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.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

If I were writing a book on frame building......

So.....what qualifications do I have to instruct anyone in the craft of bicycle frame building ? -Look it up. I have been an instructor on occasion, although not that often , but often enough to maybe think that I have something to offer the poor folks who want to try out what I do- if not for a living than maybe for an experience of sorts. This experience can lead to fulfillment but it can also lead to some pretty serious disappointment. This feeling of disappointment can manifest itself in several ways- it can re-enforce the self loathing that effects myself and many of my brethren of the torch. It can serve to whittle down the self love that some of my other brethren cultivate. Either way, it is a real slap in the face when things don't go your way in the shop. The thing that separates the career guys from the dabblers is how they deal with problems in the shop. I feel that little has been written about this subject in frame building so if per chance I use some of my later years to write a volume on bicycle frame building I have a title for the chapter:

Getting even with inanimate objects. 

Yes- this is real truth as I see it. One might think : " Why risk destroying a valuable tool or portion of a semi-completed frame when one can just take a few deep breaths and carry on ? " I'll tell you why. These materials and tools are things that you bought. You are the boss in your shop and these tools need to know that. There's no reason you can't give a good swift kick to that bike stand that hit you in the head when you were least expecting it. You don't have to take that crap - if you don't dispense with a little discipline you might have the same thing happen again. Is that shop vac getting in the way ? Carry it to a far corner of the shop and give it a good toss- maybe it won't care but that's not important. What is important is that you are showing these tools who is the real picked out these tools, you spent the money, you gave them shelter......the least they can do is to stay the fuck out of the way and not make your day even more miserable than normal.

There are some that might say : "By beating on these tools you are only hurting yourself ." I call bullshit on that - anyway, maybe I do want to hurt myself a little- but I really want to hurt that sonofabitch bench vise, too. Why the hell don't you hold the work tightly like I want you too ? You think I didn't tighten you enough ? Is that all you have to say ? Well , take this ball peen hammer blow and think about it again , you useless hunk of iron . Besides, a well disciplined shop takes on a nice patina......or maybe better to call it a 'distressed' look. A visitor can venture into the shop and immediately be impressed with a well disciplined shop floor where the concrete has had some nice chips taken out - not that the story of the chips need be told - that story is not really relevant anyway . Just a look at that floor will be a silent story of whatever took place that will not be discussed. 

So maybe you think that one has to be insane to think that showing an inanimate object who's the boss is a good thing to do. I urge you to talk to just about anyone in any craft- not just bicycle frame building - and let them tell you what actions they had to take against an uncaring array of fine toolery. It does not seem to matter how much money you forked over for that magnificent hacksaw- that piece of shit will happily cut the crap out of you any old day and send you to the emergency room. I feel that it is fitting that you might have the urge to send that saw across the shop with the one good hand you have left- just make sure that you don't throw it at an innocent rubber mallet that meant you no harm, even backed you up the last time you really needed to beat on something but didn't necessarily want to leave marks. While I don't discourage getting even with the occasional inanimate object in the shop it is important to remember that there are tools that will be needed to complete the task at hand- so......don't go destroying everything in the shop- save your rage only for the worst offenders. You know who they are ............

Thursday, May 20, 2021

You know who I was but you don't know me- Lawrence Malone

 While I didn't know him as well as a lot of other people I do have some Lawrence Malone stories. He died in an automobile accident this week - the true cause of it a mystery much like the life of the man himself. He was a bike racer of the first order but I don't think that he wanted that to be his total identity. His racing spanned a number of years and included no less than five national cyclocross titles but he was not much like those who he competed against. He raced at a time when American bike racers were very poor financially but none were poorer than Lawrence. He borrowed bikes , bummed food and rides to get to races-most of which he would win but the prizes seldom included much if any cash. He lived on almost nothing on a good day and less the rest of the time.

My first exposure to Lawrence was the cover of Velo News magazine. The cover photo was of Lawrence jumping a barrier on his bike at a cyclocross race. As far as I know, he was the first racer to do this and while he was in Europe racing he really made a name for himself by airing the barriers when nobody else had thought about riding that way- he was an original thinker. Seeing this made me , a lousy Cat. 4 beginner go out on my bike and jump every chuck hole in the county on my training rides. On one particular jump I came down ungracefully and broke a very expensive 3TTT saddle. It was at that point I realized how much skill that I didn't have and would never have- and I also realized how skilled Lawrence must be to be able to jump barriers that were more than a foot tall. 

The first time I saw Lawrence in person was in 1978. I was on a ride with my bike shop boss on a popular route up Hwy. 1 north to Swanton road. When we were about 45 min. into the ride we were passed by a rider going very fast, followed by a pack of what must have been about 20-25 riders. My boss said that this group was the 'Friday ride" - a pack of most of the fastest cyclists in the county. The guy in front that they were chasing ? -Lawrence. My boss said that if I wanted to try my hand at that ride I would have to train as people like Lawrence ( even though he really was in a class by himself ) were going to leave me behind in short order if I didn't put in the miles. To see all those top riders working so hard to catch Lawrence impressed me- how could one guy hold off a whole pack ? 

The next time I saw Lawrence it was a bit of a surprise. I was in my apartment with my girlfriend at the time on a Friday or Saturday night- not sure what night it was, actually. About 8:00-9:00 PM there was aloud and frantic knock at the door. I opened the door and in walked Lawrence with his bike. He closed the door and sat down on the living room floor and opened up a pack that he was carrying. Out of the pack came a gallon bottle of cheap Red Mountain wine- he offered us a swig , which we declined. He shrugged and took a drink. I'm not sure how he knew where I lived but my apartment was just what he needed that night for about 15 minutes or so. After a bit of conversation and a few drinks, Lawrence got up and took a peak out the front door. He looked up and down the street - after this he thanked us for our hospitality and got on his bike and went on his way. Before he left I asked him what was up- he just smiled and said that he needed to hide for a few minutes and now that the coast was clear he could continue on his way. I never fully found out who Lawrence was hiding from but knowing that would not make the story any better- it might even ruin it. It was just Lawrence being Lawrence.

Years would go by - Lawrence was no longer racing but he was still a bicycle rider, scrounger and always cobbing various old bikes into transportation. He came by my shop in the early '90's with an Italian frame with a broken chain stay. He asked me how much it would cost to fix it . I told him around $ 40. He said OK and left the frame. I would not see him again for maybe two years. I had fixed the frame but after two years I figured that Lawrence was not coming back for it- $ 40 was big money to Lawrence and perhaps he had forgotten about the frame or maybe had decided not to pick it up. I had the frame painted, assembled it into a complete bike and sold it. A few weeks after I sold the bike Lawrence came by. He asked me if I still had the frame and if it had been repaired. I told him that I had repaired it two years ago and that I thought that he had abandoned or forgotten about it. When I told him that I had sold it he didn't get angry- he didn't ask me for money or anything really- he just looked disappointed and shook his head a little. I apologized but said that anything left in my shop that long is subject to getting sold or disposed of. He seemed to understand and left.

The next time I saw Lawrence was in my back yard about a year later. Some how word had gotten out that I had a big pile of bike parts that I wanted to get rid of and they were in my back yard. Lawrence called up and asked if he could look through the pile. I told him yes and he drove up later in his Carmen Ghia and proceeded to rifle through the pile of frames and parts. I told him to just make a pile of what he wanted and we would come up with a price. He must have worked for about an hour looking carefully through all the bike stuff and eventually had a pretty large pile of what he wanted. He asked me how much for the pile, to which I said : How about $ 200.00 ?  Lawrence looked at me blankly for a second and they broke into a bit of a smile. I think he was pretty happy with the price- he opened his wallet and produced 10 twenty dollar bills- I was in shock- this was Lawrence Malone buying $ 200 worth of bike parts in cash. While I knew that the parts were worth far more than what he was paying, I was still amazed that Lawrence was carrying that amount of cash for any reason. He carryed the parts to his car and whatever frames he got that would not fit inside the car he bungie corded them to a rickety rack on the back of the Carmen Ghia . After that he bid goodby and thanked me for giving him the good deal. I thanked him and watched him drive off.

The last time I saw Lawrence was over a decade later. I was at a cyclocross race here in Santa Cruz watching the elite race. A friend pointed to a taller older man standing with a road bike near the side of the course. He asked me :" Is that Lawrence ?" I really had to look for awhile- it didn't look quite like the same guy who had driven away with the load of bike parts- if it really was Lawrence, he looked much older . He had moved to New Mexico years earlier and I had pretty foggy memories of what he looked like. It turned out that it was Lawrence indeed - in town for a visit and taking in a cyclocross race as a spectator. I didn't talk to him- I just felt like maybe he might just want to watch the race and not have a bunch of people talking to him as a distraction. Maybe I just didn't feel that I was someone he would remember or want to talk to. I regret not talking to him- I really regret not fully giving him credit for the fact that not only did he remember about that frame he left for me to repair- he remembered people, places, events- he was outwardly a spaced-out seeming character but in reality he was very present. I am sad that I didn't know him better , that I never got to build him a frame and get his opinion on how it rode. Most of all I am sad that I underestimated his capacity for observing and remembering the people he came into contact with. 

As I said in the beginning, I didn't know Lawrence that well and I can't really talk about his life other than the few times that I saw him. There are all sorts of Lawrence stories out there- not all of them happy. He didn't always leave people with a smile and his past is a mixture of all sorts of varying accounts- I'll have to leave it at that and suggest that other people will be able to fill in the vast spaces that I left open in this story. In Lawrence's memory I tried to stick to what I recalled the best and not pass judgement . It is ironic and quite sad that such a bicycle guy would have his life end in an automobile accident . I think that Lawrence had a lot more to give to this life if he had had the chance , but with the chance he was given he did make an impact on cycling history , even if the identity that people gave him for his racing exploits only tell a fraction of what he really was all about. 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

New shop at last.

 April was a heck of a month- EKG, stress test, angiogram, internal bleeding and a hematoma, three days of bed rest followed by 16 straight days of moving. I'm still alive and very close to recovered from my procedure at the the dream. OK- now for the good news-I'm now in the best workspace I have ever had. I had to wait decades for it but at least I am there now. I have enough room to have a nice open floor and there's some natural light and more ventilation. The other bonus is that it is less rent than the last building I was in - more room, less rent ? In California ? -Yes.......does not seem possible but that's how it is now. I have no idea how long I'll be able to enjoy this spot but I'll be here as long as I can. Affordable industrial space is mostly extinct here in Santa Cruz. Small manufacturers like myself are being displaced by brew pubs , wine tasting rooms and cannabis distributors. Those are the businesses that have the money to pay for the high west side rents. There's a thriving economy in intoxication.....kind of funny but hey- I don't make the rules around here. 

So- I have a 'destination shop' but with Covid, I can't have a bunch of people coming by and I can't have a grand opening party. That's OK with me.....I have a major ton of work to do , delayed by my hospitalization and subsequent bed rest and also by the 2+ weeks of the move. I'm ready to re-start tomorrow. Wish me luck- I have to get this place up and running and there's a bunch of tools that are going to be hard to find at first.It will be a challenge but this year has been all about challenges for everybody. I'm glad that mine aren't that monumental.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

What could possibly go wrong ?

So.....yes, I am moving my shop. I have been saying this since about this time last year but as of a few days ago I have signed the rental agreement and have paid the first month's rent. Do I have a key yet ? -no. Has the place I'm moving into been fully vacated ? -That's a no as well. Long story- the previous renter is very old and has been moving very slowly-if at all to get his 40-odd year's of accumulation out of the space. He asked for a few more days to clear out what he wanted to keep and I said that as long as they have not changed the lock he can get his stuff out-until today. He asked for three days and I gave him three days. I'll have to do many dump and recycling runs to get the place empty enough for me to move into. The landlord let me slide on the security deposit if I do all the dump runs myself and take the place as-is. 

Now this would be a full enough plate just by itself as I also have decades of accumulation in my shop to move. Fortunately , my last move in 2018 resulted in 4 truckloads of stuff getting donated , recycled or taken to the landfill so I won't have that to worry about. The thing that makes this move a bit daunting are the many more bicycles and boxes of parts that have come my way since I started renting the present shop.  Also, a new huge free-standing  loft was constructed for this shop and it will have to be dismantled and moved and re-built. 

But the real wild card is this: On the last two hard bike rides I have done I have experienced some new chest pain- not really horrible, but new. It only happened when I was doing a threshold effort up a long steep climb. I talked to a doctor and he said "Stop riding hard and get a stress test ." This I have done , along with other tests. The result is that I now go in on the 12th for an angiogram to see if I have blocked arteries and need a stent or two. The good news is that this is a very quick procedure and I'm likely to bounce back in a few days. The wild card is not knowing the extent of the problem, or even if there is any real problem as I have no other symptoms. I can still ride comfortably , although I have definitely slowed down to avoid giving myself a coronary. At 65 , I'm not alone in having a health issue like this. Plenty of people half my age have gotten a stent. The timing of this issue though could not be more poorly timed. I'll have one week to do dump runs and then, without even starting my move I'll be going into the cardiac unit for the procedure. It has to be done but hell......WTF ? 

So..........I should have a pretty good crew to help me with the move, although I might miss some days. This happened last year when I fell off a ladder and got a concussion and missed 4 days of the final part of the shop move. Will I pull this move off successfully ? I hope so.....I just hope that the doctors pull off their job successfully and that they don't have much of a job to do. Of course, if I die on the table there's a good chance that your frame will be delayed significantly.......

hope to see you all on the other side of this one- it could be way worse-I caught this issue ver early I think. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Again ??

With a build list longer than ever, a pandemic and a crazy busy time in the bike business, what could be more unwelcome than another shop move ? Yes, after less than three years I am moving the shop down the road, not very far- back to the same building I was in before. Crazy ? -Yes.....but this actually might turn out to be a good thing. As luck would have it, a place in my old building that has about 40% more room and about 40% less rent is opening up. The person with whom I'm sharing my current shop with has decided to move out so I must leave as well. The current land lords have given us the green light to leave even before the lease is up. Less rent, more room ........why would I complain ?-  Let me count the ways.....

Upon moving into the current shop I had pared down my junk and extra bits to a nice level and created a pretty good working space. Never mind that it had no natural light, poor ventilation and was very much a depressing concrete crypt that cost much more than any shop I had ever rented- I managed to make it work. Now that it has been a couple of years in this space I am somewhat used to it but winters in this cold unheated bunker are not something that warms the heart, the feet or anything. I am now 65 and thought of this time in my life to be the point where I take on less work and try to slow down a bit. This is definitely not the case in 2021. I had my busiest year even in 2020 and 2021 looks to outpace it already. I should be grateful for all the work that is coming my way-and I am, believe me-but during this surge of activity it must all grind to a halt while I transport my garbage heap a couple of blocks away. I have not even seen the new shop yet- there's real promise that it might be the best space ever and that the new lower rent will help me in my quest to get to a less busy week but really, with the added pressure of losing weeks of productive time during the move and also the prospect of having more room and a better work flow means that the temptation to buckle down and bust ass in these times of plenty is a compulsion I might have trouble shutting down. There are over 60 frames on my list right now- slowing down and smelling the flowers will not get these frames built.

So there it is- the September years workathon-shop disembowelment tour 2021. I'll try not to fall off a ladder this time and I'll do what I can to make a real nice place to work out of the next space. I never did have a grand opening of the last shop- I doubt that I'll have a grand closing of it, either. There won't be a grand opening of this shop- Covid makes that pretty much a non-starter. So......just like most of the big events in my so-called career, this one will take place with little or no fanfare, no press releases, no parties, just a few more dump runs and donations to the various bike charities around town. Wish me luck- this move will probably be the last big one-but that's what I said about the last one. It is just that this time I really feel that I do not have a decade of full time work left in me......all things come to an end at one point or another and even though I am still going full-tilt in 2021 I know that I am already feeling my limits physically and mentally. I have now too much stuff to keep track of and a capacity to do so that is shrinking steadily. I promise to do my best ...........again.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Out of the attic and onto the road

Right about the time I was building my first frame I bought a used Bianchi frame , supposedly from the late '50's. The idea to search for one was spurred on by Ross, the guy who taught me how to light a torch and then gave me some guidance when I was building my first two frames. Ross told me how he had one of these old Bianchis and that it was the greatest bike ever.
If I remember the story right, Ross was on a ride on the Bianchi and crashed really hard. He was next to a small river so he went to the water to clean himself up and was out his wounds. When he got back up to the road his Bianchi was gone. He told me that he really missed the bike and the experience of losing it that way was really traumatic.
After Ross told me how magical his old bike was, I made it my mission to find one. Luckily, someone working in the shop where I worked knew of one somewhere near Fresno that was sitting in a garage of an old retired frame builder. I was told that I could buy it for $ 75 but that it didn't have a fork. I had my friend pick it up for me and then began the search for a fork. Fortunately, I worked in a bike shop-a really busy one and I asked everyone if they knew of a fork that was proper for this bike. After about a year I was able to buy one for $ 40. It wasn't totally straight and it did have a dent in one of the blades but I knew that finding another one would be nearly impossible.

Next, I had to find the illusive Bianchi Headset that was exclusive to that brand and was no longer in production. I would up finding a low-end Bianchi that had been crashed but still had its special headset. This crashed frame was free as it was pretty worthless , except of course for the headset. Now all I had to do was to strip the parts from my other bike and build up this Bianchi and ride it. Ride it , I did......many miles. I put a Campagnolo triple on it and made it into a touring bike and rode from Denver , Co. to Calispell, Mt. , crossing the continental divide about 11 times. It remains the longest bike tour I have ever done and the bike never failed me- no flat tires or mechanicals I even had my tent fall off the front rack at high speed- I ran over it but didn't crash .......the bike was very stable .

About 1985 I lent the bike to my girlfriend for a few years as she really liked the way it rode, even with the crooked fork. She gave it back to me when I gave her another bike that I had built. When I got the Bianchi back I raided some parts from it and it would up hanging from a hook up until last September. I decided that this Covid time would be good for fixing up all the old project bikes in the shop. This bike is the one I have had the longest and might be the pick of the litter. I finally did fix the dent in the fork and aligned it- the bike is about a straight as it will ever be and riding it with no hands is no longer a death defying feat. Instead of putting on the hodgepodge of parts that came off it from the first time I built it , I went up into the loft of my shop and took out all the parts that were relatively correct for a bike of this time period. I didn't want to just get it rolling again- I wanted to honor it by making it what it originally was, a late '50's racing bike for 20-year old amphetamine-jacked professional European bicycle racers. While I was not able to preserve the chrome on the frame and fork, I was able to get the correct decals and took photos of the bike before the paint was stripped so that I could place the right decals in the right places.

Here are some of the shots of the bike before the restoration. Just so you all know, I had resisted repainting this bike for decades-I really loved the old patina and original decals. The years have not been that kind to this frame and if I had not done the repaint I think I would have been signing an early death warrant for this old treasure. Purists will probably be insulted by the lack of chrome and the powdercoat finish but hey- the color is correct and it will protect the bike from the elements better than anything else I could have had done. I'm not trying to win first prize at the Eroica bike show-I'm only trying to show some consideration for a half-century old bike that was possibly the best of its day-and as I like to say, "An old bike that was good in its day is still a good bike".