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.

Monday, January 24, 2011

It's coming..........

Get ready for the next salvo.....coming soon.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Living the dream ?

December was not a particularly great month for me. For one, I had a demolition project next door to my shop going on that made it impossible to work for most of two weeks. The noise and dust caused by the remodel of the bathrooms next door got to be so oppressive that there was no way I could attempt to weld while the floor was shaking with the sawing and hammering.

The next thing to come down the pike was a kidney stone that got stuck and landed me on my back for nearly a week and a half-this infirmity made it so I missed the three biggest races of the cyclocross season and my team had no manager for the Nationals . If you are self employed like me , you know well that there is no unemployment, no state diasbility and no crew to carry on the work while you are incapacitated. So, what are my plans for the new year ? That's pretty easy to figure my ass off to try to catch up and pay the bills.

This brings me to the point I wanted to make : The phrase " Living the dream" has been bandied about in reference to folks like myself who are supported by building bicycle frames. The person or persons who use this phrase in regards to what I do obviously have no idea what full-time framebuilding is about. If losing money for years , having days of wrench-throwing frustration , working until 10:00 at night to catch up on a build that took way longer than anticipated , not getting any kind of vacation for years-opting instead to go to trade shows where most folks don't even look at the stuff you brought is living the dream , I think most folks would rather take the nightmare option instead.

From the outside looking in , some folks must see the daily jaunt to the workshop and subsequent idyllic time of self-employed crafting as the dream that got away-the escape from the mundane work-a-day life that most people endure to scratch out a living in this crippled economy. From the inside looking out , my view is that all the years that led up to this point were so difficult and debilitating that I find it difficult to rejoice in celebration of my so-called dream.

This is how I got to the life of full-time framebuilding. It wasn't as if I had a calling I could not refuse-it was not that I felt as if I was put on this earth to do just this , build bicycle frames with every micron of my being-and it was certainly not because I thought I would be living the dream. This is what happened. I worked really hard, stupidly hard much of the time. I didn't always believe that I would succeed-I just kept at it , almost like some sort of beat-down. One of us was going to give in-Me or the F$%^ dream. For years I stuck with this craft as if it were my only choice in wasn't , but I worked at it, fought it, made many blunders , learned and re-learned the same stuff over and over again because of my impatient and slipshod nature- What I did was beat my head against the frigging wall until I made a hole in it and climbed through. What was on the other side of that wall ? A dream ? No. An awakening and some spiritual enlightement ? Not really. What was on the other side was folks that saw what I did and placed a value on it. It was these folks that saw all my blunders, all of the dents in my floor and workbench where tools had been thrown - these amazing people who awarded me for my seemingly hopeless and psychotic devotion to a craft that initially I had little talent for........these folks welcomed me to be someone who was valid as a bike builder.

I have read where a person said that folks like me who were " Living the dream" owed my livelyhood to a builder who came before me who the great majority of my customers have never heard of. Maybe I owe my job to the folks that put on the trade shows. Maybe I owe my success to the internet. These reasons all sound great except for the fact that they ignore two things: # 1, I started this job before the handbuilt shows, before anyone building bikes even knew what a web page was and also ,with just a few exceptions a lot of builders back in the day were not willing to give out any information or support to anyone like me. My position is that I owe my success to the folks that come to my shop and see a reason to have me build something. My customers are my saviors and I always want to be worthy of their trust. That means that I have to fix my fuckups in a timely fashion , I have to on any given day be ready to bear down and focus on a bike that must be depended on to be safe, fun and not hold the rider back in any way. It isn't and easy thing to do and it is no is reality. I'm living the reality , and the torch, the welder and the materials will never let me forget that. Happy new year !