Monday, June 10, 2019

Gone

This last couple of years has been very difficult for the generation of frame builders who started in the '70's. Brian Bayliss, Dario Pegoretti and Roland Della Santa have all passed away. Brian and Dario didn't make it into their '70's- Roland was 72. Now as of last week my former partner in Schnozola bikes Bruce Gordon has died- this one really hits me hard as I had gotten to know bruce over the last 13 years pretty well. He had a reputation as a fairly abrasive character but that was just how he was on the surface. I got the feeling that he cared about what he and other builders did intensely- he would bristle at the news that another brand name based on an old artisanal name was being re-packaged to sell goods mass-manufactured in the far east.
Bruce's almost militant defense of the small builder and 'people that actually made their own shit' got him many followers but also got him into scraps with some major industry figureheads. Bruce didn't care- he was going to be the standard bearer for handmade goods , even if he alienated people who could have helped his career or lost him customers. Bruce had seen many good builders who late in life after decades of hard work wound up with nothing-no retirement, no way to sell their brand or goodwill that they had worked their lives to create. Frame building was to him an under-valued job that required dedication and laser focus. It made him angry to know that he and his fellow builders would do the job they cared about the most and wind up old, broke and bitter.
No matter how negative on the outside Bruce may have seemed, he still had a sense of humor about life and the craft he spent his life doing. When things slowed down for Bruce in the last 5-6 years I approached him about a project I was wanting to do. It would be an attempt to build a kosher bike. There's no practical reason for it-it was a schtick-kind of a joke involving two older frame builders crating a brand-"Schnozola". To my surprise , Bruce went along with the plan-I would do most of the building and Bruce would do braze-ons, final alignment, powder coating and frame prep. We made a total of seven of these bikes. My goal with this project was not just to make a funny joke in a world of serious frame crafting but also to get Bruce back in the public eye-he seemed to be getting increasingly isolated in his shop with less and less business coming in.
I'm not sure if the project helped Bruce gain more clientele but he seemed to be having a good time building the bikes and showing them at NAHBS. Bruce didn't have to be Bruce at the show-he could be one of the two-man team of Schnozola. People were not sure what to make of the bikes and the premise they were built on but the result was Bruce going out into the public and being present.

As of last week I had talked to Bruce on the phone and he was making plans to fly to Chicago to see his 97 year old mother. He talked to his mother on the phone daily, some times more than one call per day. Bruce also told me of his plans to travel to Amsterdam next year-he had been to France the last two years and wanted to try something different. Now it looks as though he will not be making those trips and we will not get to hear the stories he would no doubt tell afterwards. Now it is up to his work and his community to tell his story. I doubt that he will be forgotten by anyone who knew him and his work will live on.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A death in the family

I have been delaying writing this post as the whole idea that Roland Della Santa is gone has been hard to accept. I can't say I was a close friend to Roland but he did show up in the pit at the Nationals and would treat me like a long lost friend - he would tell me stories that had me laughing hard enough to wonder if the UCI officials would kick me out of the pit area. That is the common thing that all of Roland's friends remember about him- his ability to hold court and tell stories about racers and racing that were brutally honest, unbelievably funny and the kind of stuff that would be hard to forget.
This disarming humor hid to a degree the level of excellence as a craftsman that Roland posessed. Most people upon meeting him might find it hard to connect the guy telling the funny stories with the guy who made Greg LeMond's first serious road bikes- the same guy who set the standard in the early '70's for American custom built frames- the same guy who year in and year out was an advocate for talent in American bicycle racing who had a keen eye and a very benevolent approach to nurturing talent when he saw it. He was not just a frame builder- he was behind the scenes a real supporter of the sport of road racing in the US when enthusiasm in the general public for bicycle racing really didn't exist yet.
The first time I met Roland was maybe 1993 at Interbike in Las Vegas. A shop owner who was a dealer for my frames and Roland's as well had set up an early morning ride through the desert surrounding Las Vegas with myself, Roland and George Mount. I didn't know that Roland would be conducting a non-stop monologue during the 90 minute ride.....I knew of his frames but I didn't know the man personally. This introduction was in a way perfect as it was on the road with only a few people- on bicycles riding at a pretty good clip, away from the trade show that we all pretty much hated but needed to participate in. It was one of those little windows of sanity in a weekend of trade show misery. I don't think I'll ever forget it.
The next time I remember talking to Roland was at NAHBS # 2. There was a party in the host hotel bar and I had put together a band to play in the restaurant. While the band was on break I went to the bar and sat down next to Roland. I wanted to ask him how he got started in frame building. I wondered if like most of us in the '70's he had some sort of mentor to teach him the basics. It turns out that Roland pretty much figured it all out by himself. I was amazed- his building style really spoke to his Italian heritage and the level of execution made me think that he had been at Masi or had worked with one of the more prominent Italian frame shops. This was not the case- turns out that Roland might have been the smartest of all of us, having deciphered the way to build at the highest level all on his lonesome out in Nevada.
More recently I would be in the pits at the CX nationals and I would see an older guy walking up to me with the style of cycling hat I had not seen in maybe 40-odd years. It took me a minute or so to realize that this guy talking to me was the same Roland I had seen year earlier. I listened to his stories for a few minutes before I figured out who I was standing in front of- it had been a decade since I had seen him and we had both aged significantly. This was the Reno nationals and I should have put two and two together-I should have known immediately as soon as the stories started flowing- I guess that I was too caught up in my own drama of getting my pit space ready for the upcoming race where I would have to be ready to support the riders on my team.
As soon as I realized that this was Roland I dropped what I was doing and shared some great minutes with him- we had similar duties as frame builders and race team directors ( or in my case ,  mis-director...) so we definitely shared a few laughs about the things that we had dealt with trackside at events such as the one that weekend. People would come through the pit and immediately recognize Roland- he had a lot of friends there. For someone who's involvement in cyclocross was minimal he nonetheless was a person who many people gravitated toward . I stood aside and watched the parade of notable racers who came into the pit to chat with Roland who was only there to sightsee and connect with a few friends.
Roland was a big part of a generation of frame builders who started their craft in the '70's when really nobody in the US was aware of any domestic custom bicycle frames. It was about as obscure of a job in a sport that hardly anyone cared about. It is obvious that Roland cared about the sport enough to elevate it almost single handedly , building bikes for riders that would become the first Americans to shake up the world cycling scene. It all emerged from his small shop- the bikes, the riders, the culture. He created something much larger than his craft or himself and the impact has lasted many years.
There is unlikely to be another Roland Della Santa and I am very glad to have known him . His works will no doubt live for a very long time and his impact on American bicycle building will endure.
The last time I saw Roland was at the most recent NAHBS, just last March. He was the same old Roland, funny as hell and able with a few sentences assess the entire weekend in a way that was both insightful and hilarious. I was really glad that he was there- I was participating in the show for maybe my last time so connecting with Roland was a real treat. By that time Interbike had folded and the CX nationals would be moving on to another part of the country so I was unlikely to cross paths with Roland again- Learning of his passing hammered home the fact that the generation of frame builders from the '70's were not going to be around much longer- some of them will live on in their works and Roland is great example of that enduring nature of his impact.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The gift that keeps on taking

Another NAHBS is in the books. Yes, I was there- maybe you missed my display. Seems like many people did but that's not really a problem for me. I don't have big expectations for this show as I'm not the kind of builder who fits into the show aesthetic of 'art-bikes'. I have nothing against these bikes but I build 'bikes'.....maybe you might have seen one.
For 2019 I made big plans as this year marked about 40 years since I had built my first frame and 31 years since I went full time with this craft. Notice I say 'craft' rather than 'art'. I know art and what I do isn't art. I did see some art at the show- most notably a bike called 'Dear Susan' from the UK. This was not just a fancy design or paint job- this was a for real artistic statement that rolled. There was a lot of hidden meaning in many of the features of this bike. I'm still thinking about it- I'm not sure that many people got what the builder was trying to express but that isn't the point- the bike was an expression whether anyone gets it or not.
My bikes are not an artistic expression but more of a marker-a few bikes to show where I began and what I am doing now. Just like the art bike, I'm not sure that many people got what I was trying to say but like I said about the Dear Susan bike, that isn't the point. For me the point is what I do is a service, a craft. I have learned how to do my craft ( and continue to learn) so that people who get bikes from me can benefit from all that I have learned over the last four decades. That amounts to probably more than half an average life time.......
Over the years I have had many blunders but triumphs as well. I did win two ribbons at this show, one for a CX bike and one for a gravel tandem I built just because I thought the world needed one. These two bikes were the only ones out of the six in my booth that I bothered entering into any of the competitions. Am I proud of getting an award? Well, maybe more proud than someone who didn't get one but not much. The award is pictured above. Notice that nothing has been written on the award. This is pretty much how all the ribbons I saw looked. There's no indication of what kind of bike , the actual ranking of the bike ( 1st,2nd or 3rd ) and no builder name. This is the award that is supposed to signify that the judges carefully assessed mine and other bikes and made the determination that my bike was one of the top-3. Which one ? Hell if I know- I was not told. I can go onto the NAHBS site and find out but while I was at the show I had no idea what to tell people other than "Hey, I got this ribbon ".
During the show there were periodic announcements over the PA system that nobody could understand. Seemed like the people organizing the show didn't feel the need to have PA speakers anywhere near my booth or any of the booths in half the show. When they called me up for my award I didn't hear it. Luckily, a volunteer came to my booth and told me to get my tandem and go to a holding area where other finalists were waiting. Wait we did- all the while my booth was empty, I had to use the bathroom and was clueless as to what was going on. I was surrounded by people feeling exactly as I did.
After the awards for the tandems I was told it was time for the CX bikes award. They called my name but I had a tandem to roll back to my booth and my CX bike was across the whole expo. I had no idea that I was a finalist in the CX division until that moment. I had to run back to my booth and get the bike. The awards were held up for a few minutes while I did this- it was nice that they were willing to wait. While the CX award was happening , my tandem was supposed to be getting photographed- this was not happening as I was on the award stage listening to a judge tell folks about how great the three bikes on the stage were. This was awkward for me but I rolled with it. Hell, I didn't expect to win anything- I was only at the show to display some stuff that I really wanted people to check out in person rather than just see it in photos on facebook or anywhere else.
After the awards I settled in for the last hour of the second day of the show. I really didn't want to be at the next day but I really had little choice. Being cooped up in a convention center for three days with bad air was making my throat raw. The standing on concrete was starting to really hurt my back- these shows come at not only a financial cost but they are physically hard on you.
The saving grace for me was the social aspect of the show- seeing people who you rarely get to see- other builders, old friends and customers. One guy came all the way from the Manila to see the show and to thank me for some decals I sent for his 1992 olympic track bike that he scored from ebay. I got to spend much of the time with Bruce Gordon, my former builder friend and mentor. I got to see Jeremy Sycip, probably my most significant apprentice who has eclipsed me in many ways. I got to see some former team riders, other people who started building frames because of coming to my shop. That part of the show was really the best part.
Did I get to see much of the show ? Not really....I never do. I get about 15-20 minutes in the morning to try to see bikes and people but I seldom see the folks in their booths as they are trying to do the same thing as me. I can't really say that I saw much of anything. What I did see was a show with less builders and more parts suppliers. This means that the show is changing. I was told by the creator of the show that this is a change brought on as ' The builders do not support the show'. Funny, I thought that the show was for the builders. What hand built bike show would you have without them ? And why are they not supporting the show ? Maybe it is because 1. Many of them cannot afford to be
there . 2. The loss of productivity is crippling to their ability to stay on schedule . 3. Building special bikes for the show can drain the finances and time of an operation that has very little profit margin.
For me this signals a disconnect between the creator of this show and the very builders he wants to have exhibiting. The reason for this disconnect is plain to me- while the show is great, probably the best one of its type, it is not structured or run in a way that benefits the builders. The show has become a way for the boss of the show to make a living, which he deserves for creating and running such a show. What this does however is to take the emphasis away from the show being a service to the very builders it is supposedly promoting. To a large extent it is draining for many of the builders financially and time wise.
I came back from the show on the verge of a cold and with a seriously painful back. I also came back to the reality of a large backlog of work that in no way was a result of the show . Over the weekend I did get three orders - one over the phone and two by email.....none of them had anything to do with the show. Time will tell if anyone who saw my display at the show will place an order . The show touts that media from all over the world will be there- honestly, I did not see the media presence as in years past-even at the very same venue. I know that the show cannot control who shows up and who does not media wise but this might indicate a bit of a lapse in promotion. If the ribbon is an indication , I am probably right. So now I have these two ribbons- possibly the least personal and thoughtful awards of my career-to display.....where ? They say nothing except "Finalist". I guess one could call this a 'participation award '. I guess the lost time and seriously herniated bank balance could also be considered a participation award. "Thanks for displaying, "Finalist ".......be sure and see us again in the future- our future depends on it, even if yours does not".

Saturday, February 9, 2019

State of mind

last year a very significant frame builder and good friend sold off all the tools and inventory of his shop. This marks possibly the end of one of the more notable careers in the world of American bicycle frame building. While a lot of people will be sad at the closing of this shop, I'm pretty sure that the man inside the shop is very ready to let it all go. Bruce Gordon is nearing 70 years old and has spent more than 40 years in the business-he's probably built about 3,000 frames and has had numerous awards at shows. There is a lot of admiration for what he has done over the years and it is well deserved. Building at Bruce's level is something that most builders never get near-not in terms of longevity, attention to detail or commitment to a very, almost unreasonably high  standard.
This road that Bruce took in his career is no guarantee of financial rewards and in the last decade the fashion of bicycles has changed. Even though what Bruce builds is a solid lasting design and a bike that will last perhaps more than a lifetime, the current consumer does not appear to value those aspects of reliability and dependability as much as in times past. This means that the frame jig in the above photo will not see use in Bruce's shop again. It is priced at $ 2,700 and will no doubt find its way into someone else's shop.


 In the shop there are what many career frame builders posses- boxes of materials , lugs, tubes, fittings....some bought new years ago-some bought from other builders who never wound up using the materials before they decided to stop building. You can see materials that are at times half a century old that never found their way into completed frames. I have some of these bits myself and I wonder if I'll ever get the time to use even some of these old parts , many of which I have had for decades.



 Bruce was ambitious and bought big on many materials and there was a time when the demand for his touring bikes justified the accumulation of inventory for hundreds of frames. Now there are boxes of tubes and proprietory dropouts that may or may not find use in the coming years. Ideally, it would have been better if someone bought the entire shop and brand in order to continue building Bruce's bikes and using the materials on hand. This person never materialized and all contained in Bruce's shop have been sold, given away or disposed of. While Bruce will continue selling his tires and other parts from his house after the shop is vacated, the bikes future is uncertain.
 This is the most likely scenario for frame builders-at the end of one's career, the brand that was built up from a life time of manual work will likely disappear. The prospect of an apprentice or another builder taking over the brand is almost certain not to happen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The things that we do on rainy days.....

 Back in the '90's I got to know a frame builder of note named Dave Tesch. I had seen his bikes before I actually got to know him personally. Dave's bikes were made to be really nimble- so nimble that many people had a tough time riding them ! The bikes had very short wheelbases and steep angles- not unusual for the times but the bikes were extreme even for the period. Dave made no apologies for his bike design and was happy to tell all about how successful the design was.
 I did see a lot of Dave's bike back in the day- I was still a hobbyist builder in the '80's when Dave was at his most prolific. He was putting out super-twitchy neon-colored fillet-brazed criterium frames by the dozens and they were selling well. To me it seemed like one of the most popular American built frames of the era. While I didn't hear many other US builders heaping praise on Dave or his work he was outdoing most of them in production and sales. There was definitely ( and still is ) a following for his crazy unusually twitchy bikes.
 At one point or another things went south for Dave's company- seems like when a sole proprietorship starts getting to be a mid-sized company there is a danger of becoming too much in debt, too vested in doing big numbers of sales- any number of pitfalls. I don't remember the reason Dave had to shut his doors but I was surprised that such a seemingly successful operation could fail.
It was about this time that I got to know Dave. He had gotten involved with two guys that had been in a partnership with another well known California frame builder. I was involved a bit as the two partners had decided to part ways with the builder and start their own company. At first the company was based in California but after a number of months the partners decided to move the company to Phoenix Arizona and hire Dave to run it. Not long after Dave got involved with the partners he began calling me with stories about the company- stories that were very dark, funny and revealing about the partners and what sort of train-wreck was in the near future for the whole operation.  Dave had no illusions about the mess he was recruited to fix- I had already left the association with the partners as I had heard from the original builder that the partners had stolen all of his shop equipment to create their own operation.
This brings me to this frame that you see in the photos. I was given this frame probably 15 years ago by a shop who had originally looked to having it repaired for a customer. Later on, the customer flaked and the shop gave me the frame as they had no use for a broken frame. All the frame needed was a new down tube and alignment. It hung on a hook in my shop until today. This particularly rainy Sunday I went to the shop with the purpose of finally fixing this frame. It turns out that Dave Tesch after leaving the failing operation with the partners did not live long- he died of cancer at the age of 44 in 2003. This was about the time I got this broken frame. I was never sure when I would fix the frame but remembering Dave and how we were both involved in a comically flawed frame building company with the two questionable partners I felt that I owed this frame a fix- one last chance to honor a guy I considered a friend and kindred spirit of sorts.
So now the repaired and aligned frame and fork will be painted and road ready in the coming weeks. I feel better knowing that there's one less old dusty project in my shop and also that an example of Dave's work will be back on the road. Not everyone appreciated Dave's approach to building but knowing him personally I can state that he was full of insight and humor about what we as builders do. He made me laugh at some stuff that normally I wouldn't laugh at.......he was able to do that without trying- it's just who he was.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The shit flows downstream

Well, this is something that took me by surprise - but not completely. My shop is in Santa Cruz, California- population about 60,000. The county has about 275,000 residents. When I first moved here the city population was about 23,000. The city-in spite of growth ordinances and a very restrictive planning commission- has grown quite a bit since I moved here in 1977. This whole time there has been only one welding supply shop in the county. Like many businesses of this type , it has been bought and sold a number of times-each time it is sold, a larger corporation has taken ownership . 
Now some of you might be convinced that the free-market system will always sort itself out......that would make sense if large corporations were honorable and honest. This unfortunately is not always the case- the driving force behind most corporate moves is the bottom line- maximizing profits.
Maybe about 5-6 years ago a nationwide corporation that owns countless stores (such as the one in Santa Cruz) purchased the store from another corporation. Month by month the supplies coming to this store started to dwindle. 
I have a friend who has been working at this store for nearly 20 years- through all the buyouts and sellouts he was there- still making a living selling gas, rod and flux. He was very helpful, knew his products and always tried to get me the best deal possible on anything I bought there. The latest owner charged a premium on nearly everything- they used every excuse to raise prices. Much of what they did was unethical - some of it might not have even been legal. That said, I still shopped there as my friend was there and really, this store was the only game in town. The next closer store was in another county about 20-odd miles south.
A few weeks ago I got the word from my friend that the store would be closing. Even though the corporation had a monopoly and was overcharging for nearly every product, the bean-counters at the corporation decided that the store was not profitable enough. This meant that everyone working there lost their job and welders, builders and the like would have to go somewhere else for their supplies. Much of the stuff can be had online but actual service, like the kind I got from my friend is not something one can get online for the most part. Essentially, the corporation was bailing on service- the very thing that I provide in my business that keeps me busy. I answer questions, provide advice, fix my mistakes-its all part of the job as far as I am concerned- maybe the biggest part of the job. 
This philosophy is not shared by the corporation that shuttered the only welding supply store in the county. 
I may be a one-man shop and very independent -I'll even say that I am resourceful and frugal. Keeping a low overhead, buying local and having relationships in business where I speak regularly with my suppliers is how I run my little shit show- call me crazy. Now, a faceless behemoth corporation that I have no real connection with has cut me off from supplies that I cannot do business without. They don't know me, they don't know the other builders, welders and many businesses that depended on this store. All they know is what their margin of profit was every month.
 
Sure, it is not illegal to shut a business if it isn't profitable- and of course I'm not someone who wants to tell another person how to run their business. What I don't understand is how a business with a monopoly , that has been overcharging its customers for years while paying its employees poorly - how is it that this business is not sufficiently profitable ? What would it take to keep in open ? 

I guess I will never know that. My friend who used to work there has been very frugal and managed to save some money for this possibility. He no longer works in the industry and is about a year from getting social security. As for me, I'm going to call up the other supplier one county to the south and set up an account. Who knows- maybe they have reasonable prices- I know that they deliver gas to my part of town ( I have seen the truck over the years ) . But there's always the possibility that another corporation will buy out this store, bleed it dry and then liquidate it- the free market sorting itself out. This works fine unless you are the one getting 'sorted out' as in "out of business". 
Maybe you free-market capitalists will be upset with me being upset- so be it. If people like me get squeezed out because the large corporate world feels that we are expendable , then I guess that's my problem for not choosing another job, right ? If you need the service I provide but can no longer provide it, you'll have to look somewhere else - just like I have to for my welding supplies. Need a frame repaired ? - Too bad.......shop closed- bottom line not sufficient..... You should have taken up another form of exercise - maybe switch to yoga or running. 
All that sarcasm aside, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to figure this out and get my oxygen, acetylene and argon soon. My problems are fixable- the cause of the problems are probably not, at least not until some sort of miracle happens where corporations decide that their customers deserve service  and maybe even some basic recognition. I, for one am not holding my breath on that one.....

Monday, July 30, 2018

No goodbyes

 The move is about 80% done and I'll be at my new location officially August 1st. I might not be open for business for a bit as there's going to be some issues getting a place up and running that just had 22 years of roots ripped out. People might think that the bike frame building lifestyle is idyllic and a real escape from the lock-step workaday world. I can tell you from experience that being creative in your line of work is rewarding but it doesn't mean that at times you are not going to get some sort of beating for your troubles.
 This months beating is the moving of the shop. Lucky for me, there's a great community of people helping me out. If not for these generous folks I would probably not be able to continue with my work or successfully move my shop in the time allotted. That said, the move is not quite done yet and I have already had some bumps and bruises.
Reality check # 1 was moving stuff in to the new shop and at first wondering why there didn't appear to be room for all my tools and stock, even with jettisoning a good amount if it over the previous weeks. I donated a truckload of bike parts to the local non-profit and several hundred frame tubes to other builders. I also filled a large dumpster twice with odds and ends that really had no place in my new location. Reality check # 2 was how no matter how much stuff I moved out day by day, the old shop did not look much emptier. Reality check # 3 I fell off a ladder , hit my head - got a concussion , twisted my ankle and went to the emergency room. Before that I had planned to have a goodbye party at the old shop on Friday- that plan got crushed pretty much like the right side of my head.
So today the move continues. The doctor said that I needed to rest but rest won't get this crap moved so I'm still at it every day a few hours limping around loading and unloading- I'm always thinking that this load is the last one , only to realize that there's more stuff that I didn't account for lurking in a corner of the old shop. Also, in the new shop I look around and get the feeling that I'll have a place for all my fixtures and tools only to have that idea crushed by the next load from the old shop.
After 22 years there will be no goodbye to the old shop- might not even be a hello to the new one, just another step on the self-made treadmill of shifting metal. Everyone knows that moving is stressful as hell, even in Santa Cruz- I'm really hoping that this move does not kill me or my shop.