Monday, January 31, 2011

Voyage to see what's on the bottom...

O.K. , o.k. , so I'm finally belching out the post I promised a week or two ago. Why the delay ? I had to wait for certain things to play out in my so-called " Professional world". Yes, you cannot make everyone happy and there's a good chance that you'll piss a few people off without even knowing why in this business.......that's about as much of an explanation as you'll get from me right now. But I's the story:
About the time of the last dinosaurs when I was building my first few frames I had the notion that I would put my artistic background into my new craft. It was my intent to raise the bar of bicycle frame construction single-handedly and show the world what I had in skills. Of course, as soon as I built a few frames, each one more ornate than the last I got the feeling that I was maybe a, actually wayyyy ahead of myself. By my nature I was impusive , tempermental , impatient and most of all , not having anywhere near the skills needed to attempt what I was doing. I was a fool. Hey, maybe I still am a fool-I'm a bicycle framebuilder, right ? I'm getting off track here.......what I'm trying to say is that I went in a direction that proved to be a mistake for me-I was placing too much emphasis on the outward appearance of the frame while not concentrating on the more important aspects of framebuiding, namely soundness of construction and geometry. Not too much later I would address these aspects after an epiphany of sorts.
The epiphany was this : Here I was, a bicycle mechanic who had built maybe 8-10 frames and was not really getting the kind of choice ride quality that I was hoping for. I, like a few other builders of the late '70's was kind of trying to re-invent the wheel, so to speak. We , the new builders of the '70's were making bikes stiffer, steeper and tighter than anything we had seen.....why ? Because we thought it was going to be better. Was it better ? Actually it was the shits. The bikes sucked, except for sprinting in a straight line on a totally smooth road. Hey, we were trying for something new that would be better than the Italian bikes of the day and send customers flocking to our doors with deposits in hand. Ahh.......the epiphany. One day in 1982 while working at a bike shop I got a chance to assemble and ride a $ 495 Bianchi Nuovo Racing bicycle in vaguely my size, a 56 cm. All it took was a few trips around the block and I realized what I was doing wrong.....I was dismissing good geometry in favor of trying to create my own new standard. The Bianchi was everything I wanted in a road bike except that it was not made of the best materials and it was maybe cosmetically a bit rough.
The next bike I built for myself was a replica of the Bianchi, at least geometrically. I used Columbus S.L. tubing and a mix of Henry James and Tange cast lugs,essentially all of the best stuff I could buy to construct the frame.The result was the best road bike that I had ever ridden and the template for all of my future road frames. I rode it for a solid 9 years and never laid it down was a magic bike.
Fast forward to 2011. The lesson from the Bianchi is still with me-make the bike ride right , don't get caught up in trying to make something for the Smithsonian or maybe attempting to set the new standard for bicycle design. I'm not saying that innovation is not possible, it just can't happen without filling a specific need. Need drives invention and need is what makes my job viable. I weld bikes for folks who need them to race, commute , recreate, and so on. I don't build frames to make people look.....I build frames for the folks that ride. There are many framebuilders that share that view. We are not the ones winning awards at the bike shows-to be frank, some of us don't even go to those shows , great though they are. We are from the lowlands-the place of welders. We put tubes together to make things to isn't what gets the attention of the media for the most part and it isn't what turns heads of the discriminating bike show junkie. Our bikes aren't ugly, they just aren't flashy. You will seldom find stainless bits or much in the way of ornamentation on our bikes. What you'll find on our bikes are people riding them.
Yes, I'm doing it again , calling attention to the folks that don't build a 'special bike for the show' or launch some sort of 'special edition' bike to try to get orders. I'm not saying that either of those labors are worthless, they are just not worth much to folks like us, the lowly welders of bike frames. I guess I get a little pissed off-actually a lot pissed off because welders of bike frames do not get the same level of respect as the folks that build the fancy lugged efforts. I'm pissed because welding is actually more difficult than brazing in that there's no room for error and there's no place to hide shoddy work. A lug can hide not only poor tube contact but also insufficient brazing. With welding everything is out in the open, both the miter of the tube and the result of one's welding skills. If something isn't right it will stick out like a red flag and no amount of paint will cover a really bad welding job.
Welding gets little respect because people assume that is is easy and quick. It is quick for those who have done the many hours of practice to create both a strong and attractive bond. The lugged construction has the benefit of the 'cleanup' phase , a period after brazing where imperfections can be filed away. Essentially , something that was pretty awful looking can be transformed into something quite passable after much filing and some creative paint work. With welding things have to go right the first time........there's no prettying up a tig weld without potentially removing too much metal and creating a future failure zone on the frame.
Maybe I sound pathetic trying to get folks to appreciate welded framebuilding-perhaps it is pathetic and I'm just one of those lazy no good bum framebuilders from the lowlands , the realm of mere welders .........certainly not craftsmen of the order of the ones that dazzle you with " your name here " in stainless steel letters on a prominent place on the frame . Maybe I'm just jealous of the artisans who are charging three times what I get for a frame and making folks wait years.......years !!!! for a bicycle frame. Maybe some people don't value a custom frame by what it does for their riding pleasure.....maybe it isn't desirable if it is too easy to get or too affordable-after all , that would pretty much eliminate the exclusivity part, wouldn't it ? If some schmuck down the street who is a working stiff can afford to buy a such-and-such frame - it isn't special enough , is it ? I rest my case.


  1. hey paul -

    give yourself more credit atmo. you have pioneer status, have forgotten more about bicycles and framebuilding than most of the flickr gods and blog-istas will ever know, and you and the RL brand have endured for generations.

    just say 'no' to stainless down tube logos, water jet dropouts, and me-too geegaws atmo.

    forza paul, huh!

  2. That bike at the header looks pretty sweet. I agree that those building with a "form follows function" approach deserve respect. It is not easy to do. A lot to do with internal battles...

    My best machines so far have been repros of my 1979 bianchi geometry. It is a magic bike.

    I dont think there is anything wrong with water jet DO per se its more about the design philosophy...point taken though...some of them are over the top.

  3. This post brought tears to my eyes! All I can say is amen brother!!!

  4. Try telling anyone whose formative bike years were in the early 90s, in BC, who likely lusted after a Brodie or in-house Rocky Mountain, that lugs are the righteous path to follow. They'll be confused, and will think that you come from another planet.

  5. my favorite two bike are my Wicked Fat and my Petaluma Salsa La Raza both welded both beauties. My dad used to called lugged bikes plumber bikes, only half in jest