FRED KELLEY IS A RARE BREED. HE

is a bicycle-frame builder -- one of the few in this area -- a master craftsman in a profession where basic techniques reach back to the middle of the last century, and only two dozen people in the country still practice them full time.

Kelley, 32, builds about 200 frames a year at his Alpine Cycles shop in Rockville. Customers come to be individually measured and fitted, then their bicycle frames are hand-built to match their measurements.

A self-taught machinist and former state champion bike racer, Kelley got started in the business by doing repairs for racing friends. He decided to build frames full-time while recuperating from a broken shoulder, and he learned by trial and error. "I'm a handy guy," he says. "I bought an old house, too."

From a set of high-strength steel-alloy tubes, Kelley cuts and miters the tubes into the proper configuration. He brazes and files the resulting joints to a smooth, flawless finish, and adds to the frame individual touches the customer has requested. He then primes and paints the frame, using multiple coats of paint and lacquer to achieve the color and design the buyer has dreamed up. No paint job is too wild or too complex.

It is a labor- intensive Old World craft that Kelley blends with high technology. Alpine uses sophisticated machine tools that are ordinarily found only in large industrial settings, not frame shops.

In addition to building bicycle frames, Kelley and his assistants repair and repaint another 300 or more frames a year. He can remove and replace damaged tubes, straighten and align frames and apply a paint job that makes a bike look better than new. Kelley does all of the frame work personally.

According to Kelley, "repairs and repainting {are} the areas that've given us more experience than any builder in the country. That's what's challenging and it's different . . . to figure out what the frame was and to rebuild it. Between the lathe and the mill, we can basically make any part we need."

Prices start from around $600 for a standard frame and escalate to more than $800 for a customized frame. This is for a bare frame -- no wheels, handlebars, etc. Tandem frames start at $1,550. Alpine bikes are very popular with women who are seeking a better fit than that usually available with standard, factory-built models.

Nobody gets into the frame-building business for the money. Kelley, who still works six days a week, says he is one of the few successful frame builders in the country. What does he mean by successful? "I'm probably the only one who owns a house and a new car."