Stepping into HSS and outside the box.

Thinking Outside the Box is easier said than done. So it’s refreshing and noteworthy to witness a textbook example of the real thing.

Recently, I was explaining the process of obtaining an aModoMio, my new line of made-to-order bicycles, to Mike Z, a 37 y/o cyclist from California who was close to pulling the trigger on his decision to buy. We talked about the usual: the kind of riding he had been doing; what his cycling aspirations are; what kind of bike/s he had and what he liked (most everything) and didn’t like (not much, he was actually pretty happy); was he happy with the fit and feel of his position on the bike (pretty much no complaints). All the same, having heard that I’d been instrumental in the modern bike fitting movement, Mike asked if I’d consider rechecking his riding position that was last set by a well-trained technician at the shop where’d he purchased his current bike.

We agreed to meet in New York City so the next task was to organize the use of a high quality ‘bike fitting studio’ that would be receptive to my oversight. First on my list was to contact a long time colleague, Happy Freedman, who has spent much of the last 30 years working within NYC medical facilities developing a following within the orthopedics community, and in particular, orthotics and bike fitting. About a year ago, Freedman was invited to bring his base of operations into the Leon Root, MD, Motion Analysis Laboratory (LRMAL), a department within New York’s world-renowned Hospital for Special Surgery. In addition to working with many of the city’s elite, gifted athletes (who by the way do not come there by way of sponsorship, but rather HSS’s incomparable reputation), the HSS team proudly serves a diverse range of individuals with every imaginable physiological challenge brought on by accident, disease or genetics. As a rule, there is no rule, other than finding solutions for each individual. So it’s an environment where individual uniqueness and the unconventional are both considered normal and celebrated.

Happy was delighted to have the opportunity to show me the results of some of the research he’d been doing saying “I hope you don’t mind if there are a couple other people in the room with us…I am doing things a little differently now.” Continuing, he added, “a physical therapist or advanced trainer begins the process.” I thought that this was an intriguing development. Freedman had spent decades working alongside medical professionals and was more familiar with the anatomy of human movement than 99% of people in the bike-fitting field and more than capable of performing the normal core strength and flexibility review that is now a part of any quality bike fitting session. For our session Happy brought in the added services of Jeanne Williams (PT, DPT, OCS) and Brent Williams who is VP of the PBMA (Professional Bicycle Mechanics, Assoc.) and a trained bike-fitting specialist.

On the morning of the fitting, our small team gathered at the LRMAL facilities and we all immediately set to work in preparation for Mike Z’s arrival. As we worked, quietly Freedman began to explain his new approach. The more he revealed, the more it made sense. He reminded me of some simple truths that I’d touted years earlier:

  1. That cycling is about movement;
  2. Understanding how to approach bike fit had to start by understanding the movement parameters of each individual;
  3. Then discover how that individual will best perform positioned in a space bound only at their feet, ultimately transferring motion through the pedals.

Most bike fitting education programs start with this principle, but then in the process of developing a teachable, trainable format, devolve into prescribing a series of guidelines. And then from guidelines come measurements and from measurements, standardized rules of interpretation. With each step, the process is at risk of drifting from the individually derived analysis to a comparative analysis.

The potential for real innovation improves when a project is released from the shackles of standardization and the innovator is freed from the concerns of how the results might be viewed by anyone else, no less commercialized. HSS’s LRMAL facility provides the perfect setting for Freedman to explore. Freedman has revisited the fundamental premise that bike fit is based around an individual’s ability to work efficiently. His years spent within the orthopedic halls of NY hospitals have shaped his perspective in a significantly meaningful way that has changed his approach to his patient/client in a bike fit.

So added to the first three principles are Freedman’s New Rules:

  1. That every individual has opportunities for an improved experience / performance…. on a continuum. This means that ‘optimal’ is only a temporary condition. His job is to discover the opportunities for improvement and work with the individual to understand, prioritize and facilitate the same.
  2. Accommodation (as an approach) is the enemy of ongoing improvement.
  3. Move through the bike fit process by observing the total body. We are a complex system of lever points, skeletal structure, soft tissue and hard wired to handle movement and work as a connected system- its is impossible to change the load/position of one of our features without causing an effect on the rest of our system. Freedman uses his knowledge of this premise and understanding the principles of antagonistic muscle function and mobile adaptors to evolve a cyclist’s position.
  4. The bike fit process (once the patient/client is sitting on the bike) begins not at the foot, knee or hip as most other fitters do, but with the upper body. Finding the individual’s best posture for breathing deeply. Once stated, it seems so obvious, oxygen and the ability to inhale lots of it without restriction is key to cardio-vascular performance.

 

The role of the PT (of which HSS has a deep bench in both trainers and therapists) is toimg_2188.jpg highlight and reveal each individual’s strength, range of motion and flexibility by actually doing activities in the lab instead of lying on a table and being measured. Rather than calling these strengths and weaknesses, they are referred to as a client’s reality, in of itself, a refreshing brush with meaningful honesty.
IMG_2197

Although by now Freedman could himself place an athlete through the same range of assessments, he finds it much more valuable to be free to observe and ask questions. And as I watched Mike Z move through a 45-minute series of ‘tests’ I saw the clear logic.

Once on the bike, the goal is to define the correct fit zone. What I mean is that during normal riding, depending on many variables like headwind, incline (up or down), % of maximum effort, etc., a cyclist, even on the best-fitting equipment, will subconsciously move around to adjust to the moment. That’s what we call the fit zone. The bike fitter’s and bike designer’s job is to make sure that your equipment allows you a full range of these small positional changes without impeding your effortIMG_2247

In finding the fit zone, there are four interrelated factors that are weighted more or less evenly. They are:

  1. Breathing
    1. Oxygen is a vital fuel!
  2. Core strength and endurance
    1. How long a cyclist can sustain a given position is more important than maximum core strength
  3. Power
    1. Being able to occasionally access maximum power potential for short bursts vs sustainable levels of power output (which is far more important for the endurance athlete and every day cycling).
  4. Fluidity of movement or velo-suplesse.
    1. Finding a position where cycling efficiency is natural and sustainable.

Throughout the process, from the PT phase through the entire fitting, ‘the fit’ is driven almost exclusively by observations rather than by measurements. Measurements do come in at the very end however, to document the final position so that it can be utilized by someone like me, who will design the bike around center of gravity, handling and many other considerations as well as for replication on other bikes that may already be a part of a client’s bicycle stable.

IMG_2285When we’d finished, some two hours later, Mike Z was heading home with a new position along with an action plan targeted to improve a few minor “issues” and I had great information for designing his new bicycle.

Sometimes positional changes can take a while to adjust to. In fact, making significant changes suddenly just before a ‘big’ ride can cause new pain and injury. Mike’s bike is not due to be built until August, so I’ve had the opportunity to follow up with him every couple of weeks since the fitting to see how his modified position was working out. Each time he has reported improved power and improved comfort across both short and longer distances and yes, he had also been following the PT’s recommendations as part of his daily routine. Success.

What I’d observed at the lab was a fresh reminder that the pathways and processes of ongoing improvement are not always linear. The best discoveries are often made by researchers bold enough to question and challenge convention, willing to risk failure and patient enough to take a few steps back before pushing into a less convenient thicket in hopes of finding a better path forward. I’d just witnessed a textbook example of this in the evolving practice of improving the cycling experience.

In a recent meeting with Happy Freedman, Andrew Kraszewski, PHD & senior research engineer and Howard J. Hillstrom, PHD and Director of the Leon Root, MD Motion Analysis Laboratory at HSS, I reported the results of my Mike Z’s fitting. The trio, not the least surprised, exhibited the look of confident satisfaction that only comes to those who have been down the road of successful treatment many times before. Wrapping up our meeting, Hillstrom simply said, “look, people just deserve the best we can give them. Here, we are scientists, researchers and practitioners and our goal is to make sure that our best keeps getting better.”

If you’d like to know more about the LRMAL go to: HSS Leon Root, MD, Motion Analysis Lab

 

Footnote:

The study of a cyclist’s position relative to performance began in the first golden age of bicycle racing more than 100 years ago.

Then, as the Western world’s love affair with the automobile blossomed, advancements in cycling slid into a period of relative and prolonged dormancy until the 1970’s when cycling slowly began to reemerge as an activity that was more than a novel thing to do, reviving a spirit of innovation. The Italian Olympic Cycling Committee (CONI) took to the front, followed by the New England Cycling Academy then the Serotta International Cycling Institute each in turn leading the way into the modern era of cycling science. Today, through more than a dozen formal programs, thousands of participants have completed skills courses (usually 2-4 days each) in the art and science of bicycle fitting. As a result of these efforts, many bicycle companies have started producing bicycles that fit most cyclists better than ever before while hundreds of thousands of cyclists have had personalized bike fits most of whom have gained a better cycling experience because of it. As with any profession, training is just the beginning. Experience matters, a lot… as does the commitment to professionalism and a process of improvement, so in truth, competency and proficiency can vary widely. Just as you’d look for recommendations before choosing a car mechanic or doctor, always ask for references. The purpose of this essay is to highlight one of today’s most experienced pioneers in this field who has had remarkable results.

 

 

 

Homecoming Part II

sand-casting-mold-1_0In these trying times, when basic honesty and integrity have become elusive concepts rather than expected behavioral norms, I find myself looking for identifiable reference points to which I can anchor some remnants of sanity, hope and inspiration. So once I came to the realization that “I had to get my hands dirty again” it was also clear that my professional path forward would bring me back full circle, to working with metals.

Don’t get me wrong, as a designer/dreamer/fabricator, I’m intrigued with composites and plastics. From experience I know that the right combination of design, appropriate application and best manufacturing practice can yield astoundingly great results. But composites use alone does not guaranty great product. The thing is this, underneath any paint it all looks pretty much the same with only a couple of variations, neither of which is a clear indication of the quality within. The designer/manufacturer has a near infinite array of options in selecting materials and processes and this combination- similar appearance with so many variables, is what makes this ‘space age’ material such perfect fodder for deceptive misrepresentation. And no, politicians don’t have exclusivity in this realm. In addition, practical and effective recycling of composite materials is still years away.

On the other hand, there is something innately reassuring about metals. Granted, within the scope of metals there are plenty of variables too, but these concepts are generally simpler to explain, easier to understand, discuss and debate in thoughtful ways. As far as recycling goes, the processes for aluminum, steel and titanium have long been a normal part of the material’s life cycle. Maybe its in my genes, but to me there’s an undeniable primal seductiveness that accompanies working with raw materials that with the use of simple machines and basic hand tools you can transform a raw form into beautiful functional art. Iron and bronze were the central materials of technological innovation for most of the last 4,000 years and no material animates an artisan’s senses the way steel and molten bronze can. Metal = honesty, simplicity, sanity,

foto-2

C17 tubes, Milan, IT

I could have ordered everything needed from Nova Cycle Supply right then and there and built a pretty road bike with the same materials that hundreds of other builders use. That’s more or less how I started in 1972. But I left that path long ago, there’s just no excitement or gratification in doing something that’s just the same, so over the last twelve months I’ve worked as before with Columbus of Italy and with my favorite Solidworks wizard, Jay Clark, to update and upgrade new proprietary tubing, develop three new sets of dropouts and even a proper carbon fork for disc brakes.

Finally, after months of work and anticipation I returned to FTW headquarters, bringing with me boxes of freshly minted new-age Colorado Style Columbus tubes, CNC’d dropouts, a collection of new fine tooth tube cutters, my own brazing torch, goggles, flux, rod and the boundless desire to build my new ride. Over the course of time, good R&D shops accumulate a collection of house-made specialty tools and fixtures used in completing jobs, so I spent the first day or two looking through Frank’s treasure trove and evaluating which tools would be utilized in making my new bike.

The bottom bracket is the part of the frame where the cranks attach. In Italian it’s called the movimento centrale, or central movement. That phrase fully describes the unique importance of this simple tubular part in designing, crafting and then riding a bicycle. It is the point where all the power a cyclist will ever unleash is transformed into forward movement and the cornerstone from which the complete bicycle evolves. And so, like thousands of times in years before, I set up to make that first simple, yet utterly important miter cut into the seat tube so that it would cradle the bottom bracket perfectly.

With each new project, the first cut is the sweetest. After checking and re-checking the set up, cutter selection and machine speed I was finally ready. Then, remembering to check the rotational direction, I turned the switch that started up the milling machine and slowly began turning the dial, bringing the cutter towards the tube anticipating the first sound of this first cut of my next steel bike.

For more about my new bike, see the my bike page at benserotta.com

Homecoming. Part 1

I’ve always been lured by the attraction of opposites, energized by questioning convention and the adventure of conquering challenges that come with taking a different if not unexpected path forward. So when in late 2014, I was presented with an opportunity to do some Brooklyn-based consulting work in public bike share, I was more than a little intrigued.

viciFor 40 years, I built and nurtured Serotta Cycles as an R&D and manufacturing business that was highly dedicated to engineering and crafting one stunningly perfect racing bicycle at a time specifically for each individual client/athlete. At Serotta, no options were off the table and no expenses spared.

On the other hand, public bike shares are service companies that provide convenient, low cost, utilitarian transportation to the masses with sturdy one-size-fits-all equipment. On top of these pluses, cities that support bicycling-friendly infrastructure will find it possible to dramatically reduce road congestion, maintenance costs and pollution while the population steadily becomes healthier!

citibikeThe opportunity to participate in this sphere engaged my social sensibilities in a way that I hadn’t felt since the early days of the environmental movement. Within a few days I’d developed a path to wind down my other business interests and dove into the deep end of something completely new.

At my core, I identify as someone who makes things, and I’m happiest when designing or problem solving with my whole being – heart, mind and hands. For a time, the sensory overload of my Brooklyn locale and the demands of a new project provided sufficient cover for the fact that something key was missing from my daily life. That realization finally hit me the day I first met Frank the Welder.

It was January 2016 and I needed to find someone who could make an aluminum prototype of an electric assist model—quickly, accurately and cost effectively. A friend suggested that I contact Frank Wadelton. A kind of a welding jongleur to the bike industry, Frank worked behind the scenes “just making stuff” for a variety of respected brands. Applying his skills, ingenuity and experience, he quietly helped shape the evolution of the modern mountain and bmx bicycle, and earned himself ‘living legend’ status among his peers.

img_1306-copyAs I first stepped inside the Vermont home of FTW it was immediately obvious that Frank’s special reason for being is to make things. With both space and time limited, Frank has eschewed formal entryways and display shrines for pure purpose. The work areas are packed with well-loved machines and every nook and cranny holds specialty fixtures or tools for making new ones. Combined, the assemblage is Frank’s proprietary toolbox for the making of a limitless range of bikes, motorized (gas and electric) vehicles and pretty much anything else that can take shape with some machining, a welding torch and creative genius, not necessarily in that order.

img_48861Over the next couple of hours I was also able to observe Frank’s small team at work—Matt and Garrett, FTW’s two shop assistants, with Oliver, who handles a wide range of non-production support duties and Garfield, the ever-present shop cat, rounding out the crew. And then, of course, there’s Frank, who moves from one interaction to the next with an aura of seriousness calm, directing a productive flow of effort that was both organic and pleasing to watch.

I felt very much at home standing there in the midst of their activity, the way one feels when visiting a much-visited, favorite relative’s home and then it hit me—just how much I missed making bicycles. I’d spent the better part of the last fifteen years running a business the way a conductor leads an orchestra. Wielding the baton can be gratifying in many ways, but not in the same way that producing music with your own hands or breath can fill your soul. I knew at that moment that I absolutely had to get my hands dirty again.

And with that I began to plan my next adventure.

Part II     First Cut (coming soon)

Il Bellissimo Regalo

I was about seven or eight the last time anyone gave me a bicycle. The seconds between my first glimpse of that shiny, red and chrome path-to-independence and the first turn of its pedals were simply agonizing.

While that moment is permanently etched in my memory, the truth is I don’t remember much detail about that bike. I began my career as a tinkerer early, modifying that red wonder and subsequent bikes many times over until the original was unrecognizable. Money earned from chores was channeled into a series of bikes or bike parts that I bought on my own until eventually I found my way to a torch, workbench and steel tubes.

Riding a new bike for the first time is always a thrill, but when it’s a bike that you build it’s a little more complicated. There’s always a mix of excitement and dread- a flirtation between my expectant pride should my hopes be exceeded balanced by a fear of failure, an anxiety that the new bike might not meet expectations. Yet for me that dynamic is a constant motivator. It’s why Serotta bicycle models were continually tweaked, tuned, caressed forward. I honestly couldn’t help myself.

Fast-forward to this past winter when I wrote about my past, contemplated my future and openly shared my sentiments with everyone. Somewhat self-indulgently, I blogged about the sadness that I felt riding my bike when I looked down and saw the logo that had for 40 years belonged to my family and stood for many good things, but had come to represent darkness. Among the many emails and notes I received there was one that was so different from the rest that I first considered it a fake offer- perhaps one of the small minded internet personalities was seeking a new way of trying to get me to engage in idiotic banter.

Curiosity finally got the better of me and I replied. “You want to give me a bicycle?”

And in the next exchange, “you of all people should continue to enjoy riding a bike and it would be our honor to build one for you if you will ride it…” Dumbfounded I delicately searched for what the catch was and eventually became convinced that they truly meant “no strings attached.”  And that was my introduction to Formigli, the bicycle builder from Firenze (Florence, Italy) and Kensington, his American business partner, spokesperson, translator and #1 brand ambassador.

Touched, amused and curious I gracefully, if not somewhat humbly, accepted. In subsequent communication I provided detailed sizing information and component preferences. I insisted color was something that I wanted to come from Renzo, suggesting only that I was in the mood for something with flare.

As the weeks passed I was provided progress reports, which although I hadn’t asked for, were appreciated and if I had been worried, would have provided assurance that my order was never forgotten. Actually, it’s more than that. The correspondence made me feel like my new bike was the one bike that the company was focused on. Without thinking about it, a relationship between my new bicycle and I was being cemented.

~ ~ ~ ~

Two, short-enough-to-be-friendly horn blasts announced the arrival of the UPS truck that stopped in front of our house. The driver, who was familiar enough to ask, “you’re expecting a bicycle from Italy…?” moved to the back of his truck…and I realized that I was experiencing that childlike expectant giddiness- fixed smile, sweaty palms, tunnel vision focused on THE BOX.

Only vaguely aware that the UPS/Santa drove off, I realized that I had no idea if I’d even uttered any courtesies. Like a sugar-deprived child who has just stepped into a candy shop I was transfixed on the box. While my brain was calculating whether or not to take the time to fetch a folding knife, I was already ripping and tearing at the cardboard and then at the foam wrap that was protecting something brilliantly citron beneath it. Pulling the translucent padding back revealed an unexpected personal touch in the form of my own name… and with that I paused. It was as if someone wacked me on the side of the head reminding me, “hey!, someone has put great thought and care and time into making something special here, how about a little respect!” I resolved to set the bike aside, get my day’s chores out of the way, organize my tools and do this job the right way. IMG_0370

There’s something calming, maybe even Zen-like about staging tools for a task. It’s also a sign of respect for the job ahead. In truth, it took only a few minutes to prepare the bike for its maiden voyage- someone at the Florence workshop is a real mechanic. I had assured the generous Formigli folks that I didn’t need wheels so I did need to adjust the brake pads to match the wider HED Ardennes ( I use these as benchmarking wheels because they perform great in any condition and don’t impart their own ‘feel’ to the bike). Then a quick set of the saddle and bars and it was ready. The Formigli was the first non-Serotta bike that I had worked on in a very long while so I took some extra time just looking it over closely. This was a bike that someone poured thought and energy and care into making.

How was it going to ride?

As a bicycle designer & builder there’s always a competitive spirit when riding a product that is the result of someone else’s efforts. It’s a crazy combination of excitement and fear. On the one hand, finding that what you’ve done still feels better than whatever it is you are testing is gratifying. On the other, as a cyclist, you’re always hoping that you will experience a break-though product. Or at the least, a performance that pushes the designer in you to keep raising the bar while still wishing no one else’s product is actually better than yours. About a year ago I went on a binge of trying popular bikes that sported all the details the cycling know-it-alls were suggesting any great road bike ought to have… and those bikes were OK. They looked great, but by the third ride the bloom was off. Some bicycles are just bicycles.

Others speak to you, imploring you to ride.

The Formigli sings.

It’s sound is a combination of hard driving rock and roll and classic tear-stained arias, the quintessential Italian machine, delivers bold, forward reaching design and meticulous performance. Clearly, Renzo suffers the burden of detail.

I’ve had the Formigli out more than twenty times by now and we’re still getting acquainted. Unlike most of the better-known carbon marvel bikes, this one has many dimensions, a bicycle you can build a relationship with. I’ve thought about this phenomenon during my rides. You might give the same sheet of music to two musicians. One plays it perfectly, but when the other plays you get goose bumps. How? It’s impossible to define. With the bike, it’s part technology, but I’m pretty sure it’s also part magic that infiltrates the bicycle. It’s OK to call it fairy dust, because it comes from a very small number of bicycle builders who not only have had years of experience building, but more importantly have been consumed, heart, mind and body, for countless hours trying to put their entire being into delivering something special. I’ve not yet met Renzo Formigli, but I know him. This bike is his raison d’etre (or whatever the Italian equivalent is) as building Serotta was mine.

As it turns out, my Formigli is three gifts in one.

The first is a bicycle that is pure joy to ride and for that reason alone, I’d keep it. The second and greater gift is a reminder that honest, thoughtful, unencumbered generosity still exists. But the third and greatest gift was least expected- the gift of inspiration. This bicycle has refreshed my spirit and reawakened the designer-entrepreneur-builder in me that had been tainted from the last couple years of, you know,…crap.

At the risk of seeming overly dramatic, I am refocused, reborn and there’s absolutely no turning back. Now that I’ve come to know this bike, I’m pretty sure Renzo intended it to be this way.

Grazie mille Renzo, grazie mille!

Hoping to see you on the road somewhere,

Ben

IMG_0373For more information about Formigli Bicycles go to: www.Formigli.com

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