Arts & Culture » Travel

Good to Go

Long femurs? Tilted pelvis? Not a problem for custom bike frame builder Dennis Kilfoy



Dennis Gilfoy's garage is nearly as large as his house, heated and well insulated, with hot and cold running water. If it had a toilet and a shower he could just about move into it. Parked inside are two lawn mowers, a rototiller, and a 1979 Mercedes coupe that he's restoring, but Gilfoy spends most of his time at the workbench along the wall nearest his house. Brackets and drills are strewn across it, flanked by a vise and a motorized grinder. Stowed underneath are lengths of steel-alloy tubing in various gauges and diameters, the raw materials he uses to fashion custom bike frames. Racers and recreational cyclists with unusual requirements seek out the 43-year-old craftsman, some traveling from as far south as Chicago to his home in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, southeast of Lake Geneva.

"I'm a bike geek," says Gilfoy. "I'm not real up on what's new. Other frame builders run a lot of fashion down the runway, like in Paris. I don't do that. I do the little black dress, and I'll make you look and feel like a million bucks."

For Kathy Herman, an equipment analyst at Bridgestone/Firestone in Rolling Meadows, finding that little black dress was a relief. Five-foot-two, with a 26-inch inseam, she owned a bicycle that was measured down to her diminutive stature but still caused her aches and pains. "I can settle for a small frame, but I wanted normal-size wheels," she says. Her bike shop in Algonquin sent her to Gilfoy two years ago. "Dennis came down to see me, and we must have talked for four or five hours, about dynamics, mathematics, and ridability. He took some measurements of my legs, knees, and back on my old bike. As he worked on the frame we must have talked once a week on the phone." The result was the smallest frame Gilfoy's ever made, centered on a seat tube 44 centimeters long (56 is the norm).

The largest, with a seat tube measuring 71 centimeters, belongs to Steve Smith, an executive with Diners Club in Chicago who's been a lineman for the Minnesota Vikings and for the Philadelphia Eagles. At six-foot-six and 270 pounds, he was tired of riding around with the posts for his seat and handlebars lengthened to outlandish extremes. "With the bike Dennis made me, the geometry is right," says Smith. "I don't have a seat post that sits a foot up in the air."

Gilfoy lives on a residential side street, where he shares a small blue house on an acre of land with his wife, their 12-year-old son Richard, their toddler Geneva, and two dogs. During the day his wife, Barbara, works as an order specialist for a publisher while Gilfoy tends to the curly-haired Geneva, whom he calls "Baby G." Nights and weekends he repairs to the garage and worries his frames into shape.

After silver-brazing the tubes together, Gilfoy sandblasts the steel skeleton with an aluminum oxide grit and conditions it with an iron phosphate solution. Then, wearing an insulated suit, a full-face respirator, and latex gloves, he takes the frame into the painting booth he's constructed in one corner, primes it, paints it with urethane enamel, and lets it dry on a rack by the garage door. Customers have a palette of 20 colors to choose from; decals and Gilfoy's logo (his name in block letters) are added later. Though he custom-designs the "braze-ons," the metal fittings that attach items like the water bottle, the buyer must add the wheels and other parts to create a working bicycle.

His customers usually come to him with some idiosyncratic need. Kurt Otter, a farm-equipment dealer in Burlington, has an overlong femur, and the Schwinn racing bike he bought off the rack gave him trouble. "There was too much weight on the front end," he says, "and the back wheel drifted on me." Otter drove up to Twin Lakes and consulted with Gilfoy, who asked him to pedal around on his Schwinn. Six weeks later Gilfoy had crafted a frame whose seat bar was pitched at a 73-degree angle from the ground, sharper than the standard 75 degrees. The top tube sloped down from the seat to the steering column to give Otter better clearance for his chest.

"Dennis speaks the language of biking, and he can translate it into a frame," says Otter. "There are better-known custom-frame places, but Dennis does everything they do and more--and for a minimum of $400 less in price." (A Gilfoy frame costs between $950 and $1,800.) During a race last July 4, Otter crashed his custom-made bike. "I laid it down going 35 miles an hour. I had a broken thumb, a concussion, and a separated shoulder, but the bike didn't even crack paint. Today it's straight as an arrow."

Kathy Herman doesn't race, but she's an avid recreational biker. "I live on my bike," she says. "It's so comfortable. What more could you ask for?"

Gilfoy has lived much of his life on bicycles as well. It runs in the family: during the 1930s and '40s his father, Ed, rode early racing bicycles that were outfitted with wooden wheel frames and silk tires, tooling around a steeply banked track in Humboldt Park. While raising his kids in Arlington Heights, he would take Dennis and an older son, Brian, to what was then the Northbrook Park District Velodrome (now the Ed Rudolph Velodrome), a quarter-mile concrete track. At age nine, Dennis began riding at meets sponsored by the Amateur Bicycle League of America (now the U.S. Cycling Federation), and by his teens he'd become a promising young racer.

"At 15, I was difficult to beat," he says. "They often say that the teenage racer has the strength of a man but the brains of a boy. But I had brains. I'd been around long enough that in a race I was tactical and sophisticated, conservative with my energy. I had learned to hold back 20 percent by allowing the guy in front of me to break the wind. I waited, and put out at the end to win."

Rich Vehe, a Minneapolis pediatrician who once lived near the Gilfoys, used to take on Dennis in pursuit races, in which one rider starts from behind and tries to overtake the other, and remembers him as a canny opponent. "Dennis usually caught me, or he got pretty close. He was a good sprinter, and he was smart on a bike--nobody pulled anything on Dennis."

Like his father, Dennis was obsessed with the mechanics of biking: he remembers being fascinated by the custom frames his father ordered from a manufacturer in Racine. "They were always thinking about how to win an advantage by some adjustment in the equipment," says Vehe. "To me, it came down to the person, like did you get to the race on time or did you warm up? But to Dennis and his dad the saddle mattered just as much as the horse. The joke was that to get rid of some weight, maybe they should just drill holes in our water bottles."

Not everyone thinks highly of Gilfoy. Al Herreweyers, once a state representative for the ABLA, remembers Gilfoy almost 30 years later. "In general he was a fair rider, but he was cocky. He tried to get by with foul riding, cutting other guys off, causing spills. He was a conniving little guy."

By 1973, when Gilfoy was 15, he'd become so good that he thought he might have a shot at the U.S. title in his intermediate age class. That August he was running a 15-mile, three-loop road race along the lakefront in Milwaukee, competing in the nationals, when it all came apart. "I was in a group in the first lap, settling in, and somebody went down," he says. "That took out half the pack--I was the third guy to pitch off. My bike was smashed, and I had a concussion. It was unbelievable, crushing, but I got back on my dad's bike and managed to finish 17th. When I go riding now, that's what I think about."

A few days later he won the national track trace in Northbrook, yet overall he placed second behind his arch rival, Stan Kostuck of suburban Milwaukee. During another race that same month he tried to help Vehe pass another rider with a flanking technique that's now accepted but was then considered dirty riding. A crash ensued, and Gilfoy wound up in a nasty dispute with Herreweyers. "Are you a fucking man or a mouse?" Gilfoy shouted. Herreweyers suspended him for a year.

The suspension was later reduced to a month, but Gilfoy decided to quit racing. "I turned 16, and I got a car," Gilfoy says. "I had a very nice girlfriend and a job at a bike store. My interests shifted." His parents were heading for a divorce, and there was lingering disappointment over his defeat in the nationals. Says Vehe, "I wouldn't be surprised if his dad gave him grief about that."

After high school Gilfoy attended an auto-trade school in Colorado and hired on as a mechanic for a Ford dealer in Sycamore, Illinois. He tried to resume his amateur cycling career but never made it to the national level. He restored cars and put in hours at a bike shop that had employed him in high school; on the side he painted and fixed up damaged frames for local racers.

In 1985, Gilfoy landed a job at Paramount Design Group, the custom arm of the Schwinn Bicycle Company. He'd gone to the Paramount plant in Waterford, Wisconsin, to find some braze-ons, and so impressed the manager, Marc Muller, that he was hired as a painter and moved to Twin Lakes. "Obviously this was somebody who knew what he was talking about," recalls Muller. Gilfoy graduated to building frames and assumed more responsibility. "You'd give him a piece of sheet metal, and he'd make something beautiful out of it."

"I was the lead man on the floor," says Gilfoy. "More than that, I was one of three guys who had keys to the shop." But Muller also characterizes him as "an esoteric cat" who was never comfortable in a regimented, nine-to-five environment. He became vocal about what he considered poor ventilation in the shop and took to wearing a respirator. Schwinn was drifting toward bankruptcy; when Gilfoy visited a new plant in Greenville, Mississippi, he discovered that one-third of the workforce lacked benefits. He had married Barbara in 1986, and when he got a chance to move up, he grabbed it.

On his own Gilfoy had repaired a French bike for J. Alexander Stevens, a Chicago commodities trader. "Jeff lived on East Lake Shore Drive," says Gilfoy, "and I got some idea of what he was worth. Put three zeroes behind what I was worth--or make that four or five zeroes." In February 1992, about a year before Chicago investor Sam Zell led a successful move to buy Schwinn, Gilfoy accepted an offer to apprentice under Stevens, and by September 1993 he'd become a trader, dealing in metal and bonds.

Over two years Gilfoy raised his net worth to six figures, but the stress was unendurable. "It was like a race in the nationals every day, and unless you have an ultraquick response you'll get left in the dust. To make it down to the commodities exchange I'd have to wake up at 3:30 in the morning. I wasn't home to Twin Lakes until six at night, and I needed to be in bed by eight. On Sunday night I was so nervous I couldn't sleep. Basically my life was commuting, trading, and eating." In 1995 he got hammered in grain options, and the next year he quit the business. "I lost everything I had made. I knew there were two things I didn't want to sacrifice--my house and my commodities-exchange membership."

Since then he's been making bike frames on his own, and lately he's tapped into the bike-messenger market. Patrick "Bobcat" Babcock, a veteran Loop messenger and amateur racer, gave Gilfoy his old Raleigh; he added a double-sided braze-on to the back of the seat post, rethreaded another braze-on, smoothed out the dents, and painted the frame red and black. Recently, says Babcock, Gilfoy paid him a visit at the Milwaukee Avenue loft he shares with other messengers. "He talked with us for three hours about bike frames. He told us about different types of tubing. Like there's Reynolds tubing, but no chart tells you the difference between Reynolds 853 and 531. What does 531 stand for? Dennis knew. That was a superb night, like having a bike-building encyclopedia sitting in the living room. By the end we were all giggling."

"There's no big reputation there," says Oscar Wastyn, a Chicago bike dealer whose family did design work for Schwinn. But Gilfoy's work is highly respected nonetheless. "I can't imagine Dennis making a bad bike," says Muller, whose Paramount Design Group was spun off from Schwinn as Waterford Precision Cycles. "He just makes nice ones."

After a bumpy career history, Gilfoy seems to have found his niche. "I'm writing my own ticket," he says. "I don't want to be in management, to have to deal with other goofy personalities. I'm never going to make 50 grand a year at this, but I'll have a good lifestyle." We're sitting in a cafe in Richmond, Illinois, and he's feeding eggs to his daughter, Baby G. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be with this baby, because kids don't have their fathers around them enough." She's named after Lake Geneva, because he used to love making the 65-mile loop from his house up around the lake and back. But his old racing medals are relics now, stowed in the bottom drawer of his bedroom bureau--and in the garage, where he enjoys a different sort of victory.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

Add a comment