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Wednesday
Oct112006

The feel of steel makes it real

When I ran my framebuilding business in California during the 1980s; occasionally a member of the general public would stumble into my frameshop. They would invariably ask two questions and at the same time try to answer themselves.

The conversation would go something like this. “Oh, you make bicycles. Who do you make them for? Schwinn?” The second double edge question was, “What are they made of? Aluminum?”

In the eyes of Joe Public at that time, there was only one bicycle company in the whole world, so anyone building bicycles had to be subcontracting for Schwinn. And racing bicycles had to be lightweight so therefore they must be made of aluminum.

I would have to go though the motions of explaining that the frames were made of lightweight steel. My customers at the time were knowledgeable people who knew that a high tensile steel was the best material for a quality frame for a road bicycle.

The serious road bicycle never caught on with Joe Public. Those dropped handlebars were uncomfortable, and the tight shorts and little white socks? Now that wasn’t what you call manly. Then came the Mountain Bike revolution. The Mountain Bike was the SUV of the bicycle world. Big, chunky, and very manly.

The truth is to enjoy a road bicycle to its fullest extent requires a certain amount of dedication. It is like the difference between jogging, giving the appearance running but taking tiny steps and moving at the speed of a brisk walk, and serious running, taking long and high strides, moving at a fast pace. If you hop on a road bike only once a month it will always feel uncomfortable.

Unfortunately it is the masses, Joe Public, that keep manufacturers and retailers in business. Manufacturers of MTBs found that aluminum was cheap and easy to weld together. Forget the ride quality; the people buying these bikes were only going to ride them once in a while anyway. Aluminum was an easy sale; in the eyes of Joe Public buying a bike for the first time, aluminum was lightweight so it must be good.

Then there is titanium. The cold war came to an end in the late 1980s and with it came an end to making armaments and a subsequent world glut it titanium. Russia dumped tons of the stuff on the market; I remember people calling me nearly every day trying to sell me cheap titanium tubing. Today titanium is something like $30,000 a ton, making for some very expensive bicycles.

How about Carbon Fiber? Wow, that’s the stuff they build Stealth Fighter Airplanes out of; you can’t get any more high tech than that. And it’s super lightweight. But again the manufactures of the carbon fiber materials look after their biggest customers first; in other words the aircraft industry. Bicycle manufactures are small fry in their eyes and so get charged a premium for the material; making the finished product very expensive.  

“Steel is real,” is a catchy slogan being banded about by people in the know. Why? It is all about ride quality; a steel frame is like a very strong steel spring. It absorbs a certain amount of road shock and when the rider makes a sudden effort it has just the right amount of give, but at the same time quickly transfers the rider’s energy directly to the back wheel. It is called responsiveness.

Many people who ride road bikes do not race but simply ride for exercise and the pure pleasure of riding. Let’s face it you can burn just as many calories on any old bike, but if you make the experience pleasurable it is no longer a chore that exercise can become. If you ride a bike for pleasure, then why not ride a bike that is a pleasure to ride?

Even so steel is a hard sell. To those looking at the latest carbon fiber; steel seems like ‘old tech’ and therefore inferior. There is a whole generation of road riders who have previously ridden mountain bikes made of aluminum and carbon fiber, and have never experienced the feeling of a quality steel frame.

Steel has other advantages like longevity and reliability. Case in point; the frames I built in the 1970s and 1980s are still being ridden and enjoyed. A steel fame will not fail suddenly and dramatically; it will not disintegrate in a cloud of dust as some CF frames have been known to do.

You can crash on a steel frame and you can straighten it out or repair it and safely ride it again. Crash on a CF frame and you have no idea what damage you have done to fibers inside the frame that you cannot see.

Will steel make a come back? I believe so, but slowly. And it may not be steel’s ride qualities that bring it back, but rather law suits and warranty problems brought on by failures of other materials. If and when that happens manufactures will not state that as a reason, but will sell the ride quality of steel.

I am just an old fart who used to make bicycle frames so why should I care? No reason really; except for the satisfaction of being able to say, “I told you so.”



Tuesday
Oct032006

Brazing vs. Welding


I occasionally visit bike forums to see what kind of questions bike riders are asking and occasionally I will post a reply if I think I have an answer. I try to stay away from anything controversial as people can become pretty hostile on the Internet; especially when they are posting under a pseudonym.

Just like the idiot who screams abuse at the cyclist as they drive by at speed; they do it because they can do so with anonymity. So does the occasional poster on a forum; he screams abuse on the Information Highway.

Recently someone asked, “Why are frames brazed instead of welded?” He had taken a welding course at his local community college and the teacher had told him that welding was much stronger than brazing. This was my response:

“Traditionally frames have always been brazed not because a weld would fail but because the tube would fail right next to the weld due to the tube being very thin. Many bicycle tubes are heat treated to strengthen them. The trick in brazing properly is to apply enough heat to make the lugged joint but not to get the tubes too hot over a large area; thereby retaining as much of the tube's inbuilt strength as possible.

A properly brazed lugged joint is tremendously strong and a lug spreads the stresses over a larger area, not pinpointed in one place as with a weld. This is also the reason lugs are cut into curved or other fancy shapes, and not just cut square like a pipe fitting. A square edge would create a stress point and the tube would likely fail at that point.

To sum up; yes a welded joint may be stronger, but in any structure there is no point in making a joint far stronger than the material you are joining. And if the structure is stressed enough the material will fail before the joint.”

Notice I started my post with the word “Traditionally.” And actually the question was wrong because frames are welded these days. And I should have known better than to post something like this, because every propeller head engineer who knows welding theory up the wazoo would jump on it like a kid on a merry-go-round. The next thing I know the subject is being debated.

The truth is that frames were brazed for about a hundred years from the bicycle’s invention up until the late 1980s, early 1990s. About the time I got out of the business. Not just lightweight bikes but all bikes. Actually during the 1980s welding technology had reached a point were I could have welded frames that I built. But I did not because at that time it would not have been accepted by my customers; anymore than a sloping top tube would have been acceptable.

Mountain Bikes changed all that. You had a whole generation that had grown up with welded BMX bikes. BMX bikes had small frames with sloping top tubes so little Johnny would not ruin his chances of reproduction in later life. So the MTB frame began to look more and more like an adult size BMX bike with gears.

Early mountain bikes were built with lugs and had level top tubes. So the BMX bike had more influence on today’s bicycle design than the first mountain bikes. Other influences on the acceptance of welding were frames built in other materials that cannot be brazed like aluminum and titanium.

Once a new style has been accepted you cannot go back. I could not go back to running a viable business building lugged frames even if I had the desire, which I don’t. And the truth is whether a frame is brazed with lugs or welded; either is far stronger than it need be.

Friday
Sep292006

I was never in a movie, but at one time, my arm was in a cast.

My good friend Steve from California recently suggested that reminiscing about when we were in the best shape of our lives was for when we are done riding. When the time comes for me, I already know when that was, 1970 and 1971. It started literarily by accident.

I was living in England, it was early in the 1970 season. I was out training alone after dark and was rounding a bend on a relatively quiet country road when a motorcycle traveling in the opposite direction, taking the same bend on the wrong side of the road, met me head on.

The motor cycle, ridden by a sixteen year old with no driver’s license or insurance, with a youth of similar age riding on the back. These kids were on a big ol’ British Norton and were racing some others who were following also on motorcycles. Because they did not see, a light from an approaching car figured it was safe to take this particular corner on the inside.

All I remember of the impact was a huge headlight coming straight for me; the next moment I was lying on my back in the road. What actually happened was that the motorcycle passed slightly to my right; the handlebars of the motorcycle passed over my bike but hit my right forearm. Remember this was England so I was riding on the left side of the road.

The impact threw me up in the air, doing a complete summersault, I landed on my back in the road. Rather like a wrestler, doing a move called “The Irish Whip.” It happed so fast I do not remember that part, but know that is what happened because the back of my head was slightly grazed, (We didn’t wear helmets back then.) and the back was ripped out of my sweatshirt.

The motorcycle also went down and the two youths picked up some road rash as they slid across the road and ended up against a wooden barn on the opposite side. Apart from this they were uninjured. I was not so lucky; my right forearm was shattered, broken in three places. My bike on the other hand was completely untouched, not even a scratch in the paint.

I experienced the worst pain in my life that night lying in a hospital with my arm a temporary sling hung by my bed. The next morning they operated, and had to put a stainless steel plate in my arm to hold it all together. The plate is still there today, and I wouldn’t know it except for a six inch operation scar to remind me.

They put my arm in a cast from my hand to my armpit, with my elbow held at 90 degrees. This cast was on for five months; I could drive a car and do a few other things but couldn’t work. I decided to keep riding my bike and rigged it up with a single fixed gear and a brake lever in the center of the handlebars so I could ride with one hand.

I rode every day as much as 60 to 80 miles. Weekends I would ride with the other guys in my cycling club. They cut me no slack and would drop me on the first hill we came to. I was riding with my left hand only so had to sit down on the hills, and could not get out of the saddle to climb. I would chase the group for miles; sometimes catching up, other times I never saw them again.

Weekdays I would sometimes ride with an older retired guy. He was probably about the age I am now and he kicked my butt; he told me months later that I had the same affect on him. He kept telling himself that he couldn’t let a cripple with one arm beat him, and at the same time I was thinking ‘I can’t let this old man beat me.’

When the cast came off after five months, the doctors were amazed; my right arm had muscle in it. My left arm got a hell of a work out and I have heard that if you work one arm or leg it will affect the other. So riding my bike was probably the best thing I could have done for my recovery.

The end of that year and the one that followed was my best season ever. The five months that my arm was in a cast I had been doing over 400 miles a week, and doing it all on a single 69 inch fixed gear. I could spin and was as strong as a horse on the hills; there is no doubt in my mind when I was in the best shape of my life.

Tuesday
Sep192006

Not one of mine


A Fuso bike listed on eBay item number 320029382855 with my name to it was not built by me. It was built by my apprentice Russ Denny after I retired in 1993.

That is not to say it is not an excellent frame; when Russ took over my business he had worked for me eight years and could do anything that I could. However the bike should be listed as a Russ Denny built Fuso not Dave Moulton.

I have contacted the seller twice but have received no response.


Update: Friday 22nd.
After four requests from me and a contact with eBay; the seller added a note saying the frame was built by Russ Denny and not me.

Friday
Sep152006

Which of these three books will be worth serious money in the future?


One is a first edition copy of my novel Prodigal Child; the other two are little notebooks where I hand wrote and recorded serial numbers of bicycle frames that I built.

The book on the left was the one I used to record frames built in Worcester, England from 1974 to early 1979 when I came to the United States. It contains very little information; just the customer’s name and a number. All I was doing was recording numbers to keep them in sequence and to prevent duplications.

The last thing I expected was that I would be corresponding with owners of these same frames some thirty years later. Who can contemplate thirty years into the future? Some of the pages in the book have water stains and the ink has run a reminder that the old WWII vintage corrugated steel building where I ran my business leaked every time it rained.

The second book (On the right.) has a little more detail in that it records a serial number, the frame size, and the bike dealer it was sold through. Sometimes there is mention of paint color and chrome plating, and occasionally a customer’s name.

This book records custom frames built in California from 1982 to 1986. I built a few frames in 1981 while still working for Masi but these were not recorded. Also not recorded were frames built after 1986 and up to 1993 when I retired.

In 1986 I moved my business from San Marcos, to Temecula, CA and I have a feeling my record book got misplaced. I found it about two years ago and it is a miracle that either book survived over the years and the many moves I have made. I built only three custom frames in 1986 and so few after that date that I felt it was no big deal if I didn’t record the numbers. Again at the time I was trying to scratch a living, not build future collector items.

On Wednesday this week a 30 year old frame that I built in 1976 came up on eBay.


It had been repainted, not very well I might add and there was no name on it. The only way to prove it was the genuine article was because the person selling had bought it from the original owner whose name was recorded in my little book along with the serial number.

The item was viewed over 1,100 times and sold for $357; had it been an unknown frame it would have been considered an “Old Beater” and might have gone for $25 to $50. But because I was in the business for some 36 years, built a few good frames along the way, some people perceive that the frames are worth collecting and restoring.

Actually these old English built frames from the 1970s were not as aesthetically pleasing as the ones built ten years later in California, but what they lack in aesthetics they make up for in rarity. There were less than ten of these shipped to the US and Canada through the 1970s. I hope the new owner will refinish the frame in the style of that period and not add braze-ons to it.

Supply and demand is what makes anything collectable increase in value. The supply of my frames will never increase because I don’t make them any more; in fact it will decrease as more people buy them and hold on to them. It is already rare to see a custom built ‘dave moulton’ come up on eBay. There are plenty of Fuso production frames out there as I built almost 3,000 and incidentally the ride quality of a Fuso is exactly the same as any other frame I built.

As for the demand more and more people discover my frames every day; more people know of my work now because of the Internet than when was actually building frames. It took me years to become accepted as a legitimate framebuilder; in my current occupation as a writer and songwriter it will probably take me just as long. But think what an accepted literary work or a hit song would do for the price of my bicycle frames?

Which brings me back to the value of these three books; they are all connected. I have no intention of selling my two little frame number record books but in time they will be the only way to prove the genuine article. As the value of my frames increases it will become important to authenticate each one.

As for my novel; everyone who owns one of my bikes should buy a signed first edition while they are still available. It’s a not too expensive and interesting conversation piece to go with the bike. Is it worth reading? Of course; does anyone think I would reach the top of my profession in one field to embarrass myself and others by writing something mediocre?

Footnote:
For the Lowcountry readers of my blog; I will be signing books at the Sam Rittenberg Barnes & Nobels this Saturday, September 16th, and at the Mount Pleasant Barnes & Nobles the following Saturday the 23rd. I would love to see you there.