The following piece was awarded silver from the Society of American Travel Writers for best special-purpose travel story. The SATW awards are the oldest and most prestigious awards for travel writing in the U.S. They are effectively the Oscars for Americans writing about far-flung places. This piece originally ran in Peloton Magazine, Issue 15. To my knowledge, it’s the first time a piece on cycling has garnered an award from the SATW—Padraig
A dozen friendly locals, three Russian motorcycles with sidecars and two liters of homemade wine add up to one bewildered writer
When I heard the motorcycle’s engine begin to wind out third gear, I realized that my driver, Ilya, meant to shift the thing into fourth. That realization made me nervous. No, not just nervous, but scared. And frankly, I had a half-dozen reasons to be scared. First was the fact that I was riding in the sidecar of a World War II-era Russian motorcycle. It had broken, expose wires protruding from components that suggested the last time this thing was in proper working order John F. Kennedy had yet to deliver his, “ich bin ein Berliner,” speech, which is just a fancy way of saying it was older than me, perhaps older than its driver. The sidecar featured a seat so worn it had been covered with shag carpet. And my companions in the sidecar? Two two-liter bottles, one of beer and another of wine.
Second was the fact that we were zooming away from my bicycle—which I’d left leaning against a tree. Third was the fact that that tree was outside a bar and though it was only 11 o’clock in the morning, that bar had plenty of patrons who might possess larcenous ideas; the bike was probably worth more than most of the town’s cars. Fourth. Whew. Fourth was that we were now going more than 40 mph over roads that were difficult to ride on my bike at 20 mph—Ilya was showing off. Fifth, I had no idea where we were headed and you can’t really get the magnitude of that until I tell you about my sixth reason to be scared. Number six was: I was in Moldova. Moldova. I was ten time zones from home going for the first motorcycle ride of my life (I swear it was the first time I’d ever ridden any sort of motorcycle) with a guy who spoke—actually I’m not even sure what language Ilya spoke. It occurred to me that if anything happened to me there would be no sympathy; those who knew me would exclaim, “He was in Moldova. What the hell was he thinking?” Yeah, I had a reason or two to be scared.
So you know what I did? I grabbed on to the sidecar for dear life and laughed like a toddler being tickled.
I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of very unusual, very unexpected and very interesting experiences on bike tours, experiences that wouldn’t have happened had I stuck to the normal touristy stuff, experiences that required being on a bicycle out, away from the usual commerce of the city. Unscripted is the word my friends who work in TV would use. But my experience with Ilya was so beyond anything I anticipated I think they would say I was off-set.
It all started when I pulled over to take a picture. I just wanted a shot of the cool, old motorcycle with the sidecar. After all, you don’t see a motorcycle with a sidecar every day. Something about it looked really familiar, though. I couldn’t recall all the details, but my memory said the design dated from WWII; once I looked it up I realized I was right. Ilya was driving a Ural M72, a design the Russians either stole from or were given by the Germans on the eve of WWII, depending on which version of the history you buy into. This one had the front-wheel drum brake original to the design.
I am, fundamentally, an introvert. Left to my own devices, I’ll head out for the day’s ride, stick to the route as planned, stop at little stores and cafés to refuel when the van isn’t around and finish off the ride with as few surprises as possible. You might say I take the path of least resistance. Bridging the gap between my silence and the engaging world around me is an inexact science. As much as I like finding those unusual experiences, I tell people I’m really not very good at it.
On this occasion the simple act of pulling the camera out and smiling at the bar’s patrons was enough to initiate an epic détente. The moment I snapped the first image Ilya rose from his chair and strode over to his ride. He pantomimed a throttle-twist with his wrist and went, “Vroom vroom”, which is the universal charade for a motorcycle ride.
I’m still not sure which gesture I made in return, but as it turns out I was able to capably communicate the equally universal, “Dude, I so want to go for a ride with you on your cool moto.” Not that I meant to, mind you.
As it turns out, Ilya’s town was lousy with Russian M72s. I know this because I saw two more as he took me for a tour of his town’s war memorials. I shouldn’t have been surprised; by 1950 the factory in Moscow had produced 30,000 of them. We visited two different monuments to his town’s war dead as well as a graveyard. I’m assuming these were soldiers who gave their lives in World War II, if only because up to this point all monuments I’d seen were either to commemorate lives lost in WWII or to promote the superiority of the great Soviet Union.
The steps of the monuments were carpeted with broken glass. Either the townspeople did a lot of drinking here, or a very few people had been drinking here for a very long time and no one owned a broom. There was no way to tell which theory was more accurate.
At each of our stops Ilya took the big bottle of what I was to learn was Cabernet and at the foot of the monument he would pour out wine in the figure of a cross. Even though he had mugged for some touristy photos with me, I took this as a sign of great respect, reverence even. Honestly, I thought pouring beer on a grave was strictly something gangstas did for homeez. Noted.
On our way back to the bar (where my bike was sitting, untouched), we passed a couple from our trip and while they got a good laugh seeing me sitting in the sidecar, that was nothing compared to the shock and wonder Ilya’s friends felt as they saw their friend with a guy covered in Lycra, wearing a spaceman helmet and glasses like the petals of some hybrid flower covering his eyes.
The moment we pulled up back at the bar his cell phone began ringing. I thought nothing of it at first, but what had been five friends was suddenly 11. The phone would ring and someone else would arrive. But I didn’t piece that together until later. No, the first order of business—I thought I was just going to get on my bike, say thanks and be on my way—was for me to sit down and drink with them. Someone handed me a plastic cup, roughly 6 oz. (whatever that works out to in liters) and then poured something deep ruby to the brim. I had no idea what it was. Only after I was into my second cup did a teenage boy I am guessing was 16 at best, but was hanging out smoking and drinking with the others guys, manage to convey that I was drinking Cabernet.
I looked at the bottle. I took some Russian in college. So while I can remember fewer than a dozen words, I can still read the Cyrillic alphabet. A great many words are just transliterated from other languages—their word, funky alphabet. It helps me know when I’m standing in front of a restaurant. But the bottle in question was a beer bottle.
I was drinking someone’s homemade rotgut. Yeah bitches! These guys know how to party! I began trying to find out who made it. No dice. But one guy pestered the kid for something.
The kid asked me, “You like this?”
“Yeah, I like it,” I told him. Then I added, “Eto horosho,” which is Russian for “It is good.”
So then the guy who had pestered the kid leaned forward and asked, “You like?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I like.”
Mind you, it wasn’t a good wine, per se. But there was plenty of bright fruit and a lingering sweetness that demonstrated they knew a thing or two about growing wine grapes to maturity, though maybe they could benefit from some non-native yeasts. It wasn’t terribly different from a non-fizzy wine cooler. I could drink this stuff all day.
Somewhere between the end of the first cup and the beginning of the second, someone handed me a slice of bread with a homemade sausage aboard it. If there was anything ground up in the sausage I didn’t want to know about, I was never going to find out; it was spicy as a sailor’s tongue.
Around that time some of the guys began checking out my bike, which by this time amused me, rather than concerned me. And I don’t think that was just the wine working its magic. One of the guys tapped my Garmin unit and then drew an imaginary line up to the sky and then back down to the Garmin.
With the raised eyebrows of someone about to ask a question he inquired, “Spootnik?”
As in Sputnik, the very first satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit.
“Da! Da! Spootnik, GPS,” I said, as I nodded emphatically. Hey, this communication thing is going okay, I thought.
As each new comrade arrived at our table, we’d shake hands, we’d toast and then they’d kill their glasses, while I took a few obligatory sips. The toasting thing was difficult to catch on to. I tried “na zdorovje”, which is supposed to be “to your health” but they looked at me a bit quizzically. I also tried “skål”, which was no more successful. Someone said “budmo” which, upon some research, I’ve found means “shall we live forever” and suggests I was hanging out with a bunch guys of Ukrainian blood, which makes sense, given I was less than 10k from the Ukrainian border.
We all said “budmo” a bunch.
As each guy shook my hand I couldn’t help but notice that every one of them, to a man, had the hands of someone who did manual labor. Ilya had mechanic’s version of the French manicure—black under the nails. His and his friends’ grips were firm and steady and their hands were tough as untreated leather. I can hardly imagine what they thought of mine. Remember when Quint rails at Hooper in “Jaws” and says, “You’ve been handling money your whole life”? I’m not rich, but I know my hands are that kind of soft.
What I couldn’t figure out, and this was something that had been nagging at me for the whole of my trip, was how these folks had the constitutions of people who had worked very hard labor over long days for years and yet here they were hanging out drinking at a bar even before it was lunch time. It was a setting I’d seen several times daily for more than a week. I could find no formula to parse its least-common denominator. It just didn’t make sense.
The master plan
After finishing my sausage sandwich and polishing off another cup of wine, I made mention of my need to be on my way. Ilya had a better idea. All his friends thought it was a terrific plan. Instead of leaving, I would stick around, drinking with them until some as-yet-undetermined time; maybe dinnertime, maybe midnight—I couldn’t tell. Then, once we had finished off every fermented beverage this side of the Ukraine (this part is a guess, but their progress suggests I’m not far off), Ilya would put me back in the sidecar. Either I would hold my bike or they would tie it to the side of the sidecar (I couldn’t tell) and then we would use Spootnik to guide us to our end-of-day rally point for the tour.
It was a genius plan. All except for the fact that something in me said that I had gotten off lucky the first time but the combination of a lot more wine, me, that motorcycle and a precarious perch for my bicycle was less a recipe for disaster than a paint-by-numbers map straight to its heart.
Saying goodbye took 15 minutes, maybe more. There were the photos with my new comrades and attempts to sway my will, some with smiling entreaties, some with offers to pour more wine. My final goodbye was with Ilya. We shook hands and then he struck his breast. That move needed no translation. I echoed his gesture by striking mine and nodded in ascent. This had been something special; we had shared something neither of us had expected, something neither of us will ever forget.
As I walked—with something approaching a sway—over to my bicycle, I thought of the event that started it all. I’d been on my way up a hill to leave this little town I hadn’t even bothered to stop to check out, when I spied the motorcycle with the sidecar sitting beneath a tree and behind it some guys hanging out before the day’s heat arrived.
I can’t say there is any rhyme or reason to the events that precipitate these experiences; I put myself out there and they just seem to happen from time to time. Isn’t that the way it usually works? But I figured I should capture an image of that motorcycle. What I took was so much more.
Think about the last time you were watching the weather and the weatherman was talking about a hurricane about to pummel some coastline. Be it Louisiana, Texas, Florida, New Jersey or North Carolina, your reaction was very likely, “Those poor SOBs.”
This is the reaction I’ve been having for nearly everyone involved in what was briefly known as Divine Cycling Group. If there’s been an uglier yard sale of emotions, unpaid invoices and lawyer paper in cycling, I haven’t seen it. I’ve been digging around for all the information I can. And while I don’t typically use the term “digging” to describe the work I do, several people have used that term in asking me about what I’ve been up to, what I’ve learned. Some have used the term with excitement and curiosity. Others have used it cautiously, nervously.
What I’ve learned is that the number of people in financial hardship as a result of the failed merger of Divine Cycling Group can’t easily be totaled. What I’ve learned is that absolutely everyone I’ve talked to have something in common: they all wonder what the future holds. They are all scared that their careers or bank accounts may take a significant hit. For some, that hit has already arrived. They also share a fear of the lawyers involved in these transactions.
I’ve talked to vendors and former contractors for Serotta. Everyone I talked to has an outstanding, unpaid balance. So far as I’ve been able to find out, these amounts range from the low four figures to the high five figures. In aggregate, it appears to be an ugly, crippling sum. And no one owed this money will go on the record to say they haven’t been paid. To a person, they are afraid that any public declaration that they have an unpaid invoice could result in punitive action from the lawyers working on behalf of Bradway Capital and others.
I contacted Brian Case, CEO of Bradway Capital. He wasn’t willing to say much for the record due to “lots of legalities,” but he did say there was likely to be some news forthcoming in 10 days to two weeks. He cautioned me that only one side of the story was circulating, indirectly alluding to Ben Serotta’s open letter to the industry. He admitted he’d been frustrated to be on the sidelines unable to tell his side of the story and was eager to do so once all the paperwork was complete.
I’ve had a couple of people who have been close to these events suggest that the morass of legal wranglings is far deeper and murkier than most would suspect. For them the smoking gun is the fact that what was Serotta is now operating as Saratoga Frameworks. They each independently noted that not only was Serotta’s intellectual property split from the real estate and the labor force, but that in Case lost control of the Serotta intellectual property in his dealings with Bill Overbay, hence the need for the Saratoga Frameworks brand, complete with logo and website. Case even told Bicycle Retailer and Industry news that Divine Cycling Group owned the Serotta brand and that while there was a chance that brand would be commercialized again at some point in the future, for now it needed to “cool off.”
It’s worth noting that Bradway Capital retains the tooling and the labor force while another company Case controls owns the real estate in which the operation is based. When I asked Case about the disposition of the Serotta name and intellectual property he cited confidentiality due to the legal proceedings and was hopeful that he’d be able to say something on the record about it in a couple of weeks, the point at which he is hopeful that the paperwork will be finalized.
Case is clearly bullish on Saratoga Frameworks. He aims to have as many as 40 employees in 2014 and to be producing as many as 2500 frames over the course of the year. However, when I asked about the people who told me had gone unpaid he began saying, “A lot of promises were made by Ben and the previous management.”
I then told him that the people I had spoken with all asserted that they had signed agreements with Bradway, not verbal agreements with Ben Serotta. Worse, each of them told me that Case had used exactly that excuse for not paying them. When pressed, he said, “We have every intention of paying our legal obligations.” Moments later he added, “Once we have a sustainable business in Saratoga we can meet those obligations.”
The questions I didn’t ask were, “What if you don’t have a viable business going forward? Does that mean you won’t pay?”
My final questions to Case regarded Mad Fiber and what would happen with that company. Currently, the web site has a single page asking visitors to check back later and the phone isn’t being answered. He admitted that production had been shut down and operations had been suspended in the short term. Again, he asked me to wait a couple of weeks when he said paperwork should be finalized and he was hopeful Mad Fiber would be up and running once again.
The assets of Blue Competition Cycles are on the block. The entire workforce has been laid off. To give you some idea of how far suspended operations can inflict pain, there’s $1 million in bicycles for which the factory that produced them hasn’t been paid. There’s a team that placed deposits on bikes to race on this year that has been stiffed. No bikes.
I respect that everyone wants a bottom line; this is very much a work in progress. The challenge here is that emotions are running high and I can’t find anyone willing to take Case at his word. It would be easy to go after Case and harp on all those unpaid bills. It would be easy to look at the firing of Ben Serotta and draw parallels to Fat City and the awful turn of events that ultimately saw Chris Chance leave the bike industry. But the bright side of that chapter of the New England bike industry includes the almost necessary rise of Independent Fabrication.
While no one will say it publicly, there are plenty of people who are whispering that Case and Overbay haven’t treated people ethically or honorably. It’s easy to point to the guy at the top and label him the villain. The challenge here is that Case believes in the workforce behind Serotta/Saratoga and under the right circumstances he may have the ability to keep those craftsmen employed. Should Saratoga go under there’s a very high likelihood that not only will the bike industry lose the opportunity to revive a great brand, the industry will lose a number of talented individuals for the simple reason that most of them won’t be able to find jobs elsewhere.
There’s an additional challenge Case and Saratoga face. They need dealers. While some dealers will likely take Saratoga as a placeholder for Serotta, I’ve spoken with several dealers who want nothing more to do with Serotta, let alone Saratoga. It’s one thing to make 2500 frames in a year; it’s another to sell them.
What happens next really rides on Brian Case. If he pulls this out and revives the Serotta brand, he’ll be a hero. If Serotta goes away but he makes a going concern of Saratoga, he’ll still be a kind of hero, just smaller scale. However, if he is unable to secure the Serotta intellectual property and both it and Saratoga Frameworks go Pan Am, then Case will be served up for all and sundry to be remembered as the black-hat-wearing evil-doer; he’ll be such an obvious a target for blame that any other storyline about Serotta’s years of questionable management will be obliterated by his inability to pull the operation out of the dive.
For Part I, go here.
PB: When fitting a customer for a bike, how do you usually work? How often is it in person?
RS: The interaction I have with a client always includes a dialogue as well as a completed order form containing the conventional anatomical measurements and the contact points assimilated on the bicycle or bicycles used. I usually give all of this (that is, the information I have at hand) about 30 quick seconds before an image is conceived for the design which will become the client’s frame. No formulas. No stationary bicycles. No don’t touch me there stuff. I’d say it’s all intuitive. Some cats see dead people. I see riders on bicycles. It’s just that simple. PS: This all occurs in person less than 10 times per year and has never been any other way. Since my first week in the trade, nearly all of my orders were filled for clients who were anything but local to me.
PB: 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?
RS: I make road bicycles. Since my background is from the sport, I know what has to go where so that the bicycle I make 1) fits the rider superbly well, and 2) handles the way it should, atmo. It has nothing to do with whether the cats rides on the road or pins on a number to enter a race, nor would it matter if the race is an industrial park criterium or a Battenkill or similar. I make road bicycles and they work on a road. Period.
PB: Who does your paint?
RS: JB Custom Paint (Joe Bell).
PB: How long have you been working with Joe?
RS: JB has painted all of my frames since 1986.
PB: How long is the wait for new customers?
RS: It’s less of a wait and more of an ordeal, atmo. But another two Obamas at this point and I might be near that last order currently in the queue.
PB: Do you ever anticipate taking new orders again?
RS: I do take orders. There’s some ambiguity surrounding what I do and don’t do and I will try to arrange that disorder here. In late 2008 I stopped taking orders for Richard Sachs Signature road frames from new clients. There was a window of about 4 weeks left open until all of this went into effect. All along, I have still accepted orders from 1) repeat clients, and 2) for other types (‘cross, for example) of frames. Also, while I didn’t put this in the fine print, I never turned down an order from someone stationed in the military, or from a teacher, or from a member of the clergy. In my mind, folks who fall into these categories are beyond my ever saying no to. If they wanted to get in the queue and be part of the ordeal, so be it, atmo. So, yeah – with the current demand lined up, the delivery is about 7-8 years or so. Data point: I work at a 4-6 frame a month pace, have left spaces open each year for some repair and emergency work, and anticipate continuing to run a ‘cross team whose frames will also need to be made during seasons years from today. I’ve done my best to map it all out and keep it from owning me. It’s my business, but it’s also my life. I don’t want to have or invite stress, atmo.
PB: What’s your pricing like?
RS: The 2010 frame base price is $4000. Most of my frames are sold as assembled bicycles.
PB: What keeps the work fresh for you and gets you up in the morning (or out in the evening) and excited to build?
RS: To quote myself paraphrasing a quote from the sculptor Louis Bourgeois about whom I read an article in an in-flight magazine some twenty years ago, “I continue to work in order to redeem myself for all my past mistakes.” Or some shit like that….
PB: You’re part of The Framebuilders’ Collective. What was the motivation to help start an association devoted to what can be a pretty solitary craft?
RS: TFC is a group born from a connection several of us made with each other early on in the framebuilding message board and listserv era. Those involved felt a kinship and synergy with the others and wanted to cement a bond. While it took several years of backroom chats and decision making, the collective was created. We made the concept public at the NAHBS show in Indianapolis. It’s a peer group. I don’t think it exists to legitimize us, or what we do, but it would be incorrect to assume we don’t have long term goals. The website’s two short pages should answer every question folks would have about the organization.
PB: You sponsor a pretty dynamite cyclocross team. How did this season go?
RS: It was a great season. They all are. My personal results were less than they were in 2009, but I can still live with them.
PB: Since you started the ‘cross team you’ve had some stunning successes. Would you recount a few high points for us?
RS: The ‘cross team began as a stepchild to the road team(s) I had been supporting and managing going all the way back to 1982. By 1998 I decided to focus all of my marketing efforts and sponsorship dollars on ‘cross. Members of the team have won 10 National Championships over the years and have represented at the Worlds on at least 6 occasions. At the core, the team has always been comprised of pals, or pals of pals. We’ve never recruited, poached a rider from another organization, or rested our hat on one particular cat or kitten. It’s always been a group effort and I have found myself using the word family with some regularity. We get along, we travel well, we live for autumn, and then we disband in January. Rinse, lather, repeat, atmo.
The single highest point I can articulate with regard to the RS ‘Cross Team is that it has become a brand onto itself and, by dint of that, is a trustworthy financial and emotional investment for all the sponsors, industry suppliers, and supporters it’s had over its history.
PB: What’s your life away from building like?
RS: It’s one in transition, atmo. Since I left for Vermont that fateful day in the early 1970s and my life took one turn after another, followed by more of them, I rarely looked back to assess the direction or to help shape it. That’s why I use the word serendipity to the point of overuse or even abuse. But as I approach my 40th year at the bench and answer questions like yours, I do reflect on all of it as a body of work. Because of that, and owing to my age (57 as of this writing), I can’t ignore that I have lived more than half of my life. I’d like to find a way to take what’s left and make it as enriching as possible. To date, my focus has consumed me and I am beyond being one-dimensional. As a matter of fact, I could be the poster boy for the one-dimensional life. The transition is, or will be, about what else out there might call for me. For years I have described myself as a racer who makes bicycles (not the other way around), and that the job I have stayed with was just a way to spend the days sandwiched between race starts. As my own racing interests wane, I now think about what else is out there. Okay – I have to get back to earth now, atmo….
PB: Do you have outside interests beyond bicycles?
RS: My family and my home life are my life, much less my life away from bicycles.
PB: When people talk about the A-list of frame builders, your name is at or near the top of everyone’s list. To what do you attribute that?
RS: There’s this saying, sooner or later we all become our parents, or words to that effect. I think the A-list stuff is just fodder. Or gossip. There will always be a pecking order, or a list of folks who are new, or new with a bullet, or firmly established and part of the mainstream. Having been part of the niche from the 1970s, and living through an era or three when there was no niche left to speak of, and to still be attached to it all in the internet years when framebuilding is cool again, I’ve become a point of reference. My frames are not better, and I don’t know that much more than others, but I am still here working daily and part of the crowd. Writers see this and it becomes a story. Other writers see it and also see the story, and more stories are written. The public ends up reading what’s served up, attaching its own emotion to it, and that energy contributes to the talk you speak of. It’s just that simple.
PB: Who do you consider your peers from a standpoint of work quality?
RS: I know many the players but not their processes. There are lots of craftsmen who are capable of making a frame of high quality, one which fits well, and also exhibits the personal touch and beautiful flourishes that the niche is known for.
PB: You’ve got an awfully high profile for a one-man shop. What are some of the things you offer for sale aside from frames and T-shirts?
RS: There are the aforementioned framebuilding parts and supplies, of course. I also have RS ‘Cross Team apparel, the Imperfection Is Perfection DVD, several posters, and a variety of atmo and CFRA (‘Cross Fucking Rules Atmo) stuff. The site has the mother lode listed on one of the pages.
PB: How important is self-promotion for a builder?
RS: It’s a business, atmo. You have to be both accessible and approachable. It helps to also know what goes where.
PB: You’ve just done a big overhaul of your look. How did the collaboration with House Industries come about?
RS: About 22 months ago I asked Rich Roat and House Industries to take a look at my identity program, deconstruct it, and create something for me with what was left. Before that, maybe a half year earlier, I woke up, looked at what I had (the 30+ years of essentially red and white) and concluded I was done with it.
PB: How much freedom and/or direction did you give them?
RS: My desire was change, either wholesale, or minimal the choice, the direction, the entire range of concepts (and there may have been just the one—I never asked) was in their hands. I made the decision to change, asked Rich and House Industries if they would take on the project, and waited until it was complete before I saw anything. This is all their work. And I couldn’t be happier. And I wouldn’t change a single thing they did.
PB: So what happens if someone wants the old red and white, the old decals?
RS: This is what I do now—dot period. And it’s not a new policy at all. I have had quite a few art file revisions through years. Decal scales change. Ink colors get bolder or more opaque.The frame reliefs get trimmed with different shades of paint. Font borderline weights have evolved. Even the reds and whites we have used all along since 1981 have had more variations than I can remember. When any single line in the sand was crossed, we never went back to what came earlier. It’s no different this time.The graphic details that House Industries created for me are now the default art that comes on my bicycles. The red and white scheme that so many are familiar with is now part of my past.
PB: Anything else on the horizon we should know about?
RS: You know the line, and I know you know the movie. So I’ll just add the quote: ”Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.” That has been my policy for at least as long as the film has been in rotation on cable television.
PB: Don’t forget the contact info:
RS: TBC …
Cycling is a pursuit with almost limitless expression. It is efficiency itself, a way to remake cities in the 21st century. It is a magnification of sport, a chance to see competition as the ultimate mastery over chaos (how many other sports may see 20 teams on the field?), as well as a chance to magnify athleticism through the microscope of the time trial. There’s the devotion to routine and ritual that comes in daily training, giving us a chance to consider the more spiritual side of the sport. What of the shop wrenches who keep us on the road? They are the doctors of the sport, the GPs who make sure that our society continues to function. Finally, there are the high priests and artists—the frame builders—all consideration of cycling as a craft emanate from them. It is in the exploration of craft, breaking it down, finding those inner drives and how they manifest in someone’s work that we learn about artistry and how it’s possible to make an individual statement even when working with a set of components that anyone else in the world can purchase.
All the most interesting conversations I’ve had in cycling have shared a detail in common. Somewhere at the root of that conversation the driver was the creative urge. That urge to create, to find out what is possible has been behind conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs like Mike Sinyard, some of the top engineers in cycling, a few of the more insightful pros I’ve encountered, and of course, most every frame builder I’ve ever met.
Something RKP hasn’t done to my satisfaction is shine a spotlight on great builders. Interviewing frame builders is something I’ve done since even before my time at Bicycle Guide, where I was one of the editors responsible for the Hot Tubes column. Reader polls told us that Hot Tubes was the single most popular feature in the magazine, so later, when I launched Asphalt, I doubled-down on that, taking a one-page department and turning it into a four-page feature called Torchbearers. Though we didn’t take any polls, I can tell you that what I learned from readers was it was wildly popular. For a while, I was responsible for an online column at Peloton called Artisans which traveled much the same territory, though it used a straight Q&A format. Eventually it came to an end, mostly because of my inability to herd cats; delivering a weekly interview with a frame builder can involve a degree of chasing befitting a bounty hunter. Unless you’re standing in front of the builder, it can be hard to get some of them to talk. The irony here is that no one ever says no; they just prove to be Higgs-Boson elusive.
The pieces I did for Artisans are still live and can be found here. I’m pleased that they are still up; so many things get deleted off the web with a simple click. However, because RKP fundamentally serves as my calling card, I’m going to reprint the interviews here and begin adding to them with new ones, though without the strain of a weekly deadline. I’ll also be pulling in one of our contributors, Irene Bond, to help with the cat herding.
Our first installment is a guy that some have accused of being overexposed, almost too well known. I submit that even though Richard Sachs didn’t invent the craft, he’s the guy that drew the blueprint from which most other builders have planned their career. In a sense, Sachs is the prototype, the ur-builder. He’s also significant in that he has risen beyond just being a frame builder. He is truly a brand. And while his notoriety has rankled some, I submit that he is the model for how to create a real business. There’s more to being a frame builder than building frames. It’s invoicing, getting someone to design your logo, decals and T-shirts. It’s invoicing and paying. It’s responding to clients. I’ve had a number of conversations with builders in which they revealed that they didn’t want to do all that stuff. They just wanted to build. Sometimes I’d ask if they’d considered calling Richard Schwinn or Ben Serotta. After all, that’s the difference between a craftsman and a frame builder. A frame builder is a whole business.
There is, however, a more compelling reason to start such a series with Sachs. It is because of the many builders I’ve spoken to over the years, he is the one that understands best what craft is about, that an apprenticeship must take place before once gains mastery. He and I share a love for the dailiness of exercising a craft, him with the torch, me with sentences. He once sent me an interview with Thomas Keller, the chef behind what is arguably the greatest restaurant in the U.S., the French Laundry. In it, Keller talked about craft and how a certain understanding comes once you’ve scrambled a few thousand eggs. No one in frame building has been as thoughtful about craft as Sachs, no one has been as articulate. This is the best place to start.
PB: Tell us where you’re based.
RS: I live in a western Massachusetts hill town of 710 people on a dead end dirt road.
PB: What caused you to move there?
RS: Chester, Connecticut became my home when I arrived back from my frame building training in London. I turned 19 years old there. One day several years ago, we (my wife and I) decided this village of 3,000 was too crowded and made a plan to leave.
PB: What’s the riding like there (where you live now)?
RS: The riding here is extraordinary, atmo (according to my opinion). An amazing ride that takes in some of the region’s dirt roads, called D2R2, starts about 30 miles from my door. This area’s landscape and solitude were major reasons why we chose Franklin County as a landing spot.
PB: How long were you in Connecticut?
RS: 37 years or so.
PB: Where did you grow up?
RS: I am from New Jersey but that hardly speaks to your question.
PB: Why not?
RS: Spending a lifetime riding a bicycle, and racing almost every available weekend, as well as working alone at what is more a creative endeavor than a routine job, and having no children of my own – all of this is a recipe for arrested development. I live within these very margins.
PB: How long have you been building?
RS: My brand began in 1975.
PB: How did you get your start?
RS: It all began serendipitously. I planned to attend Goddard College to pursue my interest in creative writing. This took a turn when admission was granted several months after the usual September semester start. Since I had the summer vacation and some extra months to kill, I took a menial job in Manhattan. One day, I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a bicycle mechanic’s position in Vermont. Within a week I was on a Greyhound bus with a one way ticket to Burlington. Sadly, when I walked in to get my job I learned that it had been filled weeks earlier despite that the newspaper was still circulating the classified. Worse yet, in the layers of conversation I had with the staff, they made it clear I was not qualified. I took this personally and was very disappointed. By that point in my young life I was riding quality bicycles, doing all my own repairs, and had already a mild interest in the handmade stuff, being (then) a client in waiting for my first of what would ultimately be three W.B.Hurlow frames. So, rejection in hand, I deliberated on what was next. I had no backup plan to tide me over until my April admission to Goddard. I decided the only way to avenge what happened was to prove how wrong they were for not hiring me. In my mind, the only thing cooler than fixing bicycles would be making them, though I cannot for the life of me recall where that sentiment came from. I grabbed an issue of International Cycle Sport, a spiral bound notepad, some pens, and spent an afternoon at the library at UVM. All in all, I collected some thirty names and addresses of firms that appeared to make bicycle frames on the premises. These became my targets. I wrote letters to each of them explaining my desire to come to England and work for free in return for their teaching me to build frames. Thirty letters were mailed. Three replies were received. Two said no. These were from Bob Jackson Cycles and Ellis Briggs Cycles. The one yes came from Ernie Witcomb, whose eponymous family business was in southeast London. To England I flew.
PB: Who else worked with you at Witcomb?
RS: Well the Witcombs: Ernie, his wife, Lil, and son, Barry, were there. A man named Jim Collier was making frames and so was David Cotton. There was also Charles Barrett and a boy named Rob whose last name escapes me. I was there for about a month when Peter Weigle arrived. In the course of my 10 months in Deptford, another two or three Americans came and went, all chasing dreams similar to mine, or one would assume.
When my stint in Deptford ended, I came back to the states and hung out in New Jersey for a month or so deciding what to do next. I had postponed the Goddard April admission. The Witcomb family had liaisons with a New England firm called Sports East, Limited. They were in the outdoor sports and recreation business but on the agency and sales side. This company, based in East Haddam, Connecticut, proposed to the Witcomb family to represent them and all they could supply to the North American market. This was at the height of the 1970s fitness craze-slash-bike boom-slash-oil embargo and it was a good time to be in the ten speed bicycle business at any level, atmo. I decided that the pull towards staying in bicycles vis-à-vis a job offer at Witcomb USA (the division created at Sports East to market the English bicycles) was stronger than my then fading urge to write or attend college. I took the train to Old Saybrook and began work in East Haddam.
The job description was actually pretty lame and I knew that going in. My position at Witcomb USA was more as a gopher than anything else because, in reality, the division existed primarily as an importer and distributor. My place there was secured mostly because my 10 months in London gave them some much needed insight and credibility when it came to the bicycles they were an agency for.
Everything in Connecticut was going swimmingly well for a year or so until it was clear that the Witcombs (in London) were incapable of supplying frames to meet the demand the sales force in East Haddam had created. The long and short of this is: Ed (the owner) told us (me and Peter Weigle, who had also been there all this time) that we were now going to make the frames that London couldn’t. Peter and I hadn’t held a torch since we left Deptford almost a year earlier. And when we left, we were not framebuilders, just two cats who worked at a framebuilding shop long enough to see it done. This didn’t matter to Ed at all. He had an investment to protect and the salesmen had orders to fill. Peter and I were going to make the frames no matter how much money it would take in tooling and trial and error for us to get up to speed.
Before long, Peter and I got a process dialed in and it was enough to make frames on the premises so that Ed and the crew could ship them to all points nationwide. By some fluke and many thousands of dollars invested, Ed created the Witcomb USA bicycle brand and we were off to the races.
My stay at the company lasted only a year more. In the interim we had hired Gary Sinkus to do set up work and we also trained Chris Chance to do prep as well as paint work. Before my departure, I recall we were making many frames and were very efficient too. There was no standing back and admiring lug edges or celebrating that we were taking part in some creative process. Ed and the salesmen gave us stacks of frame orders, and Peter and I took care of filling them.
Ultimately I left because I felt whatever enthusiasm I was holding to as a young framebuilder in an exciting era was too often neutralized by Ed’s all-business approach to what we had become a part of. In hindsight, the reality was that I was too young to have all the responsibility that came with being that important a part of his commercial plan. I wanted to make the frames, but without the routine and impersonal connections that became the norm. Well, that’s the short answer.
PB: Have you held other positions in the industry?
RS: No. Actually, I have never done anything else (for pay) since I left The Peddie School in 1971.
PB: When did you strike out on your own?
PB: Do you ever work in a material other than steel??
RS: In the last 10 years or so I have also worked heavily in opinions, atmo. I kept a tight lid on my thoughts through about 1997. One day, I was asked to speak about the framebuilding industry, such as it was, and I found myself having a watershed moment. It was like, after 25 years at the bench it was finally okay for me to have a point of view. I haven’t relented since.
PB: Who makes the tubing and lugs you like to use?
RS: I am a dedicated Columbus client. About 6-7 years ago they began to supply a tube set that resulted from collaboration between Dario Pegoretti and me. The two of us felt the need for components which would 1) be made specifically for framebuilders who were using lugs, 2) have all the characteristics of the material so that the makers (us) and the users (clients) had a steady supply, and 3) could be 21st-century sized and shaped, and with a weight that would appeal to the present market rather than the retro one. Spirit for lugs (SFL) was born, though I prefer to call it PegoRichie. Columbus manufactures it and it’s already several iterations updated since it all began. I also import and distribute PegoRichie tubing to other framebuilders.
Regarding lugs and parts: I have designed 4 different styles. Richie-Issimo, Newvex, Nuovo Richie, and Rene Singer are the model names. Each set began as a white sheet of paper with the goal of bringing high style, precision cast components to the market so that I would have my own supply and not be dependent upon the ever shrinking inventories that then existed. Along with the tubing I also sell these lugs. There are also 2 fork crowns, a bottom bracket shell, and a front changer braze-on that are part of the menu. By mid winter I will also have an over-oversized version of the Richie-Issimo lugs and shell ready for the market.
PB: Tell us about the jig you use.
RS: I use a Bike Machinery Hydra. It’s made in Italy and I have used it since the early 1980s. The first seven hundred or so frames I made predate its arrival and I’d wager that it took 2-3 years before I was comfortable and facile using it. In London, we did things, eh – they did things the old way; there was a forge, town gas, a torch that put out a flame some 20” long, no tools, no power equipment, and no fixtures. The frames I made through 1982 were all assembled using procedures mined or refined from my time abroad.
PB: 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?
RS: Oh I don’t know. This is one of those button issues for me. To separate out the lug, or any single component or dimension from the whole is to miss the point. I make frames, not stylistic elements, atmo.
For Part II, click here.
The one positive recurring theme I heard during this year’s Tour de France was how stunningly beautiful Corsica is. It was as if the entire world of cycling collectively gasped and wondered aloud, “Who knew?” While the Tour de France has long served as France’s most powerful and enduring postcard to its pastoral beauty, it’s not as if everywhere the race goes is attractive enough to merit a Facebook selfie. And that is what makes the visual aspect of the race’s geography such a marvel. It unearths (ha ha) places that force us to tell the TV our dream travel plans. For those of us lucky enough to watch the event with our better halves, it sometimes affords us the chance to say something novel, something that might not get the rebuke a crazy cyclist richly deserves.
“Hey hon, what do you think about vacationing in Corsica?”
I mention this because I, like many of you, saw those mountain roads and cerulean sea and sat, slack-jawed, unable to finish a simple, “Wow!” I just slurred a “wah,” as I watched. Unlike some urges I have, though, I resolved to act on this one. I knew just what to do.
My friend Julie Gildred owns, runs and generally dreams up all that is RideStrong Bike Tours. She and I have been in a sort of dance for more than a year, trying to come up with the right opportunity to work together. Why not collaborate on a tour of Corsica? As it happens, Julie is the perfect person to work with on this as RideStrong ran a tour on Corsica some years back. The destination has been one she’d been thinking of returning to and after this year’s Tour, there seemed like the perfect occasion.
Julie and I have been talking over the itinerary, co-scheming to present a tour that will be as enjoyable off the bike as on. She’s put the itinerary up here.
Here’s the basic outline for the trip: it’ll be seven days and six nights, beginning May 24, 2014, and ending May 30. The trip will start and finish in Ajaccio so that we won’t have to move the bike cases. The price for the trip is $3979; the single supplement is an extra $700, which would alleviate you of the need to share a room with me. Which means, yes, I’ll be along on the trip as a special guest, which mostly means I’ll be sweeping the course and arriving late to water stops with spare gels for everyone. I hope you’ll consider joining us. We will be teasing out additional details of the trip in the coming weeks and months.
In addition to the Corsica tour, we have a couple of other things cooking.
For some time I’ve been wanting to hold a ride to meet and pedal with as many of you as possible. I’m in the preliminary stages of planning a ride, also for next spring, probably late April or early May. I should be nailing down the date in the next week or two. The ride will take place in Paso Robles, half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. I can also say that it won’t be epic in length because we will be taking in some roads that lack any asphalt. And the first person to call it Paso Roubaix or a gravel grinder will be uninvited. I”m not sure what to call it, other than fun.
Finally, for all those of you who won’t be in a position to travel, there will be a couple of additions to our store soon. First up will be a T-shirt to commemorate a guy and a ride that were unimpeachably epic. I’d hoped to have the shirt ready way back in June, when it would have been more occasion appropriate, but sometimes this stuff just takes more time than you think it should. Shortly after the T-shirt begins to ship we will begin offering prints of it, as well as of the artwork from the Eddy ’72 T-shirt. As it happens, both pieces of art are by the same artist, Bill Cass. The prints, I’ve been assured, will be ready to ship in time for Christmas. The shirt will also mark the first effort on our part to contribute to the success of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
Thanks for reading and I hope I’ll get to cross paths with you this next year.
Three hundred sixty-six days ago I made a miscalculation. Simply put, I went too fast through a corner. I could tell you how I thought the adhesive quality of my bike’s rear tire given the road surface, lean angle and speed I was traveling was sufficient to keep me stuck to the road, but none of what I thought prior to that turn matters. Nor does it matter that I got the bike under control briefly. The impact itself doesn’t matter in the way you might think it would.
Here’s what matters: any time I enter a corner that I don’t have as well memorized as my social security number, I hesitate. Hell, even the ones that I do know that well I find myself sitting up a bit to scrub some speed.
That one tire slip changed, well, maybe it didn’t change everything, but it was the first in a series of events that, in aggregate, served as the most colossal upheaval I’ve experienced in my life.
Under other circumstances I wouldn’t have seen the events as related in any way. However, it was that sinking feeling in my gut—the universal signifier that no matter how good or bad things may currently be, things are about to get worse—that kept coming back with each new lousy piece of news. I knew the moment my tire slipped that I was going too fast for the next few seconds (or days as the case turned out to be) to turn out in any routine manner. That feeling came back when I got the call that my stepfather, Byron, was unlikely to leave the hospital. There was the call with the ad sales guy I’d hired in which he admitted that not only was he planning to take a job with an exercise magazine but that he really hadn’t done a damn thing for the previous month.
I experienced the same feeling the day the obstetrician said, “I don’t like this,” as he pointed to a dark area in our son’s body as he performed what was supposed to be a final and routine ultrasound two weeks before delivery. I did my best to tell myself that things couldn’t be that bad, that my body was jumping to conclusions not supported by the data. However, minutes later, the feeling only grew when we entered a different office with a different ultrasound pro operating an ultrasound unit that was S-class Mercedes compared to the Toyota Tercel we’d just been on. That doctor’s first, “Hmm,” was all I needed to begin wondering how the moments go before a first experience with incontinence.
The next month served up a succession of conversations that each resulted in that damned feeling. It was as if I’d discovered some previously unknown cookbook in which Julia Child served up that one emotional response in eighty different dishes. There was Sinking Feeling Paprika. There was Sentiment d’Angoisse a l’Orange, Sensazione di Affondare Cacciatore and Spaetzle mit Flaues Gefühl. I lost track of all the dishes containing that one ingredient, but you know how the palate fatigues. After a month of chicken, all you want is beef.
Once we finally brought the 15-lb. miracle home, I headed to a doctor, one just for me, for what was supposed to be a relatively simple out-patient procedure. Weeks later I woke up in a hotel room and the sheets were red. I spent Memorial Day in the emergency room.
Each of those events is as related as a brick is to a blue whale, but they share an emotional crossroads to which I inevitably responded, “Oh no, not again.” Even as I sit, typing, my stomach hitches as I traverse the events of those days, the tone of the doctor’s voice, the color of the sheets, the leftward kick of the wheel.
Shortly after the crash I wrote that I’d soon be back on Tuna Canyon. But that hasn’t happened. It took more than six months for me to return to Decker, to Las Flores and to go 90 percent of my old speed requires an anxious, uneasy clenching of teeth. It’s not a flow state. Not currently, maybe not anymore. Maybe I’d have returned sooner were it not for the succession of events that made my life a Himalayan roller coaster. I’ve no way to know.
I’ve gained much in the last year. The Deuce is a prize beyond measure. And the awareness I have of my place in the world thanks to the beer fund is a lesson that simply couldn’t be purchased. For those, I’m grateful. But neither can change my desire to be able to let the bike run on tilted asphalt. For that, I’m pissed. There’s no road map for how to get them back.
Worse is the simple fact that I’d be okay going slower if I could relax. Just relax. My discomfort on the descent to Cazadero and on Myers Grade at Levi’s Gran Fondo made me brake enough that I wondered if maybe I was now part of the legion that shouldn’t ride carbon clinchers on such roads. The wheels, I can report, fared better than my nerves.
It might seem that a year is a pretty arbitrary way to mark a collection of days, but anniversaries are how we mark time, mark progress. Occasions are a chance to look back at who we were previously. Weddings allow us to demonstrate how our lives have improved thanks to the power of love. Birthdays give us a chance to look back on who we were, to judge how we’ve grown. Commemorating the anniversary of a crash doesn’t seem the remembrance you’d want to mark, but for me, it was the first in a series of events related by a visceral response. It is my hope that today marks a turn, a chance to move forward without each new disturbance tapping into the psychic equivalent of being tazed.
To the degree that I don’t sound more hopeful, I admit that my outlook is tentative, uneasy. While I’m sure what the shackles are, I’m less sure how to cast them off.
Image: Wil Matthews
I’ve ridden a great many bike events over the years. From charity rides that were as elaborately produced as a wedding to road races marshaled by a van with half a million miles on it and industrial park crits that were as nondescript as the buildings we rode by. In that time I’ve run across one event that I really feel has gotten the formula right for producing a memorable cycling event. And it’s no secret that I think that event is Levi’s Gran Fondo.
I first went up to ride the gran fondo just because I wanted to go for an organized ride in Sonoma County. That it was to be a gran fondo—that is, a century with a mass start and controlled intersections to make it a bit more like an actual race—was more interesting to me than the ride being attached to a big pro. What interested me was doing a 100-mile ride with loads of climbing and great descents and only putting down my foot when I got to a rest stop. Not having to stop every few miles for a red light was easily worth the entry fee.
I got that experience, but I also got plenty more. I was amazed at the hordes of volunteers. There were volunteers who knew what they were doing everywhere I went. Out on the course there were police and fire officers helping to direct us and families at the end of driveways applauded us. I’d never done an event where someone cheered for me nearly every mile.
Then there was the fact that the ride had attracted licensed racers, dedicated century riders, double-century types for whom an event like this is just a good start as well as families. It was the broadest cross section of riders I’d ever encountered at a single event.
I became curious how the guys at Bike Monkey had managed to run an event through at least half a dozen different towns, on roads that are popular with tourists. I can think of a half dozen event promoters who would have looked at the proposed route, and a start and finish in the city of Santa Rosa and have pronounced it impossible.
The reason I was curious was simple: To my eye, a couple of guys in Santa Rosa had figured out how to make a single grass roots cycling event attractive to nearly anyone, everyone. When was the last time law enforcement, city governments, homeowners and cyclists all agreed on the value of a cycling event? To be sure, not everyone is in love with Levi’s Gran Fondo, but there are enough of us that the event has been happening without problems for four years.
The question that nagged at me was how. How did they do it? As it turns out, the answer is neither a secret nor impossible. Their strategy is a simple one: direct a portion of proceeds to charities. The AIDS Rides did that, but operationally, those rides were very different. They paid a cast of hundreds to work for them and they directed a tiny percentage to the actual charities meant to benefit. That strategy backfired when people learned that Pallotta Teamworks, the organizers behind the AIDS Rides, were really just a rather profitable event planner.
Bike Monkey doesn’t bill Levi’s Gran Fondo as a charity event. But the charity they do is no accident. What’s remarkable is how when 7,500 people each pay upwards of $100 to participate in a cycling event, you have some horsepower to get things done. Bike Monkey took that horsepower to a number of local charities. Among the beneficiaries of the gran fondo’s largesse are schools and fire departments along the route that the gran fondo follows. Those underfunded outposts receive checks that can make a real difference in the service they provide each year.
I shot these photos on a ride that Bike Monkey puts on the day before the fondo. It’s a chance for the top fundraisers attending the event to go on a short ride with Leipheimer and select VIPs. In addition to Levi and his wife Odessa Gunn, the very important types this year included the Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talanksy and Peter Stetina, Rebecca Rusch, Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson, Alison Tetrick of Team Exergy Twenty16, United Health Care’s Lucas Euser, Jeff Castelaz of the Pablove Foundation and Bissell rider Julian Kyer.
The ride went to Forget Me Not Farm on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. For those of you who haven’t seen “The Levi Effect,” Levi’s wife, Odessa, is a serious animal person and she volunteers there. Forget Me Not Farm rescues farm animals and uses them in therapy with kids who have been abused. Of course, their story is a good deal richer and more life-affirming than that, but that’s the elevator pitch. The farm is among the charities that the ride helps to support.
Attendees were served food grown at the farm and I can attest that the strawberries were as good as any I’ve had. Frankly, I didn’t think you could grow good strawberries that far north. It was a chance for people who don’t often have a chance to meet a pro cyclist to interact with a few of them, not to mention an opportunity to get an additional guided tour in while visiting Sonoma.
I am aware that some people are still hot enough about Levi Leipheimer’s doping to boil water. At some point I’m hoping we can move beyond the rage and begin to see the riders as pawns (most, if not all) in a system that was of the UCI’s making. Levi has served his suspension and no longer races; I think that should be enough to quell the anger. I’ve heard a few people say that the charity work that the gran fondo does is a chance for Levi to give something back to the community now that he’s no longer a pro. The funny thing is, that was always his intent. Those who know him have told me he shies from the limelight, that he really doesn’t want the attention. What was evident from “The Levi Effect” was how he got behind the idea of the gran fondo as a way to give back to a community that had accepted him as one of their own.
It was that vision, that desire to bring attention to the community, rather than the rider, that I think makes Levi’s Gran Fondo so very different from other events I’ve ridden. Perhaps it’s not the only one; certainly, I’ve not ridden all the rides there are, but it’s notably superior to every other ride I’ve done in its ability to deliver a stellar experience without hitch. That experience wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who are tied to the many charities to which the gran fondo donates. Think what you will of Levi for doping; whether you let go of your anger over that or not is beyond our control, but I hope you’ll bear this in mind: rather than using the event as a chance to bask in his fame, he turned the spot on the area, on something he loves and in that he gave Sonoma a boost it deserves, it needs.
Before I left for Interbike my wife said something to me she says before I depart for any industry function.
“Have fun,” she called to me as I walked out the door.
I’m kinda past the point of trying to explain to her that at events like Interbike my days are long and rather intense. That I enjoy myself there is without doubt, but I define fun as something that is carefree in a way that these events just aren’t.
So I haven’t told her much about the ride I did with some folks from Blackburn as well as a few other journalists. The agenda was simple. We climbed on a bunch of bikes suitable to dirt roads and headed out from the Outdoor Demo on bike paths, both paved and unpaved. Our destination was Hoover Dam.
I’ve been going to Las Vegas for Interbike for 15 years. To the degree that I’ve ever enjoyed myself, it was because I’ve spent time with people I know and admire. And while I’ve done some enjoyable rides, none of them ever had as pleasant a feel. It felt—it felt like I wasn’t working.
The point of the ride was to introduce us to Blackburn’s revamped line. What they’ll tell you is that Blackburn has gone back to its roots. They are focusing on racks, bags and lights, stuff you’d use in touring. And while that’s an easy elevator pitch, the reality is that the product line is far superior to the touring products I was using in the early 1990s, which is the last time I bought a bag or rack from Blackburn.
So we rode a bunch of gravel on an old railroad bed that took us to the Hoover Dam. The lights of Las Vegas disappeared. The rush of traffic on the highway disappeared. The noise, rush and force of the city disappeared. Views of Lake Mead spread to our left and the novelty of the old railroad tunnels promised new views at each exit.
Honestly, it was the first time I’d encountered this part of Nevada in a way that gave me a chance to appreciate its natural beauty. It’s the first time I’d had an experience I’d actually recommend to others.
And then we arrived at Hoover Dam.
This was my first visit ever to one of the great engineering marvels of the 20th Century. Built under that socialist debacle known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that puts many thousands of Americans to work building the country’s infrastructure when no other jobs were available, the Hoover Dam isn’t just a fine piece of engineering—the actual value of dams and the environmental impact can be debated in another forum—it’s a testament to the vision of the Roosevelt administration.
Beyond the dizzying presentation of the dam itself, the other structures are a reminder that our infrastructure projects once rose as more than just feats of engineering but as testaments to the power of our democracy. The experience recalled the impression that visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C. made on me when I was in high school.
Robin Sansom, above, is the product manager for Blackburn and the person responsible for the responsible for seeing through the overhaul of Blackburn’s line. While Robin was riding a Volagi Liscio, several riders and I rode the Volagi Viaje, the company’s steel bike. I have to admit that at first I wondered how well the bike would handle because the bar was nearly as high as the saddle. I was concerned that I didn’t have enough weight on the front wheel. As it turns out, it helped prevent the front wheel from shoveling in the looser gravel. It was easily the most comfortable steel bike I’d ridden on conditions this rough.
The bike was also equipped with SRAM’s new hydraulic road disc brakes, and this was the first occasion when I began to gain an appreciation that disc brakes may offer a notable improvement in braking modulation.
Of course, it could be that we were having fun just because most of us had Tecates in our bikes’ bottle cages.
Blackburn sponsored a group of riders, called the Blackburn Rangers, to take their products on some long-distance tours. While I don’t think you need proof that the stuff works, the videos they produced make for compelling watching. I can’t help but want to pack up and hit the road when I see them.
We’re at an uneasy place with our heroes. Even without the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the landscape of our understanding of professional bike racing in the last 20 years has fundamentally changed. For most followers of bike racing, doping went from this little problem in uncommon instances to a pervasive culture common to all but the rarest riders. While we beg for the truth about what occurred, as sporting fans, we’ve yet to embrace a single rider who confesses. As a group, we’ve yet to confer forgiveness to a single prodigal son.
Some people would like to see Leipheimer and every other confessed doper shot by firing squad, or at least expunged from the collective memory of cycling. Truly, some of the vitriol is hard to fathom. But he hasn’t gone away, nor has his eponymous event. To evidence this drop in stock value, entries for Levi’s Gran Fondo sold at a slower rate this year than they did in previous years. But they did sell out.
I’ve heard speculation that Santa Rosa wasn’t bringing the Tour of California back for a stage visit because the town was angry at Leipheimer for the shame he brought on the city and that the gran fondo wouldn’t last much longer. Really? The fact is, the city simply didn’t want to bear that expense in 2014, and if anything, due to the charitable work that Bike Monkey does, the gran fondo is more beloved than ever. While the long route sold out more slowly than it did in years past, the ride did sell out all three routes.
The staging area is almost the exact opposite of Interbike. At the trade show, I see a great many friends from the industry, such as Road Bike Action’s Zap (left) or TRUE Communications’ Mark Riedy (right), but unless I have an appointment, we’re all usually walking so quickly we don’t have a chance to say anything more than hi. In the staging area at Levi’s Gran Fondo, you’re standing around, waiting for the start, so it’s a good deal easier to actually chat with friends.
Shane Bresnyan (left) and Glenn Fant (right) are two of the faster guys in town and Glenn is the owner of NorCal Bikesport and the Bike Peddler and a significant sponsor of the gran fondo.
It was nice to see the Fat Cyclist himself, Elden Nelson and his wife, aka the Hammer.
Austin McInerny is the executive director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and was there with a full gaggle of high school riders from the NorCal league.
Levi’s Gran Fondo always manages to pull in a number of bona fide cycling stars and at this year’s event, and this year Andrew Talansky, who finished 10th at this year’s Tour de France and lives nearby in Napa, came out to ride.
Luca Euser of United Healthcare chose to ride pretty far back in the group and could be seen pulling people from one rest stop to another. He’s got an event of his own coming up in Napa. I may need to attend that.
Saturday was one of those bluebird days that would have seemed like Indian Summer anywhere else, but because this was Sonoma County, you can get days like this late in the fall. And while the morning began down in the 40s and required riders to don arm warmers, vests or jackets and consider at least knee warmers or embrocation, most of the day carried conditions to make you wish for another week of days like this one.
The descent to the coast comes in two big drops. The first, Myers Grade, plummets with such abandon that I saw a few people walking it. I have to admit I went slower on it in past years, partly because of the people at the side of the road and partly because my confidence on fast steep terrain just hasn’t returned, even though it’s been a full year since my crash.
Just to do something a little different this year, I decided to do the climb up Willow Creek rather than the full run down the coast to Coleman Valley Road. Willow Creek starts with pavement that gives way to gravel and becomes a double-track ascent through the forest. On the climb the trees shaded the sun enough to drop the temperature more than five degrees.
It was only upon hitting the climb that I began to feel good. I’d spent the entire day, some 70 miles to this point with my legs effectively offline. My best guess is that while I had good fitness, the cold of the morning caused my lower back and left IT Band to tighten up like a suspension bridge. As a result, I found myself pedaling mile after mile at 17 mph. I felt fine otherwise, but I couldn’t generate any power and as a result, all the people I’d planned to ride with early on spun up the road as I watched group after group pass. The why of my pace wasn’t terribly important, other than it gave me something to consider for a while, but the pace itself did force me to confront a larger issue. How was I going to handle it? I’d been riding well and wanted to rip one that day.
I thought back on Tyler Hamilton’s crash at the 2004 Tour de France in which he injured his back and afterward said he left the race because while he could pedal the flats, his back wouldn’t allow him to generate any power for climbing. I didn’t understand what he meant, at least, not at the time. I fully get it now.
But the question was what I would do with my attitude. I could spend 100 miles pissed that I showed up but my legs didn’t. I could whine for 100 miles that I got a shitty hand of cards. Or I could simply go slow, check out the sights and maybe see some new things because I was going too fast in years past. All things considered, given that I was riding through some of the prettier country in Sonoma County, were I to do anything other than enjoy myself on such a superb day would mean I was as inelastic as a pane of glass, and not much brighter.
So I enjoyed myself. Which wasn’t hard to do. Having my legs finally come on line meant that my riding could be playful on the climb of Willow Creek. While most of it isn’t all that steep so that you can drill it through the gravel through long stretches, there are a couple of ultra steep sections—one was 30 percent while another hit 27 percent—that turned the riding into something more reminiscent of mountain biking.
Following the descent into Occidental the ride into Santa Rosa takes you past a few final vineyards, some farm fields and then suddenly you’re turning onto the bike path. It’s a surprisingly welcome turn and conveys the relief of being nearly finished even if you’re not across the line quite yet. Sorta like a red kite, I suppose. Rolling into the finish was a mix of relief to be finished and sadness that the day was coming to a close.
Before closing, I’d like to say thank you to Christina, Sami, Arjuno, Russell (hell, even Andrew Talansky reads RKP!) and the many other people who stopped me to say thanks for RKP. It’s difficult to put into words what it means to have people tell me personally how much they appreciate RKP. I’ve been unable to summon anything more articulate than, “No, thank you.”
If there’s a better way to spend a day, I can’t summon it. A long bike ride without a bunch of stop lights, terrain so beautiful you want to pull over just to stare, seeing old friends, making a few new ones and all on a day you wish would never end.
There’s a certain amount of activity at Interbike, a portion of the wares displayed at Interbike that are necessary to the general feel of the show but aren’t really critical to the actual commerce of the show, stuff that helps to make Interbike a cool place to visit even if you don’t particularly need the item at hand. After all, cycling trades on nothing so much as passion, that promise of a good time.
I swear to something or other that these orange sparkle Stingray-esque grips by Electra were absolutely one of my favorite things I saw at the show. When I was a kid, one of the first ways I inspected a bike was to check out the grips, and few grips were as cool as the ones on Schwinn Stingrays. I kinda want a bike expressly for the purpose of installing these grips. Say what you want about the cart and horse—a man has to have priorities.
This A. Homer Hilsen frame was used as a prop for SKS products, such as their fenders. It would be easy to be bummed that such a magnificent piece of artisanal frame building was slumming it with plastic fenders, but I’m really glad for it. Had the guys at SKS not had the good sense to do this, one of the prettiest bikes at the show would simply not have been at the show. I could have spent an hour staring at this bike, rather than the two minutes that I devoted to it.
I’m so glad that the head tube badge has not just made a comeback, it is in what can be rightfully termed as its golden age.
Dario Pegoretti always shows off a bunch of really gorgeous bikes, but this one takes the art of what he does and elevates it into a truly unique plane. This bike is a tribute to John Coltrane. That’s right, a bike pimping ‘Trane!
It’s one helluva a way to honor the man who has sometimes been called the defining voice of jazz.
So what do you put on the down tube of a bike celebrating Colrane? How about some fake book changes?
He finished off the treatment with a quote on the down tube that speaks to the real nature of craft. I’d forgotten this one.
I love the bike industry and the people therein. It’s always fascinating for me to take note of who is talking to whom. On the left Greg Bagni, a guy who has done more to define and occasionally turn around brands than any six agencies working in the bike biz. On the right, Joe Parkin, the man leading the vision at Paved magazine. Two guys who really get it. I felt a pang of envy not to be a part of that conversation.
Bike people are not without a sense of humor. I caught this in the Surly booth.
I wouldn’t have caught the “Rapha Free” sticker in the Surly booth had it not been for the stuffed raccoon with the cap, corn-cob pipe and mini of Wild Turkey, also in the Surly booth.
I’m not sure what led the folks at Canari to turn their booth into a family affair complete with kids in Bumbos, but it served as a nice reminder of the world outside and made me slow down for a moment to say hi to the little people. And on a day that was pretty delightful, I had a bit more of a smile as I walked away from their booth. I love the gear, but it’s the people who keep me coming back.