Wheels of Fortune

FORT WORTH – For more than five years, George Banke walked through the gate at General Dynamics Corp. and went to work planning tooling on the company’s mile-long Fort Worth assembly line. He was paid well and found the work challenging, but one day in late 1990, as his fellow employees were being cut by the hundreds around him, Banke told GD to give his job to someone else, that he was taking a voluntary layoff.

Betty Banke paints each bike in a base coat-clear coat process, the same used by most major automakers to produce glasslike finishes on cars and trucks.

George Banke’s bikes are being ridden by some of the top cyclists in Texas and elsewhere, including several female riders who compete with Natalie Banke.

A would-be entrepreneur, what Banke wanted most was to start his own company. He wanted to produce the bicycle frames that he had made for years in his garage for friends and for daughter Natalie, a world-class amateur cyclist who experts say is a contender for the 1996 U.S. Olympic cycling team.

Banke and his wife, Betty, founded Banke Racing Works, a little Fort Worth company that is quickly building one of the biggest names in custom-made bicycles in Texas and the Southwest.

“It was a hell of a cut in pay,” said George Banke, 47. “About half my income was gone. But I didn’t have to walk through that gate anymore. There was something about walking past that guard that made it seem like checking into prison for me.”

The company’s sales and backlog have grown so much that in December the Bankes moved production out of their garage and into a facility at 7540 Sand St. in Newell & Newell Business Park in east Fort Worth.

“We felt like it was time to look like and act like a business,” Betty Banke said. “We were a business before, but when you’re operating in the back yard and in your garage, it just doesn’t seem like it. “By coming over here, we feel like we’re making a statement that we’ve arrived.”

George Banke oversees and manages production of the company’s bicycle frames, and Betty Banke is responsible for painting. About half of their customers buy just the frames and find their own components to complete the bike. When the Bankes do a complete bike, it’s assembled and tuned by Joe Young, considered by many to be the top bike mechanic in North Texas.

Young also operates a performance tuning shop within Banke Racing Works. He does general and sophisticated maintenance work, including custom wheels and custom components. He says that Banke Racing Works is similar to companies common in European racing circles, where racers typically turn to local frame builders for their bikes.

“In Europe, for years, if you asked a local serious biker what kind of bike he rides, they will point to the local frame builder,” Young says. “That is what we are trying to do here. In Europe, many racers would not think about buying a bike off the rack. They would go to the local frame builder. “Today, a lot of the major racers, like (Greg) LeMond, have a mechanic that builds their bike. I have been riding for 25 years. I have been on every famous brand there is, and until George built my bike last year, I never had one that fit me personally. It makes a big difference.”

George Banke’s bikes are being ridden by some of the top cyclists in Texas and elsewhere, including several female riders who compete with Natalie Banke. The Bankes believe that Natalie could become a key part of their marketing plan. Companies such as Nike and Reebok have been built on the theory that people want the products used by successful athletes.

“If someone is out there winning a race on your bicycle, everyone starts looking for one for themselves,” Betty Banke said. “They see him riding fast and diving into corners and want to do that themselves. We have the best racers in this area on our bicycles.”

And as their 16-year-old daughter’s career develops, the Bankes’ name will become more and more recognizable. Last year, among other accomplishments, Natalie Banke won the individual time trial and came close to winning the road race in the 15- to 16-year-old category at the U.S. Cycling Federation Junior National Championships in upstate New York. She also placed seventh in the 17- to 18-year-old group.

The Brewer High School student was chosen in November for the junior women’s cycling team that will represent the United States at the 1994 World Championships in Sicily. She would have made the 1993 team, selected by the U.S. Cycling Federation, except for her age.

“You just feel like you can do things other people can’t do on our bikes,” she said. “Basically, you get on the bike and you feel real comfortable about them. You’re not worrying about something happening. It’s very stable through turns and allows me to go faster than other people.”

An individual design Working from his own designs, George Banke uses mostly steel tubing and a tooling fixture that he designed to produce each frame one at a time to meet each customer’s specifications. A handful of employees help weld each frame and cut tubing, but Banke is the engineer behind every bike.

Betty Banke paints each bike in a base coat-clear coat process, the same used by most major automakers to produce glasslike finishes on cars and trucks. An enclosed paint shop at the Newell & Newell facility will enable the Bankes to accomplish whatever design a customer wants, an important asset in today’s marketplace, where cyclists are choosy about paint jobs. Many choose imitations of the paint designs made popular by major cycling teams such as Coors Light, Motorola or Banesto.

“The thing that lets me know it’s good is when they say, `It’s exactly what I wanted,’ ” Betty Banke said. “I try to give people what they want. It takes a long time to paint a bike. You can’t just throw the paint on and get it to come out perfect. There is a lot of aggravation involved. You have to develop the skills and technique.”

Perhaps the most painstaking part of the process, however, doesn’t occur on the production floor. It is the fitting that George Banke puts each customer through. The fit, after all, is the primary reason people turn to custom frame makers.

George Banke uses a fitting method developed by French coach Cyrille Guimard and used by such top stars as LeMond, a three-time winner of the Tour de France. The process can last anywhere from one to three hours and takes into account the customer’s shoe size and inseam, torso and arm measurements.

George Banke also looks at how a customer rides a bike and its use, whether recreational, competitive racing or something in between. He studies each customer’s cycling motion and positioning on a stationary trainer. Often, he suggests changes if he sees problems.

The involved process for matching body to machine is what has drawn Banke an elite clientele from Texas racing circles. Caroline Smith, a 34-year-old amateur triathlete from Dallas credits her Banke bicycle with taking minutes off her best times.

Last year, she won nine triathalons, breaking her own course record in one race. She is ranked No. 2 in the South-Midwest region by the Triathlon Federation, the sport’s governing body in the United States. Smith had problems with an Italian-made bike that had equipment, known as aero bars, made by Scott USA, installed to allow her to extend her arms over the handle bars.

The bars are popular because they allow cyclists to achieve wind-cheating positions that stretch their torso over the bike’s frame. But Smith’s 5-foot-1 frame didn’t allow for efficient peddling when she used the Scott bars. So she searched out George Banke, despite her fear, common among top athletes, of changing equipment.

“The decision to change the bike was a very big one,” she said. “I was changing the whole format. I was buying it blind because you can’t demo a custom bike beforehand. But he assured me that if anything was wrong, he would rebuild it or do whatever was necessary to get the bike fit right.

“I went out there and talked to him for a while, and he took some measurements. You could tell his little wheels were turning. I was totally trusting this man I knew very little about at the time.

“I picked up the bike in July and had a race that weekend. I got on that bike and it was perfect. I never had to change the position of anything. I was amazed. Then I went and raced it at an event and bettered my time from the year before by 3:30 (minutes:seconds) and I hadn’t been on that bike but once.”

Smith, who now has a sponsorship agreement with Banke Racing Works, credits her success to the bike’s fit. “It’s amazing the boost you get in efficiency,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of wasted energy. The most important thing about it is that it is fitted for me. All your power comes from the ability of the legs to drive down and around through the pedals. If you are so stretched out that you are reaching too far forward, you’re losing a lot.”

The fit is the key Of the 10 million bikes sold in the United States every year, only about 30,000 to 60,000 come from the estimated 50 to 100 custom bike shops, such as Banke Racing Works. Such giant cycling companies as Schwinn, Trek, Cannondale and Specialized take in sales anywhere from $100 million to $300 million annually.

“There have always been small custom makers,” said David Mayer-Oakes, the Region 3 coach for the USCF. “Most survive by making a small number of frames on an annual basis. “The fit is the key to their business. You are always running into riders that are built weird and have to have a bike that is a little different. But if you are the average Joe bike rider, there is no need for spending $3,000 on a custom bike just to gain a few seconds. They’d be better off training a little bit harder.”

With the Bankes’ bikes priced anywhere from $1,700 to $4,000, their revenues are considerably smaller than those of their giant competitors. George Banke says he has no desire to grow much beyond the size of his current business. The company has an informal business plan calling for 300 bikes a year.

“I’m selling all I can build as fast as I can build it,” he said. “I’m not really looking to grow too fast. If I took too many more orders right now, I would really be in trouble. I’m 20 bicycles behind now.” Betty Banke says going beyond 300 frames might not allow her husband to be as involved in the production process.

“With that number, he can personally have a hand in the building of each frame, and anything more than that, he’ll have to have other people do a lot of the work.”

The Bankes also know that they are not for every cyclist. In fact, most would be happy with the bikes found in local shops. But the Bankes say they can carve out a niche serving riders who want to take the sport a step further.

“Some people want to feel like an elite racer,” Betty Banke says. “They know they will never be a Greg LeMond or Natalie Banke, but they want to at least feel like one. We try to offer them the same thing we offer the elite racer.”

George Banke says he has little interest in moving into retailing. An early experience left him feeling that his frames got less than a fair shot against the higher volume products stocked at most bike shops. Shops, he says, would rather sell major brands that often have higher profit margins on volume.

Linda McDade, a former bike shop owner who is now a Category III race official with the USCF, says custom shops may proliferate as cycling grows as a sport.

“Both store-bought and custom-built bikes have advantages,” she said. “Custom bikes are becoming more and more popular among Texas racers because fit is critical when you’re on an 80- to 100-mile course where every ounce counts. Banke is becoming more and more popular because he has some very successful riders on his bikes.

“In his first couple years, you would see literally a handful of them. They were the new kid on the block and were not proven. They are now proven and are becoming very popular. His bikes are known for performance and endurance. They are holding up as well as any, and people are willing to invest the money in them because of that.”

Builder brings high-tech know-how from aviation world George Banke shares one common thread with many of the industry’s big names: He comes from the aerospace industry. Two of the engineers who helped found Cycle Composites, producers of the high-end Kestrel bikes, worked on Cruise missiles and other high-tech weaponry for Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. in California.

The Kestrels are part of an industry wave in which advanced materials from the aerospace industry, some of which was once classified, are associated with almost certain improvements in speed and performance. But that is where Banke and the other makers part company. He firmly believes in steel as the material of choice for most cyclists, whether they are serious racers or weekend enthusiasts.

“I think people should be more concerned with how their bikes fit and turn and steer and climb than they should what kind of material it’s made of,” he said. “The materials, even carbon, have a very high failure rate. No material – not titanium, aluminum or what have you – can compare to steel frames. They are not even in the ballpark. You can beat the weight by 4 to 5 ounces, but what is that, half a water bottle?”

Banke says that his years at GD have helped in his business. His small factory floor, in fact, resembles a small department at Lockheed, GD’s successor. Scattered around the room are benches, tools and welding equipment used to form the product.

“I learned a lot about tooling at GD,” he said. “Most people don’t know what tooling is. But it’s the heart of every manufacturing process. I felt like we had some really good tooling people out there. I learned a lot about organizing the production process there.”

His primary tool is the fixture that he uses to assemble each frame. It allows for the tubing that forms the frame to be assembled all in one place, while taking into account the various measurements unique to each customer. The tool operates off a center line and works with a pivoting bar to allow easy adjustments for sizing.

The process is worlds apart from that used by such mass producers as Schwinn, which produces a set number of frames in a set number of sizes. Most major manufacturers have a dedicated tooling jig in place to produce each frame size.

The customizing of each frame is one of the reasons Banke’s bikes cost more than the bicycles found in most shops. But Banke believes that die-hard enthusiasts and competitive racers are willing to pay more if a better fitting cycle improves performance.

“When you can physically feel all these difference and you’re a competitor, it makes it hard to stick with something that is ordered or store-bought,” Banke said.


1992, Fort Worth Star-Telegram