The Silk Hope Dragon
The Silk Hope Dragon
By Mike Dayton
One would be hard pressed to find McLean Fonvielle’s corporation. It lies near Saxapahaw at the end of a long dusty road that turns to red mud after each rain. No electric or barbed wire fence surrounds it, only a few bare fields waiting quietly for seed, and a few gnarled oaks that shade his windows from the afternoon sun.
It took some time, some patience and some sweat, but at the age of 23, McLean owns and operates his own factory.
The factory itself is a weathered clapboard house with a sagging front porch but a straight roof line. Judging from its appearance, one would expect to find the house deserted, as most probably it had been for the past 20 years. Yet a trampled grass path leading to the outhouse and a swept porch indicate otherwise.
Inside, in a room barely heated to 50 degrees by a small wood stove, McLean pounds and clangs on metal tubing, then stops briefly to inspect his work. If all goes well, in one week’s time McLean will have turned out another of his completed products. It will sell for a price ranging from $270 to over $500, depending on the color or extras that the customer chooses.
For as little as $270, virtually anyone can walk away with a handcrafted, custom-sized, Silk Hope bicycle frame. That is, $270 without any extras. With the extras…
In a soft-spoken voice, McLean will tell you that, regretfully, the tubing he uses, which is ordered from England, has risen appreciably in cost. And that the price of silver solder can be as much as $10 a frame. His frames aren’t held together by welding like many bikes, but “brazed” at the joints, using a solder that is 45 percent silver. McLean will also tell you that he has sold over 130 frames at those prices in the past two years.
The Company Name & Logo
When someone buys a Silk Hope, he gets just that: no wheels, no spokes, no brakes, no handlebars, no seat — no nothing except a frame. That frame, however, is as the catalogue promises, “handcrafted in detail to the cyclist’s individual measurements” — measurements more precise than those taken by the best tailor — including, among others, the rider’s weight and shoe size. Frames can be ordered for cross-country touring, racing, or some combination in between, what McLean calls “perfect pleasure.” They can be ordered in 15 different frame sizes and eight standard colors.
To McLean, each frame is like a piece of valuable art stamped with his personal signature. His shop is nothing like the bike factory he once worked at, where the staff was required to turn out 100 completely assembled bikes a week. McLean does not allow uneven work to leave his shop. “If I have the slightest pinhole or scratch on the tubing then I get totally upset and my day is ruined,” he says.
Born and raised in Wilmington, McLean attended high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. After graduation, he went to work in a bike shop in Carrboro, the Clean Machine, where his fascination with bikes grew, particularly frame-building. He attended welding school so that he might develop some of the necessary skills.
Next, he journeyed to England and acquired a job at the Holdsworthy factory in London, a well-known bike company.
“One reason I went to Europe was because I respect British frames and I figured since most of the materials I used would be either British or French, I might as well go to one of those two countries,” he says. “What I was really trying to do was experience and pick up on part of the attitude and atmosphere required. You can’t really be taught anything beyond a certain degree. Then too, Holdsworthy is actually the main agent for Reynolds tubing and Campagnolo parts in England.”
The steady determination McLean possesses becomes evident as he relates the woes he suffered when, upon returning from England, he attempted to establish the Silk Hope Corporation.
“After I got back, it took two years to start work,” he remarks, pushing his black hair off his forehead. “It took a year to get my first order of tubing — Reynolds was really behind. Then there was the general bureaucratic nonsense, like going to a tax office and asking what I’m liable for and they say, ‘Oh it will be $200 a year,’ then running back next week and they say, ‘Oh, it will be $100 a year’ — just a total runaround. What it basically comes down to is that all these people don’t know and you have to hire an accountant to figure out what taxes you’re actually liable for. Business is a business in itself.”
The house now being used as McLean’s headquarters needed much work before it suited McLean’s purposes. “This house was empty and had hay stored in it when I found it,” he says. “It took a while to get it workable and livable.”
Livable, that is, by McLean’s standards. The house is heated by only a small wood heater in his shop and a kerosene stove in his bedroom upstairs. For the most part, the temperature remains at the dictates of nature. The house has no inside plumbing, forcing McLean to rely on the well for water, and the outhouse for relief.
McLean chose the house where he presently lives and works for one main reason: “So I wouldn’t be bothered (by people) ,” he says. I mean, I’m not totally nasty mean — please — but I like living in the country and I also thought there’d be a certain advantage to being not readily available. I know a lot of people who think nothing of just dropping out from Raleigh and Greensboro and Chapel Hill. If I had a shop right in town, I think I could easily be more entertaining and have lots of people sitting around.”
Of Dietary Matters
McLean has what most folks would consider an odd diet. He is a vegetarian and has not eaten meat for six or seven years, he says. “I’m not a fanatic.” I mean, I used to be, but I’m actually most agreeable these days I’ve started eating bread again, and I’ve started eating dairy products again. I used to eat nothing but — well that’s another story.”
The only thing that McLean’s customers would seem to have in common is a willingness to spend what most folks would consider a fanatical amount for a bicycle frame.
“I’ve had high school kids coming out and buying frames and unemployed college dropouts who were scraping, up to the penny, how much money it took to buy a frameset,” says McLean, with a slightly English accent. “Also wealthy doctors and lots of professors and a nuclear engineer — all kinds. Not as many females as I would like.”
A few local racers have turned to McLean, who claims that the correct frame can give the rider as much as a 15 percent advantage over an ill-fitted competitor. Billy Pearlman won last year’s Junior Division of the Carolina Cup Race on a frame constructed by McLean.
Simplicity At Work
In McLean’s shop, there seems to be a focus on simplicity, even at the expense of convenience. Leaning against three of the chipping blue walls are work benches cluttered with impeccably clean hand tools. From a speaker hung in one corner comes the sound of a trumpet playing a baroque tune.
McLean prefers to work with hand tools rather than electric ones. While shortening a tube, he says, “Hand tools actually strike me as being about as quick as electric tools, and a lot cheaper. You know, I’ve had people come out here and say, ‘So-and-so has a lathe and he builds lots and lots of frames,’ but I would have to consider it a liability. With mine, I can definitely say it’s a hand-built frame.”
While generally working long hours during the week, usually from 8:30 a.m. to 7 at night, he has come to consider Saturday and Sunday customer days, and leaves his shop open so that buyers can drop in and talk.
Interrupting his work for a moment, McLean points to a small seat below a window: “As you can see, there is only one seat in my shop. People have come in here before just kind of standing around while I was trying to get some work done and they say ‘Well what’s that chair for,’ and I just kind of slyly sit down while saying ‘Well, that’s so if I get tired and someone’s in here talking, I can sit down and rest so when they leave I can get back to work.’”
Of the future, McLean says, “I feel very content. I don’t know what the future holds but I feel sure that in one way or another I’m not going to completely abandon bicycles or frame-building. I’ve helped some of my friends build an airplane, and though I’ve never gotten too much into it, perhaps I should. Sometimes I fancy diversifying out into fabrication of objects that have tubing in them, from lawn chairs to things for industrial purposes.”
Then, resting his tools upon a workbench, he sits down.
Note: The author, Mike Dayton, wrote this story in spring 1977 for a journalism class at UNC-Chapel Hill and turned it in “1 day late,” according to a note from the professor. It has never been published and is offered here for its historical, rather than journalistic, value.