I read somewhere that, in the past, people were likely to define themselves by their occupations, while, these days it’s the things one owns that characterize the most. This seems true of New York City where materialism is a kind of way of life, and it seems especially true of the bicycle industry with its cliques, its labels. But when off-the-shelf no longer savors the way it once did, there are new menus, new refinements of one’s self-image in the cafeteria-like world of custom bicycles. And let’s face it, nearly everyone can be fit well on a stock bike from my wife at just measurably over five feet to those who order the largest size in a company’s catalog. Custom is nearly always about vanity. I own three custom bikes and so I here acknowledge my measure of vanity; but the line of reasoning that claims, “I should have a bike built according to the ratios of my body,” is simply another bit of rhetoric in the debate custom bike buyers have with themselves before signing checks. No, there is seldom the force of necessity behind these kinds of transactions. It is the feeling that I might identify with an individual builder or brand from among many who will weld, braze or bond a unique bicycle frame that means something about me personally⎯that’s what keeps me thinking about the next one.
These ideas are strikingly commonplace. Of course people buy custom bikes to say something about themselves. But what if the thing that you envision⎯the 35mm downtube instead of the 31.8mm one; the braze-ons for racks and fenders just in case; the paint scheme that approximates a Martini Porsche from the ‘70s; the Sanskrit words for “wisdom” and “power” airbrushed under the clearcoat⎯doesn’t coalesce in the way you thought it would? What if you give life to a thing which, though just an assemblage of ideas and whims and beliefs, lumbers into its ugly existence insisting that you love it. For parents do not go airing their disappointments, especially when their children, a distillation of those parents’ personal traits, cost what even an average custom bicycle does.
Perhaps some of my history with custom bikes will be informative. The first was unmistakably bad: it had a very long headtube because I thought I should accommodate my bad flexibility. I chose a color that looked better on a computer display than in daylight. Worse, it lacked tire clearance (on account of some miscommunication between the builder and me), and the headtube, it turned out, was from a batch of oversized stock. And for all this, I really had no one to blame but myself for disliking the bike even taking into consideration the chance stuff, since chance is always at work and no person’s fault. I had called all the shots, down to the wall thicknesses. And there was no one thing I could change to make the bike I actually received match the original ideal I had of it. I felt embarrassed riding it. For years afterward, I bought bikes that had been custom-built for other men, let others speak for me, in a manner of speaking. At least I knew exactly what I was buying. I was happy. At the same time, I thought that there must be an acceptable if not exceptional vision of a bike in me. I decided to take the approach least likely to make me look like a fool, and that was to order a titanium road bike, the charcoal three-button of the custom bike world. No choice of lugs versus fillets, no paint (or even logos in this case), no braze-ons, no tires larger than 25mm. For more than two years now, it has been a wonderful bike, and it functions without a single hitch day after day. It’s lightweight too. And yet, I haven’t daydreamed about it in a long time. It’s safe and boring in aesthetic terms (unless you’re a person whose tastes tend toward a kind of minimalism).
Really, the only thing custom about my titanium bike is its geometry, an armature that reflects my body, its lengths and widths. If thought of as metonymy, it represents the parts of me that function and work, and insofar as function and work is beautiful, it can be said to be beautiful. It does not represent the part of me that appreciates art and artifice⎯a red bike is no faster than any other, and yet, some people prefer a red bike to, say, a white one, etc. But when I tried to be an artist, to envision a bike that pleased my aesthetic-leaning mind, I proved unskillful. I am a bad bicycle artist, and though my practice at this stuff is limited, I don’t anticipate improvement. What, then, to do? Like anyone else with enough money and the desire for something to appreciate, I commissioned my artwork. I asked someone else, someone whose ideas about the art form I endorse, to build a bike for me without any of my turpentine to thin the mix.
Some will say I am forgetting the mechanical and functional aspects of the bicycle and seeing it only as a kind of fetish. Fine, I treat bicycles as fetishes. We move on. When I contacted Dave Wages, the man who is Ellis Cycles, early this year about building a bike for me, I knew without a bit of doubt that he was a capable craftsman. How did I know? I’ve built a few fillet-brazed frames myself, so the superiority of his work is so very clear to me. Dave’s a professional of the first rank, and an amateur knows the span of the divide between himself and the real men and women of the craft all the better than the layperson. That, and I managed to buy Dave’s personal mountain bike frame from him in the summer of 2009, so I already had an Ellis. Dave’s frames are the kind built to outlast the human beings that ride them, so no worries about durability, quality control or functional design crossed my mind.
I return to aesthetics. There is not one of Dave’s bikes, not one, that I think is ugly. There are, of course, some I like better than others, but any one of the bikes that appears in his website’s gallery would be welcomed happily into my stable. But when required to make decisions about a frame built for me, I harried myself for months about how to finish it⎯I had decided on a no-nonsense road bike with geometry based on my good-handling titanium machine. I even entertained, in a moment of exasperation and defeat, the notion that I would have my Ellis painted titanium gray. But finally, I wondered, if I was so poor at this and Dave was so good, why not put the choice out of my hands and into his? Why not relinquish to Dave all of the authority, all of the vision? If I would love to own any of the bikes he has built so far, it would be an aberration if the next made me feel somehow different. And wouldn’t it be fun if everything were a surprise? One day soon, I would open a cardboard box and discover my frame, theretofore unknown to me in the least.
When I made my idea known to Dave, he said nothing for a moment. In giving the authority to him I implicitly also shed the responsibility I had as a purchaser. If Dave makes all the choices and I don’t like them, someone still has to hold the bag. My proposal notwithstanding, this kind of thing happens more often than it should. People do not want to admit that a custom bike is colored by shades of their own vanity paint can. Custom bikes never resemble the ideal in one’s mind. Never. Or if it’s pretty close, the ride is too stiff or flexy or dead or lively or slow or twitchy ⎯ that is to say, one should always expect surprises. Who pays for the gulf between the vision of the thing and the thing itself? It depends, I suppose, on stupid particulars ⎯ you know, who didn’t cover his ass, that kind of thing. The customer should accept the tangible thing built and say, “the world is not imagination, and this is my bike. The bike I once imagined is leaning on Plato’s bed.” And I think most builders would agree with me since most builders build in good faith, wish to build, as best as they can, what the customer wants and think their work is ultimately worthy.
I made my pledge to Dave that I would first, pay for, second, genuinely like the bike he would build for me, though I didn’t have any idea what it would be in aesthetic terms (I did have a drawing of the frame in the bland shades of a typical computer aided design). Dave’s faith in me as a person and, perhaps, a friend was at stake. He knew what I liked most about his frames, his art. And so he built, and he didn’t, according to his promise to me, let on at all what he was doing, despite beer-fueled calls from me in which I would ask about certain frame-building techniques, slyly trying to dislodge a scrap of information. And when I unpacked the box, my first thought was that the frame, now a concrete object that belonged to me, was striking, so much so that I could only smile stupidly. Next, pulling together my rational powers, I thought that I would never have chosen the frame I held in my hands. It was much bolder than my tastes generally, but the more I studied it, the more I noticed in it Dave’s understated sophistication.
I can hear the groans of builders everywhere who say, “the customer is a fickle know-nothing whom I don’t know, who doesn’t know me.” It is clear that for all this to work there must be tremendous trust between the builder and the, shall I call him, patron. This may be impossible for many builders, those who keep customers at arm’s length, who don’t like phone conversations with people who don’t know very much about what they do but nevertheless want to be informed, who are not, finally, accepting of the obligation to be social that seems to be a part of framebuilding. Contracts may be in order, but not necessary. In the end, it’s trust and circumspection on the part of both parties that makes the arrangement possible. “How well does the builder know me, how well do I know myself, and well do we trust one another?” one might ask. These are basic questions concerning custom bikes that, I’m afraid, don’t get asked much. But they remain.
It’s strange, but Dave, along with a small number of the very best builders, is capable of expressing something about his customers without those customers making a single aesthetic decision because he is sensitive to people’s aesthetic ideas and preferences. And so I must think, maybe there is something about me, something that I don’t see or acknowledge but that Dave can, which is bold, flashy, red. I chose Ellis because the sum representation of Dave’s work is most pleasing to me, so surely I have made some choice in the matter: I did not, for instance, unbox a David Kirk frame. But letting an artist tell me something about myself required me to forget my vain notions of myself. (Never mind the vanity implicit in that statement.) If you think I am speaking in metaphysical ways about an inappropriate topic, you are probably one of those who couldn’t figure out why I wanted anything other than the titanium bike. I would say that I think it is good to examine the reasons we buy what we buy, why we make the choices we do⎯choice, the idea of it, is really just metaphysics anyway.
When you, my reader, order your next custom bike, remember this: the thing you eventually hold in your hands will be fundamentally different than the abstraction you held in your head. Paint doesn’t photograph well sometimes⎯artificial light and all. We change our minds minute to minute, even as the torch is pulling silver through a lug in some other state, some other time zone. If you have no control over what you buy, that may mean that, these days, you have no control over your self-image, if only for that moment or in that individual case. But, as I have demonstrated more or less, you do have a hand in the process, even if that only means you’ve picked the man or woman most likely to say good things about you by making something that is a reflection of your taste. You can adjust the shade or saturation, but not the hue: tell the builder you like this or that about his or her work, but do not require anything, at least any aesthetic thing. You will be surprised, perhaps elated and dumbstruck. There is something irreducibly valuable in that.