Wednesday, November 5, 2014

R.I.P. Roger Wellington Sands.

Time stops for no one and the time seems to go by at a crazy rate. It has been a long time since I came here to Santa Cruz......a very long time. There are many ways things could have gone for me but early on there was a job and a boss who played a pivotal role in shaping my future. I'm not sure if Roger Sands knew what effect he would have on all the people who came through his shop-the Bicycle Center-but there is no doubt that anyone who worked for Roger got a unique opportunity to experience the finer aspects of the retail bicycle world. I don't think that Roger set out to mentor anyone but he was happy to show me and everyone else the tricks he knew for fixing things that seemed hopelessly beyond repair.
            August,1977-this was when I was ready to leave L.A. any way I could-even if it were in a box. I was so fed up with the so-called 'life' I was living and needed to get away. My sister was living in Santa Cruz and urged me to try living there. I sent up a job resume and a letter of recommendation from my boss at Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. I had $ 200 , two bicycles, a guitar and a stereo to my name. My sister said that she would bring the copies of my resume to all the bike shops in Santa Cruz. A good friend with a truck took me up north and I celebrated my 23rd birthday saying a permanent goodby to L.A.
           It was in mid September that I went around to all the bike shops and introduced myself. Most of the shops were full with workers and did not need a new face, even on who had experience at a big L.A. bike shop. My hunting took me to the Bicycle Center where Roger greeted me warmly. He said that having my sister in my corner was a big plus. He also said that my orange Colnago was a nice bike-even if it was a bit big for me.I told him that I was earning $ 2.35 an hour at Hollywood Schwinn but was willing to take less. Roger hired me and started me at $ 2.75 and hour and immediately I felt like I had landed in a good spot.
           I was to be part of a new crew who came in after Roger's two trusted mechanics had gone off to start their own businesses.....this really irked Roger as he really didn't appreciate employees going into direct competition with him. He was very territorial at this point in his life, having sunk his life savings into this very high-end shop filled with top-end frames from around the world. You see, Roger was a guy who made his living earlier working for Lockheed. He did very well financially but felt that there was much more to life than bringing in the big bucks . In his early'40s he decided to check out the bike world and bit by bit got himself enough know how and bravery to start his own shop. The shop grew and after a number of years he bought a lot and built a new building to house his vision-a shop that would bring high-end bicycles to Santa Cruz for the first time. This was to be my place of work for the first two years of my new life in Santa Cruz.
            Working at the shop , I got a chance to see frames from not only European brands that I was familiar with-I got to see frames from US builders who were raising the bar artistically and creating  frames that really showed an attention to detail that I had not encountered before. Seeing these frames and talking with Roger got me interested in building a frame for myself. Roger told me that his son-in-law had built a number of frames and was going to liquidate some tubing . This is where I got some of my first materials. Also, the Bicycle Center had a Campagnolo tool kit-this I had never seen. Roger told me that a distributor had some on sale for $ 895. I did not have to money and did not have credit. Roger co-signed for a business loan so that I could buy myself one of these amazing tool kits. This was 1978 and by the summer I had built my first frame.
           While Roger was not opposed to me having a hobby building frames, he was not convinced that I was ever going to be a credible frame builder. At the time I felt a bit disappointed  but came to realize that the process at getting good at building frames would take a long time and was secondary to earning a living at the bike shop. After a year or so, I was the manager of the shop when Roger and his wife Marcia were away. I liked the added  responsibility and appreciated the trust that Roger had in me. I did my best to not let my boss down and in spite of my lack of confidence really took to the job of making sure that all was running as it should.
             One day I came to work and Roger was not there. Marcia said that he was at the hospital and was going to have bypass surgery. It turned out that Roger had a heart episode and it would change his life. While he was laid up, Marcia and I ran the shop-it was a big job and I for one was a bit overwhelmed. When Roger finally was well enough to come back to work he was calmer and less territorial than he had been in the past. He started showing me ways to straighten tacoed wheels by slamming them on the ground. It was brilliant ! He showed me how to align a rear end of a bent bicycle frame with a rubber mallet. I still do it the same way. He made me aware of chain line and how critical it was to proper gear function. He also showed me that a customer in the store needed to be helped more than the phone needed to be answered-very wise words that I didn't completely understand at the time. He also introduced me to cyclocross-I had no idea that it existed. My first ride in the forest was with Roger and one of his friends. We went out on a drizzly day for a couple of hours until a land owner kicked us off of his property !
              Roger introduced me to all the folks in the cycling club-people that I might not have really liked hanging out with but who were into riding like myself. Roger showed me a county cycling map and urged me to do what he had done-ride every road on the map. I still have yet to achieve that , but I did see a lot of nice roads in the process. Working at the Bicycle Center really got me aware of the larger picture of bikes, riding and the cycling community. While I really valued my position at the Bicycle Center I knew that one day I  would have to leave. I didn't see eye to eye with Roger on a few things and I was stubborn and young enough not to let it go. I took a job a a smaller shop across town that I could transform into something nearly my own, or so I thought.
               After a year and a half of working at the smaller shop myself and the rest of the crew were all fired on the same day. It seemed that we were not the right 'image' that the owner wanted and in spite of the fact that we had turned his run down garbage heap of a shop into a profitable and well liked bike shop. I was given one hour's severance. I immediately called Roger asking if I could have my job back. Graciously he told me I was welcome back, even though I had not left on the greatest of terms-such was his forgiveness.
             I worked for  another year at the Bicycle Center and then went on a long bike tour. When I got back I decided that I needed to learn more about wheel building so I took a job at another shop that had a reputation for the best service department. Even though I no longer worked for Roger I still had a good relationship and he always treated me with respect. I really feel that i got my real start in the bike business with Roger and I got the opportunity to learn about frame building in Roger's shop-something I was unlikely to experience anywhere else. For this I will always be thankful-my life as it is now is a direct result of those few years at the Bicycle Center. R.I.P., Roger-you were a good man.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Just because you can do it does not mean that it should be done......

Back when I started this whole mess of a bike building business I was pretty much game to try any type of repair or modification that came through the door of my shop. Not having a big backlog of orders I had an incentive to try and accept any paying job, no matter how impractical or poorly though out it might have been. With my lack of experience I figured that everything could be a learning situation for me and prove valuable in the future. Just what the nature of these lessons would be turned out to be something a bit different than I envisioned at the time.
Examples of jobs I would take in the garage days: replacing a steerer in a fork. Back in the day, all steerer tubes were threaded and every once in awhile they would break or get damaged. I would get the request to replace a steerer occasionally. I no longer do this as I now know that re-heating a fork is potentially creating a very unsafe- yet solid appearing fork . The chance of someone hopping a curb on a repaired fork and getting really badly hurt when the fork broke made the job not worth it.
Some jobs like the fork repair are obviously risky and have the possible result of serious injury but other jobs that I no longer do are not nearly as risky. What makes them something I avoid is less a question of liability and more a question of what I feel is the right thing to do when given the choice.
An example of what I get asked to do lately is to take an older MTB frame that will only take a 1" steerer fork and replace the head tube with one that will take either a 1 1/8" steerer or even a tapered steerer. The problem with this request is that someone wants to take a functional older bike-one that was probably really high end about 20 years ago-and try to make it modern. Trouble is, not only are the steerers different these days, the forks are a lot longer ( if you are talking shock forks ) so simply making the frame have the ability to run the newer fork does not mean that the bike will ride correctly as either a cool old bike or a cool new bike. What one will have is an old bike pretty much turned into a piece of shit-neither classic nor current- almost like what the Soviets were doing in the '50's with vivisection-a really inhuman experiment of grafting parts of living animals together-two-headed dogs and the like........disgusting .In effect ,  people are asking me to practice vivisection on their bikes. " Yeah, he had a Bontrager OR from 1994 but now he has a two- headed dog".
Another thing folks will ask me to do is to graft on a disc brake setup on a really old bike that was never made for that kind of structural stress. A lot of these requests are for doing this modification to aluminum frames. I usually have to explain that the welding process will weaken an already really old and tired frame. To re-temper the frame will require heat treatment. The heat treatment will destroy the paint so now the frame will  have to be repainted.Now, the cost of the job exceeds the value  of the bike by a large sum. At this point folks thinking that they could take the old Cannondale and put disc brakes on it for $ 20 and a sixpack get a significant reality check .
The sad thing is that for the most part these requests are coming from well meaning people who honestly don't have enough know how to realize that what they are asking for-even if it can be done-is a mistake. Back maybe 30 years ago a kid brought in a beautiful old English frame from the '50's and wanted me to 'legthen' the whole front end of the frame. Ignorantly I took in the job and attempted to heat and remove the tubes from the seat lug and BB shell. The lug and shell literally disintegrated and the frame was destroyed. I felt terrible and wished that I had never touched it.The frame was a Hopper 'Vampire' and I have not seen one since. The kid was understanding and did not rake me over the coals as he knew that he shared some of the blame for the demise of this irreplaceable old relic.
So now, many years later when someone calls me with a request for a job that I know will turn a functional bike into a two-headed dog I'll think of the Hopper Vampire and also those insane Soviet scientists in the '50's that just couldn't let a dog be a dog.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

You want it when ?

This is the story of my first frame and fork, where this all started more or less. In the spring of 1978 I was working in a bicycle shop in Santa Cruz , California. This particular shop was the creation of one Roger Wellington Sands, a former Lockheed employee who decided that his life as an engineer no longer suited him. He decided to liquidate some of his personal holdings and build a bicycle shop from the ground up that would import the finest frames and accessories from all over the world - making them available to the small college town he ( and I) called home. I was very lucky to get hired to this shop and really felt that I was being groomed to manage the whole mess when called upon.

As luck would have it, the owners son was a frame builder and he had lots of hard to find tubes and bits for frame building. I and my fellow shop employees had an interest in building our own frames , largely spurred on by all the wonderful examples hanging in the shop. The three of us, Jeff Dodge, Brent Harris and myself got lugs and tubes and started filing away , hoping to create some great bikes in the near future. My goal was to build a track frame and fork-ignorantly I thought that it would be the least amount of work as there would be no cable stops, shifter bosses, water bottle bosses, etc. Of course I spent untold hours making cutouts on the lugs and fork crown-completely obliterating any chance of finishing the project in a timely fashion. I was very lucky to have met Ross Shafer at this time who lent me the use of his shop and some really great advice.

I toiled away for about six weeks on weekends and after work and in June of 1978 I had completed and even painted my first frame and fork. Ross had told me to first do a drawing of my project before starting-of course being impulsive and A.D.D. I skipped that part and relied on my inexperienced eyeball and some basic measuring tools to get the job done. The result was not quite what I had in mind but it was rideable and I did ride it quite a bit for the next couple of years. Since There were a couple of geometry errors in the rear triangle of the frame I resolved to someday fix it.

In 1994 in my own shop after a particularly difficult day I had the need to smash something-don't ask me where this urge comes from......maybe creating stuff all the time can cause an urge to try to balance out the creation with some destruction. I looked around my shop and saw my first frame hanging from a hook, neglected and unused for the past 14 years. I knew that it needed a new rear triangle so I took it down and beat the crap out of it with a large hammer, being careful not to hurt the front triangle-upon which I would eventually graft on new stays and make the bike ride like it should have in 1978. After the dust settled I hung the frame back up.

It was now 2010 and I was to be exhibiting at the NAHBS and thought that the 16 years since I had pounded the crap out of frame # 1 had been a sufficient sleep......I resolved to finish what I had started in 1994 and repair the frame. I looked through my tubes and found some identical Reynolds 531 stays and Bob Brown was kind enough to sell me some original Campagnolo rear track dropouts for a reasonable price. The repair took only a few hours and for the first time since I had built the thing I took a really critical look and my first effort. When I had finished it in 1978 I was very proud of what I had done. Looking at in in 2010 with all the paint removed and with a much more experienced eye, I beheld a true piece of shit. That said, I knew that ater all these years I had to polish this turd and get it rolling again or the show. The simple repair I thought would cure all the ills of my first impulsive effort at building a frame turned out to not be so simple. After really looking in depth at what I had built I fully knew that whatever I did to fix it would not make it into what I had originally inteded to build-it was just too screwed up for that.

At this juncture I determined that I had to make it ride again , not change any of the original look and most of all......keep some of the fuck-ups and the general theme of ignorance that are emblematic of my first frame. I was able to do this in admirable fashion, compete with almost cutting the chainstays too short so that the rear tire needed to be deflated to get the rear wheel out of the frame-keeping the tradition alive. After the final alignment I sent the frame off to get a nice candy apple red powdercoat-not the original color but a really nice one.

Once the frame and fork were back in my shop I took some old parts and some old-looking new parts and built up the bike fixed gear with no brake-just like in June of 1978 but something was different this time.....I got on the bike and rode it around the building where my shop is located. I rode it to lunch and back......I rode it home-even as off-spec as this frame was it had a very nice quality of ride....something that I had not expected. I knew that I had made an improvement when I did the rebuild of the rear triangle but I was convinced that the bike would still ride poorly. Amazingly, this was not the case-it rolled along well and steered pleasingly-I guess that it wasn't too far gone after all. This experience of building this frame and 32 years later re-visiting it with a new life made me feel more positive about what could be done with a torch, some files, some sandpaper and a good portion of ignorance. I also feel pretty good about what I have learned since that summer of 1978.