nineties, Bob Seals and a group of like-minded yahoos were busy building Retrotec frames and generally playing with fire and metal. After various turns of events that probably

involved a lot of post-race reveries and enthusiastic conversations, the two guys decided to make a great idea (creating race worthy, stylish and straight-up beautiful bikes) come to fruition. Curtis became the primary welder and Bob kept busy working his magic. Now, Curtis builds Retrotecs himself, Bob collects royalty checks and it’s all good.

The Retrotec is a full-blown mountain bike with the same curved tubing as the cruiser bikes of old; bent top and down tubes with extended, "beauty tubes" and arcing seat stays. And the design is further inspired by the philosophy of aesthetics. Cool looking things are cool, so why not make a bike that has a high level of artistic sensibility as well as performance?

Another part of this company’s origin that interested me was the traditional, mentor/apprentice relationship that the two guys apparently had. On the one hand, you have the older Bob Seals; creator of the Cool Tool, homespun engineer, welder and visionary. And on the other there’s Curtis; experienced and educated young buck, racing his bike and looking for good ideas. Put the two together and what do you get? A continuing artistic endeavor resulting in a quality product that, while being decidedly niche, has a very important and hopefully lasting place in the bike world.

Now, about Retrotec the bike; it looks like a cruiser, but it is not a cruiser. It’s a strong, laterally stiff hardtail mountain bike that is very compliant over rough terrain. These characteristics come from the curved, straight gauge 4130 cromoly top, down and "beauty" tubes. The latter have a gusset at the junction with the seat tube that makes everything stay right where it should, instead of wiggling around like a wet noodle. The seat tube and chainstays are made of either butted Columbus or Reynolds tubing, depending on availability. The dropouts are by Breezer.

The measurements of my test ride were: 24.25" top tube, 18" seat tube (center to center), a 44" wheelbase and 16.5" long chainstays. The head tube angle was 71.5° and the seat tube angle was 73°. Pretty big yes, but I’m a rather tall person. And so is Curtis, so he built a bike for himself and then sent it to me for testing. They are available in small, medium and large for $1000. Custom sized frames (like the one I rode) are $100 more.

Adding to the clean lines of the Retrotec is the choice to use fillet brazing rather than TIG welding to bond the tubing. Fillet brazing is a bonding process that consists of melting a brazing alloy (in this case brass) evenly around the joints of the different tubes in such a way as to penetrate and adhere both the inner and outer surfaces of the tubing junction. The result is an utterly smooth transition from tube to tube that is so nice it’ll make you say damn. And it’s strong, too. The only spots that are TIG welded are the gussets where the head tube meets the down and top tubes, and on the rear dropouts. The frame also has neatly machined cable guides in all the right places.

As I received it, the Retrotec was ready to rip at 28.5 pounds. A Fox Float 100 RLC fork, Thompson stem and seat post, Easton bars, Chris King headset, XTR crank set and BB, SRAM shifters and derailleur were all stopped by Avid mechanical discs on Mavic tubeless wheels. It was pimpin’ and I was ready to be turned out…or vice versa.

After building the bike, I was love struck. As it hung in the stand, it was so pretty. But Mom always said I couldn’t have anything nice, I would only break it. So with the many affirmations of my Mom’s statement rolling through my head, I took the maiden voyage…hesitantly. You see, it seemed too nice to ride. My bikes are more of the beater variety. I called Curtis to try to allay my fears. "It’s meant to be ridden," he said. "I mean, I wouldn’t go jumping off picnic tables with it, but I can build you one that can do that." All right, let’s try again.

The next time out, I relaxed a bit more and began to see some of the unique ride characteristics that go along with the good looks. It seems that curves are more forgiving than sharp angles, allowing the tubing to "bounce" like a bridge span or the leaf springs of an automobile. This gives you a perceptible amount of suspension in a hardtail format, so to speak. It’s something like the pivotless suspension-feel of the YBB design, only more subtle. What it amounts to are some serious vibration absorbing properties that made me start to wonder if Mr. Inglis might not be part alchemist. The combination of form and function is impressive in the Retrotec.

I decided that doing a race would be a quick way to overcome the glamour this bike had put on me. Fortunately, a night race at the local rock-strewn ski resort was coming up, so I had my opportunity. Immediately I knew things were going to be good. With the Fox up front and those curved stays under my butt, the rock gardens weren’t bad at all. And the lateral stiffness that I mentioned earlier kept me from getting all twisted up in the technical sections. This bike ran true.

In fact, that race left such a good taste in my mouth that I asked if I might be able to use it in two more endurance races I’ve been working towards. Curtis was kind enough to allow it, even though he’s currently without a geared hardtail of his own.

If you’re looking for a unique, comfortable, stylish and overall class ride to add to the stable, you should definitely look into a Retrotec. It’s the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden, and that gives one the opportunity to kick it enduro style for hours. Who needs 4" of front and rear travel for trail riding? What ever happened to finesse anyway?

Contact: Inglis Cycles; 707.258.2203;