An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
Comments welcome!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Hajj

NAHBS… North American Handmade Bike Show…

The Mecca of the custom and handbuilt bicycle world in America.

I’ve watched it  happen for several years, wanted to go. The timing and location have always made it between difficult and impossible. It travels from year to year. Houston, San Jose, Portland (OR), Indianapolis, Richmond (VA), Austin, Sacramento, Denver… This year it landed in Salt Lake City, a mere 14 hour drive away. Close enough. And since my wife had never been to Utah before, and I have friends that live there (and graciously hosted us to make the trip even cheaper), it was a go.

After having participated in the Oregon Handmade Bike and Beer Festival in Portland twice, I was curious as to whether my skills measured up to the premier event for handmade bikes in the country, and whether this might be an event into which I would throw my hat in the future.

I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size of NAHBS. And after three hours of walking and looking, I still hadn’t gone through it all. And then there was a list of things I wanted to go back and take a second look…

Highlights of the show for me:
* Seeing a wide range of product (and builder skill) at the new builder’s tables.
* Meeting and catching up with Matt Haldeman, who raced on the same team as I did back in the 90’s. He was manning Don Walker’s booth.
* Having extensive conversations with Steve Hampsten, Peter Graham, and Dave Levy regarding the Oregon show, and potentials for a Seattle handmade show.
* Meeting Andy Hampsten, Steve’s brother and winner of the 1988 Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy). His win is cycling legend, earning the lead in a snowy stage over the Gavia Pass.
* Meeting and talking extensively with Mike and Joni Taylor at the TexMarket booth. We talked riding shorts (not bibs), weather, and Reno. They were as enthusiastic about their home town as they were their products.
* A boatload of really, really cool bikes.

In some ways, though, I was surprised. There were some booths that contained examples that had me scratching my head wondering why the purveyor had chosen that particular item to display. Quality seemed to be lacking – things like tube joints which were not completely welded or brazed, mismatches, file marks. I can deal with looking at bikes that display the patina of use. To me, that shows the proof in the pudding, so to speak, that the design and fabrication stand up to the rigors of actual riding, and isn’t just a pretty face. But when one is supposedly displaying their best work…

I had, in part, come to answer the question of whether showing at NAHBS was something that I felt I could do, and if it would benefit me. I came to the conclusion that, yes, I think I measure up, I could put together a booth of bike-like-objects that wouldn't be out of place or put to shame. But also, and especially with the location of next year's show, I don't think I'm really after a national or international market at this point. My efforts would be better spent elevating the hand-made market in the Pacific Northwest, and especially locally in Seattle/Tacoma.

That effort is already under way, rallying the Washington builders to the Pedaler’s Fair in Seattle on July 2nd.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

What to do when it doesn’t go right?

What to do when it doesn’t go right?

Make it right, of course.

So here’s what happened:

I had built a frame and fork for a customer, and though it took longer than I had originally quoted (with the caveats that it may take longer, and I’d keep them informed), the customer was elated when he had them in his hands. I pointed out a couple things with the graphics that I wasn’t 100% happy with, but he assured me they were no issue. He promptly took it to a shop to have it built up to a complete bike. A couple weeks later I called that shop and talked to the mechanic, asking about the build up and any issues that had arisen. There were two – (1) the brazed-on front derailleur hanger, which I tend to not favor, was lower than standard for the derailleur being used, and necessitated the derailleur cage to be filed to allow the chainrings to pass without contact; and (2) the fork crown race seat had been milled slightly undersize, such that the bearing race slid on with light finger pressure rather than the interference fit that is standard.

I promptly called the customer to talk these issues over, and we came to the agreement that he’d ride the bike as-is, and if these things caused issues in the ride, we’d address them. I wasn’t so concerned with the derailleur hanger issue, as that wasn’t a potential safety concern, but the fork definitely was if play developed between the fork and the bearing. Speed wobbles could result, or even deformation of the head tube itself.

I did some digging and asking around, and found out that the hand mill I used to do the final cut on the bearing seat has a tendency to over-cut when trying to take off too much material, making the diameter smaller than standard. We’re only talking about a couple tenths of a millimeter, but that’s all it takes to make a transition fit into a slip fit. The solution? Hand file the bearing seat down very close to the final diameter, then do the final milling. I tried it out, and though it took a good 90 minutes or more of careful filing and rotating the fork, it worked beautifully.

Well, a couple months later (three weeks ago tomorrow, actually) I get the text… The derailleur hanger still causes the derailleur to contact the chainrings, and restricts the size of chainrings that he could possibly use, and while the fork wasn’t causing any problems currently, it was always in the back of his mind that it could, and it affected his confidence in hard and high speed efforts. All valid, and I had already agreed that this was a possibility and I would address them. I would re-braze the derailleur hanger (which would also mean a complete repaint), and make a new fork, all at my expense. Also, since his previous (and new) front derailleur had been modified to fit the bad placement, I would also replace that at my expense as well.

The frame and fork are back at the painter now, and I should have it back in about a week (the sixer of hefeweisen may or may not have helped get a shorter flow time). Then I’ll build it back up to riding condition (will also require one new cable, which I’ll gladly supply), and deliver it back to the customer for many happy miles to come.

In the end, I will likely not make any money on this deal, but I will have a happy customer, and I will know I did the right thing. It was never even a question of whether I would. My ethos wouldn't allow anything else.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Happy New Year!

Once again, turning the calendar page to a new last digit, now 2017, makes one’s thoughts tend toward reflection and projection. How did the past year go? What was good? What was not so good? And going forward, what might one do differently?

Riding-wise for 2016, the tale of numbers informs:
*  Total riding hours was 544 and change. 155 plus hours on the mountain bike, 175 plus hours riding on the road, and another 25 hours of gravel road riding. 186 plus hours on the stationary bike trainer.
* Using general average speeds for the terrain type, that comes out to just over 5000 actual miles traveled, with another 3350 of equivalent miles going nowhere (but a lot of Netflix time).
* I hit my 500 hour time goal on November 25th.
* I had 41 days of not riding for the year (11 fewer than 2016), nine of those days were in December.
* For each day I rode, my average was just shy of 90 minutes.
* In the entire year, there were only 8 rides of over three hours, including three event days.

Other highlights of 2016 and looking ahead to 2017:
* The two riding events I organized went well, though I’d like to see more people show up. The numbers were up from 2015 in the two-day event in July, but down slightly for the May one-day event. Always difficult to predict, and you never know what other events you’ll be competing against for participants.

* I added just over a mile of single-track trail at my day-job work site. There are several hundred acres of forest as an untapped resource, and I’ve been putting in 20-30 minutes at least a couple days a week all year pushing through everything from untouched wilderness to 20-year-old scrub grown over cat-tracks (scotch broom in glacial till). All built by hand, letting the terrain dictate the twists and turns.

* Though the Oregon Handmade Bike and Beer Festival was fun, it was a lot of work and expense for the return. I likely won’t return in 2017, even with the date change from October to August. I also likely won’t be returning to the Tacoma Bike Swap in May, though this is a single day event and low cost. The audience just isn’t the market for custom bike frames.

I am eying the Pedaler’s Fair, and seeing about getting some collective energy going with as many Washington custom builders as possible. I see the potential that it could become a Washington version of the Oregon Handmade show.

So looking ahead, I’d like to renew the 500 hour riding goal for 2017, with some different emphasis on types of riding. Not exactly sure how that will look yet, but it will shape up with better weather.

I will continue my two events, with dates still to be determined.

And I’ve got the inkling itch of another single-day happening, something of a ridiculous nature that will be a test of legs, lungs, and mental fortitude. I’ll leave the details for another post.

So to 2016 – thanks for the memories. L’chaim.

To 2017 – Bring it.

Monday, December 19, 2016

But is it Art?

On the average, most people likely don't think of a bicycle as an artistic object. In fact, for most people, it probably doesn't even fall into the category of craft. The idea that the bicycle must be "made". By some one. The fact that most bicycles are manufactured by large companies, a production line from a faceless offshore machine that arrive by some means into our hands renders it into a commodity.

But there is that subset, small as it may be, of bike-like objects that are produced by people, small companies, possibly even one-person operations, making in the numbers from small runs to one-off customs.

A recent thread on one of the forums I frequent explored the idea of whether bike making is a craft or an art, whether one who makes bikes is an artist or a craftsman (or craftsperson, as I know of at least a few women who share the trade). I found it to be an interesting question, not one that can be answered in just a few words. And so I thought it might make a good topic to explore.

I "hang out" with several custom (or some call it "made to measure") bicycle frame builders, using media from aluminum, steel, titanium, carbon fiber, and even wood.  Construction methods vary. Some use the trade as their sole means of support, some are hobbyists who build a few bikes a year, some dabble in the craft for their own purposes.

Sure, it's an online community where several discussions are playing out simultaneously over extended periods. The topics are generally explored in depth, with many of the best builders in the industry lending their expertise and extensive experience.

If it's useful, it's craft. If it isn't, it's art.

One person on the discussion thread quoted one of their mentors, using that line. I don't think I agree with it, however.

Almost universally, framebuilders recognize their wares as tools first. A bike is, at its core, a means to propel a human from one place to another under their own power. The variables of rider size (and weight), strength, body position, weight balance, and terrain inform the design of the final product. The design must first satisfy its core purpose and support the above parameters, and do so ably with endurance.

So there's this useful object made by someone... That would make it a craft. But is it, or can it be, art?

In order to make art, you must first master the craft.

There is an entire cultural line of thinking in Japan, usually in very traditional things, which makes mastering something the art itself. Ceramic pottery, shooting an arrow at a target from the back of a galloping horse, even serving tea. In mastering the craft or the activity, it becomes art. HOW something is done is the art, and in that art, the finished product approaches perfection.
Some raw braze work by Steve Garro,
copied from his Smoked Out thread
on Velocipede Salon

My particular method in framebuilding is fillet brazing. Meaning I heat up the steel tubes to a certain point and melt in bronze such that it glues the tubes together with a little concave fillet around the joint. The better the skill, the smoother that joint is after it cools. It is normal to file and sand these joints smooth and even afterwards to provide an organic transition from one tube to another. There are a very few builders, Eric Estland of Winter Bicycles and Steve Garro of Coconino to name two, whose skill in laying bronze is such that I would pay extra for them to leave the joint raw -- no filing or sanding after. My skill isn't there, yet. But those two, I feel, have elevated the craft to art. It's not that watching them DO is so elegant, but the final product is.

Art inspires... something.

Maybe the answer lies in psychologist's ever-angering question: How does that make you feel? (*It makes me feel like I want to punch you in the face.*)

Uh, yeah, so moving on, maybe what makes something art is that it inspires something, makes the viewer feel something. It's meant to reach inside the viewer and stir some emotion. With a bicycle, I imagine it takes a certain level of two-wheeled obsession to see it as something more than a tool (and to a large -- by more than one definition of that word --  percentage of the population, more than a toy). And probably even more of a bike nut to actually "feel" something. Likely the bike frame builder isn't looking for the rider to get all teary-eyed. Seeing a smile or two is enough. Anything more tends to get a little embarrassing. The real inspiration sought is that the rider wants to do exactly that -- ride the bike.

This is ART, man!

In 2015, I was exhibiting my bikes at the Oregon Handmade Bike and Beer festival. Part of my display was my personal "gravel" bike, with my young daughter's kick bike leaned up against it. Matching paint schemes and graphics. It was an attention-getter, to be sure, even though I wouldn't consider either one to be my best work. Many smiles, some conversations started. Towards the end of Saturday evening, a gentleman came by as the crowds were dwindling. He walked with the aid of crutches, carried a backpack.

He stopped at these two bikes, and I could hear his breath catch a bit. He lingered. Then he leaned over to me, with tears in his eyes.

"I'm really tight with the local artist community around here, and, well, I admit that I've had a few of these (gesturing with his mostly-empty pint glass), but I've got to tell you, this is just ART, man." It was apparent that seeing those two bikes together, so obviously a parent/child thing, made him feel something. Yeah, most likely aided by the I-love-you-man level of inebriation. It wasn't my intention to make art, but apparently I backed into it, at least in this gentleman's view.

Most people won't experience the art of a particular bike

The bikes I make aren't adorned with any extra flourishes. No intricate lugwork or flashy stainless steel logos. I may use a stainless steel part here and there, but that is for the purposes of corrosion protection, not appearances. The bike frames I make are built to suit a particular rider, with the ride feel they desire on the intended surfaces. Even within the cycling-enthusiast subset of the population, the only person who will really experience how that comes out is the person for whom the bike was made. It's not going to fit some one else exactly right, and that person might have a different idea of how a bike should respond to input.

My art, if I were to categorize any of it as such, is hitting that target perfectly -- the bike that fits that one rider with no compromises, and responds to that person's weight shifts and steering inputs as if it were wired directly to their subconscious brain.

Because I want that person to ride their bike.

Is it art?

Ask the rider.

Monday, November 28, 2016

No fanfare

This is how the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
 - T.S. Eliot (The Hollow Men)

I surpassed my year's goal ride time over this past holiday weekend. This is the second year I've made it over 500 hours of on-the-bike time, a goal I made on a whim towards the end of 2014 after feeling like I hadn't done all that much (though I'd made just over 385 hours of ride time).

I passed the 500 hour mark on Black Friday, while much of the nation was joining the annual shopping melee. With the typical Pacific Northwest weather, and my lack of desire to go out onto the roads when visibility is already low or to subject myself to prolonged exposure to rain and road spray, I put in a session on my stationary trainer. In fact all my riding over the holiday weekend was on the trainer. Yeah, the goal died with a whimper.

The "drainer", as it's lovingly called in many circles, is comprised of an old Scott Waimea aluminum frame, cracked at the seat tube extension that holds the seatpost in place, semi-permanently affixed to a Cyclops "The Silencer" Direct Drive trainer. Which means I take off the back wheel and clamp the frame by the rear dropouts. But I don't find it all that silent. In fact it's just as noisy as the 20-year-old Minoura it replaced.

Anyway, I've been tracking the hours of the various forms of riding I've done the last two years, and find that I've been putting in a LOT of time on the trainer. More this year than last year, to the tune of 160+ hours so far. More than I've done on the mountain bike this year, and approaching the road miles I've put in so far. And given that the remainder of the year is often the worst, weather-wise, it's likely that the number will only go up.

I've also been participating in a 30-day plank challenge on Velocipede Salon, which started with short daily planks and has progressed exponentially to over four minutes (with two days remaining, and upping to 5 minutes on Wednesday). Between that and the time on the trainer, my wrists are constantly aching.

Which brings me to the reason for the entire post. (yeah, we were all wondering where this was going)

I need to fix the position on the trainer! Too much weight on my hands, and at the wrong angle. The Waimea was bought as a knock-around road bike that I could leave somewhere with little worry about weather (aluminum frame), ready to just jump on at a moment's notice. In its first year of life in my passel, it resided at work and saw many training rides around the local roads. But the position wasn't ideal, so it eventually fell out of favor. When the prospect of a permanent trainer bike came up (due to another frame essentially corroding out of existence), this was the bike that was the logical choice. But again, the non-ideal position is catching up to me.

I'm hoping that a different stem can fix the issue. And I think I have the tubing in the garage to make it myself. It would be my first attempt at a part that makes a lot of people nervous (along with forks, a bridge I've already crossed with no issues). We'll see how it goes. The reason I'd be making it myself is that I suspect it will end up being a very non-conventional design. A one-inch steerer coupled to a 31.8mm handlebar, and likely very long and tall.

So a new stem, a new construction, and hopefully new life and comfort on the trainer.