Music to My Ears

Since I last posted I’ve been working in overdrive balancing a half dozen varied projects.  It’s been exciting to see how much and how varied the opportunity is. The only down side is that I haven’t had the time to write about them and even if I did, I’d have to include too many redactions to be enjoyable to write or read.

However, the veil is just being lifted on one project that I’ve really enjoyed.  What follows flowed from my notes after a first visit with a company that, at the time, was another potential client for my consulting business.  

~         ~         ~

I admit, I had to pause and collect myself before exiting my rental car.  Across the parking lot was the entryway that identified the building unit as Alchemy Bicycle Company, of Denver, Colorado.  This was the first time I was about to enter a bicycle making facility since the last time I was in my own months earlier.   

Previously I viewed Alchemy as another upstart bicycle company prying their way into the market.  Like another uninvited guest coming into the community dining room and taking a seat at an already overcrowded table that had a finite amount of food available-less than everyone wants.  It’s not that I had resentment or disdain for competition, I got over that many years ago.  It’s just the reality of business.  If you don’t have a competitive streak, you shouldn’t be on the field.  

But I was coming here to possibly help, not compete. Looking forward, not back I stepped into the showroom that adjoins the workspace and my first sensory system to activate was my olfactory.  Just like walking into a good bakery, the smell engages you before you reach the display counter. In here was the smell that comes of making things of metal- cutting fluids, welding and emery dust; and of carbon- epoxy, hot molds and melting resins; and paint- cleaners, thinners, paint and polishing compound.  It was all familiar and wonderful and I realized a part of me that had been feeling empty was instantly becoming whole again and although nothing within my line of sight was familiar, a part of me felt I was at home.

As it was, all the ‘Alchemists’ were somewhere other than in the shop at that time, so I quietly, hesitantly, expectantly continued on.  As I roamed out onto the shop floor looking for signs of life I subconsciously inventoried the equipment- specifically different but generally similar to much of what the Serotta shops (NY & CA) had in place.  Taking it all in and processing it, I was reminded of another very different setting from my earlier years.

In my teens and twenties I spent a lot of time hanging out at a place called Café Lena.  I washed dishes there at night for free simply to have access to the music and the scene (and the waitresses all there on similar purposes, one of whom I married).  It was, and still is, the longest running folk music coffee house in the country.  Every weekend a new act was in town and typically a guest artist or band would play a set ahead of the headliner which might have been somebody whose name and sound was familiar like Dylan, Van Ronk, Sorrels, Rev Davis, Don McLean, etc. or someone who was new to me, but likely to be known soon.  Lena Spencer, the proprietress had a great sense for who might be up and coming…and a huge heart to match. 

In any event, staff would usually arrive an hour or so before patrons ambled up the steep creaking staircase to be seated and served the strongest coffee and rum cake this side of anywhere… while the performers were usually a few doorways down the street at the “Exec” short for Executive, the favorite (favorite probably because it was the closest) pre and post-show watering hole for loosening up and cooling down.

That pre-show period was my favorite time to take in the mystique of the Café.  The small corner stage featured one permanent fixture- a well-used and well-loved upright piano complete with crackled mirror that if you sat behind the staff counter some twenty or so feet away, you could see the face and hands of the performer.  But in this time of anticipatory quiet there were usually other instruments- guitars, maybe a dobro, fiddles, mandolin, banjo, that had been casually, yet carefully placed there not much earlier by the musicians who would have spent a piece of the afternoon, working out some kinks or just having fun pickin’ and making great music. 

You can usually tell something about the musician by their instrument and how they place it, ready to play. These instruments, bore legendary marques but rather than showroom fresh, were now in the care of the second or third or fifth musician to steward them. The random nicks, scratches and extensive wear marks tell of use, not abuse, from years playing on the road and are complimented by immaculately tuned and trimmed strings.  These instruments were living a good life, respected and played the way their makers had hoped they’d be played by people who absolutely understood what incredible tools they held in their hands.  

To me, that silent still-life was electrifying, inspiring and intoxicating well beyond whatever double concoction could be had below at the Exec.  Because I knew, that in a short while, the musicians would return to their instruments and they were going to fill the Café with great sound.  The setting, the instruments, the musicians, the proprietor- all the key ingredients, were right and rarely, rarely was anyone disappointed.

Now, seeing the silent machinery and tools sitting there in the Alchemy workspace brought me a very similar feeling of excitement-familiar and different at the same time.  Equipment that is slightly used and thoroughly cared for always appeals to me more than brand new equipment because it tells me something about the people who use it. I could see that this equipment was being used by craftsmen who employ tools as extensions of themselves… knowing that if they take care of it, it will take care of them.  Just like musicians and their instruments.

As my thoughts drifted back and forth between the Café Lena and Alchemy, I hadn’t noticed that one by one the Alchemy band members were returning and bit-by-bit the silence was broken by a crescendo of sound as the factory came to life. 

The sounds were deliberate, as are made by craftsmen who know what they are doing…. and it was music to my ears. 

~         ~         ~

PS since that visit I’ve enjoyed offering Alchemy a pointer or two and as much as anything else, cheer them on.  They’re on the move! You may want to c heck them out at www.alchemybicycles.com

PSS Check out their new titanium race bike… a Ben Serotta “inspired design” introduction…along with their two new carbon bikes…including their first made in Alchemy front fork!

PSSS Polar vortex or not, it’s March and I’m calling it Spring. In the coming weeks a number of bikes will be coming my way, so its time to start riding and writing again!

Hoping to see you on the road somewhere,

Ben

 

The Soul Patch is redefined.

Amidst the trite, over-commercialized, phony, fake and fraud filled world that Imagesurrounds us, real authenticity is still out there to be revealed. It’s fostered and protected by people who understand the difference between inventing something they can sell with fake ‘authentic with original heritage!’ and actually creating something that will in time be revered as authentic and original. Real authenticity has soul you can feel, you don’t have to have it pointed out to you.

Ray Charles and a relatively small cadre of musicians are/were authentically cool. Original sound with deep soulfulness there was simply no need to convince anyone of anything and unlike most performers, visual imagery had nothing to do with it. Ray Charles = Cool. If anything, the soul patch he sported beneath his lip was just “a little extra somethin’ for the ladies”, like a nicely placed grace note, not necessary, but it just goes.

But this isn’t a story about facial hair or music.  It’s about my ongoing search for true authenticity.

The inaugural issue of PAVED*[1] magazine (2011) featured an article that highlighted six people who helped shape the modern era of US racing.  I was honored to be among the group as was the revolutionary wheelman, Steve Hed. Although we shared several decades in common, oddly, we never came to know each other or our respective products beyond the cursory.

About a year ago I made a commitment to start seriously evaluating the feel of bicycle frames by changing out wheels and with that, I finally branched out beyond the Mavic, Campagnolo and Zipp wheels that had been the mainstay of my former company’s test fleets.  I soon found myself on the phone with Tim at HED who after listening to me describe the bike I wanted some new wheels for- an all season, all road, no worries, just go and ride bike, suggested I try a pair of Ardennes (a model featuring aluminum alloy rims) with 23MM tires.  This was the first sign that HED was a different kind of company. HED is known for producing cutting edge carbon wheels so I was primed for and expecting to be coaxed into buying a set of expensive carbon wheels, as after all, I just wanted to be led to the best.  Here on the phone was a genuinely enthusiastic cyclist who listened and advised without prejudice. I took his advice… and boy was he right.  I hadn’t been happier with any new set of wheels.  My first generation (early proto) MeiVici rode like a new bike…happiness.

A couple months ago at the Interbike show I finally had a chance to meet Steve, Annie, his partner in everything, and Dino, for lack of a better description, a right-hand-man kind of guy. As I told the trio how much I had been enjoying my wheels I saw in their eyes that knowing glance that comes with the confidence of habitually making great things.  The trio silently and simultaneously acknowledged my words of praise with a look that said “of course you have.” The first spoken response coming from all three, “then you need to try the Ardennes Plus!” which was said (out loud this time) with the enthusiasm of kids who’ve just hopped off their new favorite amusement park joy ride, running to get back in line.  I felt among my kind- people who lived to make really cool, really real things. No pretense, just confidence.

A couple weeks later the Plus wheels arrived and as recommended I mounted up some 25MM tires.  As Emeril would say, the combination just kicked it up a notch… or three. These wheels just do everything well and they’re surprisingly light considering how tough they are (not that I am one for counting grams). On my second outing I was delighted to end up on a stretch of roadway that was being prepared for re-paving.  Stripped of anything resembling smooth surface I relished the speed and sure footed confidence the 85psi round profile tires provided and I just let the bike go on the winding decent, able to lean harder into the loose corners than I would have dared before.  Then, just ahead of the last hard turn, I hit the fresh pavement and let the bike gain even more speed simply knowing that the bike would stick the corner.  Joy. This is what Steve and his gang knew would happen.

I decided I needed to make the trip to Minnesota to see where these wheels came from.

Since the company’s inception, HED wheels have been pioneers in the advancement of wheel technologies- from disc, to the patented H3 tri-spoke wheels and innovative rim profiles.  All in all HED has accomplished enough to deserve a marbled shrine, but within the neat but nondescript buildings that house HED CYCLING, there’s no edifice to themselves to be found.  While there are photos and jerseys from the most exalted competitors in wheel sports seemingly in every nook and cranny, each with personalized messages to the HED gang thanking them for delivering some extra speed, the facility itself is all business. Touring the plant with Dino and Steve revealed a combination of high-tech and ‘Yankee know-how’ tech with no showmanship and no apologies for anything that looked a little homemade. The place simply exudes confidence knowing that the only show that matters is the performance of the wheels.  There was a busy calm throughout the facility that I recognized as a signature of people who just know how to do their jobs flawlessly, efficiently, effectively.

That day’s special excitement was that the company’s new 85MM carbon wheels for fat bikes were nearing production-ready status and beneath the serious demeanor that everyone maintained, I could feel the undercurrent of giddiness that comes with excited anticipation.

This was true authenticity found.  Somehow, against the staggering odds of competing with giants like Mavic, Zipp, Campagnolo, Shimano and the many other brands who have mastered the art of borrowing innovation and employing Asian manufacturing, Steve, Annie and their dedicated crew have built an enduring business based on highly principled brand identity.  Steve, who without a recognizable office, is at the same time both nowhere and everywhere within the compound… summed it up like this.  “We just have to make really great product that we like to ride… and the rest just takes care of itself.”

Yeah, Steve saying that that was really cool, a Ray Charles kind of cool.  He wasn’t trying to sound anything, he was simply, truthfully revealing his company’s approach to making a living from building great wheels.

On my first ride after retuning home, happily carving corners on the Ardennes Plus I momentarily glanced down at the contact point where tire meets the road. With some guttural bluesy riffs playing in my mind, it occurred to me that those few square centimeters that connect our soul to the earth beneath us is where this magic we call cycling happens. Cycling’s soul patch.

Thank you Steve.


[1] It was with great sadness that I learned that the current edition of PAVED is the last issue, at least for a while…  It was a special publication, an original, which deserved much greater success. If you can find one, I’d urge you to snap a copy up, each issue was worth keeping.

In Search of Authenticity

Last week I realized that riding my bikes, the ones I have with my name on the down tube, just doesn’t feel the same. I think it’s because of an underlying fear that in all likelihood, no matter how the Serotta trademark is used, or its story told, it is leveraging a past authenticity to validate current and future business by people who don’t understand the true meaning of the word.

Authenticity.

I was disappointed to find that Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary didn’t even recognize the word, rather spilling out four versions of the word authentic.  Authenticity was referenced down the list in 5th position.

Curiously, the four definitions for authentic seemed to have been scrutinized by marketing executives who were given the opportunity to provide ample justification for lack of originality of something that was once created with a heart and soul.  An authentic replica seems to me an oxymoron.

Wikipedia provided gratification:

Authenticity is a technical term used in psychology as well as existentialist philosophy and aesthetics. In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures; the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. A lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be bad faith.

Now we’re talking!

A couple nights ago I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series, a great attempt IMHO of delivering interesting, honest material that’s both entertaining and thought provoking.  It is authentic, original programming and unrelated to the story lines, it just makes me feel hopeful that integrity is still alive.

But the Mad-Ave version surrounds us everywhere without relief, from politics to an endless array of consumer goods and most of us act like the ignorant morons, willing lemmings the purveyors wish us to be, moved by 10 to 20 second sound bytes.

That same evening, there was a commercial that began with a pair of hands finishing off some nice authentic-looking hiking boots, cut to a group of hipsters rising pre-dawn, getting decked out in a full array of brand new never-seen-a-trail outfits and climbing into their new Jeep.  Yeah. This rugged, sexy-from-the-pages-of-GQ co-ed gang was on its way to being tough and rugged like their boots.  With Starbucks in hand they drove to the edge of a majestic place and walked about 10 feet before watching the sun come up.  Though the company’s web site has the A word sprinkled everywhere, my guess is there’s nobody left at HQ who knows what the boots were originally made for.

Many moons ago my high-school hiking buddy and I were headed up to the Adirondack Mountains for a short week of knocking off as many of the High Peaks as we could manage.  Paul, who was far more seasoned than I at these feats, convinced me I needed some real boots instead of the half-rotted sneakers that I was wearing. So we stopped along the way at a small supply store Paul knew about where he assured me I’d find exactly what was needed.

Barely marked, the store was on the side of the road in a tiny Adirondack hamlet.  Inside it smelled of high quality, well cared for leather and Woodman’s insect repellent.  The latter, in its original form (late 60’s) could have simply been called a repellant.  The deeply funky odor, had to have been developed by a determined hermit.

It was the sort of place you had to know about. The proprietress was a genuine older mountain-woman.  She eyed me up and down with a semi sneer.  I’m sure that if Paul, who was known as a regular, was not with me, she would have flipped her ‘Open’ sign to ‘Closed’ and sent me on my way with nothing so much as breadcrumbs.  Here was a place that you needed to earn the right to wear mountain gear.

The Wise One selected the pair of boots that would be right for me. Made by New Englanders who understood what the spare-no-detail boots were made for, those boots kept my feet warm and dry for many years of slogging in the mud, slush and rock-strewn trails. They were boots that could only have been made by a company whose clear sense of purpose was to make the best boots for people who actually put them to the test.

That boot company is gone, having morphed into a much larger and more complex global brand. I’m not saying that anything today’s company puts its name on isn’t any good.  By most accounts it has done rather well for itself. But using what was an authentic brand heritage to sell a vast array of made-anywhere and everywhere products to hit a variety of price-points decays the underlying authenticity. True authenticity is fragile.  Most companies lose it on the path to success or just as often while simply trying to survive as a business by over-leveraging the brand’s soul.

But I think there’s hope for the future. Healthy skepticism is on the rise. The growing popularity of ‘local’ movements, from food to bicycles, is driven by people wanting to connect with something or someone real, meaning that what’s behind the product is something that can be seen or experienced directly.

In search of authenticity.

Soon I’ll be launching a second blog site, BestofCycling.com.  It will be a non-commercial site where I share stories and review products and activities that represent the best of what the cycling world has to offer… and where true authenticity can be found.

Please write me with your suggestions or, if you are a builder of bikes, parts or accessories and would like to introduce me to your product and your story, I’d be honored to hear from you too.  Or, just send me your stuff!  Contact me through this blog and I’ll get back to you promptly with details.

Until then, here’s hoping to see you on the road,

Ben

Mirror, Mirror.

Part II on the state of bike fitting

No, I’m not obsessed with bike fitting, but these days I am on a tear about integrity, the honesty of purpose or the absence of either.

Recently, a cyclist assaulted me electronically with a four-punch barrage over an experience he’d had seven years ago. Having paid for ‘professional fits’ at four locations that delivered four very different results he was rather convinced that I, and the fitting school I started represented nothing more than a marketing sham. Two thousand, five hundred fifty-five days later he was still peeved.

While over the years the overwhelming majority of feedback I’ve had from consumers has been extremely positive, I have a feeling that this individual’s experience is probably more common than the industry would like to admit. I never did receive any of the details from this hapless fellow- whether the differences were in millimeters or centimeters, nor were any of a myriad of circumstances that could have revealed valid explanations for the variations provided. But in truth, at a macro level those details don’t really matter. The point stays the same-the industry cannot yet guarantee consistency to a public that finally understands that ‘the fit’ matters.

But there is hope.

The Medicine of Cycling Task Force (MOC) is a non-profit organization that was formed by a group of doctors, PT’s and bicycle fitters with the noble goal of trying to establish standards of ‘best practice’ for the sport’s practitioners.  Everything from bike fitting to how emergency responders should prepare for a bike race, to dealing with face lacerations falls underneath the MOC umbrella.  Praise should go to the Interbike 2013 organizers for giving MOC a 90-minute presentation slot to address bike fit.

There, two of the task force’s founding members, Curtis Cramblett and Wade Hall, demonstrated the essentials of a professional bike fit while highlighting the standard guidelines—principles that are widely supported by almost the entire bike fitting community.  In an honest and transparent effort to prove their non-partisanship, Curtis and Wade did their best to tip their hats to over a dozen companies and ‘schools’ who now participate in fitting the world’s cyclists. The room was filled to standing-room-only and it was gratifying to witness the obvious enthusiasm of both the presenters and attendees. When the Q&A was over, still left on the table to discuss and debate further was everyone’s lingering question: “but what is the best?”

Conveniently for me, the 4th Annual Medicine of Cycling Conference (where I was to join as a panelist) was being held right on the heels of Interbike, so the quest for the best continued unimpeded.  Hosted at the US Cycling Headquarters in Colorado Springs, the opening day featured lectures on topics such as triage management at events and various graphically detailed discussions of dealing with traumas. Day two of the conference covered more jaw dropping medical discussions (yes, literally what happens when your jaw is uh…) as well as two hours of presentation and discussion on bike fitting. Seated along side me were undeniably some of the best minds from the ‘fit’ world and to a person all agreed, that the science of ‘best fit’ is, like delivering ‘the best’ of anything in medicine.  It’s an evolving art complimented by training, tools, talent and testing.

As a great case in point, one attendee asked Dan Guillemette, MSC, BSC from Team Sky, “when are you going to fix Chris Froome’s bike position?”  It was a question that hundreds of fitters would have loved to be able to ask, thinking, “Yea, if only I could have Froome in my Fit Studio for a couple hours imagine what he could do then!” You see, for the fitting obsessed, the Team Sky star’s seemingly awkward bike position is something that fitters have been clucking about since ‘Froomie’ burst onto the scene during the 2012 Tour de France.  Not taken aback, Guillemette explained that they are proceeding with care, testing, trying small changes and learning about this one exceptional athlete a day at a time and finding what may appear to be obvious is not necessarily the case.  They are assuming nothing.  Words to live by.

So for the moment, where does this leave fitters who want to deliver the best service and cyclists everywhere who want to receive the best fit?  My advice is frustratingly simple.

Fitters need to approach each cyclist the way Team Sky works with their athletes.  Assume nothing.  Proceed with discipline, humility, and honesty, taking special care to preserve your integrity.  Confidence will follow. Use your tools, which is all that they are, but most of all use your eyes, ears, ask lots of questions and see each fitting as a process of discovery. Your clients will trust you.

Cyclists, ask your fellow cyclists for recommendations.  Don’t be afraid to ask your fitter for referrals and when possible, the referrals should be with individuals who are somewhat like you- age, sex, ability, and cycling discipline (TT, Tri, Road, etc).  Chances are far more likely than not that you’ll have an enjoyable experience and your cycling time will be the better for it.

In the meantime, have a great ride,

Ben

 

Leaving Las Vegas, City of Algorithms

As the plane left the runway I looked down at the endless expanse of huge hotels, casinos, and over-the-top glitz that attracts millions of people each year, arriving with hopes they’ll leave with newly found fortunes.  But Las Vegas is a city built on algorithms, complex formulas that, stacked in its favor, have delivered more steel, glass and polished Italian marble than likely exist in Vatican City, all to enshrine the vast variety of seductive cash-extracting enticements.  The ever-growing display of excess is proof that the formulas are still working in the city’s favor while encouraged to leave what happens in Vegas behind, visitors are made to feel pretty cool about it all, happily re-enacting Hangover parts I-III all in a weekend of revelry.

But I’d gone to Vegas with the specific intention of not leaving anything behind but to reconnect with friends and colleagues of the bicycle world while also working on my ‘what’s next’ ideas, all during the annual trade show known as Interbike. Now, rising higher into the clear blue Nevada skies I took a last look out the window at the receding shrine to temptation and realized that my biggest takeaway from Interbike 2013 is that this was bicycling’s year of the algorithm too. Continue reading

What I’ve been up to…

People have been asking what I’ve been up to since my unexpected departure from Serotta, the company…. So here’s an update!

First I have to say that I continue to be amazed and appreciative for the outpouring of support for my family and me along with the accolades for past accomplishments.  Collectively, these gestures from friends, family and fans deliver a potent life fuel at a critical juncture for us.  We are all the more determined to convert this fuel into future exciting and rewarding projects.

When I was asked to leave Serotta it took more than a few days to put the concept of being disconnected from a 41-year effort into a past tense mindset.  Actually, it’s a process that I am still working on.  It reminds me of rides I’ve had, when my initial in-the-zone tranquility was suddenly broken by a fury of horrific weather- wind, rain and fog to the point you can’t really see what’s ahead.  Looking for options, I instinctively take whichever road looks most likely to lead to higher ground so that I might have better perspective on the best route to take.  It’s usually a good decision.  And it’s an apt metaphor for this moment in my life.

The good news is I see great opportunity in many directions.  At the moment I’m in the process of whittling down a list of about 20 ideas into no more than 9 options- three each in short, medium and long-term projects.  Although challenging, it’s an energizing process.

Continue reading