Emerson's Lathe: Self-Reliance at NAHBS

By: Chris Harris Mar 7

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There is no mistaking a Groovy Cycleworks bike for one built by anyone other than Rody Walter. They are a kind of homebrew of steel and optimism, fabrication and tie-dye do-it-yourself-ness. But when I introduced myself, Rody was interested in elaborating what he called a philosophy of frame building, which seemed uncharacteristic of what I could see of the work displayed in his booth. His two showpieces were painted in house by Rody himself: the first, a 650B wheeled, Rohloff Speedhub equipped mountain bike, approximated reptile or fish scales in acid green and orange; the second, a road bike with a heavily sloped toptube, shifted colors from chocolate to green depending on one’s point of view, with stylized Groovy Cycleworks head badges scattered here and there in silver. What philosophy was he talking about, I wondered? But knowing what I did about Rody, I asked him about his interest in and utilization of machine tools. It became apparent pretty quickly that Rody is basically a machinist and welder who likes innovative ways to solve fundamental problems associated with frame and component design and fabrication—a psychoactive paintjob is just the crust.

When I asked Rody why Roland Della Santa might have said that a builder should make his own fixtures, he said that it would force a builder to “dimension every part of a bicycle” in the interest of balance—a bike should be “well-balanced.” I asked him what exactly he meant. Rody thought for a moment and said that a builder who has designed fixtures and made parts is more capable of balance because, instead of being “dependent on someone else’s tools,” he has thought about and decided on the best way for him to work with the issue at hand, whatever it is. In that way, “well-balanced” reminds me of the Emersonian trope of Self-Reliance, a characteristic that most builders have in common, but one that machinists seem to live by. It is not a measurable quantity or a visual cue, but rather a way of thinking about frame building and design; and a builder who works in that way builds well-balanced bikes with knowledge about, and experience with, every element of the process from the materials and fixtures on up. Rody, who speaks in measured, calm locutions, looked at ease when talking about this kind of abstraction, and despite remarking that I was a “tough interview,” didn’t seem to mind thinking on the spot about the ideas that are behind his frame building. He repeated often that he wanted his bikes to be “exquisite,” a word that connotes the utmost refinement, a gem cutter’s precision—the interview was turning out quite differently than I had anticipated.

Rody has been talking to Joe Bringheli too, and he recalled a conversation similar to the one Roland did. A novice frambuilder who has purchased a production fixture has “just enough to get into trouble,” Rody said. What is trouble? I asked. You can’t just hang a shingle out and make money (as a frame builder).” It’s a complex job, he said, and “assembling a frame is not sexy.” It occurred to me that this is precisely the metaphor that dominates when it comes to discussions about files, torches and jigs. The one-man shop, craftsmanship and integrity, flames and steel—it has a certain sexuality to it. But Rody doesn’t care. “Frame building is social, tangible, artistic, and efficient.” Social in that a frame builder has to interact with his or her customer and listen to what that customer wants (to say nothing of attending shows like NAHBS); tangible because there’s an object to manipulate and finish, to own and ride in the end; artistic since a bicycle frame, even a non-stainless, TIG welded steel frame can be used without any embellishment at all; efficient—now that is the figure of speech in which there’s a difference between Rody and some others.

Rody learned much of what he knows about frame building from Bill Grove. Grove was influential in the fat times of mountain biking in the eighties and nineties, and his company, Grove Innovations lived up to its name. Grove, it seems, thought of every part of the bike as integral to its design, and I imagine his experience at Grove Innovations instilled in Rody the idea that bicycle and builder should be well balanced. It’s also where he learned to paint and operate machine tools. Why does he value machine tools? I asked. “[They] give you accuracy, repeatability and speed.” It could be said that all three of those combined give you efficiency. Picking up one of his segmented Luv Handle handlebars, Rody said that since he has a mill in his shop, he can let his shop assistant miter the center section of the bar while he works elsewhere; then, once a sufficient number are cut and prepared, Rody welds the batch. And he is producing the Grove-Innovations-designed Hot Rods cranks with their smart tri-coidal polygon spindle interface. These projects, essential for Rody’s philosophy of balance, would not be possible without the efficiency gained from machine tools.

Just behind the Groovy Cycleworks booth, Drew Guldalian of Engin Cycles displayed a wide range of bikes, from a rack-and-fender mounted randonneur to a stainless, lugged 29er. He’s modest at first, but quite voluble once he’s on a topic he likes, and he seems to constantly scan everything around him. I wanted to interview him, mostly because I like his work—which is ingenious and simple without being minimal—but also because, despite only building frames professionally for six years, Drew has gathered a large and impressive collection of machine tools. I asked him why he did this when so many other frame builders work with only a fixture and a torch, and he said that he enjoyed his process. “I like repeatability,” even, strangely, when it comes to aesthetics. He described to me how he came to bend his s-bend seatstays a certain way, but only after discarding more than a few that didn’t have the radii where he wanted them. Pointing to the stay, he said, “this bend has to be just the right shape, and this other bend has to be just the right shape, and the bridge has to be just the right shape and flow into the other bends.” But now that he has the stay patterned the way wants, he bends them all that way because he has the machine tools and the fixtures he designed and built with which to do it. When I asked him why, what is it about his personality that makes him want all his stays to be perfectly shaped and repeatable, he smiled, scanned his bikes (perhaps making a mental note of his efficiency), and said he didn’t know.

“I was lucky,” he said; lucky that he recently took possession of a behemoth-sized horizontal mill at no cost other than shipping. I get the feeling he has acquired all of his tooling this way. He explained that he lives in a part of the country where there was once a lot of manufacturing, and the machines, though unused perhaps for decades, last lifetimes. “Manufacturing is dead in the United States,” so Drew takes his advantage. And unlike most builders, he has a lot of room in which to store and operate his tools. “Machining is an age-old trade,” and “there’s a right way and a wrong way [to use machine tools].” Take a simple lathe, he said: almost anyone can buy and use a lathe with a three-jaw chuck, but bicycle tubing is too thin for it. A six-jaw chuck is better, but they are expensive. “Clunkers can make nice parts, but you have to be an extremely good machinist.” It was strange to think that good tools can compensate for a lack of technique and experience. For some people, “machining is not the best solution”; “you work with what you have,” be it a rudimentary tool or a complex one, but, according to Drew, a builder should always build in good faith and with diligence. If you really want to learn how to use a tool, go find the manual someone wrote on how to properly operate it, he said.

Drew pointed at a gorgeous green and white 29er he had on display with a zero stack upper headset cup and an inch-and-a-half lower and said that he began machining headtubes for that headset configuration because industry standards changed and he liked the idea that there was an engineering challenge for him in those changes. Paragon Machine Works now produces one with the same specifications, but Drew wants to continue making his own; he dislikes the universal, preferring whatever he has imagined and built for himself. And he never could have turned the headtube without his knowledge of, and respect for, machine tools. And, like Rody Walter, Drew builds a fork, stem (and in Drew’s case, often a seatpost) for most of his bikes, preferring his own designs to those that come off the shelf. He often repeated that he didn’t feel bad that he has scrapped some metal in the pursuit of his vision. “Whatever it takes to implement my idea,” he said, “and I refuse to discount (a project) until I’ve really tried.”

 

Schools Of Thought: NAHBS #2

By: Chris Harris Mar 3

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Search for a while down one of the Northern alleys on the showroom floor, and you’ll find a discrete and unadorned booth typical of the early years of the show: four frames staggered on a folding table, the builder sitting behind them, looking out at the flow of the crowd. After seeing so many bikes with oversized tubes and 1&1/8” steerers, the small-looking frames—all of them with horizontal toptubes—seem from another time. The man behind them glances back and forth, his bushy eyebrows shading his eyes, a somewhat uncomfortable looking smile on his face. Roland Della Santa need not be shy; he is one of a few builders of steel frames who can legitimately emblazon them with the world champion’s five colored bands. And as I had hoped, once I got him talking, he was full of information and anecdote.

I was attracted to one frame in particular, Della Santa’s fortieth anniversary Corsa Speciale. A similar frame won “Best Road Frame” at the Indianapolis show. Roland told me that he had purchased a couple dozen sets of Nervex Pro lugs from Geoff Butler Cycles in London on a whim, and while he said they are difficult to work with, the finished frame was stunning. Roland, who is self-taught, said the frame was built with a long toptube in comparison to the seattube, with a slack seattube angle—an arrangement similar to the one requested by Greg Lemond when he raced for Team Z.

When Lemond won his second World Championship in 1989, Della Santa was already twenty years into frame building. But I asked him if he thought it was responsible for young, sometimes self-taught builders to produce frames for sale to customers without putting in years of work at the bench. He said that his education began with a Rudiments Of Metal shop class under the stern and unbending guidance of Mr. Yuri, “a Nazi,” in whose classroom “there was no screwing around.” “Do the math,” Roland said: Joe Bringheli (a friend of Della Santa’s and fixture manufacturer) is selling a certain number of fixtures every year, but, while “everyone can build a frame, not everyone can sell a frame.” I think Roland was pointing to the fact that one cannot simply buy the tools and be a frame builder; implicit in the word, “sell,” is the hard-won credibility and experience needed to promote one’s self as a worthy professional. Some in the craft started in a production house, as Dave Kirk, Dave Wages and Kelly Bedford did at Serotta, and so have hundreds of frames to their names before a single tube is mitered in their own shop. But what advice would Roland Della Santa give to others who don’t have that privilege? “Take Metals 101 at a community college, then take metals 102, then some chemistry.” Then, one imagines, work at perfecting the craft for forty years.

Roland is the first to admit that “there is no perfect fit,” but he adheres to a kind of system that has largely disappeared since the passing of the era of steel bikes in the pro peloton. A perfectly horizontal toptube is the first essential element—from it comes a reference for the head- and seattube angles among other measurements. Round tubes are better than shaped or fluted ones because their centerlines and outside diameters don’t change. With just a few known dimensions and some rudimentary tools, anyone can reproduce all the intended points of contact, even if components are changed. Some of the clever, incredibly useful tricks Roland showed me are, nevertheless, outmoded by contemporary frame building norms. The surface of a flat steel fork crown is a good place to set a fixture to find handlebar height. But how many carbon forks have any crown to speak of? Saddle offset is stamped into the non-drive side dropout because it will never rub off and the non-drive side dropout doesn’t ever break. Roland seems to keep a kind of mental catalogue of these numbers, and he recited all of Greg Lemond’s frame dimensions almost without thinking. It is incredible to think that if Roland had one of Lemond’s bikes in front of him, he could set it up exactly the way Greg needed it to be in 1990, anywhere in the world, at any time. Regarding saddle position, Roland said, “a lot of (pro tour) guys could sit on an ice cream cone and tell you what flavor it was.” He said this with a smile; I imagine more than a few frame builders would be too intimidated by the idea to do that.

Chris Bishop, who is soft-spoken and pleasant with patches of gray hair at his sideburns, doesn’t seem to care much for 1&1/8” steerers, either. I imagine it’s not because he is entrenched in a refined, long-practiced process as Della Santa is, but because he likes to invoke a certain aesthetic: that of Roland’s period. “I always wanted a (Colnago) Master Light, but I could never afford one.” So for five years, he said, he was a messenger and rode a Colnago Super, which he says he wants to restore one day.

Since he started building four years ago, Chris has sought the strange and innovative in steel tubing—one of his show bikes is a track bike he built for himself using Columbus MS (Multi-Shaped), a tubeset designed to counteract drive train forces through the use of heavily shaped and asymmetrical tubes, a practice now favored by some carbon engineers. The lugset is likewise unique and proprietary, and Chris decided to give the headtube lugs bi-laminate treatment—it appears Chris is never satisfied with unshaped points or inelegant curves. He admitted that he probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish in terms of the ride between the MS frame and one of identical geometry built with round tubes; when I asked him why go to the trouble, he said that he appreciated the ingenuity and imagination that came out of the collaboration between Columbus and Gilco in the eighties and nineties with the intention of producing a steel tubeset that would outperform round tubes. The fact that the fruits of that era are somewhat moldy doesn’t bother Chris in the least, and it doesn’t seem to bother his customers: as I conducted our interview, a man asked Chris how many MS tubesets he had and could he have a bike built with one? Another man interrupted and said that the one remaining MS tubeset in Chris’s hands was already spoken for (by him). Chris just chuckled and shrugged his shoulders, enjoying the enthusiasm that others clearly had for his work.

The MS track bike’s geometry is based on a Cannondale that Chris says was perfect for messenger duty. It had a seventy-five degree headtube angle, seventy-four-and-a-half degree seattube angle, twenty-eight millimeters of rake, fourty-five millimeters of bottom bracket drop, and three-hundred-eighty-three millimeter long chainstays. A real track bike for the road, and no brake. He’s ridden similar bikes all over the world, from Baltimore to Athens (not his favorite city on account of the heavy air pollution). And Chris clearly thinks that a track bike is the best for city riding. “Manhattan is great for a track bike; that’s traffic slalom all day long.” I have to agree that, especially in bad conditions like rain, snow, and ice, a fixed gear is much more communicative than a bike with a freewheel and brakes—“like driving a stick instead of an auto.” But what about the steep angles and incredibly narrow wheelbase? He described a method of changing a line in which he “pops” the entire bike from one course to another—it reminded me somewhat of the kind of thing one might do on a pump track.

At this point Chris was clearly comfortable with the conversation and was recalling alleycat races and fixed gear events of all kinds; and while he always smiled and conducted himself in a warm and good-natured way, remembering all the rides past seemed to set him even more at ease. “That track bike,” he said, pointing to the MS, “has nothing on it, nothing can break. I still have my first Phil Wood wheels.” Since he doesn’t use brakes, the rim surfaces never wear down. “The rear hub is on its sixth set of bearings, and the front is on its fourth.” In his appreciation for the tried and true and practical, and despite the ostensible differences between them, I imagine Chris is among the young builders of whom Roland Della Santa would approve. And one of the next frames in Chris’s queue will be built with Nervex Pro lugs. (Since this interview was conducted, last week, Chris Bishop won the award for Best Steel Bike at the 2011 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Austin, Texas. Congratulations to him!)

 

Strange Bedfellows and Perfect Espresso at NAHBS

By: Chris Harris Feb 26

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Three shows ago, in Portland, Dave Kirk introduced his JK Special, a lugged frame and fork built with the most advanced steel tubes available. His idea was to keep what’s good about a steel frame while cutting weight as much as possible. The JK range has been expanded considerably since, and Dave brought his own prototype frame and fork as an example of the model that is now called the JKS X, essentially a JK S built with double-oversized, or XL, tubing. When I asked Dave, who is tall and slim with a boyish looking face, what specifically had made him want to build a bike like the JKS X, he said that Columbus Tubi recently reintroduced their MAX tubeset, which might be called the ancestor of current double-oversized steel, but despite some backward looking fondness for it from certain framebuilders, that tubeset was never particularly good. Dave recalled to me the requests from professional riders when he built at Serotta, and the pros, without fail, asked for a less punishing frame. MAX bikes, he said, were, “kick-ass for thirty-five miles, then you wanted off.” Still, It could be said that those frames—among the stiffest ever made—were necessary for the largest, most powerful riders, particularly those who liked the Spring Classics, but Dave thinks contemporary XL tubing is a far better choice. It’s telling of his personality that Dave doesn’t have much interest in nostalgia—a Reynolds 953 tube that is much lighter and better-riding than a MAX tube is superior, no question. His large, candy blue JKS X weighs 16.9 pounds without any exotic parts. And because the tubes are quite thin, the bike rides the way Dave likes while still retaining good torsional rigidity. Dave has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about torsional rigidity.

Why, I thought, if Dave seems not to care much about what might be called the non-functional aspects of frames and frame building, does he persist in making his “Terraplane” seatstays? I’ve always thought the Terraplane bikes looked elegant, perhaps a bit vintage, but always beautiful, especially the larger sized ones with their heavily curved stays. I prodded Dave a bit, asking him if it weren’t a little paradoxical that he goes to such trouble to make something that couldn’t possibly be as functionally important as it is aesthetically pleasing. He said that he built jigs to measure flex in the rear triangles of frames when developing the Terraplane; in their final iteration, most rear triangles give about five vertical millimeters (it was revealing to discover that Dave changes the bends to suit different frame sizes and rider weights so that every frame flexes the same amount). In fact, the Terraplane, in Dave’s mind at least, is perfectly functional, and it looks the way it does because the design demands it. He was at his rhetorical best when he described not the sensation of suspension that the Terraplane provides, which it doesn’t, but the way the rear wheel stays planted over rough pavement, especially in fast, technical corners. When pressed, he admitted, “life’s too short to look at ugly stuff,” and so betrayed a bit of aesthetic appreciation on his part for his creation. Many builders claim that a beautiful bike comes from the intent to build the best-working bike. I don’t believe all of them, but Dave Kirk impressed me with his sincere desire to improve the craft of frame building though functional innovation.

When I asked Dave to refer me to a builder whom he thought shared his ideas about frame building, he told me “Nick Crumpton,” which seemed odd—Crumpton builds frames of carbon fiber exclusively. But the more I talked to Nick, who is energetic and talkative with a graying beard, the more I understood why Dave suggested him. For fun, I asked Nick why he thought Dave said I should come to his booth: “I’m not afraid to walk away from a sale; I don’t do this for the money.” This sounded rash, but Nick’s displays were crowded with people looking at and touching the matte black frames. “And I have no idea what other [frame builders] do,” he said. Dave Kirk had mentioned exactly that about himself, and I began to understand something about the best builders: they work to improve themselves vis-à-vis their own work, not the work of others. Nick explained at length how he had come to carbon frame building in the nineties after building steel bikes and deciding there was no future in that material (the irony was not lost on him). He said he had a desire to do things the way that seemed best to him, which often meant he disregarded industry practices that were once held as infallible, though Nick has since availed himself of overthrowing convention, many of the processes he experimented with in isolation have since been implemented in the aerospace industry among others.

Nick’s sense of aesthetics is even more inclined to the minimal and stripped-down than Dave’s, and his bikes are almost always the same shade of black with red or white logos; he generally brushes off talk about the way a bike looks. “Don’t ask me to convince you,” he said, meaning don’t ask him to justify anything he does, because he has the utmost confidence in his methods and ideas. It became clear to me that Nick is not boasting when he says this kind of thing. He told me about the way he likes espresso: he bought a “single group machine adapted for home use,” thinking, he said, that he could reproduce the kind of coffee he liked at espresso counters. He had conceived that “everything would be perfect” once he had the right tools, but his espresso was terrible. That is, until he did some research. Nick Crumpton clearly likes research, another affinity he has with Dave Kirk, and found that the better the bean and machine, the more technique and expertise play their parts. So he did what he always does: a sort of trial and error process of refinement until he had a cup that made him happy. And he takes his espresso without milk infusions. That is, black, like his bikes.

 

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