Saturday, May 24, 2008

I've missed you guys

How ya'll doing?

I'm back, in more than one way. Time to resume blogging. And I'm getting over a bad bug that's laid me low for a week - but gives me some free time to post.

The winter was slow, as it was hard and long weather-wise. Next year will require some better solutions to keep the shop fit for working. As those get sorted out, I'll be sharing them with you.

Being a slow winter gave me the opportunity to do a few other things, some of which have be referenced in other posts. One we haven't discussed much is reflecting on frames and frame-building. All my thinking hasn't lead me to many firm, absolute conclusions. But it all helps me refine my thinking and goals. So I'm going to share some of these thoughts starting here with something about which I feel strongly.

It's not for me to tell other builders what to do, so let's be clear about this up front. But my belief is that too many custom builders are working too hard to be visually different, or even to create visual art rather than bikes. Each of us has a different approach to our visual aesthetic. Some work hard to achieve certain common elements throughout their work. Others strive to make each build unique. And all of this is good, from where I sit. But, when the decoration appears to somehow impede functionality - it disturbs me.

This year's Handmade Bike Show offered many examples. I don't really want to point fingers at anyone in particular - after all some of the worst examples come from very capable and successful builders. And some of these touches looked cool. But if you go to, and look through the galleries, you can probably figure out I'm talking about. One bike, being shown for the second year in a row, isn't even ridable. Adding unnecessary, dysfunctional components or accessories, or significant (as in physically big, unnecessary, flashy) frame details aren't my piece of cake. Moreover, its likely to take buyers mind off of the more important aspects of bicycles and custom frame-building.

Richard Sachs probably represents the more Zen-like end of the scale. He's not into chrome or polished stainless. He works with a limited pallet of paint colors (or is that just his riders?), applied in traditional schemes. He doesn't do a lot of lug carving. But, he may put more than the average number of hours into a build - because he is obsessive about detail and functionality.

Farther down the scale are Curtlo's with their curved stays, or Kirk's Terraplane model with his curved stays. Without having ridden either, I'm comfortable conjecturing that these have no discernible performance effects. They do visually set these frames off, and don't impede the functionality of these frames. As such, they seem like fair approaches to incorporate style with functionality. Just like the Hetchin's curly frames that preceded them.

Personally I like a little flash in the form of polished stainless, and for dropouts, stainless is a functional improvement. Fancy paint is a cool thing, and long established as an aesthetic element of fine bikes. You, I and the next guy will have different opinions as to when these elements enhance or detract from the look of a bike - and I won't try to determine what other builders should do with these factors.

On the other hand, if you're building a fully equipped Rando bike, and can't fit the fenders concentric to the wheels, then who cares if you thread the dynamo wiring through the frame and rack tubes or not. And yet one respected name has advertising showing featuring such a bike. Schwinn (the real made in Chicago Schwinn) got this right, so top custom builders ought to as well.

Then there is the practice of penetrating tubes with tubes. The first time it looked kind of cool. And it probably didn't hurt too much other than to make the tube heavier (assuming the main tube itself wasn't very light,or that it had a very long butt). However, afterwards, repeating this practice is just derivative, non-functional, and a potential source of later problems for the rider. Some builders prefer to build exactly what the rider asks for - and if its pierced tubes, so be it - who can fault them for responding to their clients. But, the bike that Lance bought for his new store just wasn't likely to be ridden in any meaningful way, regardless of who purchased it.

I believe that all of this overlaps other behavior we see, such as the guys who buy a custom chopper and then trailer it to events. I just don't get this behavoir. If you're one of these guys, no problem - I'm not suggesting that you stop. But, it just doesn't make sense to me if either the rider or bike aren't up for the trip to the event - what are they good for? Showing off a fancy *purchased* chopper only says the rider was able to buy (finance?) the bike - it represents no skill in building, or aesthetic judgment, or riding ability. Look at me I have money?

The above isn't meant to pick on chopper guys, because this is just one example of a larger phenomena - that some frame-builders may have fallen into with their more outrageous designs.

The truth is that we live in a consumer society. Mere consumption doesn't ever satisfy anyone's needs. I can't prove this, and haven't done any scientific study of the issue. But, look around you and I think the statement proves itself.

If you doubt this, consider a few examples: We're drowning in the problem of too little oil. It doesn't matter if we're at peak oil of not. Prices around here are over $4/Gal. And most folks can't afford that - at least not without substantially changing their lifestyle. Should we be surprised about this turn of events when automotive sales for the last 10-15 years have returned to a focus on size of vehicle and amount of horsepower. No one needs 300-400 or more horsepower. No one can reasonably use that kind of power. Yet how many folks will stretch their budgets in order to have a huge powerful engine.

Yeah, we're putting a lot of emotional energy into our consumerism - trying to feel better, without consideration of functionality. And no, car sales aren't unique in this way. If they had any money left, American's would still be buying bigger and fancy houses - that they make less and less use thereof.

I'm a map freak - so Google Earth is just a great thing. It's interesting to look a rivers, lakes, and ocean front. Man, there's a lot of invested in boats, sitting in the water, with their covers buttoned up tight, doing nothing. Maybe the folks that take the pictures don't do so on weekends or holidays - but I bet even then, only a small fraction of the fleet is used on any weekend. This doesn't slow folks down from buying boats. And like cars and choppers, the bigger, fancier, and more powerful, the better.

It's long been said that the two best days for a boater are when he buys his boat and when he sells it. This suggests, awfully strongly, that the benefit of a boat is primarily the act of consumerism - and thereafter the best thing one can do clean their hands of their purchase. Now let's face it, there are folks who really use boats (and motorcycles/houses/cars). I'd suggest that in many cases, it is the owner of a small boat or a sailboat who is most likely to make significant use of their craft. There, the activities around using the boat are more accessible, and a source of enjoyment. When things get too fancy, boat ownership becomes just about posturing. And posturing isn't a very satisfying activity, if only because there's always someone who has more than you or I or the next person.

This probably sounds like a screed against consumerism - and likely it is. But, my point is that activity is where we find personal rewards. Hanging a bike on the wall doesn't really bring one much satisfaction. Riding a nice bike, properly fitted, is a joy. And by focusing too much on being visually different, IMO, some builders are helping push cycling too close to mass consumerism rather than pushing riders to be active.

Again, I'm not trying to bust anyone's chops here. But, this thinking does help me solidify the limits I impose on the builds that I do. Functionality has to be the driver for fine frame-building.

Hopefully I haven't PO'd all my readers. But, it is one of my convictions as a frame-builder - and I thought you should know.

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