Talking with Matt Chester, you get an overwhelming sense of contradiction. On one hand, hes a college graduate, and not just with some bogus, non-marketable degree like philosophy.
Chester, 26, has a bachelor of science degree in materials engineering, with double specialties: composites and metallurgy. Hes also a professional rally navigator. He has several years' experience in radio. Clearly, he could choose from a number of careers, some very lucrative.
On the other hand, theres his present reality: Chester lives in Leadville, Colo. (famous for its 10,200-foot altitude and 100-mile mountain bike race), sleeps in a sleeping bag on the floor, with everything he owns in one pile or another.
He is the sole proprietor of Matt Chester Bicycles (www.mattchester.com), where he builds titanium mountain bike frames one at a time.
So, what gives? Well, it turns out Chester fell for the classic fallacy of getting into the mountain bike business: He thought being near bikes equals having time to ride.
Rick Hunter (an independent frame fabricator) was my impetus in getting into it," Chester says. "I decided I liked the idea of having a small, simple business like that. Plus, he was so fast on his bike. I thought, Wow, hes got time to ride. Ive since learned otherwise.
Now that hes committed himself and found out that owning a small business doesnt leave him with a lot of spare time, does Chester regret his decision?
No, he says. I like building bikes. Its great to be making something real, concrete. I like the flexible lifestyle, and I like that when you do things right, you make someone really happy.
That said, Chester allows: If I were all about money, I sure as hell wouldnt be doing this. All I want is to make this a sustainable business, where I can make a comfortable living.
And by comfortable, what does he mean? Id like to sleep in a bed someday.
To his credit (or maybe as just another testament to his lunacy), Chester has gone out of his way to differentiate his frames from others. He builds titanium mountain bikes a niche material for a niche market. He specializes in single-speeds, increasing if thats possible his niche. Is this just madness?
Nah, Chester says. My whole deal is, Im bringing Ti to the people. Im keeping my frames relatively inexpensive $1000 for a hand-built titanium frame is a pretty good deal. Im just tired of titanium being an 'Im cooler than the Joneses' thing to have. If you want a bike you can keep forever, Tis the perfect material for you."
Its a little harder for Chester to explain why he focuses on single-speeds.
I found (singlespeeds) not too long after I got into mountain biking," he says. "I dont like maintaining my bike, and without all the derailleurs, shifters, gears and cables, theres a lot less that can go wrong with it.
Chester concedes that he can and does build geared mountain bikes, for those who dont buy into his vision of simplicity, and exploding knees.
Chester freely admits that, as far as the business side of his business goes, hes making things up as he goes. Im a rookie. I dont know what Im doing.
He adds: Its hard to keep up with paying the bills, since I dont have any cabinets and things tend to get lost in the piles. But Im getting better.
How did Chester come up with the capital to start his business? I had a little money invested, plus I started with perfect credit. So, mostly, I used lots of plastic. My goal now is to prove to the bank they can trust me enough to loan me money to consolidate the debt.
Funds also played a part in why Chester works in Leadville.
I got a shop deal I couldnt turn down. Plus, Leadvilles a real Colorado town. Its not like Vail, where everythings been built since 1970. Theres some real history here, and the people are real.
Then Chester confesses his real reason for coming to Leadville: The riding is just unbelievable. His plans for building a mountain bike enterprise here are, well, nonexistent.
My goal is to pull this off without ever having any employees," he says. "I realize Ive damned myself to never being wealthy, unless I went with the major manufacturing route, which Im not interested in. Thats one thing Gary Helfrick (founder of Merlin, and an instructor at the United Bicycle Institute) taught me. Stay really small, or get really big. Its the guys in the middle who get into trouble. When you become a medium-sized company, its hard to keep production at the right level to keep your employees happy. If you get above three people, youre asking for it.
If youre interested in frame building for a living, Chester recommends the United Bicycle Institute (www.bikeschool.com) as a starting point, where you can get an intensive two-week course in frame building, mechanics, and welding.
Further, he advises: Youve got to be persistent, and its got to be what you really want to do, because its not easy. Dont hesitate to ask questions of more experienced people. Thats saved my ass a couple of times.
And, finally, Dont expect to get wealthy.
Elden Nelson lives and rides in Utah County, Utah. He has raced the Leadville 100 three times, but has no plans to move there and start a frame building business. You can reach Elden at firstname.lastname@example.org