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 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.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Father- yes son- I want to kill you......

22years.....that's how long I have been in my present shop. 22 years.....nearly 1/4 of a century with a lot of personal and professional history behind me. I have been through a lot of changes at 2533-D Mission st. ext. and I have a shop full of accumulation to prove it- posters, bikes, parts,materials, photos, documents.....tons of stuff. The 22 years is coming to a close in about 6 weeks as I will move my shop down the street next month. This is not a move I planned- it is a move brought on by changes at my building that will make the current location a place that will no longer work for my business. The management of the building decided to close of the place to the general public to avoid having to conform to ADA requirements. Essentially, the management does not want to spend the money to allow disabled people proper access to the many shops in the building. Of course, if the rent was raised this would probably cover the cost for the ADA retrofits but the decision has been made to close off the building to anyone who does not rent there- this means no more customer access , no 'Open Studios', no classes, so school visits......nobody.
Of course, I can't really do business without my customers having access to me so this means that I have had to go look for a new location. I did find one only about a block away. My rent will triple but the new rent is more in line with the current reality in my town- the old shop was a screaming deal and I was lucky to have 22 years there. The low rent did come with some headaches......even though the landlady was a saint and regarded the tenants as family, she hired hard-asses to run the building and they were pretty awful for the most part- abusive and threatening in the worst of times. This made for some close calls over the years with eviction but I survived to this point-battle scarred but still in my shop , working away. Even now I am not being told to leave-it is the new terms of the building access that are forcing my hand, so to speak.
So next month the move happens. In the last two decades I have accumulated a ton of stuff- people come by with all sorts of stuff to give me and I have had a hard time saying 'no'. Much of this stuff will not make the trip to the new shop- the new place is a bit smaller and I don't relish moving a bunch of stuff that I will be unlikely to use. I have been donating bike parts to the local Project Bike Tech and have recycled a bunch of metal. I have bikes for sale and some tubing to give to other builders. I'm not quitting, I'm just lightening my load so that the new shop isn't the same shit show as my current situation.
Apart from the donations and recycling , I did something yesterday that had been on my mind for about two years. In 2016 I had a customer who had contacted me about a frame project- an unusual bike for an unusual guy. The customer was always very chatty and personable....I would say a very nice guy. I spent several hours in consultation with this customer in person on two occasions as well as multiple phone calls and innumerable emails. I didn't mind this as I kind of liked the guy and wanted to make him a bike he would really bond with. There were a few features I drew the line on-stuff that I never do- but at the time the customer seemed good with it.
Once the frame was done and coming back from the painter everything changed. I got an email from the customer that he was canceling the order stating that there was 'no joy in the process'. I was really blind-sided by this....I had not thought for a second that this customer had any misgivings about the frame or me as a builder. I was could I have not seen the signs of a problem ? Well.....because there were no signs of a problem. The customer probably had done this before with other builders. I found this out by calling up another builder who had been cancelled on twice by the same guy. This of course made me even more upset. I had spent many hours in consultation with the customer and many hours building the frame, only to have it hanging above my bench for two years, un-prepped and unridden. The frame was huge-super tall and super short-odd proportions to fit the unusual build of the customer. I came to the conclusion that it was unlikely that anyone would ever fit or want this frame and fork. The bad memories of the build and subsequent cancellation hovered above my head for two years. Yesterday I decided that this frame and fork would not follow me to the new shop-I decided to do something I thought I would never do-destroy a brand-new unridden frame....hell, I had not even prepped it for assembly !
Like Hendrix at Monterey Pop lighting his guitar on fire stating : " Now I'm going to sacrifice something I really care about for you all.." I set up my chop saw in front of the shop , took the frame off the hook it had been hanging on since 2016 and got ready to cut. Just then, the current building manager drove up in his truck and stopped for a moment. I waved at the truck and proceeded to cut the frame into small chunks while he watched. In about 2 minutes I cut apart something that had taken me the better part of 2 days to construct. The building manager drove off without a word and I walked to the dumpster with the pieces of freshly cut steel and put the pieces and hopefully the bad memories behind me forever.
I know that some of you will find this action I took insane and at the least wasteful. I understand and admit that my flawed personality had something to do with my urge to sacrifice this particular frame. This said, I did feel an amazing sense of relief , though....... a bad memory that was re-kindled every time I looked up and saw the frame on its hook-utterly useless and covered in dust-this will no longer be something I see on a daily basis. I'm looking to have a fresh start and this frame, this memory will not make the trip.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

You know me ?

I'm not sure what the reason is but whatever I do in my career that might be of note is maybe not enough for some people- There's the factual building of frames over the last four decades, the participation and sponsorship of the odd bicycle race and of course my sporadic presence at trade shows. These are all verifiable and in some cases actually documented in writing on the web and every once in awhile in print. I seldom go out of my way to call attention to what I do unless I stumble upon something that resonates with a portion of the cycling community , or in the case of certain ironies that I find really funny. There is evidence of this stuff if you look for it although few people find the need.
There are other stories that do not originate from my own actions or writings that crop up every now and then- I have no idea where they originate from but they are out there and a few of them have gotten back to me personally. These stories usually make me smile and occasionally laugh out loud- the motivation for the creation of these stories is a complete mystery to me. The fact that anyone is talking about what I do at all is flattering, even if it is totally made up.
Story # 1. " Yeah, Paul is making me a titanium mountain bike frame and it should be done really soon." . This story was circulating ( albeit, a very tiny circle) a number of years ago . I do not build titanium frames. I only built one ever and it was over 20 years was not a super fun experience so I didn't build another. Here is a person who never actually ordered a frame, probably someone I have never met telling a story about a frame I was never building. Pretty funny in my book.
Story # 2. " Rock Lobster ? I heard that Paul got sued for using someone else's design and closed up shop years ago." I was told this at the UPS counter I go to nearly every week to ship out product. I heard the story from three UPS drivers in one day.......I asked about the origin of the story but didn't get a idea where the story originated. The only reason I would use someone else's design would be that said person was directing and paying me to do so. I use my own designs-not that I am God's gift to bicycle design but hey- 40 years of frame building has taught me something. Out of business ? Wow......then why am I still working my ass off ? Sued ?  Hey- nobody told me I was being sued.....this story is really a whopper and I wonder why it exists at all. Do I have a fierce enemy out there ? Does someone really want me to go away that much ? - I'm sure I'll never know.
Story # 3. "Hey, are those guys up the street at *************** Bicycle company beating up on you and giving you a hard time ? Really ?  I have built frames for at least six people working at this company. In 2000-2001 I built frames for their cyclocross team that were branded by this company. They were pretty much prototypes for a model this company introduced months later. I get my shipping cartons from this company and feel that they are my friends- I'm willing to do any work they ask me to do. Out of all the bicycle companies out there they are my closest ally.

All I can say is that the folks that came up with these stories are aiming really low.....making stuff up about a one-man operation building a couple frames a week is kind of flattering-that this fiction is newsworthy enough to eventually get back to me is a bit of a nod to my small significance in a big world. I'm not unhappy about these stories , even if they are very far off the mark. I look forward to more of the same- the wilder, the better ! Something like : " Paul moved his shop to the island of Yap and only builds frames built of the native free-range bamboo." Or, " Rock Lobster was bought by a large conglomerate that produces slow-cookers and anti-personell mines." Or, " Paul had to leave the country as he was involved in a huge Bitcoin scandal-he now is in the FBI witness protection program."
Make up your own.....hey, no such thing as bad publicity !

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Eroica California, part 2.

Two years ago I rode the mid-distance route of the Eroica California. I had a really good experience and thought that the organizers of the event were very focused on creating the best experience possible for all the riders. I did not return last year as my plate was very full at the shop-when you are a one man show there's not much time for things like vintage bike rides.

I will be returning to the Eroica again in April.This time instead of going solo on the ride I am bringing a team of really great riders. I am setting them all up on older frames that have been hanging in my shop, some for decades. All of these frames have been re-conditoned for the ride and will be mechanically ready for the rigorous conditions of steep dirt climbs and varying road surfaces. I am breaking out my entire collection of older parts to outfit all of these bikes and all of the riders will have special jerseys for the day. This team will not directly be associated with my brand-this will literally be rolling performance-art.

The last time I wrote about the Eroica , my goal was to relate my experience to anyone thinking of riding the event and pointing out things I thought were important to address to make the ride as trouble-free and pleasurable as possible. One reader took great offense to what I wrote and urged me not to return to the Eroica as I did not understand the flavor of the event. Well, I am returning and I am bringing a group of riders that will no doubt make an impression. The Eroica might be a showcase of vintage bicycles and a way for folks to try to simulate the kind of riding done 40-50 years ago. As a person who got his first road bike in 1967 and raced in the '70's, I understand this past world better than most. I did more than one road race where sections of the course were not paved. I had wool gear and clipless pedals and the like were still years away from existing.

While I do appreciate older bikes and have read extensively about bicycles and racing from its earliest times, the world of bicycle collecting to me is not any different than any other collecting. There is the true appreciation of bicycles but there is also the neurotic need for aquisition and bragging rights about whatever bicycle you might have . While I may have about 37 bikes in my shop and of course some of them are classic old rides, my appreciation for them comes from living through the '60's and 70's when bikes like this were state of the art. I am not that nostalgic about 'the good old days' of friction shifting, lugged steel frames, toe clips, hair nets, wool shorts, etc. My position is that older bikes can be really beautiful and in their day they were the best. They are not the best now-I don't care what anyone anywhere says that the older bikes are better than the latest bikes on the market. I'm sure that one can have just as good of a time riding an older bike but if you consider the ease of shifting,improvements on brakes and wheels-no to mention that newer bikes are much lighter-there really is no comparison as to performance.

Classic bike fans will say that newer bikes are 'too easy to ride' and that the sport of cycling has been 'dumbed down' in terms of needed skills to ride a road bike. Yes , new bikes of all kinds are easier to shift, have more relaxed riding positions and in many cases more stable geometry. I don't feel that this is a bad thing-it is helping more people get into the sport and out of their cars. Take away all the technological advances in road bikes and the amount of riders would plummet. I remember riding to work in L.A. in 1976 on my way-too-big but nice looking Colnago and not seeing another cyclist for 1 1/2 years on my 12 mile route. Cycling was a fringe sport at best in America in those days.

So-now I am returning to the Eroica with a team of riders, some decent fitness and a doctor's note so that I can use clipless pedals. ( I checked in with the promoter and he said the note would be all I need-I have arthritic feet, ironically from decades of riding with toe clips and straps.) My goal is to have a splendid time, see some old friends and maybe some nice old bikes. Yes- I have gone on and on about how newer bikes are better but even I like to pedal on an old bike now and then. The difference with me is that the old bike I pedal is one that I made over 30 years ago-not something I scored on ebay or craigslist to satisfy some period-correct fetish.....not that I don't understand wanting a cool old bike. My contention is that one is not
a better person because you have a flawless collectable period-correct priceless aquisition of enviable status-you can still be a sanctimonious gassbag.