Thursday, December 28, 2023

Where are all my friends ?

 Well, time marches on and the bicycle business does as well- some times it's a march to a better place.....some times its a march away from what it is at it's core- a community of people. What has been taking place in the last decade with many bicycle companies has borne some pretty rotten fruit, at least in my view. What transpired in and around the starting of this century has been the gobbling up of companies by larger conglomerates. The companies that have been eaten up were -in the beginning -manifestations of a few people's ideas and passions. I know a lot of these people and their dedication and selfless acts have made the bicycle business and the community at large a lot richer - I'm not talking about money....I'm talking about many forms of "better". 

What has gotten better is trail and land access- that's a win/win as people get to ride places where they couldn't for years , those places remain public parks so that they cannot be subdivided into luxury lots with McMansions protected by tall fences and electric gates. Also what has gotten better are the products- bikes, suspension, helmets, shoes, shifting.....just about everything one can think of bicycle related has improved due to passionate people in companies that reward inspiration and dedication. I think that people in the future might look back on the late '90's and early 2000's as a great time in the bike business.

Things are quite different now. Large holding companies over the last 10-20 years have gobbled up many of the best companies in the bike industry - of course promising to carry on the passion and original direction of the companies faithfully. Pretty much the opposite has been happening. These large holding companies have been taking local California companies and slowly bleeding them of capital and employees. Many of the local companies that started here in the Bay Area have been dismantled and moved elsewhere and the employees who were responsible for making the companies successful were given their walking papers , or given ultimatums such as "move to such and such city across the country or lose your job". To me this makes no sense, but to the holding companies it makes all the sense in the world- cut costs , maximize profit , dismantle underperforming departments and centralize operations. Good corporate strategy but a complete disemboweling of an industry that is not run so much profit as it is run on passion.

Many of my friends worked for the companies that got bought out, run into the ground and gutted, relocated and basically euthanized. It , to me seems such a total waste and a humiliation of the people who have made their life about the betterment of the bike industry and community. I used to see these people at trade shows, riding events or just chance encounters around town- they, like I were part of the local flavor of the bike world. Now, most of them are out looking for work and are likely to leave the bicycle industry for good- not because they want to- it is because the industry left them. It took what they had in ideas, sweat and years and put it all out on the curb to be taken away to the landfill. This really has torn the heart out of much of the community that I have known for more than half of my 68 years-over 40 of those years trying to be as good at what I do as the people I know in the business......or at least they were in the business. Maybe the good days are gone forever- I really hope not. What can bring back the type of companies that created most of what we appreciate about cycling ? Not sure that I have any good ideas but I have a few friends who do........

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Give me the strength to........

Living the dream 2023 style. Building bicycle frames for a living is not an easy thing , no matter how you slice it. I have been very fortunate to be able to say that I indeed have a self sustaining shop that is productive in spite of the usual pitfalls. Some of these issues are things that I can fix, some not. This summer has shown me that issues do not need to show up one at a time but can come as a pair, a trio or a whole damn village. 

Here's the village of the fall of 2023: In July I took a corner on my bike and unexpectedly ( that's usually how it is, isn't it ? ) I fell and broke my femur in two places. I am still recovering from that as of this writing which is about three months after the date of my surgery. Next thing was that I got lost in the system and my appointment for my follow up X-ray never got booked- now I have a wait that I did not expect. Also, for some reason , my email with my business stopped working and now customers will have a bit of trouble getting in touch with me. I have spent numerous hours online and on the phone with no success......I'm getting pretty frustrated but at least I have plenty of work to keep me busy for awhile. Doing this work with a gimpy leg is not that easy but I am getting it done. Next issue is my old trusty truck of 22 years has a check engine light that comes on every week- the mechanic does not seem to be able to cure the problem......kind of like my email issue- the experts are stumped for now. Another issue was that I had to quit a band I was in for the last year suddenly- this was tough as the people in the band were very nice and they were puzzled and hurt that I had left-sadly, it was something I had to do and I felt very strongly about the decision- this did not make it any easier.

Yes, these are not life or death issues but still pretty numerous for a semi-crippled frame builder with a semi crippled email, truck and attitude. This brings me to consult the old AA saying : " Lord, give me the strength to fix the things I can fix , accept the things that I can't fix and to know the difference " . I quote that saying now because the line between the things I can fix and the ones I can't is seeming not to be a line any more but a blurry spot of blindness. I can't really see solutions to some of these issues and it makes me pretty discouraged. This lack of clarity about the issues I am facing has made me turn to the shop-some times 7 days a week- it is the one place I can be where I can fix things, build things and find some sort of validity to the space I am taking up on this planet and in this life. Outside the shop my life really is not seeming like the happy place it can be - I can't ride , I'm in pain much of the time, I don't really feel like there's any activity such as going to a movie, going out to eat or really any type of recreation that I feel up to. But.....cutting and welding metal ? I can do that and as soon as I got off this barely functional computer I will go to the shop and see if I can fix or build something and if not, know the damn difference.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

We ain't goin' out like that.....

A couple of years ago I lost a good friend and a remarkable builder. Bruce was not the happiest guy who ever lived but he still saw humor in a lot of life and had come to grips with retired life ,or it seemed that way. Only a couple of years after he liquidated his shop he was gone- but this is what came first.

When out on one of his weekly rides- a ride he knew well- Bruce took a fall in a corner and broke his leg. It was a freak crash on a path he rode on every week. When Bruce got to the hospital the doctors offered him surgery which Bruce opted not to do. I can't tell you why he decided to avoid surgery on his leg but that was his choice. Bruce's recovery was slow and painful and it didn't seem like he ever fully came back from the injury. He could no longer ride a bike and he was reduced to walking with a cane. I think he was maybe 68 years old and otherwise had been a relatively healthy person. By the time he was 70 he was gone-found in his house, no cause of death that I know of -it didn't matter the cause- he was gone. 

This brings me to current events in my life- I just broke my leg in similar fashion to Bruce, riding on a very familiar trail but landing very hard on some hard ground. I am about to turn 68 in September. When offered surgery at the hospital, I took it. The surgeon said that not having surgery was an option but not a good one as there was no guarantee that my leg would heal properly and that I would be spending months in bed. With the surgery I would be up on a walker the following week and fully weight bearing in six weeks. Seemed like an easy decision for me, if not for Bruce. At the time I didn't think of Bruce when I said yes to the procedure but now I can't help but think that maybe Bruce would still be with us if he had done the same as I. Sure, there's a risk with every surgery and the possibility of infection can scare some people , but the thought of being crippled simply because of opting out of a procedure that is commonly done does not seem rational to me. 

Unlike Bruce, I still have a business that I am actively running and lots of work lined up. Retirement at this time is not an option. Giving up riding is not something I want to do, either- even if now I might dial back the amount of miles I ride. I'm also hoping to be a bit more careful, too. One thing about a broken femur , commonly referred to as a broken hip- in people my age and older the broken hip can be an early indicator of a shortened life ........a death sentence to put it bluntly. By getting this surgery I hope to not wind up another statistic in this regard- I want to keep doing what I was doing for as long as I can. With all respect to my departed friend, I don't want to wind up like him- gone well before his time, at least in my opinion. One cannot choose how long one's life will be but there are decisions that can effect the length of one's life - so.......hardware in the leg ? sign me up. I don't want this bike crash to put me in the dirt if I can help it. Bruce, if you are up there somewhere , please don't get mad if I can't agree with you on this........And I really wish you were still here so we could argue about it. I guess we will never have that conversation.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Some ideas are best appreciated in their absence..

 Over the course of the last four decades I have had the experience of working with numerous mechanical engineers . These engineers give me drawings and some make me sign non-disclosure agreements. My job is usually to interpret the engineers plans and make them into a rideable prototype. Some times my input is welcome but often it is ignored as many of these engineers are certain that they have beta tested their plans and have worked out every possible bug. This is seldom the case as most of these ideas on paper that I get from the engineers are based in a world of theory and mathematics. I can't claim to have even a small portion of the education needed to be a qualified engineer and I don't pretend to know what they- the engineers know. What I do know is what they don't know- the kind of knowhow that one gets from building stuff for 40+ years. I can look at a blueprint and see pretty quickly if there will be problems with the project-either in the building process or in the actual use of the finished project. To me , these things are obvious-to the engineer these factors lie outside their belief system. Since most of them don't actually build stuff they are disconnected from the building process and are depending on me to handle all of it. I am fully prepared to handle all of it but if the engineer chooses not to listen to my warnings about potential pitfalls of their design , they will be paying me to build something that will not work. 

I'll take you back a little over a decade to a time when I got recruited to be part of a crew designing an early E-bike for a trade show competition. Design firms were paired up with builders such as myself to collaborate on projects. While I usually refuse to get involved in stuff like this I went along with being part of this project as the trade show was being put on by a good friend and I thought that it might be good to show some solidarity. I went into this project with the best intentions and the highest hopes. This was a non-paid job and the reward would be in the experience of working with people at a top-notch design firm. Honestly , I was excited and a bit intimidated as well. 

Upon arriving at the design firm I was introduced to no less than 6-7 people who would all be working on this project. They were all fired up and cheerful at the start and everyone had something in the way of a suggestion of what this new bike project was going to be. The head of the design crew was very motivated and as the weeks went on it became apparent that the shape of this bike was going to be of his design and that all contributions by other people on the team (myself included) would bear his scrutiny. Ay first I didn't pick up on how driven this lead designer was but as time went on and people started to bail from the project I got a very clear picture. In the last few weeks leading up to the show the crew was less than half the original number-I never heard why people left, I only knew that the meetings were getting smaller .

When all the designing was done and the building of the actual bike was about to start I noticed a major problem with the design. I had a very simple solution to fix this problem- this was key , for if this problem was not fixed , the whole electric system of the bike could not have been hooked up and functional. Again, I'm just a bike builder and not an engineer but I know that if wires have to go from here to there, you sure as shit have to have a path for them that does not get in the way of other moving parts. I told the head designer of my idea-he dismissed it and fought to have some other solution......but there was none. His reason for not adopting my solution was the same reason he did not take many good suggestions- he did not want the physical appearance of the bike changed from his original design. 

Here's my view on the original design of the bike: Problem # 1. This bike was designed by a 5'11" guy and he made it so anyone shorter than 5'11" would not fit properly on the bike. This eliminated about 60% of his potential customers. # 2. The sleek design of the bike did not allow for the kind of battery needed for longer cruising range , making this bike-although prettier-not as practical as other Ebikes .# 3. The bike had front wheel drive- while this might work fine in a car , the bike can become unstable if someone turns and accelerates. For an experienced rider this might not be an issue but for someone just getting into cycling this could be a real problem. These are three fundamental issues that made this bike, in spite of it's cool looks a product likely to fail. 

The head designer was so taken with his design, despite the flaws that he decided to go commercial with it and create a company to build and sell the bikes. I wound up making three prototypes but I stopped working with the designer as he found that he would have to source the bikes from overseas in order to get the quantity and low price that he needed to make the bike attractive to consumers. At some point I no longer had any dealings with the project. I did own a piece of it though- part of the original agreement was that if this design was to become a product , I would retain a share as part of my design credit......even if the bulk of my design ideas were ignored. This would become an issue for the head designer a but later.

After a couple of years trying to be a bike company the head designer got an offer from a major company to buy his design and in effect, the company he had spent the last few years building. My guess is that his finances were running out and selling the company was the way for him to monetize all of his hard work. One thing stood in the way of the selling of the company - me. The head designer called me and asked if I would be willing to sell my share of the design. I was happy to do this so he relayed the information to the company who was the buyer. They made me a very low offer.....never having been in this position I was not sure what to do. I called a few industry people and they all said the same thing. Counter offer what you want and stick with that- this is a big company and they will pay you as it is a very small amount of money for them . I countered with what I thought was a reasonable amount and the offer was accepted. I finally got paid for a project I had done four year previously and the head designer got his windfall.

One thing that the money did not change, though- the bike still had the same problems. The new owners did what they could in regards to making more sizes for shorter people but the other flaws in the design remained and sales of the bike were very sluggish. After a couple of years the brand and the bike were discontinued and the pipe dream of the head designer would be relegated to the world of a multitude of failed products that wind up in landfills across the country. Things might have turned out different if the 'design co-operative project' really was co-operative and not the product of an inflexible leader . I have no idea what the head designer of the bike is doing today but I'll bet he's making plenty of money and doing just fine. There seems to be lots of money being given to people who have strong ideas, even if their ideas turn out to be bullshit. In my opinion, there is too much of this in the world and it is depressing that it exists in a business such as bicycles that is fragile and always fighting for its life. 

That's my view , anyway- but don't listen to me.......I'm only the guy who puts the shit together.....what do I know ?

Friday, January 27, 2023

R.I.P. Dr. Deltron- Mark Bunten

This guy in the photo striking the goofy pose was the most imaginative and talented bike painter I ever knew. Mark Bunten is not a household name in the bike painting world but if you talk to the best people in the business in the '90's they will not only know his work, they might echo the words I just wrote about how exceptional Mark was when it came to artistry with a bicycle frame as the canvas. 
The photos in this post are of a few of the bikes that Mark painted for me personally but the bulk of his work was for my customers. I estimate that over the years Mark might have painted about 70-100 frames for me. Before powder coating became the norm for bicycle finishes ,catalyzed enamels sprayed wet were what was done. Painters came and went- it seemed like a tough way to make a living . Few painters lasted more than a couple of years in the craft before giving up and moving on to another job.
Mark stuck around longer than most, though he did suffer the long hours and poverty that most bicycle painters endure. To distinguish himself from the other painters, Mark would take on really elaborate paint schemes and show an imagination that was unique and irreverent. Mark's painting days were before the internet so getting publicity and a client base was difficult. He didn't have that many customers but his work spoke for itself. I really wish that I had more photos of the many paint jobs that Mark did for me from about 1990-2005. 
One thing about Mark that made it difficult for him to succeed were his bouts with depression. There usually were times when Mark did not answer his phone and he would drop out of sight for a week or more. There's a good possibility that Mark could have benefitted from anti-depressants but it really is impossible for me or just about anyone to know what could have gotten Mark into the headspace where he could cope with his life and benefit from his amazing talent. Mark would have a run of a few months of knocking out world-class work - then suddenly drop out of sight . This made it difficult to rely on Mark as a reliable person to do business with. That said, he was so likable and so good at what he did . Any chance I had to have him paint for me was a chance I took without hesitation.
After Mark painted the purple frame you see in the first photos he said that he was probably going to close shop and do something else for a living. This was around 2005. He did have a few jobs but never stuck with anything for very long as his imagination and ideas were usually not in synch with his employer's business model. 
It really isn't for me to talk about his personal life- there's not that much that I know-mostly what I know of him was through all the bike collaborations we did over nearly two decades. I don't really remember how I found Mark or how he found me but his paint jobs defined my bikes in the eyes of my customers and in print media. In the era of Mark's painting career there were no limits on what someone could ask for-and receive-in a paint scheme.......those were good days.
This bike was one of four that I built for Paris-Brest-Paris 1995. This is the bike I personally rode in the event. Mark painted all four bikes and if I remember right, he gave me a deal because he wanted to be one of the sponsors. I think he also felt that getting exposure to the long-distance Randonneur crowd would not hurt, either. I wound up riding all over western Europe in this bike in 1995 and 1999. 
Since 1999 this bike has seen very little use, mostly hanging on display. I have newer more modern bikes now that I ride so this one had sat idle until yesterday. I took it down from its high hook, aired up the tires and rode it for about an hour yesterday because I received a phone call from Mark's eldest son that Mark had died in his sleep on April 22nd , just shy of his 62nd birthday. I had not seen Mark in a few years but I knew that he was going through a very acrimonious divorce and did not have a permanent residence . I was aware that he was going through a very difficult time-I even stored a couple of his bikes for about two years while he dealt with not having a place to call home. 
Mark is gone-I don't think there's anyone else to tell his story and my version is not very complete but his work is out there-unmistakeable when you see it. I have kept a couple of the bikes he painted - not so much for how they rode or what sort of job I did building the frame. I kept these bikes because of the work that Mark did to make these bikes exceptional. I know that there are a few truly amazing painters out there doing remarkable stuff currently. These guys are very talented and it shows in their work. That said, there was only one Dr. Deltron and I don't think that anyone will ever eclipse what he did when he was at his most inspired. 

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Rat turds and rare metals-another frame builder garage sale

 Back in 1961 a guy named Hugh Enochs decided with a partner to start building bicycle frames. The brand name was 'Paragon'- a good name that is now used by a bike industry machine shop that supplies parts guessed it- frame builders. The two operations as far as I know had nothing to do with each other as the Paragon frame operation was shut long before the machine shop started business. Paragon was no more, but that was not the end of Hugh Enoch's foray into frame building and the bicycle business. What I know about him was that he had a small distributing company called "Jevelot" that serviced retail shops. He offered a selection of small parts and also did frame building, repair and re-painting. He was good at what he did but the bike business back in the '70's was not a good place to try to make a living. Hugh did side gigs working in bay area bicycle shops such as Velo Sport in Berkeley and the Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos. Hugh was very familiar with tandem bicycles and all the specialized parts and services that they required. 

Jevelot had a run in the '70's and '80's selling stuff like toe clip straps that Hugh made in his shop. He got synthetic strap material and buckles and a rivet machine so that he could produce them himself, thus not having to order from overseas and dealing with the frequent delays and shortages of parts. Dock strikes use to really throw a wrench in the bike business supply chain regularly and Hugh's proprietary goods were a great option for small shops, provided they knew that his small company existed. I remember working at a couple of shops and ordering a few items from Hugh. He was not overly friendly on the phone , but he was very professional and one got the feeling that he knew what he was talking about .

A number of years ago Hugh's health started failing . At this time he is in a care facility with Parkinson's and is unable to conduct business any more.His wife has had the job of disposing of all his accumulation of tools and leftover inventory from his Jevelot days and all his decades in the bicycle business. A customer of mine was enlisted to oversee the sale of all his stuff and I got a call asking if I wanted anything out of all the inventory of frame building materials and tools. I was not that keen to get more stuff and further clutter my own shop but I felt that buying at least something would help out Hugh's wife who was elderly and clearly overwhelmed with the task of dealing with all the stuff, literally two small garages packed to the roof with clutter. Some of the stuff was useful but a lot of it was pretty dated and likely to be just thrown out. 

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon I drove the one hour drive to the small town of La Honda where Hugh and his wife had called home for 50+ years. I met my customer and Hugh's wife there and when the garage door opened I saw a familiar sight- lots of boxes of bike parts , tubing and tools.....just like a number of garages of frame builders who have either died or just quit. I have no doubt that my shop will be the same scene when the inevitable end of the line comes for me. An associate who also builds frames was with me and he was much more enthusiastic about climbing over boxes and workbenches to look into each and every box to see what was there. No doubt , other people had come earlier and scooped up valuable and vintage European bicycle parts but we were there for the tubing, lugs and maybe some tools. The garages smelled like rodent cages and there was rat feces everywhere. I felt myself kind of getting ill while I was there but looking through the stuff was compelling. The tubing was mostly Reynolds from the '70's and '80's- very much what I was looking for. Was it something I needed ? Not really- I only used tubing like that for repairing old frames ( Which I no longer do ) or for a series of novelty retro frames ( which I don't sell ) so for me this was all about helping Hugh's wife and taking a look at the dregs of his life in the bike business that likely started before I was out of nursery school.

I made a small pile of tubing and welding rod and was preparing to make a cash offer. My associate had another idea- he took about nine boxes of tubing , a fork jig and a box of old prepping tools and added to my pile. Now we had a full truck load to take back. I made an offer to Hugh's wife and she accepted immediately. I got the feeling that she just wanted everything out of there regardless of how much money she got for it. I wound up barely making a dent in the huge amount of stuff but at least I did my part. I'm going back up there as my associate has his eye on a tool cabinet and there's the whole "Did we miss anything?" impulse that happens after one leaves such an unusual garage sale that only happens when someone's career is over, and Hugh's career was long enough to span generations-from the time of toe clips and wool shorts to the time of E-mountain bikes , Zwift , power meters and Strava. I'm not what you would call young but looking at the stuff in the garage I realized that I was the next generation after Hugh and things turned out quite differently for me than they did for him. In the end,  I am sure it will be a similar scene- people looking at all the stuff in my shop and saying : " What was he thinking when he got 50 of these ?"Of course the next sentence would be : " Who the hell would want this stuff ? ". I don't pretend to be any different in that regard. Every time I think that I am shrinking my immense accumulation of bicycle stuff, another load comes in- either just dropped off by a well meaning friend or as in this case , my own weakness for going out in the field and filling my truck. 

The upside to this is just that Hugh's wife will be rid of some of his stuff without having to hire a truck to dispose of it and also, the hope that the unfinished work of Hugh might not wind up in the landfill. I have already built a frame and fork out of tubing from Hugh's garage and I have plans to build more , but only after I build a lot more customer's frames out of more modern materials. I used to set aside the time between Christmas and New Years for building lugged frames , maybe one or two- not for customers but just to keep my hand in that style of building and more importantly, to use the tubes that have slept decades in boxes - waiting to be used. There's little chance that I'll use all the stuff I got from Hugh but I'll no doubt hand off the remaining tubes to someone who expresses interest in carrying on the craft, even if it is just a hobby. I feel lucky to have been one of the few builders who eeked out a living ( I still do ) at a very fickle profession. I know that Hugh was not able to sustain himself merely building frames but his impact on bay area cycling history is notable- he knew a lot of people and was well connected with the best shops back in the day. I would hope that he would approve of the spirit of how I have gone about taking his dregs and giving them life. I can't do it all , but I will do what I can. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Peter Johnson

 No, this is not an example of Peter Johnson's work- frankly I don't have any photos of him or his frames. I did know him and I have seen his work. Back when I was working at the Bicycle Center in Santa Cruz as a wrench I got the chance to meet Peter in 1978 and see one of his frames. I was really blown away at the delicate detail- the thinned and beautifully finished lugs were as good or better than any I had seen....and I had seen  many beautiful frames at that point. The Bicycle Center had quite a collection of high end frames from Europe and the USA and many well heeled customers would show up with the finest bikes for service or to join on shop rides. In a sea of quality bike frames, Peter Johnson's frame stood out as maybe a step further in terms of meticulous detail and finish. Peter himself did not talk up his work and billed himself as a hobby builder who dabbled in the craft. He said that the amount of time it took for him to build a frame made it impossible for the task to be financially rewarding. He just built frames as an expression without the thought of ever going full time with it. 

One day many years later I was in San Diego for a bike show and was staying at Bryan Baylis' house. He showed me his workshop and pulled out a frame that he was going to paint for a client. I looked at the frame and noticed that it was put together with lugs brazed with brass. Unlike most frames done this way, this frame was immaculate , almost delicate in its construction. Bryan asked me if I knew who the builder was by looking at the frame. I told him that I didn't have a clue. He told me that it was built by Peter Johnson and that the brazing was beyond what he , Bryan Baylis was capable of........that was shocking to hear as Bryan was one of the foremost builders in the world. He was one-upped by a dabbler- Peter Johnson, a machinist in Nor-Cal who only built a couple of frames a year, if that. 

Peter knew who all the older builders were and he would go to their shops when they were selling off old building supplies. I also went to a couple of these builders, Art Stump for one. I was hoping to score some old UK made blank lugs from the '50's. Art told me that I was too late-Peter had already cleaned him out. This happened on more than one occasion. I am sure that his collection of old bicycle parts was unrivaled in the state. Peter had a real reverence for the craft and all the old ways, even if he himself was not that involved. Even with his limited track record of frames, he still commanded the respect of the best in the business-something not generally afforded to anyone other than full time builders- that's how good he was but of course, he himself would never tell you that. 

I didn't get to talk to him much but maybe 4-5 years ago he showed up at my shop. He was engaging, funny and insightful. I really enjoyed the visit- it was a nice surprise. I was hoping that our paths would cross again but they sadly didn't. Now, hearing of his passing I am reminded of the '70's and things that I saw in bicycle shops that impressed me. I will never forget that first Peter Johnson frame, or any of the other few that I saw over the last 40-odd years. RIP, mr. Johnson.