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,


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

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.  

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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. 

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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,