When I first heard of the Meet Your Maker ride series earlier this year I did everything I could to try to find an excuse to get to Northern California to participate in any of the rides. I was a good deal less successful than I would like to have been, that is, until this weekend. On Sunday the fourth edition of the ride took place in Marin County. Upon rolling up to the start in Railroad Square in Mill Valley, I spotted Jeremy SyCip of SyCip and Mark Norstadt or Paragon Machine Works.
The guy who deserves the credit for starting the series and making sure everyone who shows up feels welcome is Sean Walling of Soulcraft bikes, based in nearby Petaluma.
At some point I should probably ask Sean and the other builders how often they actually meet one of their bike’s owners. I had the sense that the incidence rate was low, that most riders there on a handmade frame had already met their maker, so to speak. So even though the ride’s most obvious appeal is to meet the guy who built your bicycle, the greater truth of the ride is that you get a chance to go for a ride with him, talk bikes, meet other customers of his and then meet other builders who probably haven’t made a bicycle for you.
Santa Cruz builder John Caletti is known for his immaculate TIG-welding. The ti bike above featured TRP’s cable-actuated hydraulic discs with 160mm (front) and 140mm (rear) discs and Kenda Small Block tires (35mm front and 32mm rear) tires.
The quality of the welds is high enough to make his work look like that of a veteran of Seven or Moots.
Sacramento builder Steve Rex turned out with this disc-equipped rig sporting 43mm-wide Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n’ Road tires.
As is typical of most of Rex’ work, this bike featured his Ultimate Fillet work, but also showed some very tasteful internal cable routing.
Left to right: Curtis Inglis of Retrotec, Steve Rex, John Caletti and Sean Walling.
Sean, thanking everyone for showing up, and by everyone I mean a 40-plus-strong group, the biggest for the Meet Your Maker rides so far. He also informed those assembled that there is some interest in holding even more of the rides next year.
Paul of Paul Components made the trek from Chico to join the ride. He made a point to fuel up before we rolled out.
It was nice to begin a ride without having to hit the afterburners. I honestly can’t recall the last time I did a ride where people were more excited to get into the ride and yet didn’t completely kill the pace. I could get used to this.
We regrouped. A lot.
Eric Richter, marketing director for Giro, joined us for the ride. Based on what I know of Eric, dude doesn’t own a non-ferrous bicycle.
The ride took in both fire roads and singletrack on Mount Tam, and eventually dropped us down to Muir Beach. Once there, a number of riders decided that the proper course of action included hoppy beverages. They were right, of course, but there were those of us who needed to stick to a timeline. The rider in the Santa Cruz Spokesman kit is Sean Morrissey, part of my ad sales team. He and I joined a group making a more direct effort to reach Mill Valley.
The day was not without its hitches. There were flats by the bushel, dropped tools, lost keys and at least a few near bonks. I’d do rides like this once a week if given the chance.
My first 50 mile ride was a fund raiser for the Brain Tumor Society. I was new to proper road cycling. Up to that point I’d contented myself with riding the city or knocking around my local trails, but after one of my close friends began dating a woman who was both a former top-level racer and a brain tumor survivor, I began to embrace the idea of doing more with the bike.
Doing more meant riding longer, faster and better under the tutelage of this new friend, and also learning how the bike could help other people with just a little effort and organization. And of course that first 50-miler opened my mind to the idea that I could explore new vistas of endurance and freedom from the saddle.
I don’t recall how much we raised on that first ride. I remember the weather being beautiful, having a lot of fun, and meeting a lot of cyclists more experienced than I was. It drew me deeper into my infatuation with the bike.
I did that ride a few times, and then later I managed part of a cross-country bike trip for brain tumor survivors. By then I was what I would consider a serious cyclist, and driving the van, making the sandwiches and cleaning the water bottles cut against my pure desire to be out on the road with them, riding. Despite that, I learned even more about our sport in the context of what it takes to support a team of riders, and I saw some beautiful parts of our country in the slow, purposeful way of a group traveling one mile at a time.
You might classify all of that as charity work, but in dozens of very real ways, I was the one benefiting. The work, and the riding, were simply the means by which I learned and explored facets of cycling I had been unaware of previously. That money and awareness were raised for a very good cause made the thing karmically whole.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how often do you do charity rides? How often do you raise money for charity rides or give money to riders planning to do charity rides? And if it’s not part of your cycling life, what prevents that from becoming a part of it?
Image – Riders at the start of the Pan Mass Challenge
The night slips in quietly, coldly, gray to black. Streetlights flicker and ignite, and headlights maraud across town swooping and swerving while we, in our fluorescent offices, stare out into the darkness and think about riding home.
Like most little kids, I was afraid of the dark. My six-year-old reminds me of this. He clings close if we have cause to walk through the nighttime neighborhood, not sure what he’s afraid of but sure it’s out there. And I can relate as I sift through my layers, base, middle and top, thinking about the ride home.
It is scary, especially in this early part of winter when the clocks fall back, and the drivers are still getting accustomed to driving by halogen. The darkness magnifies sound, cars sloughing through the thin air, tires jabbering against the sandy roadways. You feel isolated, strapped to the wing of the plane, while everyone else sits in coach, munching peanuts and watching the free movie.
Preparation is central to success. Cables connect lights to USB ports, and laundry needs attention to make sure all the necessary layers can be ready. Warmers and booties and gloves and hats. Jackets and vests and clear-lensed glasses. Lumens spill onto the pavement, limning the potholes and patches of ice. Tires get wider.
The transition we were talking about only very recently is here. The need to keep pedaling has grown acute. This is not the hardest part, but the hardest part is coming. We will need some momentum, now that it is dark.
We can talk about the cold with its tingling extremities and its runny nose, but the cold is always manageable. Mostly, riding generates the warmth you need to go on riding. But the darkness oppresses. The darkness discourages. The darkness is the real challenge. Just ride to the solstice and hang on as we roll out again into the light of spring.
I have a very real sense of commitment being tested. It is not how many days I can set out from home, but how many nights I can throw my leg back over the top tube and return. And all those adventure days, when snow swirls across the road and the street lights make bright puddles to leap through, they are all made of a commitment to setting out in the dark now, as the sun falls in the middle of the afternoon.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Let’s keep this one simple: Builders in Northern California have been holding a series of rides called the “Meet Your Maker Tour.” It’s a chance to meet and ride with some of NorCal’s finest builders.
There’s another edition coming up, this Sunday, November 10.
This will be a cyclocross ride in and around Mount Tam, some 37 miles worth.
Let’s consider this for a moment: frame builders, road bikes on unpaved surfaces, Mount Tam. It’s a win-win-win.
I’m going to be there. I don’t mention that as a selling point; I’ve got an ex-wife who can attest it’s not. I only mention as a testament to just how cool I think the event is.
But back to the selling points: the frame builders and manufacturers include: Black Cat, Blue Collar, Bruce Gordon, Caletti, Calfee, Falconer, Frances, Hunter, Paragon Machine Works, Pass and Stow, Paul Components, Rebolledo, Retrotec, Rex Cycles, Rock Lobster, Souldcraft, Sycip and White Industries.
I shot these images at the Gran La Fonda before Levi’s Gran Fondo. Meant to do a post about it … and got busy with other stuff.
To partake, all you have to do is show up to Railroad Square in Mill Valley, Granolia, at 10 am, on Sunday. To learn more, go here.
Padraig: Tell us about the jig you use.
Tom Kellogg: Believe it or not, I made the jig in my parent’s basement in the fall of ’76. I made a jig plate and had a local machine shop in Philly make the tube blocks and other fittings for it. We’ve made some modifications since then, but we’re still using it. Still works great.
Padraig: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?
Tom Kellogg: Probably in person close to 80 percent of the time. Which means, of course, people fly in a lot. Our order form basically gets the same information that a personal fitting will get. But it’s never quite as good. I do all my fittings by an interactive, visual process. Static, linear fittings are never as reliable. I do them customer on the bike. Typically, a fitting session takes about three hours.
Padraig: Now, you do your own paint. How did that come about?
Tom Kellogg: It was quite logical. When I worked for Bill Boston, he had his own paint booth, a really nice one. So I was exposed, first, to a frame builder who did his own painting, so I have always done it that way. Until I started Spectrum in ’82 I used Jim Redcay’s paint booth in New Jersey. I’d arrive on Friday, do two all-nighters in a row and then bring them home. I was young then. [laughs]
Padraig: What’s the division of labor between you and Jeff?
Tom Kellogg: It’s fairly simple. I do all of the design work, engineering work, Jeff does all the steel building, except lug-thinning. I do lug thinning. He does all steel repair work, and all titanium prep work up to painting. Jeff also hangs parts, which is the initial frame build-up. I do all the paper work, all the design work and most phone answering and all the paint work. And final assemblies, wheel building and tire gluing.
We both wear a lot of hats.
Padraig: Let’s talk about geometry: Would you say all your bikes have a consistent ride that is your signature, or do you vary your geometry based on the customer’s preferences and needs?
Tom Kellogg: Yes and yes. I mentioned before that I want our bikes to disappear underneath the rider. The way that I design frames has a lot to do with that. Neutral steering, a well placed center of gravity, appropriate materials choices all go into making the frame work properly for the customer. There are some situations where one of our bikes won’t work like that though. Most track bikes only work just like I want them to under specific circumstances. One of our sprint bikes only becomes neutral at full-on sprint speed and a points race/Madison bike won’t feel quite perfect at those speeds. Of course, a bike designed for loaded touring won’t feel as good when all the luggage is removed.
Padraig: When designing a frame for a customer, once you know the ride characteristics the rider is looking for, do you conceive of the geometry as a whole or is there a particular dimension you look to as a starting point.
Tom Kellogg: I need to take the design as a whole. There are very few aspects of a frame’s design which don’t have effects on other aspects of the frame’s design. Something as simple as head angle, for example—a 73 degree head angle won’t feel the same on two frames when one has a longer front center. Larger riders need different geometry for their bikes to work the same as smaller bikes. And since loading has huge effects on the way a bike works, I need to take planned loading into account when designing a customer’s frame. It all works together and no aspects of design can stand alone.
Padraig: Bottom line: What are your bikes supposed to ride like?
Tom Kellogg: They’re not. They are supposed to NOT be there. I design bikes that disappear under the rider. It doesn’t matter what kind of bike it is from full, loaded touring to track sprint, I don’t want the client to be aware of it.
Padraig: How long is the wait for new customers?
Tom Kellogg: It truly varies. Steel typically varies from four months to a year. Titanium is three to nine months. Currently steel is about eight months and titanium is about four months.
Padraig: What’s your pricing like?
Tom Kellogg: Steel frame sets start at $2850. That’s frame, fork, headset, single, standard color. We have a bit more than 100 standard colors. Titanium framesets start at either $3500 or $3900 depending on whether the tubing is butted. That’s frame, fork, headset, single standard color, or natural brushed finish, or cleared [clear coated] brushed finish.
Padraig: What keeps the work fresh for you, gets you up in the morning and excited to build?
Tom Kellogg: A couple of things. But the biggest thing is that the main thing motivating me, which is customers being happy and excited to ride what I make. When I know one of our bikes is making someone happy and healthy, that’s it. Man, it doesn’t get better and honestly, that keeps happening. I just want to keep doing it. There’s other stuff, like the pride of making beautiful things and the challenge of a difficult design, those things are great too, but when I make someone happy, that’s the kick.
Padraig: What’s your life away from building like? What sort of outside interests do you have?
Tom Kellogg: Well, no surprise, I ride a lot. I have been a competitive cyclist since ’76; still do it, still love it, still win a couple of races a year, just against old guys like me. I have an incredible family, both my siblings, my parents and my three daughters and three grandchildren. My amazing wife who puts up with my riding and racing. I’m pretty active, not just riding but hiking and other stuff.
Padraig: Where are you based?
Tom Kellogg: We’re based in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, one town west of Trexlertown where the velodrome is in the Lehigh Valley of East Central Pennsylvania.
Padraig:Is that where you grew up?
Tom Kellogg: Close. I grew up just west of Philadelphia, an hour due south of here.
Padraig: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?
Tom Kellogg: From my standpoint, it really is as good as it can get. The quality of riders, mostly because of the track, is phenomenal. On any given ride we’ll get from one or two to many professionals. There’s a very high level of riding here, higher than most places. There’s sufficient climbing to make me really uncomfortable, but as a crappy climber I can avoid the hills if I want to.
Padraig: How long have you been building?
Tom Kellogg: Almost 35 years now.
Padraig: How did you get your start?
Tom Kellogg: I got hit by a car.
In ’75 my parents talked my brother and me into bicycle touring in England. On our second day I made a boneheaded move, and forgot about people driving on the other side of the road. I made a turn and collided with a car. The accident destroyed the frame, wheels and a couple of other components. When I got out of the hospital late that evening I was stuck without a bike. My brother gave me some names to look up and the next day I took the train to London. I looked up Holdsworth, took the commuter, got to East Penge. I bought a frame, rims, spokes and some other items. Then I took the train back to Salisbury where my brother was. The next day my brother and I rebuilt the bike and continued. That’s what got me interested.
Padraig: How did you learn to build?
Tom Kellogg: That next winter of ‘75-’76 was the final academic year for me; I was a sociology major. I was either heading toward teaching sociology or doing something completely different. I was getting Bicycling Magazine at that time and that winter there was an article on American frame builders. Up to that point I thought you had to be British or Italian to build frames, so that came as a shock. I knew I couldn’t do it, but I wanted to try anyway. I wrote letters to a number of American frame builders east of the Mississippi. I got two responses and one job offer, that was with Bill Boston. It was for a five-year apprenticeship, but he fired me after two months.
Padraig: Why didn’t things work out?
Tom Kellogg: I sucked.
But here’s the thing: All beginning frame builders are bad. The stubborn ones don’t realize how bad they are and stick with it.
Briefly, Bill did teach me how to make a frame strong and straight. How to make it look good and how to design them to fit and work properly, no. There hadn’t been time for that. I had to do that myself. And that’s what I did. I knew enough to know what basic equipment to acquire and make and over the next few years I got over the worst of it and started making bikes that worked pretty good and fit and looked decent, too.
Padraig: Have you held other positions in the industry?
Tom Kellogg: Yeah. A couple of official ones and some others that weren’t so official. In the early ‘80s I was hired by Ross Bicycles to start their Signature Bicycles line. It was their attempt at handmade bikes. I was there a couple of years before I went back on my own. I became Merlin’s geometry guy in the early ‘80s when they were in Somerville. I continued straight through until a few months ago when the line was shut down.
Padraig: When did you strike out on your own?
Tom Kellogg: Up until I was hired by Ross my frames were Tom Kellogg frames. When I left Ross I took with me my assistant, Michael Overcash, who had been Jim Redcay’s assistant before joining Ross. He came up with the idea to call them Spectrum. We did it because we were planning other items: accessories, socks, gloves and other items, and you don’t sell a Tom Kellogg sock. Plus it went well with the world championship stripes.
That was in late ’82.
Padraig: What is your assistant’s name and how long has he been with you?
Tom Kellogg: Jeff Duser. Jeff has been here for twenty six years. I hired him away from Ross. He had replaced Jim Redcay in the Signature department and I needed someone who could build and who already lived in the area.
Padraig: Do you ever work in a material other than steel??
Tom Kellogg: Yes, sir. We work with titanium, kind of. We have been using Merlin as a raw titanium frame supplier for us since the earliest days of modern titanium. We don’t actually fabricate them. We design them and then Merlin fabricates them. ABG (American Bicycle Group) continues to supply all the materials, but once they produce the materials, they ship them up to Seven and Seven does the fabrication for us. So I’m working with Rob again. When he was at Merlin he was a real sponge. He came in right from art school and he learned a lot. I’ve always had a lot of respect for how well he listened in the early years and his insight into the artistic aspects of bicycles. When he joined Merlin out of college, his intuitive understanding of materials and his intellectual curiosity along with a very serious approach to the business side of things allowed him to rise very quickly within Merlin and has served him and Seven very well since.
Padraig: Are all your titanium frames made using 3al/2.5v alloy tubing?
Tom Kellogg: 3/2.5? Absolutely.
Padraig: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
Tom Kellogg: Instead of particular brands, because steel’s modulus is exactly the same through different alloys and heat treatments, in individual tubes there are certain characteristics we look for: diameters, gauges, butt lengths, not the brand. We typically end up, with somewhere around three or four brands of tubing in a single frameset.
For example, piles of companies make piles of .8/.5/.8 top tubes. Depending on the weight and strength of the rider, you can play with the length of the thin section to adjust the torsional stiffness of the front end.
Padraig: And lugs?
Tom Kellogg: We have only been making our own for years. The available lugs, until recently, were really limited in diameters, angles and appearance. We were always cutting parts off and brazing new ones on. It occurred to us that starting from scratch was easier. When it’s all you do, it gets pretty quick. We can make any shape, any angle, any size and it doesn’t make any difference. If we start with 1 1/8” [diameter] top tube you use a 1 1/4” [diameter] .058” [wall thickness] for a nice slip fit.
The lugs look exactly the way we want them to. It was always a compromise in appearance before. Now it never is.
Padraig: What sort of cutting and shaping of lugs do you like to perform? Does it vary from bike to bike or are there stylistic elements people can find running through all your bikes?
Tom Kellogg: Yeah, our lugs, they look like an updated version of the old Prugnat standard long point because that’s the lug I started with. That’s kind of our look.
It’s 9pm on a Thursday night, and I’m shopping for a set of disc wheels. There’s not a bike shop open in the metro-Boston area, but that doesn’t matter anymore because any wheel maker worth their salt has a website that will tell me everything I need to know about each of their products including the price. I can either buy direct from the builder, or I can buy from any one of dozens of online distributors. If I was desperate for human interaction, as an absolute last resort, like if the zombie apocalypse happened and I was riding around looking for human survivors (and disc wheels) I could even wait for a bike shop to open, walk in and buy wheels there, assuming money was still even a thing.
OK. OK. OK. Simmer down.
It’s not the zombie apocalypse, and I actually love bike shops. I have a ton of friends who own and operate them, and I can’t go by one without wanting to go in, if only to hide from a marauding zombie horde. Despite all that, it seems very fashionable to hate on the LBS. Bike shop employees are surly and rude. They never have the part you need, and anyway you can get whatever you want cheaper on line, and cheaper is better. Always.
Everybody knows that bike shop employees are surly and rude because they’re young, iconoclastic or underpaid, sometimes all three. And we want them to be that way, because that’s what gives cycling its edge…even if it makes buying a WiFli derailleur and a handful of Gu’s a little more painful.
Also, they don’t have the part you need because of the proliferation of parts and their haphazard distribution. The cost of a functional shop inventory has gone through the roof over the last decade, and the manufacturers have all shifted a large part of the risk burden for their own sales forecasting onto the shops with large minimum orders and the lure of increased margin.
And the reason you can get it cheaper online is because simultaneously the manufacturers don’t manage their distributors well enough, with parts finding their way to giant, international etailers only too happy to ship into domestic markets otherwise protected by dealer agreements. Oh, and etailers don’t have to pay retail rents.
Within the industry there is a palpable and growing tension between e-tailers and their bricks-and-mortar competitors. How many times have I heard the story about the customer who spent two hours in the shop going over a parts spec for a new bike, only to go home and buy it all online. How many times have I heard about riders eager to show up for shop-sponsored rides, but unwilling to so much as buy lubes and tubes from their hosts?
A lot. A lot of times.
This week’s Group Ride asks, do you shop at your LBS or online, or some combination thereof? And if you don’t do business locally, why not? Do you worry about the disappearance of the LBS? Or the big-boxing of cycling retail? Or do you consider yourself an expert, beyond the level of the snarky sales clerk, fully independent and only in need of product to sustain your cycling lifestyle?