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.