Proudly standing outside the ongoing narrative. José Duarte, Colombia's most celebrated and prolific frame builder.

José Duarte looks at me as I stand in the entryway to his shop in Bogotá, Colombia. He runs his hand through the coarse white hair on the side of his head and says, “Hmm, you’re one hundred and seventy two or seventy three centimeters tall, so you’ll need a 51.5 centimeter frame. The top tube would be 53 centimeters long, and the headtube angle will need to be 74 degrees.”

The speed at which he makes the judgment is startling. So is his certainty, so I ask him if he’s sure. As soon as I ask, I regret it, although Duarte doesn’t react badly to my doubt. He squints a bit, as though he’s reassessing my size and frame requirements. But this is just for my benefit. He already has a good idea of what the frame's dimensions will be. But like with his other clients, Duarte fits me in a bike simulator, which only confirms what he said before. The lugged steel frame will have a 51.5 centimeter seat tube. The top tube will be 53 centimeters long, and the headtube angle will be 74 degrees.

Like the last fifteen thousand frames that have left Duarte’s shop, mine will be built entirely by hand, with no one assisting him in the process. It’s that experience, knowledge and care that allows him to assess a rider’s measurements by looking at them as they stand in the entryway of his shop.

[This story was first published in Peloton Magazine]

Maker of tools
In a time when custom frame builders are receiving a fair amount of attention, and lugged steel frames have once again become desirable, visitors to Duarte’s shop might find a certain retro appeal to the surroundings. Some might think that time has stood still in the cramped building where José Duarte works and lives along with several dogs and cats, but that’s not the case.

The Colombian frame maker is not only aware of the latest advances in materials and production techniques, he’s actually trained in most of them. But his body of knowledge, his life’s work and his love for bicycles stand well outside the ongoing narrative of modern cycling. He doesn’t see himself as a stubborn traditionalist, as an innovator, a wild artist or as a keeper of the old guard. He doesn't trade on sentimentality and doesn’t treat his past as currency. That presidents, champions and some of the most wanted and feared criminals in the world have ridden and purchased his frames seems inconsequential to José Duarte.

Bikes, he says, are tools that must work in a very specific way. As he sees it, adding unnecessary details or making changes for capricious reasons will only damage the finished product. In Duarte's eyes, bikes are simple, but elegant tools.

Racing for watches
Duarte’s rise through the ranks of Colombian cycling began when, like many others, he moved to the capital city of Bogotá in search of a better life. He was born in the municipality of La Mesa, a small town whose name translates to “The Table” as a result of its location, a small plateau high in the Andes Mountains. It’s those mountains that define the landscape surrounding La Mesa, with their steep slopes ominously looking down over the small Colombian town. Local cyclists know that in order to ride out of La Mesa, they must first conquer the foggy peaks that are visible from every corner in town. Duarte made it up and over those peaks many times, eventually leaving for good, and settling down in Bogotá, where his career as competitive cyclist at the highest level spanned eight years.

During that time, Duarte had a fruitful run in the Colombian peloton. In 1957 he even raced against Fausto Coppi. For a young Duarte, seeing Coppi in person, and in Colombia was astonishing.

“For us here in Colombia, the mere thought of seeing him was surreal and very emotional,” he says. “It was unbelievable, because people like that never came here, especially back then. It was like he was coming from another planet. So to race against him, and to be able to finish a race that he was unable to finish due to exhaustion…well…that’s one of the greatest memories I have.” Duarte smiles as he pauses and appears to replay moments of that day in his mind.

Fausto Coppi in Colombia to race the Doble a Pintada. From left to right: Ramon Hoyos, Jose Duarte and Fausto Coppi.

Two years later, in 1959, José Duarte became the national road champion, after competing in several editions of Colombia’s most prestigious stage race, the Vuelta A Colombia. When I ask for details about his performance in the mountainous stage race, or the national championships, Duarte shrugs his shoulders, dismissively going into what he considers to be a more worthy tale about those days. The story he chooses to tell me is indicative of the lighthearted side that most Colombians have.

“There was a team back then which was sponsored by a watch company called Pierce. The team used the sponsor’s watches in order to buy favors from other teams and their riders. The watches were beautiful, and team assistants would wear lots of them on their left arms while riding on motorcycles behind the peloton. They wore so many watches, in fact, that they ran from their wrist all the way up to their armpits. Once the deal was struck with other teams, those riders would sit up, and go pick out which watch they wanted as payment for the favor.”

Duarte laughs out loud as he remembers certain picky riders, who took incredible amounts of time choosing which watch they wanted as they rode along side the motorcycle. “Economic conditions at the time were precarious in Colombia, especially for cyclists. Taking a nice watch seemed like a good idea for many riders, particularly if all they had to do was work at the front of the peloton for a while. I was later a mechanic for the Pierce team, so I got to see how all these things worked. By today’s standards, it was pretty innocent stuff.”

From racing bikes, to making them
As much as José Duarte enjoyed racing, the financial hardships of being a professional started take their toll. He took a job as a mechanic and welder for Avianca, Colombia’s largest airline. He still trained and raced for the company’s team, but his focus began to shift. He started spending more time working on bikes than racing them.

Duarte had a small, rudimentary shop in Bogotá’s Siete De Agosto neighborhood, a tightly packed district replete with auto shops, hardware stores and wholesalers who offer everything from marbles to hosiery. It was there that Duarte began to wonder if he’d ever be able to build a bike frame like the ones he’d raced on. Duarte had always obsessed about bike frames, taking copious notes regarding their geometries, angles and how each affected their handling.

It wasn’t long after he began to consider building his first frame that he was asked to take the first step in that direction. The person who asked him was one of the most significant figures in Colombia’s rich cycling history. Rafael Niño. Niño dominated Colombian cycling through the late 1970s, and would more importantly direct the Café De Colombia team during their European victories in the 1980s. Since Duarte was Niño’s personal mechanic, he was asked to help him reduce the size of a lugged frame. This was in the late 1960s, but Duarte still remembers that moment well, since it would prove to be a defining point in his career as a frame builder. It took him two weeks to nervously cut the frame and put it back together. As Duarte remembers how long it took him to resize the frame, he lets out a short and muted burst of laughter. “After doing that, the idea of building a frame on my own seemed possible, but I still had lots to learn.”

Complete Domination
Duarte kept working on frames, teaching himself as he went along so that he might start building them at some point. “Eventually, I saw that I knew enough to build my own frames,” he says. “I slowly perfected frame building, and my business took off. I was suddenly the most knowledgeable builder in Colombia, at a time when there were many other builders around here.”

By 1980, Duarte’s frames were the most desirable in the country. They were so omnipresent in fact, that forty-two out of the ninety-two riders who competed at the Vuelta a Colombia in 1980 were riding his frames. This was at a time when teams still chose what bikes they rode, and paid for them as well. Rafael Niño, the rider who first asked Duarte to work on a frame for him, continued to employ him as his personal mechanic through the 1970s, and into the early 1980s. In that time, Niño won the Vuelta a Colombia five times while riding Duarte’s lugged steel frames. Other figures in Colombian cycling like Patrocinio Jimenez, Miguel Samaca, and Cristobal Perez also claimed the prestigious race while riding Duarte’s frames.

He remembers at least three national road championships that were won on his bikes, but admits he must be forgetting some others.

“I’ve honestly lost count of the national championships and big races that were won on my frames,” he says. “It was a crazy time. The Vueltas a Venezuela, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Ecuador, Tachira. There were so many. Those were amazing years.”

Duarte recounts these victories without showing expression—not because they are meaningless to him, but because they were so commonplace. There’s one victory, however, that does seem to stir his emotions to this day: the Tour del l’Avenir in 1985.

“Martin Ramirez called me right before the race,” Duarte remembers. “Their team sponsor’s bike was not agreeing with him. He asked me to build a frame for him, and I did.”

Martin Ramirez wearing the leader's jersey at the Tour del l'Avenir in 1985. Ramirez had already won the Daupine Libere the year prior.

The victory continues to have a great deal of meaning for Duarte, who proudly points to the very frame that Ramirez used to win the race. It sits at the front of the shop, near a black and white picture of the Colombian rider wearing the leader’s jersey while riding one of his frames.

The frame atop which Ramirez won the Tour del l'Avenir in 1985

During what José Duarte refers to as “the golden age of cycling, and frame building in Colombia,” the small shop in Bogotá was extremely busy. He started out building 25 frames a year at first, but demand grew quickly. Most orders were from professionals and highly competitive amateurs who raced.

In that time, he never allowed his frames to be re-badged under the name of another manufacturer, a common practice at the time. At least that was the case until one of the most feared and violent criminals in the 20th century came into his shop in Bogotá and placed an order.

You can read the rest of Duarte's story in the second part of this post, which you can find here.