Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Perceived value

Last time I checked, I was not dead yet....or at least the breathing noises I make would indicate that my death has not yet arrived. Since this is the case , I'll have to consider myself one of the 'Not dead yet' framebuilders. Even though my frames are not collectable and as far as I know , not causing any kind of buzz amongst the rabid vintage bike fans I am very happy to be still alive. Being not dead yet has a lot of advantages....at least that's the way it appears to me , having never been to the 'other side' .

There is however , a distinct plus for being a dead guy who built bicycle frames-your legacy of work might get to command a much higher price than when you were alive to open your wallet and receive the proceeds. I'll cite the example of the late Mario Confente , noted Italian transplant to California who was sent here to re-create the famed Masi branded bicycles here in the U.S.A. as the demand for the bikes was sufficient to merit a satellite factory close to the new fertile market. Americans were going nuts over Masi, Cinelli, Colnago and a host of noted Italian racing bikes but it was Masi who made the move to get manufacturing nearer to the dollars . From what I understand , Mario Confente was the man to head up the operation.

This is where it all gets fuzzy to me......I don't know the details of what happened and why Mario wound up leaving and building under his own name but what I do know is that back in the late '70's , Mr. Confente was regarded was a real master of his craft by many bicycle shops-the shop where I worked was no exception. Any time a Masi made in California showed up in my shop, the serial number was checked to see if it could possibly be a "Confente built Masi". I didn't understand the significance as no matter how closely I looked at the workmanship, I could not distinguish one Masi frame from another. They seemed all to be built to a certain standard and almost boringly consistent. When an actual Confente came into the store there was quite a stir amongst the crew.....this I really didn't get as the Bruce Gordon sitting in the shop in near anonymity was light years beyond the Confente in terms of attention to detail and impeccability.

Fast forward to 2010. These are different times with the internet and much information and mis-information being bandied about by experts and complete morons alike about the value of certain 'collectable' bicycles. While one of my lugged frames from the early '80's might fetch a whopping $ 300 on craigslist on a good day, a Confente might be sold in a bidding war for well over $ 10,000 ! Is the Confente worth the price ? I guess that is not for me to say......the price is set by whoever pays it. While I love the whole nostalgia of vintage bikes and own a small fleet of relics, I don't really get why some bikes are worth over $ 10,000 and why others that display better craftsmanship and equal rarity are snubbed by the collectors. I guess it has something to do with death. If you are not dead, people can't really fabricate your legendary life......the life you lead is maybe too real and accessable . If you are still alive people can still talk to you, even order a bike from you. Conversely if you are dead , there's a finite supply of your work and probably a legend about the magical quality of your work-both of theses factors can be used to manipulate the price of your bikes. The bikes might be good or bad, the legend could be complete bullshit but for some folks it doesn't matter-you are dead , therefore your bikes are a must-have holy grail item.

I'm not supposed to be angry about anything that enhances the perceived value of bikes-that would be shooting myself and every other framebuilder in the foot. We all want our work to be valued as a lot of us devote out lives to this dubious pursuit. What makes me mad is the fact that collectors are rewarding the dead guys and pretty much ignoring the guys who are still alive , in effect rewarding speculation rather than craftsmanship and dedication. While there are a couple of actual living builders who have frames that are highly sought after by collectors , there's a whole army of neglected artisans out there putting out incredible work -a lot of it arguably superior to much of the collectable cult items. I'm not including myself in this group as I mostly build bikes for competition and don't consider myself a builder who caters to the collectors.

After more than 30 years in the business and many visits to bike shows, swaps and the like I have grown weary of the notion that some dead guy's bike is worth 20 times more than a living builders bike on the open used market. It is not a fucking Matisse !

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Trying to do too much...

Building bike is what I do and for the most part , it's really all I have time to do. I get to ride a bit , I also have Saturdays to do laundry and the weekly shopping but it is a solid five-day a week grind just trying to keep the work rolling, even if the list isn't all that long. Stuff just takes more time than one suspects , even if there's many years of experience in the books. It's all about expectations of oneself , usually a bit higher than reasonable.
This brings me to current times and what I'm hooked into every fall/winter....cycolcross. Ever since the late '70's Iv'e been a big fan of the sport and watched it grow dramatically here in northern California. About 1998 I got the idea to try racing myself when I got involved in sponsoring a local team. At first, my racing was just me, no team affiliation and no expectations other than to have some fun and make a few people laugh. I'm not a talented rider by any stretch and my years of dabbling in other forms of bicycle racing have resulted in a big two wins in 20 years. In 2004 I, and my helper Simon Vickers formed a cyclocross team around my bikes and things changed in a big way. I was present at races every weekend and I wore the same kit as the real racers, although my racing was still pretty much a joke-trying not to be last in the 45-A masters division.
After an injury kept me out of most of the 2007 season, I decided correctly that I never belonged in an A division race and demoted myself to the 45 + B catagory in 2008. This is when things got weird.....I started getting on the podium. About 2/3 of the way through the season I did something I haden't done in 20 years-I won a race. This made me the leader of a series and I nearly won the whole four-race Peak Season series but for a bad cold during the last race. This success was probably the worst thing that could have happened to me.....I started getting a little serious about racing.
In 2009 I trained like a madman and went into the season expecting to start where I left off.....racing well and always being a threat for the podium , even if it was usually the lowest step. I was plagued by back problems and wound up just like I had started in 1998, giving a few folks laughs and finding myself behind most of the field every weekend. I decided to get physical therapy for my back, not so much for racing ( Although I can't lie that it wasn't a major factor in getting my reluctant ass to the doctor..) but for being able to get through a day of welding at the shop. My racing was making me a cripple.
After about five weeks of P.T. and doing core exercises it was time to go north to Oregon for the last big races of the season, the USGP in Portland and the nationals in Bend. Although my back was getting better , my racing was not and I had no expectations of any kind of results. I was going north to support the team and work in the pits. I was only racing because back in October I had paid the entry.
In Portland I had a pretty bad race on Saturday, crashing about 4-5 times and finishing pretty far back. Sunday I had 'good legs' as they say and was really surprising myself until with a lap and a half to go , the thick Portland mud destroyed my rear derailleur. I raced both days but had no real idea of how I would go at the nationals.
The next week I went to the nationals course and rode many practice laps in the frozen conditions , surveying every inch of the course. I didn't think I would have a good race but I at least wanted to have a safe one. When the day came for my heat , it was a clear sky but 13 degrees and very icy. I'm not used to the ice but I guess a lot of other folks didn't get the practice like me and were falling down all around me. I managed to get through the whole thing with only one really bad fall on my hip and a few stumbles. I finished without getting lapped by the winner, well beyond my expectations. I even had a race long battle with another builder, a much better racer than me, just not on that day. This was yet another thing that probably wasn't at it's root good for me.
Here it is, 2010 and I'm back racing again. After last year's back trouble, I have been doing 35 minutes of core work each morning. I'm more co-ordinated and I'm having a much less painful work day. I don't groan when I'm getting out of bed and I can actually bend down and pick up the morning paper for the first time in years without wincing in pain. There is a down side, though.....I'm racing better than ever and I won another race. The problem with this is that I could start believing that I have talent.......I cannot begin to do this as I have seen it in other folks and it is a sad sight. I may wear the same kit as the folks on the team and I do wear it with pride but I know full and well that I'm a bike builder, not an elite athlete . I do know some builders that have a legacy of great racing....Steve Garro, Scott Nicol, Rick Hunter......these guys were exceptional on a bike. Much as I love to ride and when I race, I definitely try my hardest , I know that there's a difference between me and the guys that win.
Racing is a test and not only is one's ability on trial , but one's sincerity as well. Someone who makes a sincere effort at preparation and on race day leaves it all on the course can be rewarded with a podium or even a win. Pretenders are lucky sometimes , but the cream always rises to the top. Builders can call themselves 'Master builders' but it is the folks that ride the bikes that make the ultimate assessment of one's ability to construct a truly fine machine. The saying of the team this year is " Don't start believing "........I feel it is when we start expecting too much or believing in our own legend we are heading for a bad fall. I may have had some good races this year and I might have a few more left in me but I'm not going to start believing..............

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The shrinking pot

2010 has been an interesting year , at least for me. During this economic slowdown my business has not slowed down-it actually set records in terms of incoming orders in 2008 and 2009 and looked to be doing the same in 2010 until about mid August. Suddenly, the phone stopped ringing.....normally I would welcome some hours where I could just weld and not have to jump up and go to the phone every 10 minutes. Now , a typical day will be largely devoid of the phone ringing and I can merrliy weld away on the now rapidly shrinking list of orders. Last year at this time I had about three times the orders on the list as I do now in the fall of 2010. Is this the economic slowdown finally catching up with me , or did I do something to piss off the frame buying public at large ?
This is the dilemma of the self-employed small framebuilder: What ca we attribute a sudden silence of the phone to ? Economic trends ? More competition from newer builders ? Maybe our style has become outmoded as we have not evolved with the ever changing trends in bike building ? It is stuff like this that keeps people like me awake at night .......what did I do to cause this and what, if anything can I do to turn things around ?
Maybe , there's a reason I'm not really taking into account-perhaps what has caused this lull in new business is something I didn't cause and maybe it is something I can't do anything about. I know well that what I do is largely a luxury and not something of an impulse purchase.....people plan ahead to get a custom frame, way ahead in most cases. Sooo, if the slowdown in my business isn't caused by me and cannot be changed by me , what the heck do I do ? Maybe I should shut the hell up and do my job, at least while I have it. As I have said before , I'm very lucky to have work in this fickle field and the run of the last 7-odd years has been exceptional. All over the world people are looking at situations much more grave than what I am faced with-it's time for me to take whatever resources I have and do something for folks less fortunate than myself. If my business does not survive this slump I would rather go out on a note of having done some constructive and community-based work rather than having some sort of 'fire sale' or the like. Maybe a lull like this is a time when I can attend to projects long neglected........maybe all I need to do is to start restoring that old Colnago and as soon as I get about halfway though , the phone will start ringing again and all of my noble efforts will come to a grinding halt while I go back to earning a living.....or not !

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This is why there aren't any pretty frame pictures

There's new noises in my shop-sounds of sawzalls and hammers banging and prying out nails. In a quest for more storage space my building superintendant has appropriated my office. I had a nice upstairs space that was part of my shop, although technically I was not charged any rent for it. I moved into this shop in late 1996 and have accumulated a lot of stuff since then. The 160 square ft. office was about 25% of my total space and it was a good place to store my old music gear that was choking my house. This photo is a view of where the office used to be, up a flight of stairs. It had a window that looked down on my workspace, a colossal 538 square ft.
This is not where you want to stand in the event of an earthquake. I have no doubt that a good deal of this stuff that used to be in the office will come cascading down with anything 4.0 or above on the Richter scale.
This used to be the office. I have no idea what it will become , but I know that I will no longer be welcome in this space. While it is always good to periodically purge and try to keep an orderly shop, this practice does not come naturally to me and I was not really ready to give up this space, especially on only two days notice. For better or worse, Rock Lobster cycles is shrinking. Maybe I'm only a Langostino now

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The powers that be

Sixteen years ago I had the good fortune to to find an affordable shop space on the west side of town, only about 10 minutes by bike from my front door. The space was pretty small, about 530 square feet but there was a bonus included in the rent, or rather, not charged for. The bonus was an upstairs office of about 160 square feet that was up a small flight of wooden stairs. I don't know about you, but give a guy like me some extra square footage and enough time and I'll fill that space with lots of crap -most of which I probably should have thrown away.
Flash forward 16 plus years later and sure enough, the shop and the office are jam packed with all sorts of stuff that framebuilders accumulate : Lots of frames needing repairs that are abandoned, some day to be resurrected into rideable classics when the work load gets thin ,posters of bike racers and catalogues from bike component companies,bike magazines,jerseys-can't seem to part with them, even if the moths have eaten many holes in them......old frame drawing..on and on. In my sixteen years of occupying this space I had done a good job of filling every square inch of space and a bad job of throwing stuff out.
A few days ago the building superintendent came by and gave me a real surprise-my office was going away. The landlady was supposedly appropriating the 160 square foot office and stairwell for storage. I was to lose my universal catch-all space for all the stuff that wouldn't fit downstairs in the shop. My desk, computer , rollers , sales and tax records, shipping boxes and old musical gear would have to find a new home, most likely the recycling center at the county dump. The superintendent gave me all fo three days to re-arrange 16 years of accumulation. Saddled with this new unexpected task ,I was trying really hard not to be mad , sad and or sentimental. What I had to do was to get a lot of stuff organized downstairs and make room for whatever I felt was too essential to either give away or throw away.
With grim determination I began the task of looking through all the boxes and piles of stuff upstairs , trying to really not get too caught up in looking through memory lane and stay at the task of downsizing my substantial accumulation. Ignoring the stories in each box of stuff was pretty much impossible for me and I began to get sidetracked in looking at receipts for frames sold in years past , trying to remember the faces of the people who had ordered them. I came across names of people who have passed on, bike shops long out of business , prices that were so low that I wondered how I survived. I looked for a time at the old books but soon figured out that I could easily run out of valuable time spending the day looking at things I had ignored for over a decade. I came to the conclusion that placing the receipt books in a box and keeping to the task at hand was needed, although this sensibility did not come natural to me. I thought about all the years I had been building bikes and what all of this stuff represented to my personal history. After pondering this I had a moment of clarity, a kind of resignation that whatever value this mountian of stuff represented to me, most of it would have to go-personal history be damned.
I got in the mode of "Get rid of anything as long as it hasn't been useful in the last two years"......this amounted to nearly two truck loads. Lots of bike parts got donated to the local "Bike Church" self service bike co-op. A lot of metal got recycled-fancy US made aluminum tubing ,about the equivalent to $ 1,500 worth became $ 38.40 in recycle value. My oldest bike drawings, many of which were from the early '90's went into the dumpster . Old catalogues and magazines got recycled or went to friends. It was a blood-letting of personal accumulation like I had never had-more like something that should happen when someone dies, but I wasn't dead yet. Maybe it was the death of something else, the passing of my inability to cut loose of all the junk that I thought held my identity and told my story. I had the thought , who really cares about this junk anyway ? who wants to know in such rediculous detail the complete and unabridged archeological evidence of my time on earth ? If I had been ignoring it all these years , wouldn't it follow that even I couldn't be bothered to pay attention to it ? I started to feel pretty empty and started thinking in jest about leaving enough room in the dumpster for myself ! After all, nothing lasts forever.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Everyone wants what I don't have....

Maybe it's just me but there's a lot of chatter about the whole framebuilding question: Keep it a hobby or go pro ? I cannot offer advice on this, only personal experience. As a 22 year full-timer and former hobbyist, I have delved pretty deeply into both worlds and can't really say what is a better place to be-it really depends on your circumstances.
Back in 1978 I was a really lonely neurotic bike mechanic with nothing to occupy my time except any and all things bike. I had moved to a new town, knew practically no one and was not really good at making new friends. To add to that, I was pretty depressed and virtually excommunicated from nearly all of my family back home. I guess I chose bikes instead of drugs......or both, kind of-with the bikes being much more influential in the end. I became a hobby builder out of a drive to know all I could about bikes, right down to the way they were brazed together. I had no idea what the future held and really didn't care...it was all about the moment.
Now it is 2010 and I have been at this full time since 1988 and this week is all about fixing broken team bikes. I don't care what anyone says about building simple welded race bikes being the easy way out. Building fancy lugged frames for people who will worship and pamper their shiny expensive rigs is not easy but I don't see it as any more challenging than what i do. I build really light bikes for people that want to win races. These bikes can and do break.....not generally in a catastrophic way but more of a fatigue crack situation. I have four of them to resurrect this week , two more than I had all of last year. Backing up what I build and fixing it in a timely fashion- fixing it in most cases for no charge is what I would call, not taking the easy way out. The fleet has to remain functional and for better or worse, I'm the one who has to step up-these frames don't get sent back to Taiwan, they come to my shop.
While some folks might think I'm completely out of my mind for choosing this part of the framebuilding profession, I offer this thought : Lots of people want to do what I do- or at least what they think I do but most of them will not get the chance. They will try to create some sort of livelyhood out of bike building and realize that they cannot survive financially for one reason or another. They will have to remain hobbyists......not as bad as it sounds, but still short of some of these folks framebuilding goals they had set for themselves. The fact that I have remained viable for so many years is a testiment to something.....I'm not completely sure what but I'll have to say that a bit of personal sacrifice is needed.
One person who emailed me a number of months ago was wanting to accumulate the skills and tools to build a frame or two. This person scoured the forums and really sought out much advice from a lot of builders active on these forums. His conclusion was that a lot of these builders were unhelpful , pompus , coddled and really propped up by a huge fan-base and really weren't that great at all. He scrapped his plans entirely , disgusted and for the most part,quite bitter. I'm not in complete disagreement with him about some of what he said but the guys who actually make a living building frames are few, dedicated and willing to go to the shop on a Sunday and fix something for someone who was nice enough to buy a frame from them. This is my world-I don't need or want a hug for my sacrifice -I'm happy to be viable at this questionable trade and hope to continue as long as I can. My customers will make that decision for me but if I treat them right , I'll be able to influence that decision a little.

Friday, July 30, 2010

What we stand to lose

In the interest of providing more efficient service, large corporations are making more use of online services and phasing out having actual representatives that you can contact by phone. The new form of online commerce is the B-to-B system........no need for a phone at all-it's all done on the computer: Ordering, inventory check, shipping tracking......you name it ,you'll be able to access it right from your laptop, I-phone or whatever. I have recently been using these systems and when they work, it's pretty easy and quick.
Here's the problem for me : While the online system is really easy and nobody has to be there to answer your call ( Handy for orders that happen after work hours, particularly from companies hours ahead in time zones ) I have spent much of my work life building up relationships with the folks on the other end of the phone that B-to-B systems are replacing. I consider many of these people to be my friends-they let me know what is going on in their world.....this is what I consider the real thing that makes a life-long job more than a job -the community in the field we call home most of our waking lives.
The computer, while being a great tool could effectively take away our ability to talk to people at a great many companies-not because they don't have good people....it's because their good people are being spread too thin. The corporate board of directors mentality only sees profit numbers and efficiency ratios......there's no way they can quantify customer loyalty-nor do they seem to want to take the time. I'm profoundly worried about this trend as it means that the folks that run these companies are truly out of touch with the other 98 % of the human race that surrounds them. Call me old fashioned if you will, but I really appreciate people who answer the phone, call back and take their clients and their jobs seriously. I also appreciate companies who value good employees and find ways to utilize and reward their best skills.
As a person in the bike business, I feel that as builders, suppliers , manufacturers , sales reps , warehouse workers , we are all in this thing together and we are the ones that give it life.....we and the customers . After many of these large corporations have gone through buyouts and re-organizations , the folks at the top might not have any idea how their company came to be and what personal relationships made that possible. This is the big dis-connect ( to use an all-too-popular catchword) between the top and everyone below.
In the food supply and restaurant world there's a movement to make everything 'sustainable and local' from farming to running an eating establishment. I feel there is something to learn here for every line of work, in particular the bicycle business. Are we 'sustainable and local' going the direction we are- at least according to the corporate model-where person-to-person sales and domestic manufacturing is being phased out ? Will our business and craft improve with the trends that are set by the people at the top of these leading companies ? Are we really on the brink of losing what holds us together just so that a few folks can be proud of the profits they have secured and the jobs they have eliminated ?
Maybe I'm not the one to speak here.....I'm so primitive that i don't even take credit cards at my shop. I don't have or want paypal.....the way I see it, there's no life-or-death need for a custom bike-you either plan for it and save up the cash or you just live without it. I'm not saying that if you don't have the money, you don't deserve a custom bike..............just be thoughtful about it and realize that good things take time-time that corporate America doesn't seem to have for working folks right now.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ralph me out.

I'll warn you in advance.....this will not be very engaging. I am heavily involved in cyclcross so this post will deal with that exclusively.
Lately on the framebuilder chat forums ( The ones I do not participate in anymore...) There has been a number of firestorms-at least, that's what I call them. Topics that get people arguing fine points. The big problem I see is that some of the folks giving opinions really don't know jack about cyclocross.The latest topic is the UCI's move to reverse their ban on the use of disc brakes in cyclocross events at the elite UCI level. Since about 99% of cyclocross racing is not at that level, most of us will not be effected by this ruling and shouldn't give a rat's ass.
Well, get on the forum and you'll see who gives a rat's ass-people who should really just keep thier mouths shut for the most part until they do some racing or work as a mechanic in the pit area of an elite cyclocross race. These are things that I have done......for about 10 seasons so far and I'm not quitting soon. While I don't claim to be any great or even average 54 year old racer ( 26th at the nationals being my best result at that level) I have been washing the mud off of bikes at some of the premiere events on both coasts. What I notice are which of my framebuilding bretheren are out there racing and being bike grunts with me. Almost all of the folks on the forum with greatly detailed arguments and engineering data on why we should all switch to disc brakes are absent......maybe I wouldn't know them if I saw them , but they are most assuredly not at the race. Why then, do they argue thier points so vehemently when they are completely clueless about the experience of the race itself ?These are folks who want to have the last word , even if it means ignoring the elemental truths of the actual subject ! Ahh, this is the essence of the internet-people who want to be right but really don't want to actually wade in the mud or beat themselves up on the bike to find out the real truth about cylclocross racing. If I were someone wanting to find out information on the forum, I think I would shut up and listen , perchance to somebody with real world experience in the subject at hand.
Year after year, I go to the nationals although not every year. When I go there I get to race but more importantly, I get to support the riders on my team who really are talented and will be in contention for medals or at least a top-ten finish. These and the folks in the pit are the ones who will give me the real world data that will help me improve as a builder, making bikes that will not hold them back when everything is on the line in a race. I'll look to my left.....there's Sacha White , ready to catch a bike and rinse the mud off of it before the rider completes the next half a lap. I look to my right....there's Richard Sachs, ready to do the same. While I might not build bikes the same way as these two builders might, I know that we are all in the same place at the same time for a reason....it is because we care. We , and other builders are there at trackside because it is a real world reality check on weather or not the stuff we do in the shop will hold up. Sooo.......all you other folks weighing in opinions on what should or shouldn't be on the bikes we build for the athletes we support-I guess you had better get your sorrel boots on and come out to the races or just shut the fuck up.
Oh, yeah.....disc brakes. hmmm, should they be on 'cross bikes ? Don't ask me......ask the guy who is trying to get the stars and stirpes jersey. I'm sure he'll give you an informed opinion, even if he isn't and out of work engineer.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Old number one, part II

Back in ancient times , beginning framebuilders used to assemble thier frames into rideable bikes before committing to paint. It the spirit of this nearly forgotten tradition, I built up old number one to see if the work I put into it made it less of a piece of shit. I'm happy to say that now, 32 years later this old turd is actually a nice riding bike. It's no real velodrome bike but it rolls along well and I haven't clipped a pedal yet. Maybe I'll get some paint on it.......after a few more test rides to make sure it dosen't disintegrate when I take it off a curb.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Number one

Memorial day weekend arrived and I thought that if I had time, I would attend to finishing a long-delayed project hanging over my bench.Back in June of 1978, or thereabouts I built my first frame. Since it was my very first, there were some real blunders in the building of this opus-one that it never really rode correctly. This did not deter me from riding it for a number of years, even riding a metric century in the sierra foothills-this was no mean feat as my first frame was a track frame and I put stupidly tall gearing on it as well. Fast forward to 1994.....I was having a particularly rough week and my temper was boiling over. I needed to break something in the shop....anything, so long as it wasn't a customer owned item. My old number one was hanging on a hook , all disassembled waiting for the day I would re-build the rear triangle and make it ride the way it should have originally. I took the frame down and got out a large piece of tubing and beat the crap out of the rear triangle . ( those were different days....primitive times of high frustration and long hours) I reasoned that the rear stays would all be replaced anyway, might as well get some good venting in.
Old number one remained in that state until about three months ago when I finally got the paint stripped and redied the frame for repair. I did nothing further on the frame until this particular Memorial day weekend-I made the time on Sunday afternoon and set out to fix this old relic 32 years after I hastily and haphazardly threw it together. As I started work on the frame I became aware that the mistakes that I knew about such as the rear triangle being set too high , lowering the bottom bracket and slackening the angles ( pretty much the opposite one would want for a track bike ) and the fork being built too short were just the beginning of the maladies. When I started building the frame in 1978, the one guy who guided me , Ross Shafer kept telling me : "Paul, you really should do a full-scale drawing first ." -Of course, I was much too anxoius and headstrong to listen.....the result : My first frame was a total piece of shit....rideable, but a real genuine steaming piece. I had put all my energy into the lugs and fork crown, gracefully and ambitiously crafting neat little crest-shaped cutouts everywhere they could possibly fit. I spent six weeks of after work hours cutting, filing, thinking that I was going to make a stunning groundbreaking work of framebuilding genius. What I made was as I said before, a total piece of shit.
Now it is almost 32 years later to the day and I am working on this P.O.S., going about rebuilding the rear-end and putting new dropouts in the fork in an attempt to make this track bike a good riding machine. As I hold the front triangle with it's nicely crafted cutout lugs and old Italian threaded Cinelli/Fischer bottom bracket up to my drawing paper I notice that my lack of planning back in 1978 had created a frame that most likely would never be correct as a track frame. # 1, the BB was too low. # 2, the angles were too slack,even when the rear triangle was re-done. # 3, the fork being so short really made getting the BB higher pretty much an impossibility. Faced with this, I pondered throwing the whole mess into the shop dumpster and letting go of old number one forever. At this point I decided to call another builder, a friend who just might get a chuckle out of my predicament . This builder is someone who I regard as one of the top in the field and also someone who can appreciate irony like myself. The builder asked me what my background was before I had built the frame. I told him that I was a fulltime bicycle mechanic with no metalworking skills at all. What I should have said is this: My background.......lousy bike racer, obsessed mechanic, social zero , borderline psychopath...and yes......ignorant asshole who couldn't take the time to do a drawing. I was so focused and obsessed with the artistic part of the frame that I completely dismissed the fundamentals needed for proper bicycle design. This is what created my P.O.S. and it was a waste of materials. But......on this Memorial day weekend I felt that scrapping old # 1 would be an even bigger waste of materials so I spent the afternoon carefully doing what I could to make this bike roll again. I was sure to use old tubing where I could and period-correct dropouts to try to capture the original look. A customer called and told me : " Sure, it will roll again, but don't you think that by repairing it 32 years later you are destroying some of the authenticity ?" I assured the customer that no amount of repair, even with all the skill I have from a couple thousand frames under my belt could change the authenticity of this bike. It is and will always be, a total piece of shit.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Perverse osmosis

Nothing really says you have arrived as a framebuilder more than seeing stuff you built for sale on Craigslist . If you have enough bikes under your belt there's a good chance that your fine craftsmanship will occasionally wind up on the open market-people upgrade, downgrade, sidegrade, go on benders, decide that your bike sucks, lose a job and have to downsize......all sorts of reasons exist for someone to cut loose of the frame you built for them. I guess for me it is a little sad as I would hope that a custom frame is something that one does not sell as it is a very personal purchase. Then again, if your brand has been around long enough there might be some serious resale value available that could come in handy in a time of need. For my esteemed bikes this might not be the case , at least not yet. While I like to state that I attempt to build a very serious racing bike and always strive to make every one better than the last , the market does not care how focused I might think I am . Just yesterday I saw a nearly complete bike on Craigslist for sale.....a track bike-a real genuine velodrome mass-start steel bike that I had built maybe 6-8 years ago. It was missing the front wheel but the rest of it was all there and it looked pretty used but far from used up. A frame nearly Identical to this one had been ridden to a national championship in the Madison. This bike was offered at $ 500. The frame was a 53 cm, not an unpopular size by any stretch of the imagination. A complete bike such as this would cost about $ 3,000 new and here it was , the same bike that was ridden on board tracks across the USA to national titles and many medals for sale at about the price of used fixie from Taiwan. Most likely, this was a frame I built for the junior developement program in Los Gatos, Calif. I built these frames at a greatly reduced rate, about a third what I charge normally as I feel that getting talented juniors on good bikes is a worthy cause. I guess it makes me a little sad to see a bike like this , one that I made for a possible future champion for sale at a really low price that dosen't reflect what kind of effort went into the construction of this machine . This is the reality of a fulltime builder......it's as if these bikes are our children-some of them end up at an ivy league school, others will end up in the street. It isn't up to me.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Us vs. them......

We as bicycle frame builders in order to have buisness need to get exposure for our work-for me it is mostly at the races....for my more artistic brethren the venue is one or more of the various trade shows that showcase custom and/or collectable bicycles. Both avenues are potentially great but both require time and money to participate in and there is no guarantee that sales will result from either venture. The internet serves well as a place to have work displayed and information available to the potential customer but if you are not showing your wares out in the real world, your chances of sales are pretty slim. When the shows as we now know them first started up about five years ago ( the framebuilder exclusive ones...) they were gatherings that for the first time brought builders together in one place and for the most part helped solidify the framebuilder community. This process of celebrating the craft while at the same time re-enforcing the bonds of framebuilding folks was so long overdue , it was like a huge dam of enthusiasm and inspiration had broken open.We , as builders were no longer working in relative isolation. I, personally was moved by the first three shows I displayed at....they served to inspire me in a big way. The show had an unspoken theme, at least in my mind. It was :" Hey, we build frames....check out what we do." Now, just a few years later the show is now several shows....the community is now divided into sub-groups. The enormous size of the country and the increasing costs associated with the original show are the main cause but for me the focus of the original show is what spun me off. Now the handmade bike show can be distilled to this theme .: " Hey, look at what i build....". The "We" part of it is gone, buried under a big pile of one-upsmanship and big gaudy bowling trophies. While I applaud the talent of folks who win awards at the show-you really can't win an award with anything less than exceptional-The thing that still is not awarded for the most part is the commitment that some folks have to the craft, be it what they do for racers, junior developement or mentoring new builders. In my mind, that's what is where the focus needs to be and that is what will keep this craft from dying. No amount of museum quailty adornment will convince the bulk of cyclists that a custom bike is worth seeking out. I'm sticking with " Look at what we do " as the saying for the present and future builders who wish to not see the demise of framebuilding. You can save the " Look at what I do" for your blog.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Selling out......

Back in 1988 when I got my short music career behind me and decided to be fulltime in the frame building craft I didn't have any plan at all. My goal was to try to get better at the job and hopefully have a reliable clientele based on the kind of service I would try to provide. Sure, I had a lot to learn in all respects ( I still do...) but I was a 32 year old with energy, a few tools and a number of frames under my belt. I was not alone in Nor-Cal in those days-a few others were a bit ahead of me in terms of brand name recognition and product offerings. One of my competitors even had a patent or two. Two of these framebuilders would eventually sell their buisnesses and get back some of the money they had invested working hard for really low wages , considering the skills and comittment needed for the job. Both of these builders had done a lot to spread the word of thier brands with t-shirts and small accessories that were perfect for folks who wanted to buy something with the comany logo but couldn't spring for the bike.These two builders had built thier shops into small companies with between 20-30 employees . Not being a big thinker , I had no such accessories, no patents , a small dealer network and no employees. My company had stayed small because I was afraid of losing control of the situation.....also, I really liked the building process itself and didn't want to wind up in an office , away from the set of tasks that were the reason I was in the trade in the first place. Here it is, 2010 and I'm still at it as a sole proprietor in a small shop. I still build the frames myself and as of now have no employees, a small dealer network and seldom have any logo-emblazoned stuff that finds itself into the consumer market. Folks come to the shop and say " Dang, you have to be one of the only guys from the eighties who never sold out or quit .". Yes, it may be true that almost everyone who was building when I started out has ether sold thier companies or quit the buisness. Some might think that it was dedication and commitment that has kept me at it all these years. At one time I used to say that unlike my brethren, my company was not for sale. "You can't sell out if you are not for sale!" The bigger truth is that I never had any offers worth considering-the only one I got was from a German distributor who actually laughed at the paltry sum I was asking for permanent ownership of my trademark for all of Europe . I didn't lower my price as I pretty much figured that the German company was looking to get something for nothing and even though I really could have used the money , I was not willing to give away all those years of labor for chump change . The real truth about selling out is this : " You can't sell out if nobody is buying." So, along with the fact that I like the process , I was unable to cash in back in 1998 when people like Trek were scooping up every cult bike name they could . The money would have been nice but I would have missed all those years since in my shop..........can't put a price on that.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Listen to the pros and the bros.

While I drink my morning tea and eat my daily three pieces of toast at 7:30 a.m. I get a chance to read what framebuilders are discussing...or sometimes arguing about on the forums. That's right-while I'm no longer a part of these scrums I do check them out from a distance. The eternal battle seems to be framebuilders vs. engineers. The framebuilders have actual experience with tubes,lugs,brazing , etc. The way a framebuilder finds out if something dosen't work is if it comes back to the shop broken. The way and engineer finds out if something dosen't work is much the same except for the fact that most engineers do their work in labs and never get to actually build the final product themselves. Framebuilders see this as a disconnect. Engineers see framebuilders as primitives who by the seat of their collective pants put things together in sometimes a haphazard fashion that wouldn't cut it in the world of testing labs. The truth is that egineers and framebuilders benefit from each other and need each other for problem solving and real-world feedback. Where would framebuilders be without the engineers figuring out the best alloys and processes to make tubing ? Conversely, where would engineers be without framebuilders putting the torch to these raw materials and finding out if the engineering really adds up to a success for the end user , or if it falls short. Neither framebuilder nor engineer is immune from making a blunder but each of them are very sure that the other is missing something in the equasion of bicycle building. I read on the forum where a hobbyist-builder was asking if silver solder was better for attatching cantilever bosses than bronze as it melted at a lower temperature. Several experienced builders gave evidence that silver was a bad choice, to which the hobbyist replied : " I'm going to use silver, check the engineering data". Hey, mr. Hobbyist.....you are ignoring the most important data-that of people who braze on hundereds of cantilever bosses , exactly what you are trying to attempt for the first time. While the engineers will tell you properties that are very valuable, the engineers are not actually building the bikes, brazing on the bosses and dealing directly with the results. Think about it-free advice from seasoned pro builders.......years ago when I started out, this advice was almost impossible to come by. While we as builders depend on the engineering community to a large degree it is we, the guys in sheds all over the world who really knows what works in the bike building shop and the advice to " Read the data" from someone with little or no experience is downright laughable. To Mr. "Read the data " I say : Dude, we live the data....hell , our frames are the data . We , as builders accept responsability for failures that could be ours, or could be the data . Maybe you need to check some data of a more real-world kind-Hey, it's free !

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Refund ??? Refund ???

Every once in awhile I have had to cut the cord with a customer ( or them with me..). I used to think that maybe this person who ordered a bike frame from me might be mentally unsound or just playing some sort of sick control game with me and possibly other craftspeople types . That's what I thought, until recently. A client/builder relationship is not unlike a friendship-trust is a major part of the relationship. The client must trust that the builder will do his or her utmost to satisfy what the customer ordered. Conversely , the builder must trust that the customer is being clear in what they are requesting and is acting in good faith, i.e. not going to flake on payment when the frame is completed. Both parties are taking a bit of a leap of faith-if either is unsure of the other, that is when the whole exchange can go south. So here it is, years since my last unfortunate aborted transaction with a clearly displeased customer......suddenly it hit me: Maybe this person was not insane...maybe they really weren't playing any kind of sick control game at all. Perhaps the issue with this customer is that they didn't trust me, the builder. Even though it has been a long time coming, this realization about trust ..but now I know why I couldn't satisfy them and also I know why I came away comletely insulted. I would like to think that I, like most of my framebuilding brethren do our utmost to make the customer happy. I also need to point out that when some of us do make an error we do all that we can to rectify the mistake in a timely fashion . While most of us do not advertise that we fix our flub-ups quickly , I believe it is an unspoken code that customer service is what sets us apart from larger companies and/or unethical practitioners of bicycle frame construction ( Names witheld to protect the cheeky bastards ) . Sooo.....here I am, thinking I'm going to build this customer the best frame they ever had and whammo.......the customer isn't happy, sometimes before I have even lit the torch ! I recently sent a deposit back to a customer who I spent quite a bit of time with in person and on the phone-all the time I was talking to this person I got the feeling that he/she was having a terribly hard time commiting to an order or even a design for the frame. I always tell people who appear this indecisive that perhaps they should not order a frame until they know exactly what they want . Now I know that indecision on the part of this customer was only a symptom of the greater issue: This person didn't trust me. Even though the customer clearly did not trust my ability to build what they want in the time they had envisioned , I recieved a deposit from the customer, albeit about three months later than I was told I would. In that three months I had accumulated about thirty orders , so the three and one-half month waiting time I had qouted the customer was out of the question. I phoned and left the customer a message on voicemail that now the frame would not be ready for perhaps four to five months. I gave the customer two weeks to reply as to weather this was acceptable ( if not I would send the deposit check back ) and then deposited the check. In a couple of days the customer called me and said that the check had cleared but that he hadn't given me the o.k. on the additional waiting time. I waited for another couple of weeks and then the custome called to have me refund the deposit, which I did immediately. I also sent back all the fit info so that it could be put to use by the other builder who would now be building the frame that was no longer my responsability. I was seriously scratching my head over this whole episode when it dawned on me that the indecision, the long delay in sending the deposit and the delay in getting back to me with the final solution were the red flags of mistrust on the part of the customer. I can understand that it is a big leap of faith to order a frame from someone you might not know personally but people do it every day . What I don't understand is why someone who clearly didn't trust me sent me money ..........it makes no sense . I'm not a mental health professional and some would say that I could benefit from a little analysis myself - this stuff is beyond me . I close with this : To all those untrusting individuals I say, go ahead -don't trust me.....pass me up as your potential builder, please ! Just remember that unless you are building the damn frame yourself you will indeed have to suck it up and trust somebody . Good night and good luck.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Have a nice time at the show for me.......

Yes, the NAHMBS is almost here and I for one am not going to be there. Don't think that I'm dissing the show.....it is the best of its kind in the known world, it's just that my energies are best spent in the shop rather than out at a show trying to wow people. I may sound like a whiner , mr. sour grapes and all that but the reason I'm not going is because other than seeing all the great work and getting to hang out with some of my favorite folks , it isn't a place where I'm going to write orders, wow people.....there's just too much other 'bling' that I can't compete with. I read on one of the forums about some guy deviding builders into two catagories. One catagory was "boring builders'. These are builders who don't put long stainless steel logos on their downtubes, don't build with ornate shiny bits and might only weld thier boring bikes and powdercoat them one measily color. Hey....that's me ! I'm officially a boring builder. People walk the isles of the show.....walk....hmm, down an aisle....... of bicycles-wait.....bicycles......what about riding the bicycles ? Does anyone do that at the shows ? The only riding I ever did at the show was to transport a bike to the photographer or to the lecture I was giving that day . Nobody rides at these shows. No trophies are awarded to any bike based on the way it rides , yet riding is what bicycles are for ! But noooo....these priceless works of art are to be looked at, worshipped and spared the indignity of being ridden . Often I see bikes that were obviously one-off labors of many hours of concentrated , commited painstaking work-the kind of work that only a hobbyist could find time to do. This pretty much makes the working stiff framebuilder , the guy who makes bikes for people that ride them , a boring framebuilder by the standards of at least some of the viewing public at the show. O.K. , I agree. My bikes will not wow you visually and since you will not be able to ride them at the show, you won't be able to judge that favorably, either. I see the show evolving into something of an exhibit for the obsessed. Hey, the custom bicycle market depends on the obsessed so I heartily endorse their obsessions and am glad the show exists to give builders a venue to display the stuff these people long to see. I can't compete with someone who is willing to put more time into filing one lug than I put into building an entire frame. That said, I don't want to compete with these folks......I willingly concede defeat. What is my concellation prize for losing this battle ? I'll bet you already know that..........

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Test scores

O.K. , folks. If any of you actually bothered to do the quiz, here are your scores for each answer. The higher scores are awarded to the answers that I feel reflect the reality of building frames and not the fantasy. Pretense and negativity do not merit high numbers, even though so many of you champion both of those questionable attributes.
A one-point score indicates almost complete culelessness
A two point score indicates an almost imperceptable glimmer of grasping the concept.
A three point score shows some understanding , but clearly not the best choice.
A four point score indicates that this answer will work in a pinch.
A five point score means that you get it, whatever that may be.
A zero point score really isn't worth as much print as I have given it.
#1. A= 3
B= 3
D= 5
#2. A=2
#3. A=2
#4. A=1
#5. A=3
#6. A=2
#7. A=3
#8. A=3
In depth explanations of the reasoning behind the scores is something I have considered but I really don't want to waste your time unless there is a groundswell of enthusiasm.
A score of 40 indicates that you have a grasp, or at least my grasp of the framebuilders reality.....well done, bucko.
a score of 30 or more means that while you may have the grasp, you also think that there is some wiggle room with the rules, which there is, just not for me.
A score of less than 20 would say that you and I should never meet, at least not without a moderator or legal councel present.
Don't take it personally if you don't get a high score........taking this stuff personally is what drives the negative shit-circle that much of the chat forums have become. My advice ? Don't stir the shit........it will get on you and eventually all over you.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

This is only a test......

So you want to build frames, eh ? Maybe you don't want to build frames.....maybe you already build frames....heck , I don't know why you found me but you are here and you can check out this questioneer I have come up with. This multiple-choice quiz was inspired but the NYC bike snob's Friday quizzes - the difference is that his are funnier. The quiz I am offering up is for aspiring framebuilders or anyone who wishes to waste a little of their time with the following questions. You won't win anything no matter how well you do at the quiz and I'm sure that whatever I believe is the correct answer to any question might be up for debate-then again , this is my blog so I get to be the supposed authority , for what its worth.
So you want to be a framebuider ? Answer me this:
#1. If you were to build frames for a profession , what kind or style would you build ?
A. Lugged, classic style.
B. Welded steel
C. A variety of materials depending on use.
D.The kind that sell.
#2. How would you set yourself apart from the myriad of builders out there in the trade ?
A. Make your shop a 'destination shop' with a nice area with couches and an espresso machine.
B. Get the latest fitting method with all the most modern bike fit equipment.
C. Have a super organized space that exudes an organized , professional approach.
D. Have custom logos and fittings made for your frames that nobody else can use on their frames.
E. Actually do what you say you will do and be truthful.
#3. If a client comes into your shop, how will you go about selling your product to the prospective buyer ?
A. First, point out what notable feature(s) set your frame apart from the other builders.
B. Let the customer know that they really have arrived at the place where dreams are realized.
C. Ask them what they want, then tell them what you think they need.
D. Listen to what they have to say, then offer up some suggestions.
E. Tell them that you have limited time and that they need to make up their mind quickly as you have several years worth of orders to fill.
#4. What do you do if someone asks for some sort of frame that you don't know how to build ?
A. You tell them that they are asking for something really stupid.
B. You refer them to someone you know will build them a total piece of shit and that'll teach 'em.
C. You ask them why hell they came to you with this request and then show them the door.
D. You make an effort to find a compromise between what they are asking for and what you can build for them without going out of your comfort zone.
E. You take the order and learn how to build the frame , even if it means you are getting involved in a potential career-ending time-toilet.
#5. What do you do if someone has issues or a complaint with something you built for them? A. Tell them that you will do anything to rectify the situation except for a full refund.
B. Educate them as to what is proper and what is not proper with bicycle frame construction and assure them that what they are complaining about is not your problem.
C. Hide somwhere in your shop where you are sure they won't find you.
D. Do your best to fix the problem but if the person becomes abusive and/or irate offer them a full refund.
E. Move your shop and don't give a forwarding address.
#6. As a bicycle enthusiast , you would most like to :
A. Build frames all day long, every day.
B. Yell at cars as often as possible and let the world know that they need to share your road .
C. Go for a ride.
D. Spend time on the internet discussing frame building.
E. Smoke cigarettes while riding backward circles on a fixed gear.
#7. If you go on the internet framebuilding forums you are primarily :
A. Checking out the gossip.
B. Wanting to find an answer to a framebuilding question.
C. Wanting to show off your latest project.
D. Looking to argue and be abusive, particularly to the newbies.
E. Needing to show that you are right and that they are wrong.
F. Wanting to exchange useful info with non-deranged like minded folks.
#8. If you don't know a procedure, what do you do to learn how to do said procedure ?
A. Go to the forums and ask the folks at large.
B. Just figure out by trying things in your shop, caveman style.
C. Find a more experienced builder and ask him/her how it is done.
D. Go check a number of sources and authorities , then disregard all the sound advice and figure it out for yourself because you are a genius and they are not.
E. Find a way to live your life never knowing.......
Well, Folks-that is your quiz. I'll be posting what I think are the best answers and there will be point values for each answer. A hig score means you think like I do which may or may not serve you well-it depends on what circles you travel in. Good luck and happy new year to all.