Saturday, June 6, 2015

L'Eroica California

I had the good fortune to get an invite to L'Eroica ride in Paso Robles, Calif. about two months ago. For those of you who don't know what the Eroica is, essentially it is like a Civil War re-enactment but on bicycles and not at war. A bunch of folks-mostly vintage bike enthusiasts-get together and dust off their old vintage bicycles for a ride. This is no ordinary ride, however. Much of the route is ridden on the 'White roads' which are gravel or dirt. On these roads there are some really steep climbs , the kind that challenge even the most fit cyclist. The people who put on the event make it known to the participants that the route is indeed challenging and offer three lengths so that people can choose the appropriate distance.
                Picture about 600 riders, most of them older and not in particularly good shape. Add to that some old collectable bikes from the " Golden era' of bicycle racing.......pre 1988 that is-and you have a recipe for some serious issues during the ride. Most of the bikes I saw had gearing that would have been appropriate for a professional racer in the prime of his/her life , early to mid 20's give or take. Most of the Eroica riders were about my age, somewhere near 60 years old. Another thing I noticed was that no matter how polished and pristine these collectable bikes were, not many of them seemed properly tuned for such a ride.
                 As for me, I was working in bike shops back in the '70's and I know how to get those old bike parts to function well. I made sure that my bike was in top shape and I did several lengthy test rides with some dirt sections just to make sure that both I and my bike would be good for the Eroica. I really didn't want to have to walk up any hill or have to stand in line for a mechanic at the rest stops.I was fortunate to have the help of First Flight bicycles in finding some larger cogs for my freewheel so that I would not have to use the same gears I used in 1982 when I built the bike. Also I didn't go vintage on the tires-I put on the largest modern( 700x28) treads I could fit on the bike so that I would be fine on the many dirt sections.

               The ride started pretty normally, lots of people talking Colnago, Masi and all the highly desirable vintage names-it was a real 'Concours' -a parade of vintage bicycle obsession. It didn't take long however for the sound of jamming gears and slipping chains to take peoples attention away from  the scenery. Right after the first rest stop there was a short but pretty steep hill through a vineyard. One by one people dismounted their prized bikes and had to walk up the loose dirt . I even saw a couple of folks fall, unable to get their feet out of the toe clips ( toe clips were a requirement on bikes for the ride-along with exposed brake cables and box section rims.......)
                It was not long after this that I got the impression that many of the participants on the ride had no idea what they were getting into. The romantic notion of riding a bike from the '60's or '70's on idyllic country roads is seductive to the folks who treasure these bicycles. They long to go out with like minded folks with the same obsession with the older classic bikes. The trouble is that there's no way an out of shape 60-something person is going to be able to handle riding terrain like on the Eroica on an old bike with toe clips and limited gearing, not to mention brakes that have little stopping power due to older pads, older design and lack of maintenance . I only saw one person on a really old bike floating up the dirt climbs gracefully. This was Andy Hampsten-in case you don't know the name, he won the Giro D'Italia in 1988 and was a professional until about 1993.
                I don't want to criticize the event or the people who created it-I applaud them for the unique concept and really stunning route that they chose. The spirit of the Eroica cannot be is a beautiful idea. I had a great time and I will probably go back next year if they have it in Paso Robles again. I would just caution folks with that old classic bike in the garage they have wanted to bust out for a ride: 1.Bring your best legs to this event. 2. Make sure your bike is in the best possible mechanical shape. 3. put the lowest gears you can on the bike -otherwise bring some good walking shoes. 4. Consult your doctor to see if you are heathy enough to not croak on the roads of central California.
                Lastly, I would like to thank Bruce Gordon, Jake Hess, Giro, Jeff Archer and all the people who helped me get to this ride. I would also like to thank Andy Hampsten for the pleasure of riding a few miles with someone who knows how to ride a bike-any bike-anywhere.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Other hands

The year of 2014 was a really busy year for me-perhaps the busiest ever. As I get closer to my 60th birthday I keep wondering how I am going to keep up this pace. Chances are that I will experience the inevitable physical decline ( if it has not already started )and have to accept the fact that the current work load is becoming too much. That said , in January of 2014 I had 47 frames on order. By the first of the year 2015 I had 32 frames on order. In the year that passed between these two dates I built at least 95 frames, not a personal best but still one of the biggest years ever. I have no employees so all these frames were built by me .
               Besides the building of the frames there is bead blasting , painting and in the case of the aluminum frames heat treatment. These three steps are handled by other folks with whom I do business. In the best case these tasks are performed well and what I get back is a prep-ready frame that is the best example of what I can produce on that given day. Over the years I have used a number of painters, Powder Coaters, Heat treatment facilities and bead blasters-some were good for a time and some didn't work out. The current folks I deal with are excellent and they treat my frames with the greatest of care and respect. This means that if there's something wrong with the frame, I'm the culprit who screwed up. I'll admit, I am not perfect and I can and do make the odd mistake. I'm fine with this and I can fix all of my boo-boos without going too far to the dark side.
               Dealing with other people handling my frames used to be pretty straightforward-I would give them the frame they would either prep, paint or heat treat the frame and I would get it back in good condition. About a decade ago things started changing -all sorts of mis-handling of the frames started happening. One customer asked for a full polish on an aluminum frame so I drove down to the local guy who had polished many frames for other builders and a few from me. Many weeks went by and I got no word on the frame so after a few phone calls I went to the polisher's shop to see what was up with my frame. A worker showed it to me and there was a fist sized dent in the down tube-the frame was ruined. I guess that the guy polishing the frame had it ripped out of his hands by the buffing wheel and the frame flew across the shop and got destroyed. Understandably, the shop was reluctant to call me with the grim news.
                Next came a series of gaffs by a powder coat shop with whom I had been doing business for at least 6 years. Frames started coming back with small dents. I called them and emailed pictures of the damage and the owner of the shop assured me that they would be more careful. No compensation was offered by the powder coat shop for the damage, only an assurance that this sort of thing would not happen again. More frames got sent to the same shop and more frames got dented and more assurances were given. The last straw was when the powder coat shop painted an aluminum MTB frame the wrong color, they baked off the paint at such a high temperature that the frame got annealed-this means softened. The normally super stiff aluminum frame started slowly folding as the owner rode it. I sent the frame to the heat treater to test for hardest thinking that they-the heat treater had botched the process. The report was that the frame was indeed fully annealed and that the heat treatment company was adamant that such mis-handling of the frame happened elsewhere. This is when I determined that Powder coat shop " Al Dente" was at fault. I decided to fire them permanently .
                Last but certainly no least is the heat treatment facility. The guys did flawless work for me for over ten years, then something went a bit south. I got a frame back form the powder coater with a folded rear triangle. The formerly 130 mm dropout spacing was now 110 mm. I called the powdercoater who seemed clueless as to how this could happen. The next time I saw this anomaly it was when I sent a frame to the heat treater and had them send it back to me directly, not to the powdercoater as in the past. This frame was crunched in the same was as the first. Of course, the heat treater had a suggestion how to avoid this in the future by placing a dummy axle in the frame before I shipped it to them. Funny, the ten previous years I had no damaged frames without these dummy axles. I guess that the heat treater thought that I was also a dummy in that I would accept the words of advice from somebody who was careless with a frame that I had done my damnedest to build as good as possible, on time and with the highest respect for the person that ordered it.
                O.K., Now you surely get the picture. For me the job of building frames is challenging enough just for my part-keeping everything on schedule and maintaining quality. After all, having somebody trust you to build a bike frame for them is really an honor and I never forget that. Add to my daily regimen the variable of other folks handling the frame who may or may not give a crap about their part of the equation - this is the shit that raises my blood pressure and can definitely delay your order. With my own mistakes making my work day longer on occasion the added burden of someone else needlessly fucking up my work is more than I can take.......and I pay for them to dent , fold and every once in awhile destroy a frame. Only the aforementioned polisher offered the destruction free of charge........" Hey, we can fix it !" the guy at the polisher said........yeah, right. To this day many years later I have wondered how the hell the polisher was going to make a fist sized dent disappear from the frame . At least the guy offered to give it a try.......none of the other businesses made any attempt to fix, compensate or even apologize for the damage to my frames. I guess this is why a lot of small builders opt to blast and paint their own work-I even knew a builder who had bought a pizza oven to heat treat his own aluminum frames in his garage. I thought that he was I stand corrected.
                  To close, I wish to assure all that I have found a heat treatment facility who is really good and a powder coater who handles all frames with care . I know that there are great artisans in the paint and powder coat world that really care about what they do. To these folks I salute you . To the others I'll say that I'll never send you work again.........ever.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Human failing-the CX nationals Austin , Texas 2015

There are many people involved in putting on a national championship event-not all of them see things the same way but they have to find a middle ground somewhere so that the event can happen. This is the story, or better- my take on how things went very wrong during the course of planning and then running the event. I don't know the people I am writing about and I can only give my feelings on what I confronted on Sunday morning, the time the elite races were to start.
           When I got to the course I noticed a lack of activity and a significant police presence at the entrance to Zilker park-the venue for the race. As I walked toward the start I noticed that there was course tape across the first turn of the course , something that didn't make sense-that was unless the course was closed. As it turned out, the park service and police of Austin had indeed closed the course and had suspended all racing. People were being ushered away from the park and word was spreading that the race was to be cancelled-a first for a CX national race in the U.S.A.  As I walked further I encountered a USA cycling official who gave me the lowdown. The story was that the race the day before had been run during a rain shower and that the resulting erosion had exposed a few roots of the 300 year old heritage oak trees. The local heritage oak tree foundation had called the park service with this news and demanded the cancellation of the race.
            To me, this seemed like an overreaction to the problem. Re-routing the course could have been done the previous day. Truthfully, re-routing the course could have been done before the event even started if the heritage tree foundation had spoken up then. Instead , this tree foundation group got in touch with the park service around 7:15 Sunday morning -not to find a solution to save the tree roots while allowing the race to continue but to just shut the whole thing down regardless of who would be hurt by doing so.
            Don't get me wrong-protecting trees is in all our best interest. The thing that does not sit well with me is the timing of the action by the heritage tree foundation and their enthusiasm for stopping a national bicycle event - an event that the city of Austin lobbied hard for. Yes, the cities that host these events have to really spend a lot of effort to attract a race of this importance...... the irony of a small but seemingly powerful group having the power to scuttle the entire event makes me remember something that almost happened here in Santa Cruz county.
            A number of years ago a group of residents who lived near a large park that happened to be a popular mountain bike mecca seeked to enlist the help of the Sierra club to ban all bicycles from the park. This group of residents probably consisted of less than 20 household but they were determined to prevent thousands of local and visiting cyclists from riding in the park-a park that had always allowed riding on selected roads and trails within the park boundaries. It took a large effort on the part of the populace to defeat this small group of 'not in my back yard' zealots. I feel that the same sort of group is at work in Austin.
             My theory is that the heritage tree foundation is probably comprised of some influential and probably powerful folks that live near Zilker park. I also think that they never wanted the race at the park in the first place but did not have the ammunition to stop it until the rains came. The rain and subsequent erosion was all this group needed to shut down the race as they appear to have the parks department by the short hairs. How the police got involved is a mystery to speaks to the profound influence of this 'heritage tree foundation'. I guess that you don't want to mess with these folks-at least not on a bicycle. What is puzzling is that there are other much larger events held at Zilker park that truly trash the place on an annual basis. On event draws more than 90,000 people and is frequently held in the rain. I wonder why the heritage tree foundation does not try to shut down these larger events........
              This gets me to my final point. It looks like the CX nationals were a small enough event with   considerably less revenue for the city of Austin than the larger events that cause far more damage to the park. Its the same old story-if you got the bucks, you get a pass from the powers that be. This is another example of a small group of people claiming a public place as their own. A park like Zilker belongs to the public at large , not to a small group of people regardless of their zeal to protect the trees or how much power they might wield in the city government.
              The result of the cancellation / The race was re-started at noon on Monday. Many folks, mostly juniors had to leave and miss their chance to race at the biggest event of the season. Lots of other folks had to spend more money for another nights lodging and/or changing a flight. This postponement cost a lot of people money and put the race organizers into a hopeless situation in which no good options were available.
              It is unlikely that USA cycling or any major race promoter will ever hold an event in Austin again. This is really sad for the thousands of racers and spectators who wanted this race to come to this city but the heritage tree foundation is probably celebrating right now-a few dozen folks under the guise of protecting some venerable trees completely fuck up a national sports event for thousands of people, many of whom live in their city. All I can say is that I came to Austin for the event and I will not be returning any time soon. The many levels of disappointment handed to the public by a small group of zealots is hard to stomach.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

R.I.P. Roger Wellington Sands.

Time stops for no one and the time seems to go by at a crazy rate. It has been a long time since I came here to Santa Cruz......a very long time. There are many ways things could have gone for me but early on there was a job and a boss who played a pivotal role in shaping my future. I'm not sure if Roger Sands knew what effect he would have on all the people who came through his shop-the Bicycle Center-but there is no doubt that anyone who worked for Roger got a unique opportunity to experience the finer aspects of the retail bicycle world. I don't think that Roger set out to mentor anyone but he was happy to show me and everyone else the tricks he knew for fixing things that seemed hopelessly beyond repair.
            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

Just because you can do it does not mean that it should be done......

Back when I started this whole mess of a bike building business I was pretty much game to try any type of repair or modification that came through the door of my shop. Not having a big backlog of orders I had an incentive to try and accept any paying job, no matter how impractical or poorly though out it might have been. With my lack of experience I figured that everything could be a learning situation for me and prove valuable in the future. Just what the nature of these lessons would be turned out to be something a bit different than I envisioned at the time.
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.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

You want it when ?

This is the story of my first frame and fork, where this all started more or less. In the spring of 1978 I was working in a bicycle shop in Santa Cruz , California. This particular shop was the creation of one Roger Wellington Sands, a former Lockheed employee who decided that his life as an engineer no longer suited him. He decided to liquidate some of his personal holdings and build a bicycle shop from the ground up that would import the finest frames and accessories from all over the world - making them available to the small college town he ( and I) called home. I was very lucky to get hired to this shop and really felt that I was being groomed to manage the whole mess when called upon.

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.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

So you really want to do this.....

Driving....yes, driving home from work-I don't like driving, by the way-I thought about the ups and downs of the summer and fall of this year of 2013. These thoughts made me think about what I do and why I keep doing it.......the why is the hard part to figure out logically. Maybe there isn't a lot of logic involved-maybe its just ignorance and/or dogged determination, most likely fueled by the inability to think of a better way to earn a living. "Heck, I don't know what else I can do at this point - I'll just carry on no matter how many tools get thrown because of rookie mistakes....... being carried out by someone with over thirty years under their belt at this particular craft"
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 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 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 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.