It would be easy to hit fast forward and skip
to the bit where Sachs and Weigle hang out
shingles to sell their own frames from shops
just eight miles apart; after all, that’s how we
know their names today. But Witcomb USA was
to impart another significant figure. Sachs and
Weigle convinced Allen to bring on another
helper, a kid named Chris Chance.
Chance was known for being bright
and outgoing, and great at the big
picture, but not always strong with
details. His nickname at Witcomb
was a play on his last name. The guys
called him Risky.
which reflected the tight, twisting
trails of New England. This was no
West Coast fire road bike; the Wicked
was Chinese acrobat nimble.
It’s Chance’s entry into the picture that
ultimately results in a this-begat-that-begat-that sequence of nearly biblical
proportion. Witcomb USA ceased
operation in 1977 and Chance began
building frames under his own name
the same year. His fortunes took a turn
when he decided to build a mountain
bike in 1982. Chance and his wife
Wendyll formed Fat City Cycles that
year and it was a move that Rob
Vandermark, CEO of Seven Cycles,
says was to forever change the bike
industry in New England.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact
that Chance had on cycling in New
England. Fat City alums could go
anywhere in the bike industry and
that one credit on a résumé had the
power of an Ivy League degree on
Wall Street. Bike shop owners were
only too willing to gloat to customers
that they employed a one-time Fat
City staffer. It didn’t matter if the
guy had only swept floors, Fat City
imparted an air of no-compromise
courage to all who worked there.
Helfrich is a barrel-chested bear of a
man. Despite his glasses, in a bar fight,
you’d want him on your side. There is a
forcefulness to his movements, a barely
contained energy. It may be impossible
to guess what he’ll do next, but one can
be assured, he’ll be in motion.
Helfrich, Gwyn Jones and Mike
Augspurger launched Merlin
Metalworks down the road from
Somerville, in Cambridge, in 1986.
One of their first employees was Rob
Vandermark. Vandermark had been a
student at the Massachusetts College of
Art, majoring in sculpture. And while
he knew a thing or two about welding,
he typified his work as “messy.”
Fat City Cycles was based in
Boston. Vandermark remembers
Chance for his ability to bring people
together. In a few short years he
assembled a talented team at Fat City.
The company would become known
for exemplary welding, distinctive
paint and intelligent parts selection.
The bikes were also known for snappy
geometry; the Wicked Fat Chance was
distinguished by its quick handling
Into Chance’s orbit fell a roadie for
rock gods and Boston homeboys
Aerosmith. Gary Helfrich went
to work at Fat City as a builder.
The early Fat Chances were fillet-
brazed Tange Prestige tubing.
Helfrich brought TIG welding to
the table thanks to his experience
mending lighting rigs. He began
investigating titanium for a simple
reason: his crashes often resulted in
broken bikes. Titanium captured
his interest because it promised
greater strength than steel. Weight
really wasn’t a concern; Helfrich
was tired of breaking bikes.
Vandermark’s recollection of Merlin
in the late 1980s was a place full of
possibility. No idea was too crazy
to try and failure didn’t exist in the
“It was crazy, some of the stuff
we tried,” Vandermark remembers.
“I mean, some things we did
were downright dangerous. But
Gwyn, Gary and Mike gave us the
freedom to try anything. That was
a powerful experience.”
Augspurger—the real loner of the
crew—was the first of Merlin’s