Saturday, June 6, 2015

L'Eroica California

I had the good fortune to get an invite to L'Eroica ride in Paso Robles, Calif. about two months ago. For those of you who don't know what the Eroica is, essentially it is like a Civil War re-enactment but on bicycles and not at war. A bunch of folks-mostly vintage bike enthusiasts-get together and dust off their old vintage bicycles for a ride. This is no ordinary ride, however. Much of the route is ridden on the 'White roads' which are gravel or dirt. On these roads there are some really steep climbs , the kind that challenge even the most fit cyclist. The people who put on the event make it known to the participants that the route is indeed challenging and offer three lengths so that people can choose the appropriate distance.
                Picture about 600 riders, most of them older and not in particularly good shape. Add to that some old collectable bikes from the " Golden era' of bicycle racing.......pre 1988 that is-and you have a recipe for some serious issues during the ride. Most of the bikes I saw had gearing that would have been appropriate for a professional racer in the prime of his/her life , early to mid 20's give or take. Most of the Eroica riders were about my age, somewhere near 60 years old. Another thing I noticed was that no matter how polished and pristine these collectable bikes were, not many of them seemed properly tuned for such a ride.
                 As for me, I was working in bike shops back in the '70's and I know how to get those old bike parts to function well. I made sure that my bike was in top shape and I did several lengthy test rides with some dirt sections just to make sure that both I and my bike would be good for the Eroica. I really didn't want to have to walk up any hill or have to stand in line for a mechanic at the rest stops.I was fortunate to have the help of First Flight bicycles in finding some larger cogs for my freewheel so that I would not have to use the same gears I used in 1982 when I built the bike. Also I didn't go vintage on the tires-I put on the largest modern( 700x28) treads I could fit on the bike so that I would be fine on the many dirt sections.

               The ride started pretty normally, lots of people talking Colnago, Masi and all the highly desirable vintage names-it was a real 'Concours' -a parade of vintage bicycle obsession. It didn't take long however for the sound of jamming gears and slipping chains to take peoples attention away from  the scenery. Right after the first rest stop there was a short but pretty steep hill through a vineyard. One by one people dismounted their prized bikes and had to walk up the loose dirt . I even saw a couple of folks fall, unable to get their feet out of the toe clips ( toe clips were a requirement on bikes for the ride-along with exposed brake cables and box section rims.......)
                It was not long after this that I got the impression that many of the participants on the ride had no idea what they were getting into. The romantic notion of riding a bike from the '60's or '70's on idyllic country roads is seductive to the folks who treasure these bicycles. They long to go out with like minded folks with the same obsession with the older classic bikes. The trouble is that there's no way an out of shape 60-something person is going to be able to handle riding terrain like on the Eroica on an old bike with toe clips and limited gearing, not to mention brakes that have little stopping power due to older pads, older design and lack of maintenance . I only saw one person on a really old bike floating up the dirt climbs gracefully. This was Andy Hampsten-in case you don't know the name, he won the Giro D'Italia in 1988 and was a professional until about 1993.
                I don't want to criticize the event or the people who created it-I applaud them for the unique concept and really stunning route that they chose. The spirit of the Eroica cannot be is a beautiful idea. I had a great time and I will probably go back next year if they have it in Paso Robles again. I would just caution folks with that old classic bike in the garage they have wanted to bust out for a ride: 1.Bring your best legs to this event. 2. Make sure your bike is in the best possible mechanical shape. 3. put the lowest gears you can on the bike -otherwise bring some good walking shoes. 4. Consult your doctor to see if you are heathy enough to not croak on the roads of central California.
                Lastly, I would like to thank Bruce Gordon, Jake Hess, Giro, Jeff Archer and all the people who helped me get to this ride. I would also like to thank Andy Hampsten for the pleasure of riding a few miles with someone who knows how to ride a bike-any bike-anywhere.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Other hands

The year of 2014 was a really busy year for me-perhaps the busiest ever. As I get closer to my 60th birthday I keep wondering how I am going to keep up this pace. Chances are that I will experience the inevitable physical decline ( if it has not already started )and have to accept the fact that the current work load is becoming too much. That said , in January of 2014 I had 47 frames on order. By the first of the year 2015 I had 32 frames on order. In the year that passed between these two dates I built at least 95 frames, not a personal best but still one of the biggest years ever. I have no employees so all these frames were built by me .
               Besides the building of the frames there is bead blasting , painting and in the case of the aluminum frames heat treatment. These three steps are handled by other folks with whom I do business. In the best case these tasks are performed well and what I get back is a prep-ready frame that is the best example of what I can produce on that given day. Over the years I have used a number of painters, Powder Coaters, Heat treatment facilities and bead blasters-some were good for a time and some didn't work out. The current folks I deal with are excellent and they treat my frames with the greatest of care and respect. This means that if there's something wrong with the frame, I'm the culprit who screwed up. I'll admit, I am not perfect and I can and do make the odd mistake. I'm fine with this and I can fix all of my boo-boos without going too far to the dark side.
               Dealing with other people handling my frames used to be pretty straightforward-I would give them the frame they would either prep, paint or heat treat the frame and I would get it back in good condition. About a decade ago things started changing -all sorts of mis-handling of the frames started happening. One customer asked for a full polish on an aluminum frame so I drove down to the local guy who had polished many frames for other builders and a few from me. Many weeks went by and I got no word on the frame so after a few phone calls I went to the polisher's shop to see what was up with my frame. A worker showed it to me and there was a fist sized dent in the down tube-the frame was ruined. I guess that the guy polishing the frame had it ripped out of his hands by the buffing wheel and the frame flew across the shop and got destroyed. Understandably, the shop was reluctant to call me with the grim news.
                Next came a series of gaffs by a powder coat shop with whom I had been doing business for at least 6 years. Frames started coming back with small dents. I called them and emailed pictures of the damage and the owner of the shop assured me that they would be more careful. No compensation was offered by the powder coat shop for the damage, only an assurance that this sort of thing would not happen again. More frames got sent to the same shop and more frames got dented and more assurances were given. The last straw was when the powder coat shop painted an aluminum MTB frame the wrong color, they baked off the paint at such a high temperature that the frame got annealed-this means softened. The normally super stiff aluminum frame started slowly folding as the owner rode it. I sent the frame to the heat treater to test for hardest thinking that they-the heat treater had botched the process. The report was that the frame was indeed fully annealed and that the heat treatment company was adamant that such mis-handling of the frame happened elsewhere. This is when I determined that Powder coat shop " Al Dente" was at fault. I decided to fire them permanently .
                Last but certainly no least is the heat treatment facility. The guys did flawless work for me for over ten years, then something went a bit south. I got a frame back form the powder coater with a folded rear triangle. The formerly 130 mm dropout spacing was now 110 mm. I called the powdercoater who seemed clueless as to how this could happen. The next time I saw this anomaly it was when I sent a frame to the heat treater and had them send it back to me directly, not to the powdercoater as in the past. This frame was crunched in the same was as the first. Of course, the heat treater had a suggestion how to avoid this in the future by placing a dummy axle in the frame before I shipped it to them. Funny, the ten previous years I had no damaged frames without these dummy axles. I guess that the heat treater thought that I was also a dummy in that I would accept the words of advice from somebody who was careless with a frame that I had done my damnedest to build as good as possible, on time and with the highest respect for the person that ordered it.
                O.K., Now you surely get the picture. For me the job of building frames is challenging enough just for my part-keeping everything on schedule and maintaining quality. After all, having somebody trust you to build a bike frame for them is really an honor and I never forget that. Add to my daily regimen the variable of other folks handling the frame who may or may not give a crap about their part of the equation - this is the shit that raises my blood pressure and can definitely delay your order. With my own mistakes making my work day longer on occasion the added burden of someone else needlessly fucking up my work is more than I can take.......and I pay for them to dent , fold and every once in awhile destroy a frame. Only the aforementioned polisher offered the destruction free of charge........" Hey, we can fix it !" the guy at the polisher said........yeah, right. To this day many years later I have wondered how the hell the polisher was going to make a fist sized dent disappear from the frame . At least the guy offered to give it a try.......none of the other businesses made any attempt to fix, compensate or even apologize for the damage to my frames. I guess this is why a lot of small builders opt to blast and paint their own work-I even knew a builder who had bought a pizza oven to heat treat his own aluminum frames in his garage. I thought that he was I stand corrected.
                  To close, I wish to assure all that I have found a heat treatment facility who is really good and a powder coater who handles all frames with care . I know that there are great artisans in the paint and powder coat world that really care about what they do. To these folks I salute you . To the others I'll say that I'll never send you work again.........ever.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Human failing-the CX nationals Austin , Texas 2015

There are many people involved in putting on a national championship event-not all of them see things the same way but they have to find a middle ground somewhere so that the event can happen. This is the story, or better- my take on how things went very wrong during the course of planning and then running the event. I don't know the people I am writing about and I can only give my feelings on what I confronted on Sunday morning, the time the elite races were to start.
           When I got to the course I noticed a lack of activity and a significant police presence at the entrance to Zilker park-the venue for the race. As I walked toward the start I noticed that there was course tape across the first turn of the course , something that didn't make sense-that was unless the course was closed. As it turned out, the park service and police of Austin had indeed closed the course and had suspended all racing. People were being ushered away from the park and word was spreading that the race was to be cancelled-a first for a CX national race in the U.S.A.  As I walked further I encountered a USA cycling official who gave me the lowdown. The story was that the race the day before had been run during a rain shower and that the resulting erosion had exposed a few roots of the 300 year old heritage oak trees. The local heritage oak tree foundation had called the park service with this news and demanded the cancellation of the race.
            To me, this seemed like an overreaction to the problem. Re-routing the course could have been done the previous day. Truthfully, re-routing the course could have been done before the event even started if the heritage tree foundation had spoken up then. Instead , this tree foundation group got in touch with the park service around 7:15 Sunday morning -not to find a solution to save the tree roots while allowing the race to continue but to just shut the whole thing down regardless of who would be hurt by doing so.
            Don't get me wrong-protecting trees is in all our best interest. The thing that does not sit well with me is the timing of the action by the heritage tree foundation and their enthusiasm for stopping a national bicycle event - an event that the city of Austin lobbied hard for. Yes, the cities that host these events have to really spend a lot of effort to attract a race of this importance...... the irony of a small but seemingly powerful group having the power to scuttle the entire event makes me remember something that almost happened here in Santa Cruz county.
            A number of years ago a group of residents who lived near a large park that happened to be a popular mountain bike mecca seeked to enlist the help of the Sierra club to ban all bicycles from the park. This group of residents probably consisted of less than 20 household but they were determined to prevent thousands of local and visiting cyclists from riding in the park-a park that had always allowed riding on selected roads and trails within the park boundaries. It took a large effort on the part of the populace to defeat this small group of 'not in my back yard' zealots. I feel that the same sort of group is at work in Austin.
             My theory is that the heritage tree foundation is probably comprised of some influential and probably powerful folks that live near Zilker park. I also think that they never wanted the race at the park in the first place but did not have the ammunition to stop it until the rains came. The rain and subsequent erosion was all this group needed to shut down the race as they appear to have the parks department by the short hairs. How the police got involved is a mystery to speaks to the profound influence of this 'heritage tree foundation'. I guess that you don't want to mess with these folks-at least not on a bicycle. What is puzzling is that there are other much larger events held at Zilker park that truly trash the place on an annual basis. On event draws more than 90,000 people and is frequently held in the rain. I wonder why the heritage tree foundation does not try to shut down these larger events........
              This gets me to my final point. It looks like the CX nationals were a small enough event with   considerably less revenue for the city of Austin than the larger events that cause far more damage to the park. Its the same old story-if you got the bucks, you get a pass from the powers that be. This is another example of a small group of people claiming a public place as their own. A park like Zilker belongs to the public at large , not to a small group of people regardless of their zeal to protect the trees or how much power they might wield in the city government.
              The result of the cancellation / The race was re-started at noon on Monday. Many folks, mostly juniors had to leave and miss their chance to race at the biggest event of the season. Lots of other folks had to spend more money for another nights lodging and/or changing a flight. This postponement cost a lot of people money and put the race organizers into a hopeless situation in which no good options were available.
              It is unlikely that USA cycling or any major race promoter will ever hold an event in Austin again. This is really sad for the thousands of racers and spectators who wanted this race to come to this city but the heritage tree foundation is probably celebrating right now-a few dozen folks under the guise of protecting some venerable trees completely fuck up a national sports event for thousands of people, many of whom live in their city. All I can say is that I came to Austin for the event and I will not be returning any time soon. The many levels of disappointment handed to the public by a small group of zealots is hard to stomach.