Saturday, April 23, 2011

Blasphemy, part II

Probably my most vivid memory of the last 20 years of being a bike builder was the time in the mid '90's when big companies, at least by bike industry standards began buying up smaller 'cult' brands like Salsa, Bontrager , Klein and a few others. I was way too small of a player to be on the radar of these larger brands hoping to cash in on the reputation of the names they were paying for. From what I understand, the big companies would offer to buy the operation of a small brand with the understanding that things would proceed as usual and the original intent, employees and methods of the newly acquired brand .
As it turned out, the big companies found out just how un-profitable the small companies were and wound up gutting the small operations , laying off the workforce and turning the once 'made in the USA' brands into trademarks for imported goods with very little of the original character that was the reason for the 'cult' following in the first place. Salsa frames are now made in Taiwan and Bontrager frames are, well....not made at all any more anywhere. The image I remember the best was being summoned to Bontrager by a former employee to harvest the stuff that was no doubt going to the metal yard or worse, the landfill. I saw boxes and boxes of sub-assemblies and proprietory frame hardware that represented hundereds of man-hours and tons of steel being discarded. I took what would fit in my car and told some other folks about the big pile of metal so that they could maybe do something more constructive with it than putting in into a hole in the ground.
This brings me to the current state of affairs. Now that our 'Golden age' of bike shows, artisan frame builders and online ogle-ment is in full flight , how are we to avoid what happened to the cult builders of the '80's and '90's ? What is there to stop the whole artificially inflated market for bike frames with amazing detail from becoming a bunch of unfinished projects being unloaded on craigslist or worse, the dump? What will happen with all of those water-jet cut proprietory dropouts with ( insert name here ) on them when the brand is dead and the builder is working a new job with an actual living wage ?
Here we have a problem, Houston. We have a disconnect between the guys setting the artistic standards and the other guys who actually build fulltime, offering simpler frames for a more affordable price while making sure that the bills are all still paid. The artisan folks, at least a few of them-certainly not all-have a dismissive attitude toward the working stiff builder. Even if the artisan completely respects his full-time brethren , his fans by and large do not. The same is true on the other side-the full-time guys can get quite sarcastic about certain artisan builders who might cultivate a 'Concours d'elegance' image of thier product , while not having to make a living because money miraculously appears from other un-named sources. But here's the biggest disconnect: The fans of the artisan builders would most likely never buy a frame from a full-timer because it would be a 'boring bike'. This is strictly subjective and I fully understand where they are coming from as consumers, enthusiasts or whatever. What is truly bogus is when they go all high and mighty about how frames should be rolling art and stop at that-they make their stand aesthetically but don't buy the very frames they are championing. Maybe it is the high price, maybe they secretly have some carbon 14 lb. bike at home that they ride on Sundays when nobody is looking. These folks, while lining the aisles of the handbuilt shows snapping hundereds of photos in reality have no intention of supporting the very folks they come to see , full time, artisan or whatever.
I named this blog "Can't we just get along" for the reasons I have stated in most of these posts over the last couple of years. While I remain angry ( As I should if I want to have any good inspiration for writing ) I am also hopeful that things in the next decade or so pan out for builders and enthusiasts alike. The lot of a frame builder has always been a path of self indulgence to a degree and is one of little hope for a real living , but I remain stupidly inexplicably hopeful that we eventually can all get along, have our bikes not only be appreciated but viable as a product made by hand, made here and supported by people that appreciate what we do. To have this happen we must all provide good customer service and champion truth in what we do above all other considerations. This is how we will deserve sustainability and support from the people. -Burma Shave.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


A friend of mine who happens to be (at least in my opinion) one of the top creators of rolling art on the planet said to me that there are two types of frame builders. # 1 is someone who crafts frames to do it. # 2 is someone in the business of frame building. He meant this with no judgement in particular as to which type of builder was superior , it was only a distinction based on making a living versus persuing a craft for art's sake. I , of course am type # 2 as I build frames full-time for a living.
In a perfect world, the two types of builders would get along fine as they basically do the same thing . Unfortunately in a lot of cases there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the 'Artisans' and the full-timers . The artisan builders tend to look down on the full-timers who do not have the time to create the award-winning show stopping bling-mobiles . Even if the career guys did make the time to build a masterpiece , they would no doubt take a significant pay cut as there is little likelyhood that a customer would pay the equivalent of a living wage for the frame . There are exceptions but they are rare-there exists a handful of builders who have frames that command many times the price of an average welded custom frame. These few guys are kind of like pied pipers to the newest wave of neo-builders on the scene.
The world of custom bikes is being shaped in a large way by the few builders that can command the kind of price that makes building a labor-intensive masterpiece profitable and therefore a sustainable enterprise. As a result of the influence of these exceptional few, there have sprung up a number of things that didn't exist when I started building. The most notable thing is NAHMBS. Now there are many similar shows , mostly smaller and more regional vying for builders and custom bike fans all over the country. The other new item is the supplier who designs ornate lugs and has them manufactured in Taiwan for the new builders who want to build in a more traditional style.
So, with all these new fancy lugs and eager builders and custom bike shows , there is quite literally a glut of really remarkable bicycle art out there. Who is going to go see these bikes at the show and fill their flickr pages with photos of these beautiful efforts ? Everybody. Conversely , who is going to buy up all of these magnificent and painstakingly crafted creations ? -Nobody, at least if they weren't pre-sold before the show. The amount of folks willing to shell out the big bucks to pay a living wage to these new artisans is almost non existant. The folks who are waiting to find these bikes at drastically reduced prices on craigslist are out there , quite willing to buy your magnum opus for about ten cents on the dollar.
Am I attacking the artisan approach to frame building ? No, I am simply pointing out that it is not self-sustaining. I liken the new breed of builders to the artisans who created works of art for royalty and the church. They were slaves.............are the new wave of builders indentured servants ? Maybe not, but they are likely to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of trying to get noticed at one or more of the many shows -either that or they'll have to have a lot of monetary support from a spouse , trust fund or family-the support that should really come from the folks that ogle the works of art they produce. Yes, I'll say order for the artisan part of our craft to survive the public must actually pay for the work. From what I saw at the last bike show I attended this is not the case-I saw the same bikes on display as last year , in other words the builder didn't sell his or her entry and cannot afford to build a new one for the next show.
The upshot of all this can be summed up with a few recent happenings: The lug supplier who thought that this would be the time to provide great stuff for the artisan builder is selling his busuiness. Since the customers are not supporting the builders, the supplier has few people to sell to. The next unfortunate developement is that several talented builders have decided to quit and it is likely that more are to follow. While this is happening , more and more shows are cropping up to showcase this seemingly doomed craft. At one point or another this whole thing will implode unless there are actual customers to support it. I for one wish to survive and I can only do that by building what is ordered, not build what people want to photograph and award trophies to. I'm almost wondering if going to these shows is such a financial burden on new builders that it is contributing to their demise rather than giving them a viable place to sell their goods.
I really wish I had some answers, some way to make it all o.k. and that the art portion of frame building could flourish . Time and the public will decide if the new ambition displayed by the latest wave of artisan builders will be rewarded with viability or go the way of everything else unsustainable.