In what counts for spare time I’ve got two book proposals I’ve been working on. One of them concerns frame builders. My online column for peloton, called Artisans, is meant to be background research for many of the builders I believe will be the subjects of the book. If you’ve never checked it out, you should drop by and read a few here.
Recently, I was on the phone with one of the legends of frame building. We got to talking about the dream that leads one to want to become a frame builder. I’ve always enjoyed talking to frame builders. They have that feel of brother-of-a-different-mother to me. The work is solitary, creative, essentially commercial in nature and requires simple acts to be repeated thousands of times to hone one’s craft. After a while, they find they begin exploring arcane ideas about heat, silver, steel. At a certain level, writing is no different. I find myself thinking about verbs and the relative evil of sentimentality.
The builder I was speaking to told me how he had dreamt that being a frame builder was like being a shop keeper, such as a tailor. You show up in the morning, open up, work a full day, then close up and head home. But the idea was that working alone was meant to foster craft and remove the need to crank out production-style work. He believed that working alone was the key to being able to perform artisanal work. But that’s not all: When he was starting out, he had a belief that most of the builders who weren’t employed by the big companies like Colnago worked in exactly that manner.
By the time he found out that wasn’t the case, he’d already been building on his own for a few years. What I’ve learned of most of the European shops is that their priorities were shifted toward maximizing efficiency to increase output. Most of the builders I’ve spoken to working in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s favored limited output so they could focus on quality. Indeed contract builders were common in Italy. There were some who kept a stock of their clients’ decals around for when they came calling.
What American builders—and consumers—seem to struggle to appreciate is that to most of the builders working in Europe up through the ’80s and ’90s is that the bicycle frame was a commodity rarely separated by more than paint and decals. Branding and identity were the province of paint, decals and sponsorship. That is, you could put Colnago paint and decals on any bike and—ergo—it was a Colnago. There wasn’t a belief that anything beneath the paint could be terribly special.
When you consider those early builders here in the U.S., that is the group that really helped put frame building on the map here in the 1970s, guys like Albert Eisentraut, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Ben Serotta and Brian Baylis, they each epitomized that ideal of the solitary craftsman, at least early on. Nevermind the fact that Eisentraut and Serotta never really made a career of working alone, that romanticized notion of the shopkeeper craftsman that inspired many of them—and most of today’s builders as well—is largely a fiction.
This idealized vision held by a handful of American builders of just what the life and purpose of a one-man frame shop is is largely responsible for the state of frame building in the U.S. and even around the world. The example set by Sachs, Weigle and other one-man shops is directly responsible for the influx of guys like Sacha White of Vanilla and David Wages of Ellis. The irony is that Sachs and Weigle weren’t really responding to a tradition; they were inventing one.
Relationship counselors are in the business of reminding us that when we enter a relationship we rarely see the object of affection as they are. We see them as we want them to be. Think about that a second. Is there a better demonstration of a love of craft than setting out to be an artisan as part of a grand tradition that exists only in your mind?
The second annual San Diego Custom Bicycle show took place this past weekend at the Town and Country Resort north of downtown San Diego. The show was a bit bigger this year, with more exhibitors overall and the organizers (builders Dave Ybarrola, Chuck Schlesinger and Brian Baylis) sold out the available booth spaces. All good things, but for the devoted, there was a detail that made the show much, much cooler this year. More builders.
The number of builders in attendance jumped noticeably and there were more builders who you couldn’t call local by any means. Brent Steelman, Sean Walling of Soulcraft, Mike DeSalvo and many others made the trek down from NorCal and Oregon. Mark Nobilette made it out from Colorado. Dave Bohm of Bohemian came in from Arizona and Serotta and Bilenky helped represent for the East Coast.
Dave Ybarrola says next year’s event will have to be held in a larger facility to accept its growth. No matter. This year’s show was terrific. It reminded me of the second year of NAHBS, when it was held in Palo Alto and the attendees were by and large custom bike fans.
In this and another post I’ll present some of the show’s highlights.
This shot and the one above are from a frame built by the super-talented and little-known builder Peter Johnson. He’s known for ultra-thin points and fillets that bring a gentle sweep to his lugs.
Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster showed this single-speed ‘cross bike with beautifully cut lugs and a killer head tube badge.
The rear triangle on this Rock Lobster features these very trick adjusters to make proper chain tension easy no matter what gear you run.
Sadoff is not without a sense of humor.
Funniest bike of the show award goes to Keith Anders for his satirical take on a classic Eddy Merckx.
Not the Cannibal, but the neighbor.
Anderson made this amazing boy’s bike with disc brakes, wood fenders and chain guard.
Yes, Virginia, that’s mother-of-pearl inlay.
Most furniture stores I go to don’t feature woodwork this nice.
Not everything was handmade bikes, though. This cabinet was stuffed with NOS parts, and plenty of it was Campy.
Custom, lugged stems are becoming more common and this chromed unit from Greg Townsend was one of the prettiest examples at the show.