Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Made in the U.S.A. ?

In the eighties when I was foolish enough to get a buisness license and turn my hobby into a fulltime job there were a number of small bicycle companies that struggled to do battle with the big brands of the day-Trek, Specialized , Bianchi.....mostly these small companies were producing all sorts of stuff related to the newly popular sport of Mountian biking. These small companies made frames, forks , cranks, stems , headsets , q.r. skewers.....you name it. I used to see all of these little operations flogging their colorful anodized offerings at Interbike, the big bicycle trade show. One by one these small companies started fnding out that building stuff in the U.S.A. was not only expensive, the process was tightly regulated and aggressively taxed by federal and state governments-not only that, the insurance costs for liability were not cheap. All of these factors, along with an increaslingly saturated market drove these companies down one of two paths: Path # 1, quit......liquidate and get a job in high tech. # 2, get bought by the competition. You see, in the mid '90's , the larger companies were losing market share to the smaller folks as a percentage of the buying public thought that the big companies had no 'soul' and the smaller compaines were producing hipper, more appealing goods. Another factor was the ability of small compaines to change and improve products -innovate at a rapid pace compared to the gigantic corporations with their layers of beurocracy and delay-ridden outsourced products. Trek, Schwinn and a few other industry giants began buying up smaller brands , trying to get a 'hipper' image....in effect, they were not really interested in the products of the small folks they were buying-what they were mainly after were the names and trademarks that folks associated with a group of people in a small building doing their best to created the best and latest stuff to ride in the woods. Since most of these small companies inspite of their popularity were not all that profitable, the big new owners set out to make them cash cows , dismantling the little operations, laying off most or all of the employees , selling off tooling and disposing of old inventory. Now these popular small brands would be just that-brands. All new products would be made offshore to lower costs and to boost the production numbers. Essentially , your old favorite brand from Nor-Cal would appear on something made in Taiwan and would have the outward appearance of the original but not the same quality . Prices on these products didn't get much lower, either. Net result ? Loss of U.S. jobs, loss of some of the driving forces in the pursuit of excellence and innovation in bicycles -but what I find saddest of all is the dismantling of these small brands , destroying the public trust. While I do believe that good products are coming from offshore, some are even better than domestic products, I feel that the golden age of the small shop-buisness in the bicycle industry has passed. The temptation of small companies to cash in by selling out to the big companies has made branding more important that substance , marketing more important than quality. Lucky for me, my company was too small, to pathetic and not innovative enough to get and offer I couldn't refuse. Am I sorry ? Believe it or not , I feel that my little treadmill is just fine.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What it is

Here it is, another beginning to another summer and invitations are coming in for builders to participate in any number of bike shows around the country. These shows are usually well attended and are a unique opportunity for builders and enthusiasts to meet in one place , face to face. While I do take part in some of these shows and appreciate the fact that they exist I do temper my enthusiasm . I don't expect to take orders at any of these shows and sometimes don't even bring any order forms.......custom frames are not and never have been impulse purchases -in most cases they are a result of weeks of research and intense , almost obsessive combing of the internet and magazines on the part of the customer. While I have indeed written a few orders at shows over the years , it has never been the main purpose of my being there. I go to see all the work of my fellow builders and show the folks that I am still at it, still in effect after all these years. What about the builders that come to the show with the purpose of taking orders, or maybe winning an award that will hopefully generate orders ? I really don't know what to tell these folks......I never won an award at any show but I stay busy, most of the time really busy. I contrast this with a builder who recently quit , even after winning an award at the biggest custom bike show, NAHMBS-the guy simply had no work....he was creative , original and really looked to be one of the top new talents. Maybe this builder will get a chance to come back and try his luck again , but for now he's back working at a bike shop. What does one learn from this ? I can't say that there is much to learn except that what sells and what dosen't in the world of custom frames isn't tied to talent, awards, shows......maybe not even experience. Framebuilding for a living is about as uncertain a livelyhood as acting or playing music . While I do see value in shows and award competitions are very popular with show attendees I'm not too sure how relavant any of it is in the real world of framebuilding as a career . A talented hobby builder with lots of spare time will most likely be the guy who takes home a trophy from a show but this style of building isn't sustainable in a practical fulltime gig. Ask any established builder who is known for impeccable and detailed artistic work and I'll bet they'll tell you that they are making the kind of hourly wage more associated with someone working the deep-fryer at burger King. So the masters of the craft get the lowest wages while the working-stiff welders make slightly more.....what is wrong with this picture ? In a perfect world custom bike shows should serve to elevate the publics awareness and appreciation of the skill level and commitment involved in being a fulltime framebuilder. With what I have experienced at these shows, that has yet to happen in such a way that folks that I know who are undisputed talents of the craft can exit poverty, or in some cases even survive. Most folks who walk the isles at these shows are enthusiastic for sure-but when it comes to buying the stuff they admire , they don't open their wallets. Folks will take photos, buy t-shirts.....even chronicle their visit to the show with photos on the web-in effect, free advertising for the builders........but still for the most part they don't come to the show to order a frame. Where are the people who want this craft to survive ? Do they even exist ? If they do, they shouldn't hide any longer........

Saturday, June 13, 2009

a tale of two shirts

I'm getting the idea that some folks are not into this blog unless I'm on some sort of rant. I also get the feeling that some folks are bored with it rant or no rant. That's fine with me, I'm not trying to win a popularity contest but the story I'm about to tell needs to be told , so please be patient and give this one a read, even if you think I'm full of shit-this is about somebody who isn't. Back in around 1992-93 I was a struggling framebuilder looking to get a more national clientele as I had pretty much saturated the folks out here who were looking for custom mountian bikes. A friend of mine who was a sales rep for two other builders told me I should go to Flagstaff, Az. and ride with the locals. It seemed that a few of them were breaking just about every high-end bike in short order and were looking for somebody to build them bikes that would last a bit longer. My salesrep friend told me that he only way I would know how to do this was to go and ride with these folks and see just what they and Flagstaff riding were all about. This group of crazy daredevil gonzo mountain bikers were the 'Mutants" and they numbered about 8-12...I don't remember all that well. When I got to Flagstaff my bike which I had shipped wasn't there yet so the mutants lent me a Mantis to ride. They took me on a really rocky rite-of-passage and I was humbled by the skill by which these locals left me panting in the dust. The next day my bike arrived and I got to ride with the crew again , only this time it was way up in the San Fransisco peaks -prpbably not a big ride for the locals but a serious lung burner for me. It was rocky , high elevation riding that made me realize why these folks had super low gears on thier bikes and why their bikes were so beat up. Two guys in the Mutants really stood out as monsters on the bike: Yod Branch and Steve Garro. Steve and his girlfriend at the time were looking to get bikes. I was the only builder who had bothered to come out there to check out the scene -these folks had spent plenty on bikes through the years only to wind up destroying them and pitching them in the scrap heap after a short time. Steve and Yod had toured throughout the southwest, had been in magazine photos doing the most death defying stuff on mountian bikes at that time. I knew I had to forget about building light, nimble Nor-Cal style bike for the likes of these folks and give them super-mega thick Tange prestige tubes to resist the rocks and riding of northern Arizona. Months passed and two of my frames made their way to Flagstaff, one of them for Steve. He rode and beat that frame for years-I was waiting for the phone call to say that he had killed it because if anyone could kill a frame, it was Steve. Steve rode through Copper Canyon in Mexico and was with a group that were the first people to do so...he toured south America , made many excursions all over the southwest. Many years passed and Steve decided to learn how to build frames himself. Not many framebuilders have ridden as much or as hard as Steve so his experience and passion for riding would make him a great candidate for building. After a few years building frames Steve, a guy who cheated death on countless occasions on a bike got hit by a car and nearly killed. After weeks in the hospital and many operations he was allowed to go home. It was pretty certain that he would never walk again, let alone ride a bike. This was not enough to stop Steve from continuing as a framebuilder. Friends helped modify his shop so that if he wanted to, Steve could attempt building frames while in a wheelchair. It took some time but Steve was able to re-start his career and although he will probably never ride a two-wheel bicycle again he will continue building bikes for those that can. Steve can crutch around a little and now he has a hand-cycle that he takes up some of the same rocky trails that he used to ride back in the day on his mountian bike. His wife Denise is an avid mountian biker and Steve has build some stellar bikes for her that she rides and beats up in the Flagstaff tradition. Steve builds frames named after the forests of northern Arizona, Coconino . What he builds is a product of hundereds of days of riding and racing in that forest.I personally doubt that there exisits a more dedicated spirit who is currently putting frames together .......Steve will proudly tell you about stuff that he has done-it's not boasting, it's just facts-facts that he is justifyably proud of. I'll take genuine pride over false modesty any day of the week. Steve Garro has much to be proud of . I'm happy to know the guy. He made me a better builder, no doubt.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Background check

Seems to me that my past is largely unknown to a lot of my readership , if I may be so bold as to call it that. The reason for this is because my role in the world of framebuilding is realatively insignificant outside of my small circle. I think people have the impression that I am a fry cook as opposed to a gourmet chef in the framebuilding kitchen. Ou contraire , folks. I can understand someone equating building simple welded racing bikes as the cheesburger in the world of haute-couisine cutom framery. If you think that, I would like to see you try doing my job for a week.....maybe better just try it for a day. These cheeseburgers have to be just so in order to win national cheeseburger titles. Pictured here is a stainless steel lug. Yes, a lug , and it was used in a frame that I built in 2006. Yes, I do build lugged frames and for the first 6 years of my framebuilding sentence that is all that I did, lugged frames and forks. Was I making a living at framebuilding at the time ? No, I was still a hobbyist selling a frame now and then. All told I'm not sure how many lugged frames I have built but it is in the hundereds......at least two hundered anyway. So what made this lugged framebuilder change to the tool of the devil, the tig welder? I would call that change a result of having an open mind, something that a few of my fellow builders do not seem to posess. Heck, I was trash-talking tig, aluminum , mountain bikes , clipless pedals, shock forks , index shifting , anything that I was ignorant about was dogshit. I can't really say exactly what made me look inside myself and see what an ignoramus I had become but I venture it was around the time when I turned fulltime at framebuilding. In order to make a living at this stuff I had to answer the phone and say 'yes' to just about every request. I was building tons of fillet-brazed handlebar stems.....I can't tell you what a time toilet that was , especially at $ 4-5 and hour -at least that's what I was maikng on a good day. Suddenly I realized why big companies were tig-welding stems, frames and forks-it was fast, it was cleaner and the results were every bit as strong as brazing , as long as you knew what you were doing. There is as much to know and plenty of challenge in any form of framebuilding, it's just that more traditional methods do take more time and make it more difficult for the builder to earn a living wage. I have some good friends who still build in the tradition in which they, and I started . It wasn't like now-a revival of sorts-back then it was the way it was done. The few folks who are left building in the same way they were 30-40 years ago have nothing to prove....they are as they have always been . They never saw the need to change - a good bike is always a good bike. I still have a few of my first 13 odd bikes in my shop. They are still rideable and when I get the rare occasion to pull one down and take it for a spin I'm always surprised at what I notice....the old thing still rolls......the thing still feels good. What could I sell it for ? Probably not much at all , but it's not for sale so it dosen't matter. I guess my point is that maybe I'm making a lot of fast food these days but back in the day I could cook up a nice chateaubriand.....just don't ask me to make one now. For that I can reccomend a few master chefs , some of which you may already know.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The cheese stands alone

Back in 1975 I was working at the donut shop day shift. Working days gave me the dubious pleasure of working with the patriarch of Arlenes Donuts.....the old man himself. Even though technically it was his son who really ran the place, the old man came in for a few hours some days to instill some dicipline to the newer employees , like myself. One day I was cutting onions to be used for the many hamburgers served to all the police and drunks that would come in on graveyard shift.....my future . As I was cutting my way through a 50 lb. bag of the San Juaquin's finest, I accidently knocked a few chunks on the floor, to which the old man screamed at me:" Don't drop those onions, Paul...onions are expensive !" . Actually, these onions cost 50 cents a bag....a 50 lb. bag , to be exact. I had the knife in my hand...I could have cut the old bastards head off right then , but I didn't. My point here is that I hate hypocritical tyrants....probably why I work for myself. I may on occasion be a hypocrite, but I am not tyrant....ask anybody who currently works for me. Hmmm, right now that's nobody so there is no argument to the contrary. Seriously, though-there are some bosses who might be better off not being bosses as they make the workday a living hell for the whole crew. I did a stint at a company, and I use that term in the loosest sense. The boss was a visionary, a guy with a lot of ideas and a great intellect. One thing he didn't have was any people skills at all. I was brought in to do production brazing-it seemed that nobody in his crew had the knowhow and the guy who came by occasionally to do the work was pretty much unreliable, another way of saying that maybe he had another life that was more important to him than working the torch at ********* bicycles. So there I was, brazing all afternoon, trying to please this boss as I admired him and considered him a good friend. After brazing dropouts into forkblades for about 3 hours I almost jumped out of my shoes....somebody had hit the bench with a large rubber mallet and had hit it really hard. I had my goggles on and a lit torch in my hand, I could have burned myself and/or somebody else....including the boss. Shaken , I turned off the torch and pulled off my goggles to see the boss standing next to me. He said : "I needed to get your attention.". I asked what the problem was. The boss said that I was burning too much flux and causing more cleanup work than necessary. I handed him the torch and asked for a demo on the way to avoid burning flux. The boss took up the torch, deftly lit it and began to braze in a dropout. When he was done with his demo there was every bit as much burned flux on his work as there was on mine. Upon finishing he said : " I'm out of practice....there would have been no burnt flux if I had been brazing recently." That was enough for me to decide that this particular employer was not my cup of tea and the next day I announced my intention to never again darken his door , which I believe I haven't. I really set out to be a good employee and a good asset to this boss , even though I had a lot of my own work at my shop building my own frames for my own customers. Just like the donut shop I was put in my supposed place by a petty tyrant, a person who was lacking in people skills but was not lacking in the hot air department. Framebuiding is a trade that is attracting a lot of folks as of late and I for one am glad of it, inspite of what I see as some misled enthusiasm. It is my great hope that the companies that hire these new excited and inspired folks do not abuse them and cultivate them to become valuable to the industry and the customers. Without a supportive industry for these new folks our craft will die with us and all the bikes that people ride will come from a country where labor is cheap, abused and treated as expendable. Much as I may stand here on my virtual soapbox and decry what I don't like in current trends in framebuilding, it isn't because I want folks to fail.....I want everyone to flourish. I put out there what I know has worked to keep me employed as a fulltime framebuilder for over 21 years. What I say might sound like a bunch of opinions to some but it is undisputable that I'm still here, still busy and very happy to keep at my job as long as people want what I build. Hobbyists can do this craft for themselves-I was a hobby builder for 9 years. Fulltimers have a greater responsability.....we have to make other folks happy, not just ourselves. Figure that out and you might have a future in this crazy job.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pass me the Kool aid

Not too long ago a very respected builder wrote that stainless is "The poor mans chrome ". I know what he's trying to say with this but as far as I know only really rich guys have bikes with stainless bits on the frame while I see homeless on old bikes with peeling rusty chrome. This brings me to my love-hate affair with stainless steel on bicycle frames. I love the way it looks, can't get around that.....I equate it with donuts-I used to wotk graveyard shift in a donut shop putting myself through the last year of college. Those donuts sure smelled and tasted great but they f%^&ed you up. Eat enough donuts and your face would break out, your colon would clog and you would need bigger pants. That's the way I feel about stainless-what you have to go through to incorporate it into a bicycle frame in terms of additional steps, difficulty and compromises to the simplicity of the structure make it a job I avoid. But what of the folks who gladly take on the mantle of 'Stainless-master" ? I wish them luck. They probably don't need or want my well wishes but they'll get them anyway-it's my way of saying thanks for creating a magnet for the work I don't want. A long time ago, before the internet and framebuilding classes there was a time when one had to learn by listening to the few builders of the day if you were lucky enough to , or by Fred Flintstoning your primitive way by yourself learning by trial and error......actually lots of errors. Some of what I see in current building styles are what we called in those days " Errors". Things like putting on seat-binders,seat stays, brake bridges, cantilever bosses, rear disc droputs with 56% silver solder. Hey, it's clean....it's low temperature.....".wow , the metal didn't even change color when I soldered on that front derailleur boss !" -All this is true but what is also true is that most of these attatchments will let go in time, sometimes in very little time. Imagine coming down a hill , applying your rear disc brake and the whole dropout rips out of the frame ? Not good for the rider or the builder. Where do the builders learn these errors ? Not from the old guard , not from the framebuilding schools......they learn it from each other on the frame forums . Heck, here I am spouting my opinions.....am I any better ? No ,but at least when I have made my mistakes it was from not asking questions - it wasn't from bad advice. Another thing I see is the preponderance of really beautiful " Randonneur" bicycles built in the style of the great Rene Herse. I love the way these bikes look and the work that goes into some of them is monumental.....but......after my years of randonneuring in the real world of endurance cycling I realized that my bike with nice lugs and lots of carrying capacity was laughable to the veteran European randonneurs. The Euros were riding stripped-down racing bikes with triple cranks and as little extra provisions as possible so that they wouldn't have the same burden as I and all of the rest of the American randonneurs. While I did complete two years of qualifiers and Paris Brest Paris , I still feel that I'm not a builder that folks would assosciate as a builder of reputable randonneur bikes-I guess all those miles don't add up to what you get from all that shiny stainless hardware and those hip wooden fenders. When you are deep into a 600K ride , you essentially become a caveman....none of the fancy trim means anything....it's not a parade-it's a long, terribly difficult rite of passage. All you want is a comfortable seat,handlebars in as comfortable a position as possible and a bike that won't hold you back. Yes, you heard that here. I guess all I'm trying to say is that the next generation of builders has to cut back on the fluff and be real about this craft . We have to remember who we are doing it for and respect that they have to be provided with a safe and solid product that won't let them down, hold them back and make them feel glad that they got it from you.