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The First Frame I Ever Built

Lennard Zinn, recounts the story of how he built his first bicycle frame as an act of love. This frame now hangs on display in the TPC museum, and represents the beginning of Zinn's journey from a humble college racer to an industry legend.

Written by: Lennard Zinn

Published on:

Posted in:Features

I built this first-ever Zinn bike frame in 1981 for a beautiful woman named Sonya (Sonny) West with whom I had fallen in love when we were students at Colorado College (CC) and who became my wife two years later and, happily, still is. Wanting to improve on the heavy Peugeot 10-speed she had at CC and being a bike racer with little income, I was in no position to buy her a top-level racing bike. Besides, I always liked making things more than buying them. For instance, in pursuing my whitewater kayaking passion in high school, I built numerous kayaks for me and my friends until I made one perfect enough that I stopped making more.

Lennard Zinn and SonnyZinn with one of his modern titanium frames (left). Zinn and Sonny celebrating the 40th anniversary of Zinn Cycles (right). 

I had won an assortment of sweet Campagnolo components in bike races that I wanted to give to Sonny, mounted on a frame that I had built for her. I yearned to build frames so much that I applied (unsuccessfully) while at CC for a Watson Fellowship with the proposal that I’d use the grant to study framebuilding in Europe. I did my senior seminar for my Physics degree on bicycle stability, mocking up bikes with different front-end geometry in both real life and in a Fortran computer model. I taught silversmithing in the Leisure Program at CC and was well-practiced with an oxy-acetylene torch.


Zinn cycles first framePutting my torch skills and frame-design ideas to use, I built this frame in Colorado Springs in the CC Physics Department shop while I was in the resident training program across town at the Olympic Training Center (OTC). With a Reynolds 531 tubeset, some silver solder, cheap lugs, and my torch, I followed instructions in the Proteus Framebuilding Manual to make this frame.

Zinn brake bridgeI made the polished brass Zinn plates atop the seatstays and at the brake bridge using classic silversmithing overlay technique. Bill Woodul, the US National Team chief mechanic at the time, assisted me in the OTC shop to ream and face the head tube, tap and face the bottom bracket shell, and align the dropouts.

Zinn frame forkA frame painter in Fort Collins painted it with DuPont Imron Orchid Metallic paint. Once I had my own logo and decals, I repainted it the same Orchid Metallic main color and added Light Violet Metallic panels.

To calculate the frame dimensions, I used the bike-fitting handbook published by C.O.N.I. (Comitato Olimpico Nazionale Italiano). Unfortunately, that C.O.N.I. fit formula recommended overly long top tubes for small riders like Sonny and the opposite for tall riders like me. I was proud of the bike yet unsatisfied with the way it (didn’t) fit her.

Zinn frame seat stayMy dissatisfaction with bikes at the other end of the size spectrum (I was 6’6” and 156 pounds at the time) came to a head a few months after finishing this frame. In 1980, I set the course record in the Durango-to-Silverton stage of the Iron Horse Classic. In 1981, I returned as defending Iron Horse champion and a member of the US Olympic Development Team.

I had just totaled my bike in a crash and was on a brand-new bike from my team sponsor. On the descent of the first pass on the way to Silverton, the bike started shaking uncontrollably. That’s the moment I decided to become a framebuilder — to build tall frames that didn’t shimmy. I went on to work for Tom Ritchey later that year, assisting him in building some of the world’s first mountain bike frames. In 1982, I started Zinn Cycles in Boulder.

Zinn cycles downtubeFitting my wife on this poorly-sized frame drove my quest to discover how to better fit small riders on bikes, and in 1984 I cofounded the Zinn/Alfalfa’s/Shimano women’s (road) cycling team, the first women-only bike-racing team in Colorado. Big bike brands did not offer good racing bikes in small sizes in the 1980s, and I filled the void, building lots of small frames for the team’s riders and numerous women customers.

Zinn cycles headbadgeEventually, Sonny and I had a daughter who did fit on this frame and rode it for years, and Zinn Cycles morphed over 40+ years from a builder of mostly small, lugged steel frames to mostly tall, welded titanium frames.

Unlike with building kayaks, I never felt like I had come up with a bike perfect enough that I could stop there; I continually wanted to implement my ideas of how to improve them. Still do.

Zinn cycles and Lennard ZinnSonny and Zinn at Zinn Cycles. 

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About the Author: Lennard Zinn is the author of Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance — the world’s best-selling guide to bicycle maintenance and repair — the co-author of The Haywire Heart, and a tech expert for Velo (formerly VeloNews). 

He is a lifelong endurance athlete, a former member of the US national cycling team, and a framebuilder specializing in custom bicycles that fit riders of any size. Zinn Cycles is located just down the street from TPC in Louisville, CO! 

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