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.


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  2. >>> "The artisan folks, at least a few of them - certainly not all-have a dismissive attitude toward the working stiff builder."

    i'm still asking atmo - how DOES this manifest itself? has someone said something/done something/intimated something? it's one thing to give energy to what they (whoever "THEY" are...) by calling this out here, but i wanna know what you actually experienced that became the catalyst for this entry. and PS what's the difference what they make(regardless of whether it sustains them or not) since that's not your calling or business model anyway? your markets don't even overlap. heck - they might not even be aware the other one exists. what's the rub?

    >>> "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 ?"

    how? atmo -

    i think we all do get along - at least to the extent that framebuilders, by their very nature, are independent types and ended up at the bench because they grew tired of convention and/or wanted to embrace an outlier lifestyle. the very notion that we're at odds with each other, or on one side of a fence or the other, makes good copy, but it would resonate more if folks knew what set this off. eh i dunno - this all seems so on the heels of the show you attended, and i am curious. fill in some blanks, huh.

    ps happy pesach atmo...

  3. I guess this is on the heels of all the shows I have attended, all the forums I am no longer participating in and all the emails and comments I have read from a whole mess of folks that need not have their names put in print by me. You, like I straddle the worlds of bikes that are ridden hard but have some style. Your bikes have more of a nod to tradition than mine but they get beat up just as much and ridden at the highest level. The folks that talk down the working stiff are few but they are a pretty big voice in the boutique bike world, at least that is the way it seems to me. Maybe I'm over-reacting.......hey, I have a bunch of great customers and a lively hood doing what I have loved since I was a kid. My complaints and opinions have no more validity that anyone else's , but then there's the life has to count for something. PS, good Chavez, or whatever they say. I missed out on the latkes this time....dang, err....oy!

  4. atmo i don't need to read names or have brands outed; mine are simply questions that would answer your reply to me. few have the legacy and palmares (are they the same thing?) that rock lobster has, yet you sound like someone/something is hitting hard. i don't knew who's "talking down" or how big their voices are - all i wanna know is what is said. heck - paraphrase it; give us the cliff's notes. but at least serve up an anecdote or three. give us a, "well, he said his water-jet dropouts with the stainless steel rococo logos etched in them are better than my welded braze-ons", or some shit like that. i'm here reading and feel you to an extent. i just don't get the attention given to said artisan builders as if they are gate keepers to anything you would covet.

  5. I'm with Richard on this.

    "what's the difference what they make(regardless of whether it sustains them or not) since that's not your calling or business model anyway? your markets don't even overlap."

    Whether there is or is not a verbal assault by the lugged artisan builders upon you is irrelevant. I don't think their voices would be strong enough to hurt your business.

    "few have the legacy and palmares (are they the same thing?) that rock lobster has..."

    I feel the "lugged renaissance" was started by aging baby boomers pining for the frames of their racing days of yore. Much like the resurgence of vinyl records, this too, shall pass. Then along will come a renaissance of TIG steel frames with demand driven by those who came of age during that era. Then just watch what happens in the industry.

    Richards comments above tell me he's more than just a good framebuilder; he's a good businessman as well and exploited opportunities when he's seen openings in the market. There are very successful TIG builders out there and I believe there is market growth available as well, to the person willing to expand their horizons without necessarily expanding their business i.e., hiring more employees.

    You do yourself a disservice by abandoning participation on the forums, for it's that constant exposure that'll sway and keep opinions of TIG'd frames as a worthy, viable option over the artisan lugged offerings. Forum participation is a marketing tool, and an important one in today's internet world.

    I can also see value in being a member of the Framebuilders' Collective even though they don't offer much other than your name associating with that of other highly esteemed builders. But that in itself has high value because you'll be judged by the company you keep. I know you've poo-poo'd that idea in the past. Perhaps it's time to reconsider.

    So maybe the scuttlebutt at the shows diss'd TIG frames. If you lie there and take it then the artisans builders and their hangers-on will win. You need to actively promote and defend your work. You need to use your "legacy and palmares" as Richard calls it, to your advantage.

    And I'll repeat what I've said to you before; I don't think you charge enough for your frames ;-)

  6. Peter, you are too kind. I want everybody to win and I really want everybody to get along. I would pretty much have to stop the blog if this came to be but it would be worth it. Maybe I'll address the particulars when I can come up with an inspired way to write it.