Wednesday, November 5, 2014
August,1977-this was when I was ready to leave L.A. any way I could-even if it were in a box. I was so fed up with the so-called 'life' I was living and needed to get away. My sister was living in Santa Cruz and urged me to try living there. I sent up a job resume and a letter of recommendation from my boss at Harry's Hollywood Schwinn. I had $ 200 , two bicycles, a guitar and a stereo to my name. My sister said that she would bring the copies of my resume to all the bike shops in Santa Cruz. A good friend with a truck took me up north and I celebrated my 23rd birthday saying a permanent goodby to L.A.
It was in mid September that I went around to all the bike shops and introduced myself. Most of the shops were full with workers and did not need a new face, even on who had experience at a big L.A. bike shop. My hunting took me to the Bicycle Center where Roger greeted me warmly. He said that having my sister in my corner was a big plus. He also said that my orange Colnago was a nice bike-even if it was a bit big for me.I told him that I was earning $ 2.35 an hour at Hollywood Schwinn but was willing to take less. Roger hired me and started me at $ 2.75 and hour and immediately I felt like I had landed in a good spot.
I was to be part of a new crew who came in after Roger's two trusted mechanics had gone off to start their own businesses.....this really irked Roger as he really didn't appreciate employees going into direct competition with him. He was very territorial at this point in his life, having sunk his life savings into this very high-end shop filled with top-end frames from around the world. You see, Roger was a guy who made his living earlier working for Lockheed. He did very well financially but felt that there was much more to life than bringing in the big bucks . In his early'40s he decided to check out the bike world and bit by bit got himself enough know how and bravery to start his own shop. The shop grew and after a number of years he bought a lot and built a new building to house his vision-a shop that would bring high-end bicycles to Santa Cruz for the first time. This was to be my place of work for the first two years of my new life in Santa Cruz.
Working at the shop , I got a chance to see frames from not only European brands that I was familiar with-I got to see frames from US builders who were raising the bar artistically and creating frames that really showed an attention to detail that I had not encountered before. Seeing these frames and talking with Roger got me interested in building a frame for myself. Roger told me that his son-in-law had built a number of frames and was going to liquidate some tubing . This is where I got some of my first materials. Also, the Bicycle Center had a Campagnolo tool kit-this I had never seen. Roger told me that a distributor had some on sale for $ 895. I did not have to money and did not have credit. Roger co-signed for a business loan so that I could buy myself one of these amazing tool kits. This was 1978 and by the summer I had built my first frame.
While Roger was not opposed to me having a hobby building frames, he was not convinced that I was ever going to be a credible frame builder. At the time I felt a bit disappointed but came to realize that the process at getting good at building frames would take a long time and was secondary to earning a living at the bike shop. After a year or so, I was the manager of the shop when Roger and his wife Marcia were away. I liked the added responsibility and appreciated the trust that Roger had in me. I did my best to not let my boss down and in spite of my lack of confidence really took to the job of making sure that all was running as it should.
One day I came to work and Roger was not there. Marcia said that he was at the hospital and was going to have bypass surgery. It turned out that Roger had a heart episode and it would change his life. While he was laid up, Marcia and I ran the shop-it was a big job and I for one was a bit overwhelmed. When Roger finally was well enough to come back to work he was calmer and less territorial than he had been in the past. He started showing me ways to straighten tacoed wheels by slamming them on the ground. It was brilliant ! He showed me how to align a rear end of a bent bicycle frame with a rubber mallet. I still do it the same way. He made me aware of chain line and how critical it was to proper gear function. He also showed me that a customer in the store needed to be helped more than the phone needed to be answered-very wise words that I didn't completely understand at the time. He also introduced me to cyclocross-I had no idea that it existed. My first ride in the forest was with Roger and one of his friends. We went out on a drizzly day for a couple of hours until a land owner kicked us off of his property !
Roger introduced me to all the folks in the cycling club-people that I might not have really liked hanging out with but who were into riding like myself. Roger showed me a county cycling map and urged me to do what he had done-ride every road on the map. I still have yet to achieve that , but I did see a lot of nice roads in the process. Working at the Bicycle Center really got me aware of the larger picture of bikes, riding and the cycling community. While I really valued my position at the Bicycle Center I knew that one day I would have to leave. I didn't see eye to eye with Roger on a few things and I was stubborn and young enough not to let it go. I took a job a a smaller shop across town that I could transform into something nearly my own, or so I thought.
After a year and a half of working at the smaller shop myself and the rest of the crew were all fired on the same day. It seemed that we were not the right 'image' that the owner wanted and in spite of the fact that we had turned his run down garbage heap of a shop into a profitable and well liked bike shop. I was given one hour's severance. I immediately called Roger asking if I could have my job back. Graciously he told me I was welcome back, even though I had not left on the greatest of terms-such was his forgiveness.
I worked for another year at the Bicycle Center and then went on a long bike tour. When I got back I decided that I needed to learn more about wheel building so I took a job at another shop that had a reputation for the best service department. Even though I no longer worked for Roger I still had a good relationship and he always treated me with respect. I really feel that i got my real start in the bike business with Roger and I got the opportunity to learn about frame building in Roger's shop-something I was unlikely to experience anywhere else. For this I will always be thankful-my life as it is now is a direct result of those few years at the Bicycle Center. R.I.P., Roger-you were a good man.
Friday, June 20, 2014
Examples of jobs I would take in the garage days: replacing a steerer in a fork. Back in the day, all steerer tubes were threaded and every once in awhile they would break or get damaged. I would get the request to replace a steerer occasionally. I no longer do this as I now know that re-heating a fork is potentially creating a very unsafe- yet solid appearing fork . The chance of someone hopping a curb on a repaired fork and getting really badly hurt when the fork broke made the job not worth it.
Some jobs like the fork repair are obviously risky and have the possible result of serious injury but other jobs that I no longer do are not nearly as risky. What makes them something I avoid is less a question of liability and more a question of what I feel is the right thing to do when given the choice.
An example of what I get asked to do lately is to take an older MTB frame that will only take a 1" steerer fork and replace the head tube with one that will take either a 1 1/8" steerer or even a tapered steerer. The problem with this request is that someone wants to take a functional older bike-one that was probably really high end about 20 years ago-and try to make it modern. Trouble is, not only are the steerers different these days, the forks are a lot longer ( if you are talking shock forks ) so simply making the frame have the ability to run the newer fork does not mean that the bike will ride correctly as either a cool old bike or a cool new bike. What one will have is an old bike pretty much turned into a piece of shit-neither classic nor current- almost like what the Soviets were doing in the '50's with vivisection-a really inhuman experiment of grafting parts of living animals together-two-headed dogs and the like........disgusting .In effect , people are asking me to practice vivisection on their bikes. " Yeah, he had a Bontrager OR from 1994 but now he has a two- headed dog".
Another thing folks will ask me to do is to graft on a disc brake setup on a really old bike that was never made for that kind of structural stress. A lot of these requests are for doing this modification to aluminum frames. I usually have to explain that the welding process will weaken an already really old and tired frame. To re-temper the frame will require heat treatment. The heat treatment will destroy the paint so now the frame will have to be repainted.Now, the cost of the job exceeds the value of the bike by a large sum. At this point folks thinking that they could take the old Cannondale and put disc brakes on it for $ 20 and a sixpack get a significant reality check .
The sad thing is that for the most part these requests are coming from well meaning people who honestly don't have enough know how to realize that what they are asking for-even if it can be done-is a mistake. Back maybe 30 years ago a kid brought in a beautiful old English frame from the '50's and wanted me to 'legthen' the whole front end of the frame. Ignorantly I took in the job and attempted to heat and remove the tubes from the seat lug and BB shell. The lug and shell literally disintegrated and the frame was destroyed. I felt terrible and wished that I had never touched it.The frame was a Hopper 'Vampire' and I have not seen one since. The kid was understanding and did not rake me over the coals as he knew that he shared some of the blame for the demise of this irreplaceable old relic.
So now, many years later when someone calls me with a request for a job that I know will turn a functional bike into a two-headed dog I'll think of the Hopper Vampire and also those insane Soviet scientists in the '50's that just couldn't let a dog be a dog.
Posted by swiggco world at 9:58 PM
Sunday, February 9, 2014
As luck would have it, the owners son was a frame builder and he had lots of hard to find tubes and bits for frame building. I and my fellow shop employees had an interest in building our own frames , largely spurred on by all the wonderful examples hanging in the shop. The three of us, Jeff Dodge, Brent Harris and myself got lugs and tubes and started filing away , hoping to create some great bikes in the near future. My goal was to build a track frame and fork-ignorantly I thought that it would be the least amount of work as there would be no cable stops, shifter bosses, water bottle bosses, etc. Of course I spent untold hours making cutouts on the lugs and fork crown-completely obliterating any chance of finishing the project in a timely fashion. I was very lucky to have met Ross Shafer at this time who lent me the use of his shop and some really great advice.
I toiled away for about six weeks on weekends and after work and in June of 1978 I had completed and even painted my first frame and fork. Ross had told me to first do a drawing of my project before starting-of course being impulsive and A.D.D. I skipped that part and relied on my inexperienced eyeball and some basic measuring tools to get the job done. The result was not quite what I had in mind but it was rideable and I did ride it quite a bit for the next couple of years. Since There were a couple of geometry errors in the rear triangle of the frame I resolved to someday fix it.
In 1994 in my own shop after a particularly difficult day I had the need to smash something-don't ask me where this urge comes from......maybe creating stuff all the time can cause an urge to try to balance out the creation with some destruction. I looked around my shop and saw my first frame hanging from a hook, neglected and unused for the past 14 years. I knew that it needed a new rear triangle so I took it down and beat the crap out of it with a large hammer, being careful not to hurt the front triangle-upon which I would eventually graft on new stays and make the bike ride like it should have in 1978. After the dust settled I hung the frame back up.
It was now 2010 and I was to be exhibiting at the NAHBS and thought that the 16 years since I had pounded the crap out of frame # 1 had been a sufficient sleep......I resolved to finish what I had started in 1994 and repair the frame. I looked through my tubes and found some identical Reynolds 531 stays and Bob Brown was kind enough to sell me some original Campagnolo rear track dropouts for a reasonable price. The repair took only a few hours and for the first time since I had built the thing I took a really critical look and my first effort. When I had finished it in 1978 I was very proud of what I had done. Looking at in in 2010 with all the paint removed and with a much more experienced eye, I beheld a true piece of shit. That said, I knew that ater all these years I had to polish this turd and get it rolling again or the show. The simple repair I thought would cure all the ills of my first impulsive effort at building a frame turned out to not be so simple. After really looking in depth at what I had built I fully knew that whatever I did to fix it would not make it into what I had originally inteded to build-it was just too screwed up for that.
At this juncture I determined that I had to make it ride again , not change any of the original look and most of all......keep some of the fuck-ups and the general theme of ignorance that are emblematic of my first frame. I was able to do this in admirable fashion, compete with almost cutting the chainstays too short so that the rear tire needed to be deflated to get the rear wheel out of the frame-keeping the tradition alive. After the final alignment I sent the frame off to get a nice candy apple red powdercoat-not the original color but a really nice one.
Once the frame and fork were back in my shop I took some old parts and some old-looking new parts and built up the bike fixed gear with no brake-just like in June of 1978 but something was different this time.....I got on the bike and rode it around the building where my shop is located. I rode it to lunch and back......I rode it home-even as off-spec as this frame was it had a very nice quality of ride....something that I had not expected. I knew that I had made an improvement when I did the rebuild of the rear triangle but I was convinced that the bike would still ride poorly. Amazingly, this was not the case-it rolled along well and steered pleasingly-I guess that it wasn't too far gone after all. This experience of building this frame and 32 years later re-visiting it with a new life made me feel more positive about what could be done with a torch, some files, some sandpaper and a good portion of ignorance. I also feel pretty good about what I have learned since that summer of 1978.
Posted by swiggco world at 5:04 PM
Thursday, December 19, 2013
I thought about new folks wanting to go down the same path as I-folks who saw the whole 'work for yourself and create things' allure without knowing the full reality of being a self employed bike frame builder. While it is not my job to educate every prospective new builder on what a shit circus this job can be it is my job to tell my side of the experience, seeing as I have a great number of years fighting the strong current in my toilet of choice.
I guess I will start at the beginning-folks who know my whole story are welcome to skip this part-me, I didn't get the option on that for better or worse.
Way back in 1987 I was a full-time guitar player in a band ( another so-called dream job that turned out to not be the dream after all....) I was in a casino playing music behind a clear plastic shield on a balcony perched above rows upon rows of slot machines. In front of a few of these machines were my audience-dazed and drunk casino patrons emptying coins into slots hoping for that big payoff. I was a few feet above their heads playing songs that I didn't particularly care for , waiting for my big payoff.....the 5 hour drive home. It was in the middle of the last set that I reached my breaking point-I needed to quit this job of the last several years and do something else-something that didn't involve driving many hours to go play music I cared little about to people who cared even less than I. I knew that the next job would be in my own garage-turning my frame building hobby into my full time livelihood.
January, 1988-I had about 17 frames on order so I told the band to get a replacement guitar player-I was going full time with the torch. I had only a few tools but I had some savings and began getting a few items to make my work more efficient. I was operating out of a one-car garage that had a bike stand, a small mill, a drill press and some bikes on hooks. There was very little room to work so I usually pushed most of the bikes and the stand outside into the driveway. I brazed outside-if it was windy, I couldn't work. Hey, I was just starting out so I had an excuse to be stupid. I had probably built about 50-odd frames as a hobbyist so I was not completely new to the work. I had done a number of lugged and fillet brazed frames.
Not knowing much about business I got the idea to sell the frame unpainted and not charge tax-I figured I could write my sales up as labor, a kind of 'contract labor'. Setback # 1 : nine months later I found out that I had indeed needed to collect sales tax and pay it to the state of California. This was made clear to me in a letter from the state board of equalization-pay the tax or be penalized in numerous nasty ways. I owed about $ 650 after calculations and decided to close shop-I simply did not have the money to pay this bill.
This is where my short career could have ended except for one guy-my former manager at a bike shop where I had worked in 1984-decided to throw a party on my behalf and pass the hat to all my friends to save my business. While they didn't come up with nearly enough money to pay the tax bill I took this as a message from the community that what I was doing had some value and was worth trying to save. I scraped the rest of the money together and have been collecting and paying sales tax ever since.
I continued making dumbshit mistakes and getting really frustrated-all the while trying to improve what I did in the shop. I really never figured out what to charge until many years went by. I lost money a good deal of the time because of this inability to really know the true cost of doing business......life eventually beat the data into my thick skull-I had to learn or I was sure to fail like so many people who try to be full time at this job. I was really determined....almost sickly so-I did not want to fail-I wanted to prove to anyone who cared to know that I was going to weather whatever came my way-any setback.
Setback # 2.June 1993- I got a phone call from my father. Truthfully, I got several call from him on my answering machine but I didn't call back as I was not on very good terms with him and didn't want to be subject to whatever berating he was likely to give me-except that the call had nothing to do with how he felt about me.....he had been diagnosed with cancer. My dad was in hospice with an inoperable tumor and my sister was calling me to come back to L.A. and be with him in his final days. I had to leave my shop and put everything on hold-my dad was dying. I was really broke and I needed the income from the frames I was building but all that had to wait. I had bills that I would not be able to pay when I returned home.
After six weeks my dad passed and I drove back home to face the pile of work and bills.I thought about quitting and getting a job somehwere-anywhere.........I was near the end of my tether. At this point the phone started ringing and orders for about twice as many cyclocross frames as the year before came in. With the deposit money in my hands I was back in business-I could not quit....I was busier than ever. I stayed very busy for the next two years.
Setback # 3. Summer 1995-The phone stopped ringing......it just stopped. I got down to two orders-my dad had left me some money so I was going to go to France to ride Paris-Brest-Paris. I secretly started thinking about looking for work in Europe as a builder-I even left a message on my answering machine saying that I might not be coming back-I had to have a good reason to return. After two months of travel I did return-I didn't find a job that sounded worth leaving my home for-luckily, the phone started ringing again and I got busy enough to keep my doors open.
Setback # 4.March 1997- I woke up one morning with an agonizing sharp pain in my lower back-trips to the chiropracter and acupuncturist did nothing to relieve the pain so I got an MRI. It revealed two ruptured discs and I would need surgery.I did have insurance but this was going to take time to heal and still cost thousands of dollars.My savings were getting eaten up and I had to miss work for awhile . I started thinking that maybe the work I was doing was killing my back and I would have to quit. Weeks went by and I slowly go back to the shop-turned out that bike crashes and an old job with heavy lifting had done the damage-not frame building so I got back to the torch.
Setback # 5 , August 2001-I was riding my mountain bike with a friend after work on the same trails that I had been riding for the last 20-odd years. On this day we were really flying downhill at a rate I had never done before and the predictable thing happened-I wound up crashing at high speed and shattered my hip socket. My leg was dislocated and I laid there helplessly on the ground waiting for the EMT's to pick me up. I wound up spending two weeks in the hospital and could not work for three months. I spent thousands on the deductables and making up for lost income. Things looked dire but my riding buddy passed the hat for me and was able to help me with a surprise influx of cash....I got bailed out by my friends yet again.
Setback # 6, summer 2003-the phone stopped again. I never know why this happens but I got down to two orders on the list and took a part time job at a winery pouring wine in a tasting room for $8.00 an hour. I did this part time for three months to see if a career change was viable. Turns out that building frames definitely pays better than working at a tasting room as a bottom of the tier employee-by September I had a bunch of orders again so I quit the winery and got back to work.
Since 2003 I have remained busy and have not crashed my bike too terribly. I have had two kidney stones and developed a case of hemocritic anemia but for the most part I'm going stronger than ever at the bike building. Folks who read this should know that there are other builders who have faced much graver setbacks than I and are still at it-some who nearly died from getting hit by cars, all number of things but they all carry on with the work-I don't think that any one of us can really say why definitively......I know that it definitely helps heal the wounds of the setbacks to take pieces of metal and make a working bicycle. Maybe we are all into this for theraputic reasons.......like electroshock maybe. If you are thinking of taking up this way of making a living , be sure and know that there will be setbacks. You should really ask yourself if you are the kind of person who can and will carry on , not needing an articulate reason to do so......just the desire.
Posted by swiggco world at 9:18 PM
Monday, September 30, 2013
Ahh, but this is not the case for me or for a good number of one-man operations . Friday for me always comes too soon......I see with the arrival of Friday that my time to accomplish my ever so unreasonable weekly goals is nearly exhausted. Whatever I set out to do that week will most likely not be completed. Part of me thinks it is because I am not as efficient or capeable as I would like to be-another view is that I expect more of myself than I can possibly deliver . Either way, the result is the same-I fall short of my goal nearly every week. Friday stands as an indicator of my failure, not my salvation from work. It is always the day when I realize that whatever I set out to do in my shop will not see completion until the following week. For some reason this can depress me significantly, even with the realization that it is only one person who really feels this failure...... that is me.
The kind of work that I do suffers when done hastily. That said, there are timelines and I really don't want to fall short of delivering what I build on time-or at least within a reasonable margin of on-timeness. Most of the time people do not pressure me at all-the pressure is coming from within, a result of me having the misconception that things will go smoothly in the shop and that there will not be too many interruptions to the flow of work. The fact is there is no way to know how things will 'flow' at the beginning of the week. By late Tuesday afternoon I can usually tell if I am on a good week or flailing.
Last week I was flailing-I was hopelessly torn in many directions and for the greater part of the week the welder was silent, waiting for me to get my shit together. I still managed to build a really nice frame and fork and get about halfway through another frame. All the work was top notch, even if my attitude was rock bottom. I really wonder where the striving for the unattainable weekly goal originated in my life....did it come as a result of trying to prove something to a long dead parent ? -Boy, that's a waste of time. Is it because I never forget how much I barely scraped by financially for years trying to do what I do now ? -But now I'm not scraping badly any more. And if it isn't pressure from customers, where the hell does it come from ?
Friday.....the day that my failures come to light-the day that I wind up getting down on myself as if my transgression was the greatest disappointment on earth. The fact is , the only one really perpetuating this weekly self-beating is the guy I see in the mirror every morning. The same guy I can thank for all the cool crap hanging on the walls of my shop-the same guy who got me into this mess in the first place. I can't blame anyone else.......the problem is as close to home as it gets.
At least it's only on Friday-Thank God Friday only comes once a week !
Sunday, August 25, 2013
This brings me to today at a time when a few years ago I felt I would have to slow down and work less because of failing physical ability. Funny how life is-current financial requirements of life, this summer its a code violation on my 'garage/accessory dwelling unit' that has made me realize that I won't be able to slow down. My home loan that I thought would be paid off by age 65 is now extended to age 72. My father died at 73.........yeah, pretty grim prospect from my perspective. I now find myself working harder than I ever have at my job. I don't think people understand how physical building bicycle frames can be. There's a lot of filing, sawing, getting into uncomfortable positions to do all sorts of tasks. Welding gets more difficult as eyes start to lose the ability to focus. The mind slowly loses the ability to remember all the tasks and keep everything straight-particularly all the details in all the frame orders stacked up. I frequently have to phone people to double and triple check what they ordered. If I don't check, things like incorrect paint color and other avoidable mistakes are possible. I will rectify all these mistakes at my own cost in money and time-it is the right thing to do but it makes for even more work.
So, not long ago I started to get despondent-I was worried that I would not be able to slow down, let alone 'retire' like the generation before me or like many of my friends who work other jobs. I looked at the high roof joist in my shop and thought that it would be suitable for a good stout rope-the one sure way I could get out of my dilemma. Then I kind of had a moment of clarity-what did I get into this bike building thing for ? There was only one answer for me and it was so completely stupidly simple: "To build bikes , asshole !"
So, me-Mr. asshole figured it out......there's no end and there shouldn't be, at least not until the real end comes. This job isn't some mission sent to me from God-it is not a means to some lavish lifestyle-it is something I like to do, want to do and continue to do-even if it hurts. I know others doing the same thing as me who are hurting a lot more than I so complaining is pretty chicken-shit in the grand scheme. Bike building is the tunnel at the end of the light - when it is over it is likely that your life is extinguished. I guess I had better shut up and keep building.
Posted by swiggco world at 6:39 PM
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Awhile ago , the main supplier of aluminum tubing for U.S. builders ran out of large customers and ceased to produce the material you see in the frame above. After manufacturing tubing in the U.S. for twenty-odd years, the company decided to move production to Taiwan where some large customers still existed. Within a few years, the aforementioned customers decided ( or the market at large decided ) to go to molded carbon fiber for the bulk of bicycle frames for the world market. When this happened , the company that produced aluminum tubing had lost the bulk of its customer base and ceased production altogeter.
As a builder who relies on having access to good aluminum, I took the step of buying as much of the soon-to-be-extinct material as I could afford. Some of this was from the U.S. company , some from the Taiwan operation and some from manufacturers ceasing business. The tubing in the frame in the photo is my very last set of GX-2 flared scandium that I had been saving for myself. The tubes had been sitting on a shelf for several years when I got an email from a distant customer requesting a 'Team Carbon' road frame , just like the one I had personally been riding for the last eight years. I decided that this customer who had ordered a steel frame two years earlier needed the tubes more than I did so I took the order and got ready to build the frame. This would be the last frame of this kind to roll out of my shop....ever.
This is where it gets interesting-that is, if you are still interested enough to read on. To complete this frame I would use this tubing but I also needed a full carbon rear stay kit so I got on the phone and started calling suppliers. I tried all the suppliers I knew of who might stock this kit but nobody in the U.S. had one-and nobody really was interested in carrying them any more. I decided to try international sources and luckily a company in the U.K. had most of the kit in stock-I would have to scrounge a couple of small parts but the bulk of what I needed was available. A bit later I was able to source the rest of the small parts and constructed the frame.
The path that the materials for this frame took to get to me is pretty amazing. The tubing was made for the U.S. manufacturer in Taiwan . The carbon kit was manufactured in Taiwan for an Italian company who in turn sold it to the supplier in the U.K. and then eventually to me here in the U.S. Here's the punch line-the customer for this frame lives in Taiwan, not that far from where all the materials for his frame originated from. The aluminum will wind up making two trips across the Pacific ocean. The carbon kit will wind up literally circumnavigating the earth. Up until this frame I had never thought of where the pieces of a bicycle frame might go travel on their respective journeys between from birth to frame and eventually to the customer. This one tops them all. The ultimate carbon footprint.
Posted by swiggco world at 7:16 PM