Friday, June 24, 2011

The Nontrager story

Yes, gather around...its story time again. There's a lot of tales of woe and misery I could tell you all but this story really needs to be told as I am finding that there are a number of folks that have inexplicably expressed interest in a very unremarkable part of '90's bicycle history that I , yes-one in the same-set into motion.
When I was a hobby builder operating out of my one-car garage in Santa Cruz in the mid '80's I got to know a few of the other local frame builders. One notable was Keith Bontrager who similarly was operating out of a bit larger garage on the east side of town. Keith was pretty helpful in guiding me through the machine shop auctions to find some good tools at a price I could actually afford. Both of us shared the same frugality as we both shared the same poverty-level income. While Keith was more ambitious and a lot more innovative than I, he still needed the occasional help with some brazing on a few bikes here and there.
Flash forward to 1998 : While I was working away as primarily a one man operation with the occasional employee, Keith had created a bit of an empire-a company with many products and about 20-25 employees. The other part of Keith's company is that he had taken in a couple of financial partners. As things can go, this relationship of certain partners got a bit sour after a number of years and Keith had to buy out the partners. Since Keith was still frugal and probably pretty cash poor inspite of his growing company an outsider with deep pockets was needed. Along came Trek at just the right time to rescue Keith from a potentially nasty financial battle with the former partners. ( of course, this is my recollection and I'm sure that a lot of former Bontrager folks could either give a more accurate account and/or correct anything I might be a little in error on.)
The first thing Trek did was to make the company a bit larger and more efficient . This was accomplished by moving the whole operation to another part of the industrial complex into a nice clean well-lit place , complete with OSHA compliant features everywhere. This was a real contrast to the dark and sooty catacombs that was the original shop. Trek was under the impression that this clean-up and re-tooling of Bontrager would be a profitable addition to the Trek family of brands. It was assumed that the Bontrager shop would continue on in Santa Cruz as before.
Sadly, this was not to be the case as Trek found out rather soon that the bikes were not selling in sufficient numbers to make the California operation profitable. Trek closed the facility and much if the raw frame building materials wound up on the loading dock, destined for the metal recycler. This is where I come in. A person within the Bontrager organization alerted me to the large amount of metal that Trek was literally giving away. Earlier attempts at auctions had not garnered much interest from the local builders so many pallets of steel were free for the taking. I was told to bring as many vehicles as I could round up and take away the steel. I called a few friends and we all drove to the shop and loaded up all that we could carry.
As it turned out, I was really the only person who wound up making more frames out of the old inventory. Since these frames were no longer made by Bontrager , i decided to modify the decals to say " Non-trager" as to indicate that despite all outward appearances, this was not a Bontrager. I offered these frames to bike industry employees at about $ 400 , much less than either a Bontrager or a Rock Lobster. I didn't want these going out to the public....I was trying to make a handbuilt USA made frame available to bike business folks who made even less money than I in a lot of cases. I charged less as the frames only took a few hours to build and the materials were free.
Like anything cheap and pretty good in the bike world , word got out and I would up building about 104 of these frames. I had some rediculous requests......can you make the frame for disc brakes ? Can you put on different dropouts ? Can you build it for a 6" travel fork ? I said no to all of these as most of the materials were pre-cut and specifically designed to be constructed into Bontrager frames and nothing else. After building these frames for about 9 years as a sideline, I began to see something that made me eventually pull the plug on the whole project and pretty much give the remaining materials to another builder. What I encountered was a few folks calling up asking for Nontragers as if it were a custom frame. Of course, it wasn't...it was a low-cost alternative to what I built under my own brand . What these folks wanted was a custom frame but they were unwilling to pay for it. These were not the bike shop grunts who I initially built these frames for-these were just folks who were looking for a deal.
As the big pile of Bontrager steel got smaller and the leftovers got increasingly rustier and difficult to work with(not to mention the resentment I felt when there were all sorts of bargain hunters calling me up with requests for cheap frames when I had a huge backlog of custom frames to build ) I came to the realization that the Nontrager thing had to die.
So, after about 10 years , die it did and the last Nontrager got built for Jeff Archer at First Flight bikes in North Carolina. Ironically, it was custom and it was made for a 100-120 mm fork. I don't think I charged anything for the frame - just having the frame there with all the other vintage bikes hanging up was payment enough. The way I see it, if someone won't pay me a living wage to build a frame under my own name Rock Lobster , I guess they came to the wrong place to get a bike.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

2012 ultimate show bike quiz

After my last post I have considered all of your comments and have decided that in all likelyhood I will indeed participate in the 2012 NAHMBS. Of course, that is if they let me. I don't believe I have run afoul of the promoter in chief but you never know. I have not done anything to derail the show, only to point out some of the silliness contained in the show.....it isn't all stupid by a long shot.
Since I am presumably throwing my hat into the ring of builders vying for one or more those gleaming trophies and a chance to stand up on stage in front of a jury of my peers , I must formulate a plan to show up with the ultimate entry to the competition. I am again asking for your assistance in this project and I have provided another quiz-style outline to narrow the focus of the show bike project and come up with something incredible-something that a person might sell one of his testicles for, unless of course that person was Lance Armstrong. Maybe Lance could sell the prosthetic one after all, it was on those seven winning tour rides right next to the real one. All jokes aside , this bike must be humorous....so funny in fact that folks will be laughing so hard as to choke on someone else's vomit. It is with this bike that I hope to conquer the framebuilding world and lampoon it simultaneously.

First off I have to come up with a target buyer:
A. This is a bike for anybody
B. This is a bike for not just anybody
C. This is an exclusive luxury bike for a special person
D. This is a bike for the person who the very special person idolizes
E. This bike is too exclusive for any humanoid

Second, I have to come up with a sentence that makes this bike so incredibly irressistable to the most discriminating show attendee.
A. You'll max out your credit card to buy this bike
B. You'll take out a second mortgage to buy this bike
C. You would sell your kidney to buy this bike
D. You would sell both kidneys to buy this bike

I'll also have to figure out how to 'brand' the bike properly. A really effective logo must 'pop' and be distinctive, original and look very expensive .
A. The logo should be done in gold leaf
B. The logo must be acid etched into the tubing
C. The logo must be made of stainless steel and be paintakingly soldered onto the thin, unbutted portion of the frame
D. The logo must be fully cut out of the tubing leaving vacant space
E. The logo must be done as above but with a neon filament powered by a hub generator with a battery backup for when the bike is stationary.
F. The logo must be on a small RC blimp that orbits in the vicinity of the show bike about head level.

Assuming that this is a show bike and very ornate, it must be constructed of steel.....but which steel ?
A. Good quality modern steel
B. The very best quality modern steel
C. The best quality NOS steel
D. Cryogenically stored NOS steel formerly owned by a succession of deceased framebuilders of note who never got around to using it.

Now that I have the material I need to pick the ultimate way to assemble it:
A. Brazed with a Smith oxy-acetylene torch
B. Brazed with Mapp gas
C. Brazed with oxy-propane
D. Brazed with methane pumped from the anus of a free range cow
E. Hearth brazed using the rendered fat from free range chickens for fuel.

In order to be considered for a trophy I must have some of the current favorite frame features:
A. Seat mast with 2 cm of adjustment
B. Seat mast with 1 cm of adjustment
C. Seat rails welded directly to the seat mast-no adjustment
D. Shorts stitched to the seat that is welded directly to the seat mast-for seated riding only

Custom dropouts are a good way to set your frame apart from the herd
A. Water-jet cut stainless dropouts with your logo
B. Laser-cut stainless dropouts with your logo
C. Hacksaw-cut wooden dropouts with your logo
D. Machete-cut bamboo dropouts with your logo and someone else's vomit

Soo.......the bike is built. There has to be some sort of 'Exclusivity' implied in the availability of this special bike. Waiting lists ( both factual and ficticious ) are a way for people to see how in demand this special bike is......supposedly.
A. 3 month waiting list
B. 6 month waiting list
C. One year waiting list
D. Five year waiting list
E. Waiting list is closed until further notice
F. There never was a list.....at least not one that you or anyone like you could get on.

I appreciate all input. After all, this show is serious business. Cheers.