Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Do you want to see how sausage is made ? -No, you really don't.......unless you are not easily disturbed or grossed out. The same applies for the inner workings of a frame building enterprise , or how I like to all it : " the shit hole" .  Yes, maybe I am being a little harsh on the workspace that I have crafted into said 'shit hole' over the last couple of decades but as it is my space I can speak as I like. Blame me and I will not be could I be ? I am guilty as charged at creating my own gulag. Yes, there are many much worse ways to spend a lifetime and I have dabbled in some pretty lousy jobs but after all the temporary solutions to the permanent problem - Making a living- I landed here at 2533-D Mission st. ext.
               As a place to come to every day to make the dollars that fly out of my hands and into the hands of others I could have picked many worse places. Just like my customers have chosen me and they could have chosen worse. Conversely, they could have chosen better......not sure why they didn't but might be one of the things that was never meant to be understood. Perhaps things like this can only be misunderstood to make for balance in the forces of the custom bike universe. Maybe some folks shop by price, some by reputation-some just like what they see on the internet and go by that. Whatever way it works for the consumer is alright with me. I know that there are a lot of forums online where the plusses and minuses of builders are discussed-it is better if I never see any of these. The praise would make me uncomfortable and the ridicule would make me lose sleep. I guess it is better if I remain ignorant.
                Now I get to the kernel of what this is all about : Your frame if it is built by will be the very best frame I can build at that particular time. That said, not all days are the same and some days may totally suck. This does not mean that the frame I build on that day will suck but it does mean that on another day I might have done better. This is what a sole proprietorship has to weather-the ebb and flow of suckitutde. Yes.....that isn't a real word , but here in the 6th largest economy on the planet I feel that we have license to create language that speaks to the moment. I might tell a customer that on a given day I was 'in the groove' with the welder or some other aspect of the build process. I generally don't tell folks when things were defeating and futile-we all have days like that but when you are building something that someone has been waiting for and has a lot of anticipation associated with the product , a bad day in the shop really can make one feel rotten on many levels. I, like other builders battle this on a daily basis.
              This week started out pretty bad-I had several frame projects that needed attention......some needed a lot of attention . These issues will indeed be addressed by me and I will see that I make up for whatever problems the end user had with what I built. -Yes, I will admit it.....sometimes you don't nail it on the first try. It always amazes me how much I nailed it on the first try in years past but now I am 61 years old and there isn't the same level of energy there as before. I am still doing the same work load that I did in my 40's....actually more. It is unrealistic to think that when one is only a few years away from getting medicare that the ability to bust out 9-10 solid hours of cutting and welding metal a day will be the same as twenty years before.
              I am just about an hours work from finishing frame number 90 for the year. I might hit 100 before the new year-this would be four more frames than last year. Do I need to make this many in a year ? Are my customers pressuring me ? Am I going to go broke if I don't ? -The answer to all these questions is no. There is no outside pressure for the most part-it is all internal and it does not serve the customer of myself to yield to it constantly. It is for this reason that I have made the decision ( If I can actually hold myself back ) to bring the annual frame total down a bit. I feel that it is of utmost importance that the work I do in the shop be on an upward trajectory quality wise, not necessarily number wise. I do have a fairly long list of builds but it is well under a year so I'm not in danger of customers dying from old age before they get their frame .
             So, why the hurry ? Why the 100 frame goal ?  What is up with that, anyway ? -If I knew the answer I would know the solution. I can only guess that the solution is to slow down a bit and try not to make mistakes from going too fast. -Yes, I said it......I have made mistakes. I fix them , of course...but still, it takes time and it can put a strain on the relationship between myself and the people who put their trust in me to build them something worth waiting for. If it is worth waiting for then waiting a bit longer won't be much of a problem. It is most likely more a problem for me-the restraint to work at a pace that yields the best possible result all the time. Trust me, I am working on is a life's work.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The history of single speed mountian biking in Santa Cruz Pt. II

Maybe some of you remember a post awhile back that I wrote about the beginning of single speed mountian biking. Well, I figured that I needed to be more complete in the story as it is a record of a community that sprung up and did some crazy things 20-plus years ago that sent waves around the cycling world that have yet to subside.The picture above is of me in my shop in the spring of 1987 running the taps through the bottom bracket shell of MTN single speed # 1. This was a bike I had wanted to build for maybe a year and a half but didn't have the time to build one for myself. This one was for John Miller-the first Rock Lobster sponsored rider.
This other dusty little photo is me brazing on the very same bike, probably the day before. I didn't have a tig welder and had probably only built about 25 MTB frames at that point. I was still nearly a year away from getting a business license and quitting my other job.
The grey bike in the photo is # 1 today, original except for the shock fork. I will be putting on a Tange 'switchblade' to bring it back to original spec.It really rides like crap with this fork.
This is me with single speed # 2 in 1988 after winning the 'cruiser class' in the T.N.T. race. I had the only custom single speed mountain bike in the event. I got the feeling back then that no other builder really wanted to bother with making bikes like this. At this time they were really a hard sell. I think I built a total of four by 1990.
Here's my bike from 1999 that I rode in the single speed worlds in Napa put on by Curtis Inglis. I finished way back but I was not last. There were at least 350 participants. By this time things had changed completely-single speeding was almost mainstream.
Here's Angelo Corvino's 1989 single speed. I'm not sure how we talked him into trying it but he did enjoy it for a number of years. All the early ones had a 24" rear wheel and a 26" front. The had really good acceleration and were really quick handling.
Here's Pat Shott's 1992 single speed-he won a lot of races on this bike. I gave up on the 24" rear wheel about this time and went with 26". This was about the time that Mike Ferrentino was starting up the 'Crusty Cruiser Cup' , a series of unsanctioned races involving rugged courses, hours of riding and a lot of beer consumption afterward ( and during at times..)
Somewhere around 1993 there began some 'Full Moon derby' events involving some really drunken and destructive behavior-at least destructive to some $ 20.00 Goodwill cruisers. I was at one of these rolling parties when a bike wound up in a tree. I can't tell you why it wound up there but nobody has bothered to take it down. It is a monument to that particular night , overlooking the spot where bicycle jousting and all sorts of mayhem took place. Those were really special times-I didn't get to experience much of the flavor as I was working a lot of nights with a band.

In short, I think that single speeding was a logical thing for dirt riders to embrace.....well, at least some of them-as the lack of complication to the bike and the caveman style of riding was appealing. The 'Eroica' road events seem to embrace this 'turn back the clock' rejection of the latest technology and presumably focus on the simplicity of just running what you got and making the best of it. I want to give props out to Rick Hunter, Mike Ferrentino, Eric Richter, Pat Schott, Hilary Daniels, Steve Garro and all the early proponents of single speeding everywhere.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Another one bites the dust

Here's where some of you think I might be going off the rails -you are entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. This post is one I have not only put some thought into but waited until other folks sounded off about this news that hit the small frame building community last week.

It was early last week that I and anyone who was paying attention got informed that True Temper as a company would cease making tubing for building bicycle frames. While there are several other sources for steel tubing to make bike frames , none of them are made in the US like True Temper. Also, there are no other tubing companies that offer the catalog of unique and durable tubes that True Temper proudly made in the US. There are steel tubes in the True Temper catalog that represent the highest level of engineering available for bike builders. There are also some tubes that the other manufacturers don't seem to make- i.e. , shit that doesn't break hardly ever. I'm not saying that the other companies make crap-they really don''s just that they make stuff that is less durable for harder uses such as 29ers and the like.

O.K., now that we know that in nine months that True Temper is shutting down it's bicycle division we need to assess their reasons ( or stated reasons..) for doing so. We have been told in writing that the bicycle division has not been profitable and that the company will shift it's steel resources fully into golf products. As I see it, they are dumping cycling, an 'everyman' sport in favor of golf, largely a sport for the privileged ( I used to golf several times a week when it was a lot more affordable). Sure, custom bikes are not an 'everyman' product but I don't fully buy the whole " the bicycle division was not profitable enough " line. True Temper tubing prices have been under market for at least a decade-I am sure if they raised the prices the tubing would still be a good value and would still sell. I guess that they didn't bother thinking about a price adjustment. True Temper probably never bothered to do a detailed cost analysis as someone high up the food chain in the company decided to do away with the cycling division no matter what.

Back when I decided to go full time with my frame building I became aware of True Temper and started buying their tubing to make MTB frames. This was 1988 and I, and True Temper had a lot to learn about bicycle frames. After about a year and a half I decided that the tubes from True Temper lacked the quality control of some of the other offerings . With this realization I decided to switch brands and went to Tange, a high quality Japanese made steel. It was not for many years that I came back to True Temper but when I did, it was because they, True Temper had done the hard work of making their product better than just about anyone else at the time. Engineering and experience and probably a good deal of expense had yielded a level of steel that had not existed for bicycle builders.

This brings me to the thought-what a waste to take all that time and effort developing such an excellent product and toss it all away. The loss of these tubes will be a problem for me as a builder but not something I can't deal with-as I said before, there are other places to get tubing from. The people who will really be hurt are the builders that rely exclusively in True Temper for their materials and don't really have an alternative. The re-seller that sells to the builders will take a huge hit as the True Temper tubes were their main product. Now they will have lost the product that was their main source of income. Other people who will get the shaft ( as in golf club shaft ) are any of the few folks at True Temper who were in the cycling division. Essentially , a lot of people are going to get fucked by this.

So, who will benefit ? My thought is that there's a handful of people on some board of directors who will get bonuses and pats on the back for saving the parent corporation money by eliminating this insignificant department and its products. After all, the free market allows for this and actually encourages people at the top to do whatever it takes to make as much profit as possible. These people's strong suit is just that-making more profit. They have nothing in common with the people who saw the need for better steel bicycle tubing and did the hard work to make it happen. Those people with the passion for the bicycle are most likely long gone. They have been replaced by people who are not willing to do the work or have the knowhow to create a product-the new people don't have any connection to any product. They are only connected to balance sheets. Should I be more understanding and applaud their ability to make money by eliminating a product that made a real difference to people in my trade ? Sure, they have the right to do whatever they want with their company. While I do understand this I do not like it one bit. This is just another example of how the free market can be far from free-there is a cost when things like this happen and it isn't seen on balance sheets.

The people in charge of this elimination of the bicycle division of True Temper might not see what the cost to the craft of frame building will be as they are not likely to bother looking. The cost will be seen in the coming years as people who depended on this company will have to figure out what to do with their lives- after giving money to and putting their trust into a company that ultimately let them down.
R.I.P , True Temper bicycle steel.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Suckered by a decal

At the risk of pissing off even more bike collectors I will post this thought. I don't mean to piss anyone off , really-it's just a story of an earlier time in my life when learned what I consider a fairly valuable lesson .

In 1976 I began my life in the bicycle business as the lowest wrench at what was then Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. My dream was to work full-time in a bike shop and this was the first job I had that fit that descripion  . I have finished two years of college and was pretty determined not to go back-all I wanted now was to immerse myself in bicycles 24-7. Getting an education at the shop as to what was a good bicycle started within days of my arrival. The head mechanic Salvador Contreras had been a road racer in Mexico and was a career bicycle mechanic.
In the shop we mostly had bikes in the mid-price ranges as the fancy bikes didn't sell at Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. They sold like hotcakes a few miles away at a couple of other shops that were known for that. If I wanted to see high end racing bikes I would have to look in shops other than where I worked.
With some of the info from Salvador and from some magazines I ventured out to all the top L.A. bicycle shops in search of a good racing frame that I could afford. I looked for weeks but everything I saw was twice as much money as I could afford, that was until on day I went into a shop in Santa Monica and saw a Colnago Super for $ 195 with a Campagnolo headset. The frame was that incredible orange and looked to be in very good condition. I asked the salesperson to take it off the hook so that I could check it out. He did but cautioned me that the frame might be too big. It was indeed a 59cm and I would have been much more comfortable on a 56.
Knowing that the frame was a bit big was not enough of a deterrent to keep me from asking if I could put it on lay-away for three weeks. Reluctantly , the salesperson agreed and I put down all the money I had in my pocket to hold the frame. Here it was, my dream bike frame in the color I wanted and the very brand that Salvador had told me was the one to buy. So what if it was a bit tall.....for the price I would make it work.
Three weeks later I came to the shop and paid the balance on the Colnago. For the next few weeks I would cull all the best parts in my tiny collection and seek out whatever I was missing to get the bike on the road. It took about a month but soon I was seated upon the big orange Colnago with a big smile on my, I could not afford silk tires or the matching jersey, hat, chairing, seat post and stem-but hey, I had the frame and that's what counted......or so I thought.
Within a couple more months I left L.A. and Harry's Hollywood Schwinn and made my way up to Santa Cruz, my new home. Once there I had to find another full time bike shop gig but I was sure that my resume and my bright orange Colnago would make me look a bit more serious than the average schmuck looking for a job. My sister had already circulated my boss's recommendation letter and my work resume to a few shops in Santa Cruz so all that was left for me to do was to make appointments and see if anyone would hire me. I rode the Colnago to all these appointments, of course.
The first place I went was the Bicycle Trip, a very well regarded service oriented shop. The owner talked to me and glanced at my gleaming bike. " That's a pretty fancy bike ya got there..." were his words and said that he had no openings at that time. I went about two miles to the next shop-the Bicycle Center-a high end boutique store with all the fancy goodies from Europe gacing the showcases and walls. This time I was in luck-the boss said " You are a Schwinn mechanic so you have a high qualification ." ( that was really a stretch , truth be told ) He also said " That's a really beautiful bike you have, son ." So there it was......he was impressed enough with my bike to hire me.
So there I was in Santa Cruz, working in the fanciest shop for a decent wage, riding my Colnago all over the hills on mornings and weekends. At this time the Colnago was beginning to educate me into proper bicycle fit-the bike was doing this by being unruly on off-camber downhills and also by making my lower back scream during hard rides and races. I was getting a bit self conscious about the fit of the bike to the point that I raised the seat post enough so that it looked proper. This of course was too high for my legs and I had to pedal on my tip-toes and probably looked like a complete idiot on the group rides. This didn't matter to me as this was my Colnago-I had arrived !  I had the right bike-so what if it was a bad fit and beginning to cripple me.......I was sold-at least for awhile.
The Bicycle Center was blessed with three walls of frames hanging up on display-many of them from Europe but some were made by local builders - Bruce Gordon, Albert Eisentraut, Keith Lippy and the like. I looked at all these frames and thought: " What if I had a frame that really fit me......would my back stop hurting ? Would I stop crashing so much and getting dropped in races ? "  I made it my job to find this out. First I had to get a frame .......this was not to be as I was pretty broke , having moved to Santa Cruz with only enough money for one months rent. What I did have was enough money for a tube set to build a frame. No matter that I had never built one-I knew that I was going to learn how and hopefully wind up with a frame built for me, by me. That was the last frontier for a bicycle mechanic after all......learn how the damn thing is actually made !
I didn't really nail the fit on the first try but by my 4th frame I had built a frame with a 54.5 seat tube and 56.5 top tube. Don't ask me how I came up with those numbers......must have talked to a few people including my boss-those were the numbers and after about 200 hours I had my new frame. I had no time or money to get it properly painted so I just rattle canned it black in the driveway and the next day it was assembled and in the back of my V.W. bug driving up to the Tassajara road race.
This was to be the first real ride on the bike I had built-a Cat. 4 road race with about 95 other racers that was only about 20 miles with one fairly significant climb in the middle.
I spent about a half an hour riding the bike around, warming up and getting all the bugs out before the gun went off. I barely made the start , getting to the back of the pack and immediately rocketing through to the front. I was warmed up and the rest apparently were not. The race went about 10 miles when there was a huge pile up involving about 15 people. Five riders were ahead of the crash but the rest of us were behind it or in it, hopelessly delayed by the bodies blocking the road. At this point I heard someone yell : " Go Go Go !!" and I got through the mess and chased on my own up the beginning of the big climb. Within minutes I had joined the leaders and realized that I was the only rider from behind the crash to do so.
The leaders were running a double pace-line, all of us knowing that prizes went down to the top six so everyone was in the money. Once we got to the top of the climb the group broke up as the two strongest riders rode away into a strong head wind and away from the group. I chased on my own but could not bridge up and was caught by the other three riders behind me. We arrived at the finish and I sprinted from the back to take third place. This was a shock to me as I had never been anywhere near the front of any race, let alone in a position to sprint for a prize. The winner came up to me and told me that I had ridden an excellent race , something I never thought I was capable of on the ill-fitting Colnago. The other thing I noticed was after the race my back did not hurt in the least.....this was also new.
Here I was , someone who had placed in the top-3 and had animated the start of the race and I had done so on a spray painted black bike with no decals, no chrome , no identification.......and I had built it myself. This opened my eyes.........maybe the fit was much more important than the decal, the paint, the hype and even the price. I had built this frame for under $ 50.00 . Sure, I had spent about 200 hours on it but I had no power tools, no jigs and little know-how. How the hell was I able to make a bike that outperformed the Colnago in nearly every way ? It was very simple: The Colnago was not made for was someone else's bike all the just took me a couple of years to figure that out. Not long after that I said goodbye to my orange Colnago for good-I sold it to someone about 6'1" who really fit it a lot better than I. What I learned was that it doesn't matter what someone tells you about a bike. What matters is how you feel on the bike when you are riding. If it doesn't hold you back but it totally looks like hell , it just might be the best bike on earth.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Two worlds

Some time in 2014 I got the idea to do a project with Bruce Gordon that would be a new brand of bike specifically to fit his tires ( Rock 'n Road 700x43 c ) and to use our combined experience of nearly 90 years. I have been a fan of Bruce's work since 1977, a year before I built my first frame. Getting a chance to work with Bruce was a bit of inspiration that I could not pass up so I told a few folks about the project, named the soon to be built bike 'Schnozola' , came up with a logo and got to work.
As fate would have it, one of my friends was also a big fan of Bruce and reserved the first bike for himself so the prototype was sold before it was even started......a very good omen for a new brand. Bruce and I talked about the design and a few weeks later the first Schnozola was in the hands of the owner and getting ridden extensively in the hills above Santa Cruz.
Fast forward to the summer of the next year and I registered for the NAHBS looking to show bikes there for the first time in about four years. After I got the booth paid for I realized that I had so many orders for Rock Lobsters that I had no need to display my already oversold frames. At that point I called Bruce and asked if he wanted to do a Schnozola booth instead. This would involve making at least three more complete bikes for the show-something I had never done. Bruce agreed and we began putting together a set of five bikes in all, two that were already built and road ready.
When the bikes were all built ( not without an undue amount of stress ) we drove up to Sacramento and took our place in the show amongst all the other builders. I was thinking that Bruce and I were possibly the most experienced builders in the show and that our collaboration would be noteworthy in a show filled with the latest new and shiny offerings from builders hoping to get awards. We did not enter any of the competitions ( Maybe not the best move ) and hoped that our reputations and the bikes would speak for themselves.
After the show I got the feeling that our approach might have not been the best for this particular show as the bulk of the folks attending the show came there to be wowed by the artistry of the fancier bikes. Our more workman like bikes, all painted red and pretty much devoid of ornamentation were largely overlooked by a lot of the people walking by. Looking back on the show I am not all that surprised at this-in order to assess our bikes they would have to be ridden-something that does not happen at NAHBS for the most part. Our bikes did look pretty nice and we displayed them pretty well but there was little in our booth to impress people visually.
What I gleaned from the experience is something I already knew: With bikes as with all handmade goods there are two very distinct camps of fans-the ones that appreciate the visual aspect and the ones that most value the utility of the bikes. There is some overlapping between these groups but for the most part the bike show mainly caters to the folks who are all about the visual aspects of the bikes. This would pretty much make our presence at the bike show of little value to a big percentage of the visitors. There are two worlds of custom bike fans and I was in the wrong one for the most part at NAHBS. Not only were Bruce and I displaying pretty utilitarian bikes , all the same color but we were also eschewing the whole artistic competition aspect of the show. Who was going to 'get'  what we were doing with these bikes that we had busted our asses to get done before the show ? -Probably fewer than we thought going into the show.
Launching a new brand is something I had not done since starting Rock Lobster over 30 years ago. Even with Bruce's and my experience we were essentially putting out an unknown bike out there and were nearly as anonymous as the new builders at the show to a lot of people. It was a humbling experience. Time will tell if Schnozola will work as a bike that people want and both Bruce and I are in our 60's so starting something new is a lot of work for two guys who have already spent many years establishing themselves in the very competitive world of bike building. Either way, when we are both dead I'm sure that these bikes will be very collectable-it would be really nice if some folks thought that they were cool while we are still alive.