Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Building in the school of.....

Back in the day, well.....a long time ago when I was a bicycle mechanic and a piss-poor racer I was hell bent on getting a nice frame for all of the nice Campagnolo bits I had collected over the previous four years. I had scammed, borrowed and begged my way into pretty much a Super Record gruppo, minus the titanium stuff that was way to rare and spendy for anyone making $ 3.25 an hour. I put $ 50 down on a Bob Jackson Messina , nice looking frame and it was my size and lucky for me, it was at the bike shop where I worked hanging only about four feet over my head five days a week. A few weeks went by and I got into a bit of a financial bind and had to ask my boss for the $ 50 back, temporarily-of course. My boss said that there wasn't any worry, the frame had been hanging there for two years and was unlikely to sell. Next week it sold and I was really depressed. I was so depressed that I got the stupid notion to build a frame myself ! Tubsets were only $ 20-30 back then so all I needed was the knowhow and some tools. The knowhow thing was not as easy as the tool thing but at least I had some inspiration in the form of frames hanging in the shop-bear in mind, this was no funky little repair shop-this was 'The Bicycle Center" and some of the finest frames available were hanging from the walls. Two that struck me as impossibly perfectly crafted were those of Albert Eisentraut and Bruce Gordon.......and it was a real surprise to me that two Americans of whom I had never heard of were giving all the European builders a run for thier money. The Bob Jackson was only $ 210 while the Gordon was over $ 500, but you did get what you paid for-it was undeniable. While I had no idea what any of these frames rode like I know what I wanted my frame to resemble in terms of craftsmanship-that was if I could miraculously turn into a master craftsman on the first try. Anyone who ever lit a torch could tell me that I was aiming way too high and should just try to build something rideable the first time. Well......it was rideable, but not much better than that , so I better get back on the subject. Here it was, 1978 and I was witnessing the 'American school' of framebuilding....insanely thin lugs, innovative seatpost binders, imron paint applied as lightly as possible to show every minute detail, much the opposite of my Bob Jackson where the enamel was thick to hide all the file-marks and ugliness of a more crude approach. I was to learn that this school included many other names, some that we know today, some that have been overlooked in the ensuing decades since. All shared the same phiosophy: Building in a manner that meant to raise the bar in the craft of framebuilding beyond anything coming from Europe, by far the biggest producer of upper-end racing and touring bicycles. I tried to be a late addition to this group of talented folks but my patience level was not sufficient and after about seven frames I decided to take a break and think about what the hell I was doing with all of this framebuilding stuff . The frustration involved in my primitive approach was really making the whole experience miserable. After a break of nine months I found a new shop to work in and some folks asked me to build them a few frames. It wasn't so tough this time and I found it almost pleasureable , the building process. Soon, Mountain bikes were in demand and I found myself in a new school, the' Fillet-brazed mountain bike' school, only this time I was not a late addition....I was right in the middle of it. Within a few years the lugs that I had been using were sitting idle in boxes under my bench and fillet brazed bikes of all kinds were leaving the shop, so many that I had to quit my job and go fulltime to meet the orders. Within three years I was tig welding , another school, the school of late '80's and '90's MTB and cyclocross framebuilding. This period was not that much different from the original '70's school of trying to outdo the Europeans but this time the builders were trying to outdo the Japanese, the large American manufacturers by finding ways to build better riding and longer lasting frames. By the end of the '90's I was using aluminum,scandium and some carbon pieces to try to build the same bikes I was seeing in the Tour de France and at the Olympics.....I don't know what one would call this school.....the school of looking for broader horizons , a simple case of evolution or was it economic survival? Probably all three. But what is the current school , the school of 'now' in framebuilding ? Hard to say for me.....what I see is a return to the aesthetic considerations of the '70's with some new twists, some good, some that I feel are not . A 'school' should indicate some sort of knowhow based on teachings based on tried and tested methods . Sure, there is room for innovation and though it is said repeatedly that "It has all been done before " and " I saw that on page 34 of the Data book and it was done in 1896" there is always a chance to do something new. That is what I feel the new school might be......the shool of pushing boundaries, but that's what they all have been . The trick is to push the boundaries but not to make a mistake in the process, a bike that is structurally compromised by some new untested method . Where am I going with this ? That's not the real question....the real question is where are we going with this ?

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