Cjell Mone and his La Roca
After a two-week tour through the Oaxacan mountains, Cass Gilbert gets the lowdown on Cjell Moné and his custom 5-speed La Roca, complete with an attention-grabbing Lefty fork. We ask him where he and his distinctive brand, Mone Bikes, are headed next. And we talk bread trucks, coaster brake hop-up kits, ’80s mountain bikes, and getting more people on bikes…
I’ve long admired Moné bikes. Maybe it’s down to all that lovely, visible brass lavished at every join. Those stunning triplane forks (which, I notice, feature inlaid Mexican 10 peso pieces). The Schwinns he chops in two and rebuilds with hop-up kits, like this one here. Those magnificently wide riser bars and the Oddmoné collabs. Or just the old-meets-new-klunker aesthetic.
Like many, it’s been an admiration I’ve generally enjoyed from afar – or at least, from my Instagram feed. Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few up close, partly because Cjell is based in New Mexico, where I used to live, and one of my local shops – Sincere Cycles – is a stockist. And also because my buddy Yeshe has two, no less. One he jointly made whilst working as an intern with Cjell in his bread truck ‘workshop’ (more on that below, but suffice to say that Yeshe’s 6’4” body and vans don’t always play so well together). The second is the stunning El Continente prototype we featured in our Reader’s Rig series.
But still, there’s a mystique to sighting a Moné, let alone the man himself. So, when Yeshe mentioned Cjell would be joining him for his visit to Oaxaca, I was intrigued. We set up a WhatsApp group to prepare for our time together, but all my veiled and eventually not-so-veiled requests to find out what Cjell was bringing fell on deaf ears. Only when he arrived and unpacked his bike box in my little apartment could I feast my eyes upon it: a custom La Roca. A Lefty fork. Five gears. And an old set of panniers. Certainly, it was an unconventional setup that, in some ways, captures Cjell’s spirit. Innately quirky and fun but eminently practical too.
I didn’t know Cjell before the trip, though he told me he cursed my name into Ecuador’s highland clouds when riding TEMBR, a route I helped devise. But seeing as I blame him for riding a singlespeed in the Andes, we let bygones be bygones, and ultimately it was an honour to share time on the trail and around camp with this fabricator-artist – for want of a better label.
Because I see Cjell as a biking visionary of sorts, in the way he’s carved Moné Bikes its own identity, on its own terms, within the industry. Yet, he’s also down-to-earth pragmatist with a problem-solving brain. In fact, his bike wasn’t even quite ‘finished’ when he arrived; rather, he had a handful of cogs to cobble up a “single speeder’s” drivetrain, testing it at midnight and probably waking the neighbours with that i9 buzz.
And then there’s the Cjell who loves to play word games and think of catchphrases for T-shirts, be it Izquierda-y for a Mexican Lefty, or 51 Tooth Smile, a nod to my knee-saving Eagle-like drivetrain. A note on his riding, too: while I was running a sane 11-50T cassette and grateful for every gear in this fierce terrain, Cjell had a mere 36 tooth to his name, somehow muscling up all the same climbs. And whilst I wouldn’t describe him as a businessman – even if that’s what he is – there’s definitely a spur-of-the-moment, follow-my-gut, entrepreneurial side to Cjell too. By way of example: after seeing a Mexican-made hip pack I was wearing, he got in touch with the owner of the company, ordered a dozen to sell on his site, hurriedly exchanging currency and goods between connecting flights in Mexico City. Yes, Cjell’s quick on his feet. And faster on a bike…
Can you give us a brief summary of the ‘brand’, if that’s possible? I know it’s pronounced like the banknote and not the impressionist, but who are you and where are you based?
(editor’s note: there’s a dash above the ‘e’, which doesn’t show up in web browers, so we’ve used the accent aigu throughout)
Moné Bikes is a multiheaded capitalist super corporation based in Silver City, New Mexico. At its heart is bike frames. Fillet brazed ones, specifically. Handmade frames from a shop truck and small batch production from some clever people in Taiwan. In addition to frames, we make handlebars, stems, wheels, and build complete bikes.
Moné Wheel Werks (fake name made up on the spot) is based around our love of coaster brakes. “Our” refers to my partner Erika, who is the one with enough attention to detail and patience to make them straight and balanced. Sometimes she lets me lace one or two, but mostly the wheel building is her wheelhouse. She’s also in charge of the coaster brake hop-ups, go-fast parts, block printing, and is probably to thank if your box shows up smelling like sage.
In addition to bike parts, we run a little webstore with curated oddities inspired by brass and our favorite artists. We basically make sure everyone who wants a brass Monē-Monē clip gets one. Or maybe you’re after a coaster-coaster. Not every product is based on a pun, but the handlebars are just too easy.
There’s not a perfect way to pronounce “Moné.” We only ask that you choose one and be adamant about it. No one will be mad if you call it like a banknote or like Vince Vaughn did in “swingers,” but Moan-E is pretty fun too.
Having spent time with you in Mexico, it’s clear you have a unique way of looking at bikes and how we use them. Can you share your worldview as it relates to these two-wheeled wonders?
I always say, I’m a lifestyle cyclist. The more I’m able to integrate riding bikes into my life, the better. What does that mean? It’s taking down those things that come in between you and riding your bike. Costume? I enjoy flat pedals, skate shoes, and I generally ride in the things I wear all day. Fewer things to get between me and getting out there. I’m a hold-out on clipless shoes for my road/gravel bike, but mostly for vanity reasons.
I like functional luggage for carrying camping stuff. Or just stuff in general. A bike that’s all stripped down and can’t carry anything isn’t much good around town and certainly not for bike rides. Even having repair kits for each bike ready to rip is a big deal when it’s time to hop on and go. Urban bikes… gotta make them outcompete cars. Fast (electric even), comfy, and tons of capacity. These are ways I try to upgrade the bikestyle to keep up with my lifestyle.
Now if you’re someone who doesn’t get on and ride without the right shorts and shoes and jersey. You’re good by me. I like what I like… and generally, that’s more people riding bikes. So, if you don’t make the same choices I do, or if you only do it for sport, if you only commute, if you only ride road, or groad, or downhill… you’re my people. I just get a little worked up when one type of rider thinks another is doing it wrong. If you’re just getting into it and your fork and helmet are backward, whatever. Come along with it. Let’s make riding bikes stupidly accessible and support whoever wants to be doing it. Roadies, newbies, endurobros, poor, BIPOC, trans, female, whatever… I love you, please start and keep riding your bike.
As a US-based maker, I like how you openly transend the whole ‘Made In XXX’ debate, because there are beautiful Moné bikes manufactured in New Mexico and there are gorgeous Taiwanese Monés too. Can you tell us more about that?
We make a lot of stuff in the bread truck. All handlebars get brazed here. Custom frames and forks I do in the truck in Silver City. During some travels in Asia and working for a little e-bike startup, I was exposed to some bike production in Shenzhen, China, which ultimately led to my partnerships in Taiwan where I have two fillet-brazed steel bikepacking-oriented models made by a little shop I have had the privilege to work with. Very smart people who have developed systems for making large (by my standard) numbers of bikes very well. In fact, I wrote about here a few years ago. The “rig” we’re looking at today is pretty much a small/medium La Roca, which is now hand brazed in Taiwan, but this one is made by me, with a few details added in for posterity.
Hold on. A bread truck?
Former Wonderbread delivery van turned mobile shop. The space is everything I need and nothing I don’t. The cutter, drill, torch jig, and everything else are very close. I try to spend as much time sitting on my dentist stool, rolling around and pretending to be a professional.
My first shop truck was based on a 1977 Toyota Chinook pop-top camper. Lost of cool bikes were born in that thing… even a two-seater, which is funny to think about. Big bike, little shop, hehe. Now I’m all growed up and have since built out the new van. It’s got a little turbo-diesel that pushes it around once in a while, but more often makes compressed air for me. In addition to a frame shop, it has a queen-size murphy bed in it.
Talking of that sweet La Roca you’re been riding in Oaxaca, let’s dig in and find out more about it.
It’s my third La Roca. This one is a handbuilt number with a raw brazed finish I call “turbo midnight.” Pretty much the exact dimensions of a small/medium La Roca. So, tallish BB, medium reach, and a slack front end. It makes for a very playful bike. For this trip, I added a couple of things. I brazed on some mounting points for an old Blackburn rack. I wanted the extra capacity so I wasn’t trying to perpetually stuff food and gear. It’s a lesson that’s taken time to learn, but matching the capacity and pace of a tour is nice. For this one, I wanted lots of space for all the beverages, tacos, blankets, and whatever else we found along the way.
To pack the tacos and blankets, I picked up some vintage Madden panniers from our LBS… couldn’t tell you much about them but they have that old nylon smell and they’re made in Boulder long before I was born. Semi-compact panniers with an extra lashing strap aren’t half bad for carrying stuff. Maybe a bit less than optimal for weight distribution but fully optimal isn’t really the point.
Other items of interest on the bike; that Lefty fork (or is it a tine?). The Lefty Supermax is the beefiest in Cannondale’s Lefty family, weighing in at about what a Fox 34 does. It’s stiff and very smooth. Very expensive to fix. Not well supported by anyone who isn’t Cannondale. It also gets all kinds of attention when you’re riding in Mexico. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s still jazzed on it after reading this paragraph.
Ti risers from Oddity Cycles, an 85mm dropper, nice cushy Felt branded saddle, CX-Rays laced to gen 2 OG Stans Hugos. XT brakes squeezing nice big rotors. I installed 2.8″ Terrene tires for a little extra cush and float. Definitely an eclectic mix of bike parts and a few years of breaking and/or upgrading things to arrive at the Burning-Man-meets-bike-tour you see here.
Is that more than one gear I see?! Legend has it you’re a diehard singlespeeder…
I thought we’d agreed to photoshop out the derailleur and cassette, but alas. A few weeks earlier, my buddy Yeshe, a Luddite in his own right, stopped by Mone HQ and converted his custom Mone from singlespeed to a little 1×11 setup for the same trip. I think we both assumed the cassette I provided him with was an 11-46, but it turned out to be an 11-42, which gave us a laugh the first time we took a break on a long climb and counted each other’s biggest cog. We both tried to count Cass’ biggest cog but lost track each time.
Anywho, this drivetrain. The bike was built as a dedicated singlespeed but joining a mixed-terrain cycling trip with two very fit riders had me checking my SS ego. The rear hub on the bike is an older Project321 with a short i9 Torch freehub. The short SS freehub has room for 5 cogs, so that’s what I went with. After some messing about with cog choices, I think I ended up with a 14-36 cherry-picked from a cheap Sunrace 7-speed cluster. An old friction XT thumby threw a Shimano 8-speed XT rear mech. Those 8-speed XT derailleurs featured a ceramic bushing upper jockey wheel, perfect for lots of squeak-free touring miles.
The setup worked a treat in Oaxaca. Having a 5-speed cluster is perfect for getting a little help for the long and loaded climbs but because it’s not quite Eagle, you still get the that-a-boy badge. Perfect for a single speeder’s fragile ego like mine.
Cjell’s cycling CV, the fast version
Child: Neighborhood BMX punk.
Teen: Mountainbike turned motorhead .
College: Phased out of cars and motos back to bikes, found collegiate racing, road and mountain. Was mediocre, had fun. Finished engineering school, ready for something different.
My 20s: Ski bum turned bike bum. ’09 hiked PCT on all handmade gear. Colorado trail hike in ’10. Rockhopper found in a dumpster + UL gear = bike touring. Touring touring touring… Colorado to Minnesota 3x, West Coast USA, India, Nepal, Baja, Central America, Mexico, SE Asia, Japan, Ecuador, New Zealand, Australia. Lots of touring.
2011: Apprenticed with Black Sheep in Ft. Collins, took notes, made a bike with James, determined to do one on my own.
2012, 13, 14: Rode Tour Divide. First “bikepacking” experience. Learned a lot. ’12 on my Blacksheep, ’13 and ’14 on a bike I made for myself in the pool room at my condominium complex in Colorado.
2014: Made a bike-building shop in the back of a Toyota Camper because it flies under the radar in a ski town and is movable.
AZT 2015 and 2017: Learned and humbled even more, bikepacking can be haaard but rewarding.
2017: All grown up, sold Toyota, built second mobile shop in the back of a bread truck. Moved to Silver City, New Mexico, favorite town on the Tour Divide. Took delivery of first round of production frames from Taiwan. Running a real deal business.
2019: CDT hiking trip turned fourth Divide bike trip with my sweetheart, Erika.
2021: Vaxed and back to Oaxaca with Cass, our interviewer.
“Having a 5-speed cluster is perfect for getting a little help for the long and loaded climbs but because it’s not quite Eagle, you still get the that-a-boy badge. Perfect for a single speeder’s fragile ego like mine.”
Any big world views and/or aspirations to share?
As someone who is in the business of taking resources from our planet and making new things, for sale and profit, I aim to sharpen my focus on making bikes that might benefit humanity and the planet, as they support me and the business. Making steel bikepacking vehicles isn’t a wholly unsustainable practice that’s terribly environmentally irresponsible, it’s gratifying making these things that people enjoy in similar ways as I do.
Going forward, I hope not to simply make bikes to improve people’s quality of life through recreation, but also better integrate them into their daily lives as a form of car replacement. Along the same lines, I want to begin to make products that can make old bikes useful and relevant again. Old 80s and 90s mountain bikes turned bikepacking rigs with some riser bars and a couple of racks. Maybe some cargo bolt-on kits to transform old bikes for grocery getters and kid haulers. I’ve had lots of fun re-doing old Schwinns to radical full-blown 29er mountain bikes. Anyway, it’s a lot of lip service at this point but it’s something I’m aiming for going forward. Now that I’m becoming more confident I am capable of running a business, why not make it the most humane and ethical one possible?
Talking of which, I’m enamoured with the Schwinns that you bring back to life. To me, they encapsulate a part of what’s interesting about you: your visual style as an artist, your skills as a fabricator, and the way you’re a pragmatic user of bikes in all their forms, past and present. They feel like both a celebration of a golden era of biking and a look to a Mad Maxian future. Can you tell us more about the whole process?
Wow, I feel like I better focus to give an answer half as meaningful as that skillfully crafted question.
The Schwinns are one of the coolest and most gratifying things we do. The recipe usually goes:
1. Adapt all old Schwinn standards to “modern” ones. (machined headset, bottom bracket adapter, custom [thick as hell, or even solid] seatpost are some of the main adaptations)
2. Cut and rebraze to add strength and shred (cutting out a section of chainstay and replacing with yoke plates results in a much more nimble old bike and clearance for 27.5 or 29″ tires)
3. Build with stout, durable parts (our riser bars and custom coaster wheelset are a great start)
4. Ride the shit out of it :)
None of these things are uniquely ours…we have fun building on the ideas and designs of tons of other folks who have modified old bikes to go mountain biking on. If you feel like jumping in the rabbit hole of badass cruisers/klunkers, check out some of my faves, such as Allan Bonds or Don McClung.
And similarly, I know it’s not all spendy bikes, right? From what you’ve told me, you once cruised these Mexican roads on an old Benotto and even now, you’re just as happy heading out on a Craiglist find.
I’m all about bikes of all kinds. I just so happen to be in the custom/fancy bike business, so I’m happy to feed my own habit there, but the old-bikes-made-relevant-again is also a passion. I love the old Schwinn projects. My partner Erika and I also rode the Continental Divide a few summers ago on vintage 80s mountain bikes with a hodgepodge of luggage.
Cycling as a sport has a fair number of substantial barriers to entry. Most of them are social in nature. Not many folks jump into a group road ride on their old Rockhopper they pulled out of the garage. And likewise, there’s usually not much room for you and your 90s Trek 930 on the next trip to Moab. Those are two situations that most folks think about when they imagine cycling as recreation, and to be intimidated by those is understandable. They require a certain level of skill and most people wear a certain costume. Often, those things can be hard and costly to come by.
Bikepacking and, to a much larger extent than most folks realize, recreational riding, can be done on the cheap with little regard to what most people imagine as normal for bikes and bike riding. Put a rack on that old Rockhopper or 930, strap on a tent and a can of beans, hop onto BIKEPACKING.com to find an inspiring route near you (maybe not one of Cass’s, as he’s been known to sandbag his routes), and boom, you’re doing it. You’re bikepacking. An overnight, a week trip, whatever it is, it doesn’t need to be on a dream rig down the Tour Divide.
How about all the curated odds and ends in your online shop, some of which seem like they dovetail with like-minded artists, whilst others are eclectic habits you’ve picked up on your travels. They seem fun, creative, and combine to create almost a whole Moné ‘world’. Where do the ideas emanate from?
The webstore is a fun place to entertain ourselves and our fans. I feel like a Moné shirt is a good one to wear to the airport if you want to strike up a conversation about plus tires or brass nipples while waiting for the peasant class to board on your next trip.
I call it a fun place because it allows me to collaborate with all sorts of creative people on projects that eventually may break even monetarily. Some notable ones from the annals of the webstore were the all-leather, hand-stitched tank bags I had done in Quito, Ecuador, at the end of our last trip down there.
A talented fellow who goes by @artofshralp has done a few shirt and jacket designs. Find those if you are into bread-truck-burnouts or hang-gliding grim reapers.
The last one was from a graffiti artist I follow that goes by @mone1zm. He’s a graffiti artist in Croatia and lays down very cool “mone” tags in his old world surrounds. I saw an M(one)TV rip that he did and our newest T-shirt was born.
From this trip, I was digging your hip bag for camera-toting duties. Seemed like a cool design that allowed it to swivel around your hips for convenient camera retrieval and riding storage. I like the flap closure and OG messenger look. After hearing about how it was made special for you by Dos Erres in Mexico City, my webstore bone started to twitch. Shameless plug… monebikes.com, they come in two sizes.
Yes. We recently traded a dirtbike, a Japanese mini truck, and a modest duffle bag (imagine Dos Erres hip bag, size big) of cash for a couple of lots and a junkyard here in Silver City, New Mexico. Plans right now… shore up roofs, clean, recycle and distribute said junk, rehab shop and home, and move over there. One block off the Tour Divide, should be a pretty cool spot after the pump track is in.
As for bikes. We have a new gravel bike coming… El Pebblito, which is a hilarious Spanglish gravel reference. 29 x 2.2″ tires, road cranks, flat or post mount disc, front der mount, fancy superlight Columbus tubing… Pebble-baby covers our skinny end of the bike spectrum as a no-compromise fast bike with huge clearance. Mounts for luggage, fenders racks make it right for anyone who wants a sporty gravel bike that hauls more than just ass.
Beyond that, for our current offerings, the bikepacking-oriented La Roca and El Continente, I am just working on the sustainability of the packaging and frames themselves. They’ll be some small thoughtful updates on subsequent iterations.
A little farther out are a couple of projects I’m pumped on. I’m developing a “new” model to take old parts. Something to encourage builds that can use parts from the bin of yore. Along those lines, more Schwinn stuff… full offering to make what we make, at home. And finally, some cargo solutions to incorporate the fine bikes of the 80s and 90s.
Anway…I really appreciate the time and thought you put into the questions. Not sure if it’s acceptable to acknowledge the interview within the interview, but we’ll just consider it like a lucid dream…
Read Cjell's words here, along with other words about Cjell...
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