Brian Baylis, one of the legends of frame building passed away Saturday, February 20. His qualification as a legend wasn’t limited by region. He wasn’t just significant for Southern California, or the West Coast, or even the U.S. His achievement was so great that fans of great frame building knew his name worldwide. He is part of that rare pantheon of builders who took the art they witnessed in the Italian frames of the 1960s and ’70s and managed to improve upon it. Very few will ever be able to claim such a distinction.
Baylis’ distinction as an OG builder was beyond earned. He joined the Masi USA operation in 1973 when Mario Confente—a man still regarded as a builder with a remarkable mix of efficiency and art—was the chief builder. But Baylis was mercurial. Left Masi, returned, left again. For his next act in building, he was cofounder of Wizard Cycles with Mike Howard, which was the first indication of his true genius.
Not only was Baylis a great builder, a true artisan, he was also one of those rare talents who could paint, and his paint was among the most exemplary ever to grace a bicycle. His ability to complement colors, to mask windows and lugs and to even lay gold leaf (yeah, seriously) has few peers.
Baylis was a big part of the track scene in San Diego in the 1970s and was known as an explosive sprinter. He had a life outside of cycling, though. He spent time on a fishing boat in Alaska and made knives on and off over the years; in the last few years he’d spent a fair amount of his working hours devoted to knife making. He was also a drummer and drum collector and he played with a surf band that sounded like Dick Dale’s stablemate. He was also one of the driving forces behind the briefly lived San Diego Custom Bike Show. Little known is how much time he devoted to rescuing (repairing) other builder’s bikes.
To be true to his memory, we should acknowledge that he possessed a coarse finish himself. He was a pussycat inside, but could be gruff even with those he trusted. This trait is true of many of his contemporaries.
Despite his 80 grit demeanor, he was known to be generous of his time and insight with new builders. He mentored a number of builders and shared his knowledge of both painting and building techniques. He knew that the techniques he employed weren’t secrets. The secret was his work ethic.
When I think of the builders’ techniques that are part of the highest expressions of the artform—fillets on the lugs, bilaminate construction, point thinning and lengthening, window cutting and complete lug fabrication—they were all part of Baylis’ repertoire. It wasn’t special to him. It was just what he did. His wheelhouse remains a difficult achievement for most other builders.
His life as a frame builder is one of the very threads on which the craft is now based. He is part of why collectors revere the California Masis, part of how San Diego became so important to cycling in the U.S., an indispensable part of why the U.S. can claim to be home to the finest steel frame builders on the planet.
Baylis once told me that he didn’t build for fame, for the money or for performance. He wasn’t even building for the customer. When my jaw dropped he let another breath pass and then clarified: “I’m building for the next generation, or the one after that. I’m building heirlooms.”
Rest in peace, Brian.