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.
Posted by swiggco world at 9:40 AM