I'm really enjoying Om's new pi.co project. His latest piece is an interview with Frank Clegg - a guy who found his life's passion designing and making high quality leather goods. You really must go over to the site and read it.
As I get older I find myself more and more interested in design and materials - particularly the esthetic qualities of materials and designs that are timeless. With so much written about Jony Ive and other industrial designers, it is important to step back and look at that those special people who focus on causing that ideal in their mind to become physical. While some bemoan the flight of craftsman ship from America I find pockets everywhere and in unexpected places.
I have an interest in human powered vehicles - bicycles in particular. High stakes racing has produced a progression in technology punctuated by iconic leaps along the way. Rather than getting lost in the past a few special points, inspired by history and tradition, stand out as a source of inspiration, memory and delight. I own one. One of my most important objects, and I would only claim to have a few, is my 1973 Raleigh Pro.
Raleigh had a division that hand-crafted bikes for road racing and serious riding. Expensive, beautiful. I saw one and couldn't get it out of my mind. I wanted to ride one.
I was just an undergrad and $750 was an astronomical price in the day. The bike shop had just ordered one that was to be delivered in about six months. I asked the size. Fifty nine centimeters. The sweet spot for me - a bit of normal fitting would make it perfect. My checking account had about one hundred dollars. The deposit check nearly emptied the account and I now had to live with the problem of not knowing where the rest of the money would come from.
A few details were finalized with the builder via air mail. A single person would make the frame, another would paint it and a third would build the wheels and mount the group set.. I opted for a special paint and detailing scheme for about two weeks worth of meals. The letters their project manager sent weren't exactly regular business letters and exuded enthusiasm. They only increased my sense of expectation and excitement.
It struck me that I was wasting money on a room. If I gave up having a place to live the money would come together in about seven months. So clear and obvious - I went homeless. It wasn’t terribly difficult. I made a gym key for showering and a friendly postdoc let me use his couch for a few months in return for a bit of house repair. It seems some theoreticians have no idea what a hammer is, so from his vantage point I had a useful super power.
A gloriously beautiful lugged fame fashioned from Reynolds 531 tubing. The group set was all top shelf Campagnolo. Sewups, Brooks seat ... everything. She is beautiful to this day and has a wonderful ride quality - the signature of a Reynolds lugged frame from the 70s or 80s. Riding a bike of this caliber is such a delight. I rode with the cycling club mostly on Saturdays and Sundays. There were regular centuries - round trips between Pasadena and Irvine.
The rides led to me crossing paths with a few people driven by their dreams - Paul MacCready and his take on a human powered vehicle, the Duo Tones and their surf music, and much more. My little Raleigh was acquiring a patina of the experiences it catalyzed.
There are faster bikes. Lighter bikes. More exotic bikes with carbon fiber everywhere. Electronically controlled derailleurs, disk brakes, power meters, exotic wheels, and weights half that of my 19 pound Raleigh.
Mine feels better on the road and none of the newer bikes can recall what we’ve been through together. A few years ago I had some restoration work done by a craftsman who builds steel framed bikes for a living. He took one look at it and said ‘damn - the frame is three cm too tall for me. I’ll still give you $4,000 for it if you’d sell it. That’s the most beautiful 70s Raleigh I’ve ever seen’
The roads around here are awful, so the Raleigh rarely gets ridden. So sad - if I had sense I'd move. If the roads were better I'd ride her more, but only on perfect days. I'd have a nice bespoke bike made for other times.
Bespoke is an abused term these days, but it is appropriate in the bike world. There are about fifty fantastic frame builders in North America - a half dozen have waiting lists deeper than five years. They create beautiful mounts that will give their owners a lifetime of service and perhaps discovery. But my roads are bad and a bespoke Reynolds 953 frame properly kitted out would be north of $10k. Titanium is an alternative and there are a few guys who understand the material. One of them learned his craft in Lockheed's Skunk Works.
Perhaps some day...
Building something wonderful is an exercise in constraint, experience and imagination. I've designed and built a few things, but this is not a core strength. Still - I've had a taste and have a bit of an understanding of some basic issues.
Though an accidental meeting I was able to interest Trek in building a bike for a friend in recognition of some of her work. Colleen is too tall for most bikes - those that sort of fit have to be adjusted to the point where too many compromises are made.1 The engineering staff at Trek had done a few special bikes for basketball players and this gave them an opportunity to experiment with a new material and create something that was also more environmentally friendly to construct than most current bikes.
Her bike, other than its custom paint job, was designed to look almost like a normal commuter bike and make her look like an average rider. The materials and geometry turn out to be special - the sort of thing that comes with enormous skill and experience. The brazing work on the lugs is beautiful and I'm told it feels wonderful to ride (I have to take her word on that - my feet would be a good distance from the pedals). Now it is building its own patina of experiences with her. Hopefully they'll have decades together.
That patina of experiences. My rides have taken me over Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier Park (with ice patches on a July morning coming off the pass), across Washington state, from Banff to Jasper in Alberta and many other places. The long distances allow a certain detachment from whatever work I've been doing. Sometimes it sneaks back in the form of new insight out of the blue. I don't consider myself a particularly creative person, but my best moments rarely come when I'm pushing myself. While the hard work is essential, it is during these breaks that welcome the muse.
There are so many threads I'm not touching. Om's new project exposes a few types of being original and creativity. I want to spend some time writing about that - particularly that of the artist and craftsperson. But my hour has evaporated and I'm going on too long...
1 Bikes have a variety of geometries to meet different needs, but sizing to the rider is, or at least should be, centrally important. Most people - probably 90% - will find a fit within a standard range of frames. You may not be able to find a fit in a particular make, but a good shop can find something. Once a close enough fit is found adjustments are made. This may involve changing handlebars, moving seat posts and handlebars, changing seats and break levels and so on... A good reason to stay away from big box stores or mail order firms where no care is taken.
A few people fall outside the normal range. Women are more impacted than men as relative dimensions are different and often ignored in countries where most riders are male. Colleen has exceptionally long legs and arms. Normal bikes like the one shown have to be adjusted past their limits producing a bike that is uncomfortable with poor or even dangerous handling characteristics.
If you are outside the range the trick is a made to measure frame. Not cheap, but worth it. Made to measure or bespoke may be the way to go if you are after that bike of a lifetime.
No recipe this time, but a neat way to pack a healthy lunch. Use a mason jar! I've made one of my own design (eg. just throw things that look tasty together) and recommend the approach.