Thomas Callahan noticed a void in the East coast mountain bike scene. The West was the birthplace of mountain biking where manufacturers like Specialized and Marin, along with icons like Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher, brought recognition to the scene. Traditionally the East is known for its road riding, and although the mountain biking is just as good, Callahan feels like the East Coast still doesn’t get its due.
In 2007, Callahan had a sculpture studio. He rode a lot, and was saving money to buy a new bike, but instead he put it all toward tools that could help him build a bike. He spent his first few years building road and track bikes until the urge to build up a mountain bike grew too strong.
“[Screw] this, I want to go out into the woods,” he said.
Callahan got in touch with other bike builders that lended him some direction and he started to put together his first mountain bike.
The Horse Hell Cat
For the first version of the Hell Cat, Callahan used long, steel tubing. It was made to be stable on the tight and rocky East Coast descents, but used a short rear triangle for better power transfer and agility. With room for three-inch tires, the Hell Cat would get maximum traction on the climbs and still have some suppleness to its ride quality.
The name, well that was inspired partly from his raucous pet and shop cat, Charles.
“He’s just a fierce tiger that I love,” says Callahan.
The other source of inspiration was a childhood toy car that had claws that would come out of the tires at the push of a button.
“I thought it was just a great name for the bike, especially with the plus-size tires that get a ton of traction,” says Callahan.
For the second version of the Hell Cat, he changed a few things. The head tube angle steepened back up a little bit. He put a bend in the seat tube for more tire clearance and to keep the rear triangle short. The wheelbase closed back in just a little, also.
Horse recommends a 130mm to 150mm travel fork for the Hell Cat and each bike is optimized for the selected travel. The head angle is 66.5-degrees, the chain stays a short 420mm, and the seat angle is 73.5-degrees. The new edition keeps its raked out appearance, but with smoother lines from the top tube down to the chain stays, compared to the first edition.
“It’s gonna be outta control pretty,” said Callahan ahead of the release.
Learning from other bike frame builders
For further testing, he’s taking the bike to Bozeman, Montana in July to ride with a few other well-known, hand-made builders. Adam Sklar from Sklar bikes is hosting Callahan and Curtis Inglis from Inglis Cycles, plus builders from Paul Components, Breadwinner Cycles, and others for a bike-based gathering.
Callahan uses trips like this as a way to learn from other builders and trade shop tips and tricks.
“You only have about twelve hours in a shop per day before your mind stops working. You can only learn so much, so it’s super valuable to talk to other builders. Everyone is super open, nobody is trying to rip each other off,” says Callahan.
Adam Sklar says the trip has been in the works for a while. At the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS), he asked why they weren’t out riding their bikes together, instead of talking about them in a display hall.
Although you normally won’t see competing, major bike brands planning trips to ride bikes together, Sklar, like Callahan, says it’s a great way to learn from each other and make their overall presence bigger.
“The handmade scene is so small, so any noise we can make is good for all of us,” says Sklar.
The fabrication and attention to detail have been important for Sklar, but what’s helped him succeed is the relationships he builds with his customers. For a small brand like Sklar, and Horse too, customers can be a part of the entire build process.
“The reason [customers] come to a custom builder, is that they want to talk to the person who’s making the bike. Providing a really top-notch experience is what we’re doing. Being able to provide that is really important,” says Sklar.
In return for providing that experience, customers are assured a tailored and unique bike, and guys like Callahan can continue to do what they love and build bicycles.
“We’re just trying to build the best bikes we possibly can and make a business that’s good enough to support us,” says Callahan.
The newest rendition of the Horse Cycles Hell Cat is available now. Pricing starts at $2,100 for the frame.