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.”



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