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

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,


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

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.


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,


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,