Monday, December 9, 2013

Pledge to Boycott Specialized Bicycles Until They Stop Asserting Ownership Over the Word "Roubaix"

"Roubaix" is a town in France, not a trademark owned by Specialized Bicycle Components (SBC) or any other entity.  SBC's scare tactics and other heavy-handed attempts to exert ownership over this word are appalling.  For these reasons, the undersigned people pledge to boycott all SBC products until the company abandons its attempts to coerce other businesses into giving up the use of this or any other word that is clearly in the public domain.

Sign the petition here: 

Roubaix City Hall, Photo by Nicolas von Kospoth

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Forbes Magazine Recognizes Bicycle Delivery Entrepreneurs

A South African business that specializes in delivering medications by bicycle was just named to Forbes Magazine's "30 under-30 Africa’s Best Boung Entrepreneurs List."

Medicine Delivery Bike

Sizwe Nzima is a 21-year-old South African who considered the overcrowding in local health care facilities and the abundance of able-bodied people looking for work.  Putting these two concepts together, he hired people to deliver medications to those in need, thereby eliminating the need for them to brave the chaotic health care facilities.  He charges a modest fee of ten Rand, equal in value to one US dollar, for the service.  His client list has grown from two people (his grandparents), to more than 250 people.

Bravo Mr. Nzima!

For the full story, please see:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

It's a Zinn Thing

I have always thought of Anybody’s Bike Book as the best bicycle repair book out there, or at least I always did until I read Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance. I love the 4th edition of Lennard Zinn’s road bike manual for the same reasons I have always loved Anybody’s Bike Book; it is simple, easy to follow and the illustrations are magnificent. Add to that the comprehensive coverage of every aspect of road bike repair, and you have my new favorite bicycle maintenance bible.

Everyone in my household thought Zinn’s book was fabulous, from my thirteen-year-old stepson who is just starting to dabble in bicycle repair, to yours truly, who started working as a professional bicycle mechanic in 1982. From chapters on “Basic Stuff” and “Emergency Repairs” to 33 highly detailed, exquisitely illustrated pages on wheel building, and everything in between, this book has you covered. Whether you are looking to fix up your 1978 Specialized Expedition or are trying to keep your carbon wunderbike with electronic shifting and disc brakes running perfectly, you can find complete instructions in Zinn’s book.

Yes, I have mentioned the illustrations more than once already, but their impact cannot be overstated. This book may be Zinn’s brainchild, and he is clearly the architect that put all these ideas and images together, but the work of illustrators Todd Telander and Mike Reisel take the book from being very good to being entirely superior. As an engineer and a visually-oriented person in general, I have come to appreciate the benefits of good pictures and diagrams. This book is FILLED with such; almost every page contains at least one illustration. I also appreciate the huge amount of effort that went into creating these finely-detailed ink drawings. In our age of computer aided design and Photoshop, I thought such work was a thing of the past. This book reminded me how wonderful such drawings are, and it made me glad that there are artists out there who are keeping this form alive.

If you are looking for a bicycle repair manual, get this book. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro, this book has information that will help you. Think of it as an exhaustive encyclopedia for all things related to road bike maintenance.

Of course, I asked Zinn for an interview to get more insight into the creation of this manual. He was kind enough to agree to my request. Enjoy!

Lennard Zinn

Q: Please tell us a bit about the development of your maintenance manuals. You are on your 4th Edition of your road bike manual and the 5th edition of your mountain bike manual. How have they evolved over the years?

A: In every edition, I have always tried to clearly and concisely explain everything I think someone would need to or want to do in the way of maintenance on a road, mountain or cyclocross bike. The books have evolved as bike technology has evolved. Things were much simpler in 1995, when I wrote my first book, Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance. Since then, suspension, disc brakes, electric shifting, tubeless tires, all sorts of unthreaded bottom bracket and headset standards have appeared, and I have included all of them as they appear in the market. I only remove things when they really cease to be used out in the field anymore, like Mavic Zap and Mektronic, and Softride suspension seat beams and stems. As long as there are lots of old bikes out there being used with equipment from previous editions, I'll keep it in the subsequent edition.

Q: Your illustrations are fantastic! How did you partner up with your illustrators? 

A: Todd Telander lived in Boulder through the first few books, and then I communicated with him remotely, as he lives in Spokane. He is a great illustrator of wildlife, primarily, and he stepped up to do these things outside of his normal repertoire. Mike Reisel is so talented; I've been amazed at his creativity for years. He is the art director at Velo, and we've worked together on the magazine for a long time. When Todd was unavailable for this edition, Mike stepped in and did a fantastic job. Both of them ride, and both understand and appreciate bikes as well as art. Most importantly, both are committed to getting the illustrations the way I want them to illustrate the critical things and leave out the distracting things. I'm very appreciative to have been able to work with both of them.

Q: How does the process of developing illustrations work between you and them?

A: With Todd, I sent him the parts and the instructions from the book related to them.  With Mike, we sometimes did it that way, and sometimes I performed the tasks to be illustrated while he photographed them.

Q: For riders with both mountain and road bikes, would it be possible for them to survive on one of your manuals or the other? What "gaps" would exist if they only bought one of the two books?

A: Now with disc brakes on road bikes. there is a lot of overlap. If they were to get only the mountain book, they wouldn't get information on drop-bar levers (or aero-bar shifters) or road brake calipers. They would get about everything else. If they were to get only the road book, they wouldn't get information on hydraulic flat-bar levers, flat-bar shifters, multiple-piston hydraulic disc calipers, or front or rear suspension systems. They would get about everything else.

Q: Some of my readers are proud retrogrouches. If they wanted to do maintenance on a 1972 Cinelli with a Campagnolo Super Record gruppo, would your book cover everything they needed to know?

A: Yes. That's why it's so thick. Because it covers all of the old technology as well as the new.

Q: Electric bicycles are growing in popularity. They will certainly need a new breed of maintenance manuals to deal with the new systems. Have you thought about expanding your manuals to cover them?

A: No, I have not. There are too many variations, each with lots of complexity. The book would become 1000 pages!

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: I love communicating in such a way that people find themselves able to do something they had originally thought was beyond them. It warms my heart when people tell me what a difference one of my books has made for them. Many people have told me they became professional mechanics after using my book, and I love hearing that I inspired someone's career!

Q: Have you read any good books lately, on subjects other than bicycles and bicycle maintenance?

A: The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

If any readers are interested in hearing more from Lennard Zinn, please read my previous interview with him, focused on the bicycles and components he makes for tall cyclists.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Wooden Wonders

I love good woodworking.  I love bicycles.  Can good woodworking go hand-in-hand with cycling?  I discovered two gentlemen who are trying to answer that question in the affirmative.  Their company, Surname Cycling Goods, is making beautiful wooden bicycle components.  They were kind enough to grant me an interview.

All photos are courtesy of Surname Cycling Goods.
Steven Bukowski and Timothy Skehan (Tim is wearing the hat)
 Q:  Who is Surname Cycling Goods?

A:  Surname Cycling Goods is Steven Bukowski and Timothy Skehan.
Tim grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and Steve in Buffalo, New York. We met in Cleveland while both attending the Cleveland Institute of Art, graduating in 2010. Tim studied photography and Steve studied industrial design. After graduating, we both hit the road for New York, searching for new opportunities to pursue our individual interests. It wasn't until one warm, summer night, drinking beer on Tim's stoop, that we had the idea to start making wooden bicycle parts in his dingy basement, which flooded regularly. Brilliant. We've come a long way since then, moving into a real workshop with real tools and, most importantly, sunlight, and really trying to nail what our brand is and flesh out our product line.

Surname Fastback Fender

Q:  What gave you the idea to start a business building bicycle components out of wood?

A:  We would say that it came from a ­­merging of interests. Both of us have backgrounds in art and design, and we also both grew up in the rust belt (Cleveland and Buffalo), places where the need for reuse and creative repurposing of materials is much more visible. Combine this with a mutual love for bicycles and we have a spark. We think it was really the merging of all these interests more than a singular idea that produced Surname Cycling Goods.

Q:  Do you have plans to expand your offerings?  If so, what other parts or components are you considering?

A:  We're working on things all the time. It’s one of the best parts of being small and handmade, that you get to play around with different designs and materials all the time. Our selection of woods will definitely be seeing additions and some of our designs will have special limited runs. We're working on a few different basket designs, and maybe partnering with a secret someone on a outfitting a complete bike project this spring with our accessories. Some people have made requests for our fenders to fit Dutch-style bikes so we're working on those too.

Q: Tell us about the sustainability of your products.  What types of wood are you using?  Are you using them in a sustainable manner?

A:  All of the wood Surname uses is sourced from NYC and some parts upstate. We have been working with Build it Green NYC as a supplier so it's all currently material reclaimed from deconstruction. Some of it comes from old water towers, old warehouse floors and joists, some even from the Coney Island boardwalk when parts need to be replaced. We've usually got Douglas Fir and Spruce on hand because it was so widely used 100 years ago, but sometimes we come across something special, like the Ipé used for the Coney Island boardwalk.

Surname Sixer Basket

Also just recently we’ve started working with Roger Benton who runs a local sawmill called Re-Co Brooklyn ( They’re picking up felled trees that the city would normally throw straight into the chipper, and milling it into furniture grade lumber. Right in Brooklyn, how awesome! This gives us a lot more options and varieties of reclaimed wood, also saves us the headache of having to dig out nails from our stock.

Our design process also is a vehicle for sustainable practices in that we try to use as many of our offcuts as possible for other products, like our baskets. Also for any services we need, we stick to local people and businesses, which is one of the major advantages of being in New York, not having to outsource.

Q:  Is the wooden bicycle frame a pipe dream for us crazy wood lovers?  Or is it something that is within reach?

A:  The wood bicycle is something that gets tried out every once and again by designers, engineers, and frame builders alike. There are some pretty slick examples out there (check out Andy Martin’s Thonet track cycle:  It’s unique of course but it’s not something we’re interested in doing personally. I think we’re both more about the simplicity of a steel bike and an attention to detail. What we are interested in making are the details, and I think there is enough to explore in that realm to keep us busy for a while.

Q:  I love the look of your wooden handlebars, but they scare the bujeezis out of me.  Are they really strong enough so that someone of my 250lb bulk would not break them?  What assurances do you have that they will not break?  What kind of testing have you done?

Surname Straight Handlebar - Ipé goodness straight from Coney Island (before Hurricane Sandy)

A:  These really scared us at first too, even as the makers of them. We only sell them as the Ipé version currently because it's so dense and extremely strong without being brittle. Also we'd like to point out that the bars are made of laminated plies, which is much, much stronger in contrast to solid wood. We're doing some research into possible reinforcements to allow us to make them out of other woods as well. We've both ridden them a decent amount, and we of course wouldn't want to put something out there that might get people hurt, but the next plan is to give a few pairs to our courier friends and let them really put them through the ringer.

Q:  If you were put in charge of America's transportation infrastructure, what would it look like?

A:  That’s a loaded question over here. The Netherlands perhaps; it’s kind of a cliché answer, I know, but they really have a good model in practice over there. In that form though it probably wouldn’t even work in New York; people are too hectic, need too much of their own space.  You can’t impose a willingness to share.  Bike and pedestrian dedicated zones are a must, and some people need to drive of course, but right now cars are given way too much priority. 

Q:  What other bicycle and/or component companies do you like?  Why?

A:  A few of the big companies we look up to are Paul, Phil, Brooks, and there are a ton of local custom frame builders such as Horse, Ceremony, Fast Boy, and there’s really a ton out there if we get into people outside of NYC; Swift Industries, Geekhouse, StanRidge Speed; the list just goes on. Just looking at the spectrum we have these days of small producers is impressive to say the least.  You can find an amazing bespoke bicycle builder working in every style of frame imaginable. What we really like about them is that they make beautiful and rad shit - they're really doing what they love - and they're all small(ish) and follow respectable practices. They all stand by what they make, and they make their goods well.

Q:  Describe a viable complete bicycle made from sustainable materials and manufactured in a sustainable manner, please.

A:  This is obviously a topic that runs pretty deep, but to keep it relatively simple it all starts with sourcing. We try to work within our local sphere as much as possible, and when we need to go outside of it we try to weigh our options carefully. This is why we're so excited to be working with Horse Cycles on their Urban Tour Project, it's a whole bike that is relying on the local economy as much as possible. This idea of local is of course only a jumping off point; the issue of sustainability goes all the way up the supply chain, and in our opinion deals with myriad issues, not only environmental impact, but also ethical and economic issues. Though there are some manufacturers out there cleaning up their practices it's our job as makers to demand a higher standard from those companies we source from.

Surname Bottle Whip, because you never know when a bottle of beer will appear!

Q:  What do you like for breakfast?

A:  I'm not sure what Tim usually eats, though it's safe to say that there is coffee involved. As for myself, a big cup of black coffee and either yogurt and fruit or toast and almond butter usually suffices.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coupler Thoughts

For the last two decades, S&S Couplings have gained popularity as a way to allow travelers to pack their bicycles into the smallest space possible.  Steve Smilanick invented these couplers for himself, but many others soon found out about them.  As more and more riders asked framebuilders to install S&S Couplings on their frames, more and more framebuilders started to take notice and offer framesets with the couplers already installed.  Now, the popularity of S&S Couplings can legitimately be called a phenomenon.  I wanted to find out more about them, so I contacted Smilanick.  He was kind enough to answer my questions.  Enjoy!

Steve and Shirley Smilanick, ready to ride

 Q:  Who originally designed the S&S Couplings?  How did he/she come up with the idea?

A:  I designed, built and installed the first set of couplings myself. I came up with the idea in the summer of 1992.  I was about to go on a Mediterranean cruise and was disappointed that I wouldn't have a chance to ride my bike for two weeks. I called my travel agent and had him check with the cruise line regarding bringing a bicycle aboard. He learned that there wouldn't be a problem with the bike but they do limit the size of the luggage that they will accept. The largest case they would allow is 62" combined length + width + thickness which is the same maximum standard used by airlines. I began looking at the folding travel bikes that were on the market and found either small wheel bikes or full size bikes that were heavy and not very suitable for high mileage riding. What I really wanted to do was to take my own Bianchi road bike with me.

S&S Couplings

I took some quick measurements and determined that I could fit my wheels in a case as small as 26"x26" and that would leave me with a case that was 10" deep to be within the legal 62" combined L+W+T measurement. To fit the frame in the 26x26" case, I would need a connector to be able to separate the frame into two smaller pieces. Since I own an industrial machine shop, I decided to make my own coupling to do the job. I proceeded to design and build the first BTCs which I installed on my Bianchi road bike by cutting the bike in half and silver brazing the coupling in place. I test rode it for about one week or about 200 miles over rough roads and it worked perfectly. I packed the bike in a 26x26x10" duffel bag surrounded with clothes and then I was off to the airport bound for Spain.

 When  I boarded our Princess Cruises ship, the "Star Princess," in Barcelona, Spain, my bike was in the cabin with the rest of my luggage. I assembled it and went for a ride that very afternoon. I rode 50 to 90 miles per day over the two week period which also included rides in Italy and Greece.

 Q:  What is the most interesting bicycle coupling project you have heard about?
Rodriguez 8-Ball, singular.  Photo Courtesy of Rodriguez Bicycles

A:  My favorite is The Rodriquez "Eight-Ball" tandem/single convertible bicycle. It was built for Willie Weir and his wife Kate. Willie tours all over the world, often by himself, however with this bike, when his wife joins him for a portion of the tour, she brings along a seat, pedals, handlebars, chain and a small frame section allowing Willie to convert his single bike into a tandem. Willie said, “The first time I tried, I was able to convert it from a single bike to a tandem in less than twenty minutes!”

Rodriguez 8-Ball, as a tandem.  Photo Courtesy of Rodriguez Bicycles

Q:  Do you have ideas for new bicycle products?  If so, please give my readers some hints.

A:  We don’t have any new products on the horizon.

Q:  Do your couplings only work on steel bikes?

A:  We inventory couplings that work in steel, stainless steel, and titanium. We also do custom runs of couplings for carbon fiber and aluminum.

Q:  Does your machine shop do any other bicycle-related work?
A:  Not right now.

Q:  What is the smallest package you have ever seen a full-sized bicycle frame packed into?  I am imagining a frame with multiple couplers on the main frame tubes, although I don't know if such a creature exists.

A:  26” x 26” x 10”

Co-Motion Americano Co-Pilot Touring Bike

Q:  Do you have specific recommendations for framebuilders who install S&S Couplings or build new frames with couplers installed?

A:  Other than the normal techniques used by framebuilders for joining frame elements like lugs and tubes by welding or brazing, we have very specific recommendations regarding coupling placement. If a coupling is placed too low in the down tube, it makes access to the nut difficult and too high interferes with the water bottle. In the top tube, if the coupling is located outside the "sweet spot", it can make packing the bike more difficult.

Bilenky Deluxe Travel Nor'easter, packed and ready to travel

Q:  Do you know which framebuilder has built or modified the most frames with S&S Couplings?

A:  For new builds, I think it would be Co-Motion Cycles in Eugene Oregon. They were one of the first builders to embrace S and S Couplings for both single and tandem bicycles and they build incredible bikes. They were also the ones that encouraged us to build couplings large enough for a tandem boom tube.  I have owned three of their tandems myself and they have all been great.

For modified frames, I think Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia, PA is the leader. They retrofit steel and titanium frames and in some situations, they even reshape oval tubes to round in order to install couplings.  They were also one of the first framebuilders to use couplings and they can retrofit just about any single or tandem bike. They also build new bikes.  Bilenky Cycle Works has more overall experience with S and S Couplings and packing methods than any other bicycle framebuilder I know of.
Bilenky Eco Travel Nor’Easter, ready to roll.  Photo courtesy of Bilenky Cycle Works, Ltd.
 Q:  What else would you like to say?

A:  Most people buy a coupled bike to avoid airline fees. Once they have traveled with a coupled bike, that benefit becomes secondary to how easy it is to travel with a bike in a small case instead a huge case required for an uncoupled bike. Our cases are easily transported by car, bus, train or taxi, so travel with a bike becomes hassle- free.

A composite frame from Calfee Design with S&S Couplings
 Q:  What do you like for breakfast?

A:  I eat one cup of old fashion raw oats seasoned with cinnamon that has soaked overnight in the refrigerator in ½ cup of apple juice and ½ cup of unsweetened almond milk. I eat them cold but my wife warms hers in the microwave.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Joe Murray's Special Voodoo (and Other Work)

Joe Murray is both a legendary ATB racer and a really nice guy.  I have met him a few times, at races and shows, and he is one of those guys who stands out as someone I would like to get to know better.  He is also highly accomplished as a bicycle and bicycle component designer.  The best ATB tires I have ridden were designed by Murray, and the bikes he designed for Kona were always among my favorites at the bike shop where I worked in the 90s.  Throughout the years, I knew that many people used the ATBs he designed as commuters, so I wanted to get his take on real-world bicycles and bicycling.  He was kind enough to let me interview him.  Enjoy.

Joe Murray, Back in the day...  Photo courtesy of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and Museum
Q: What are you up to these days?

A: Still riding 3-5 days a week. Working for Shimano, mostly. Some VooDoo Cycles. A bit of frame design yet not that much these days, unfortunately. The VooDoo brand is doing very well in the UK though. I also work Tioga for design and testing consultant for tires.

When we get snow, and I hope soon, I ski XC skate and alpine DH. Working on our old house also takes plenty of my time. I renovated an old "barn" and now it's my dream shop and office. It came out really nice. Married no kids. We like to travel and bike touring we like the most. My wife Kim is totally into roller derby these days. Less riding yet it's a great workout, she is getting really fit. I worry about her getting injured yet that's just part of girls hitting themselves while skating as hard as they can. 

Joe Murray now.  Photo courtesy of Colin Meagher

Q: How long have you been working for Shimano? I know that much of what you do for them is confidential, but can you tell us about any projects you have done with them in the past? 

A: Officially since 1995. Also I've been testing parts for them since I worked for Gary Fisher in 1986 when some Shimano people left a freehub prototype with Gary to test, yet he didn't have time so he gave it to me to use. 

Q: Currently, is your design focus more on commuter bikes or ATBs (or something else entirely)? 

A: Mostly mountain bikes. VooDoo is less work than in the past so that means less new bikes, although I've been riding a 130MM rear travel 29er. Great bike for the technical riding in Sedona... which is the best places to ride on the planet or one of the best at least. I think that anyone who has ridden there could agree with such a statement. 

Q: Please tell us about some cool commuter/utility bikes you have designed, whether or not they actually got manufactured. 

A: One that stands out was a "monster cross" that fit fat 29er tires. It turned out to be a great commuter as well as a dirt road cruiser. It has a traditional horizontal top tube, dedicated rigid fork and "scorcher" bars kinda like what Wes Williams did with the original Ibis Scorcher. It's good for light touring. The big wheels are really fast... an all around bike. 

Voodoo Nakisi in commuter form.  Photo courtesy of Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution

Also have designed many road and cross bikes in the past. VooDoo was the first to use Scandium on a cross bike and the year we introduced it Mark Gullickson in 1999 won the cyclocross worlds on it. 

Recently introduced a larger tire geared, fixed etc. street frame with plain gage cro-mo tubes. 

Q: What new components are getting you excited? 

A: Most of the most exciting stuff I'm developing with Shimano is confidential, yet currently I'm liking a close ratio double chainring crank. I have a custom 38 X 30 on the front and works great with an 11-36 cassette. 

Dropper posts, really don't like riding without one. 

27.5 wheels with big tires. 

Voodoo Nakisi "Monster Cross" bike in cross form.  Photo courtesy of Voodoo Bicycles

Q: Tell us a bit more about "dropper posts," please. Would it be fair to call them a modern incarnation of those old seat springs we all used to have back in 1987? 

A: I agree that the Hite Rite and another made by IRC way back over 20 years ago were precursors to dropper posts. Now they are smoother and have better remote levers. Also much more travel. Same basic purpose yet there were fully rigid bikes when the first spring types came out. Now they are much more effective. One thing is that $200-$400 is keeping some from buying into it, I think. 

Q: Just to make sure we are on the same page, 27.5 is the same tire size as 650B, right? Is there a reason people are going away from the "650B" designation? 

A: It seems to be some use 27.5 and some 650B. 27.5 is related to the tire height like 26 and 29 yet 650B is related to the road tire height so makes no sense to me. With that same thinking we would be calling 29ers 700C. I think C and B refer to the width of the of tire... I think, yet even so it is meaningless. 

It would be better to use the ETRTO which is the European Type and Rim Technical Organization. Fortunately all tires have this number on them which refers to the rim bead seat diameter and the tire width. For instance a 29 X 2.3 tire is 62-622. 622 being the bead seat diameter. So it would be better if we referred to 26, 27.5 and 29 instead as 559, 584 and 622. Also tire manufacturers can call any tire 2.2 tire, even if it is not close to that. So the ETRTO width number is more useful. Maybe more on this than you need, yet I just looked up some of this which is interesting. 

Voodoo Scorcher handlebars.  Photo courtesy of Voodoo Bicycles
 Q: Where is Voodoo Cycles headed? 

A: It's very small these days and still doing some of the same steel, aluminum and titanium hard tails, especially 29ers so probably will be going this way for the foreseeable future. 

Q: Any interesting new products "in the works?" 

A: 27.5" wide tire 150 X 150 travel full suspension is being worked on. 

Q: Where are Voodoo bikes manufactured? Do you plan to keep manufacturing where it is? 

A: Taiwan and China like most everyone else these days. I think that few consumers realize that most carbon frames are made in China. 

Q: Are you still riding? If so, how much and what kind of riding are you doing? 

Bug Springs Trail, Photo courtesy of Jeff Howard
A: 3-5 Days a week. Desert riding is what I've been doing now that it's Fall. In addition to Sedona, been riding in Tucson. Very rough awesome trails. One great ride is Bug Springs, Arizona Trail to Milagrosa Trail. Big and rough. 

Q: I remember meeting you at a race, the "Rage in the Sage," 1988. You made a great pasta dish at a potluck. Do you still like to cook? If so, what do you like to cook? 

A: I like grilling meat. (I was a vegetarian a long time ago when I raced full time.) We try to eat free range meat as much as possible. One of these days I'll deep-fry a turkey. Kale salad is my latest favorite dish. 

Q: What else would you like to say? 

A: Attitude is everything. 

Q: What do you like for breakfast? 

A: Prob my favorite is French toast made with whole grain bread and real maple syrup.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Nan the Bicycle Tailor

Nan Eastep, Pedaling In Style!  Photo Courtesy of Jody Cox
Nan Eastep is the owner of B. Spoke Tailor, a modern-day company that designs and creates custom clothing the old-fashioned way, one customer at a time.  To some readers, this approach may seem inconsistent with Cycloculture’s claims to cover bicycling in the real world.  Perhaps I shared a bit of your skepticism at first, but then I read Eastep’s answers to my questions on the practicality of custom-made clothing, and I became a convert.  Her thoughts on beauty, creativity and the dignity of work certainly hint at the wonders of her own creations, but her ideas also resonated with me on a level beyond bicycle tailoring, or even bicycles in general.  This is a person who understands why easier is not always better and what living in a community is all about.

Cycloculture readers in the Bay Area should note that B. Spoke Tailor is having a Grand Opening Gala this Sunday, September 29, from 2PM until 10PM.  If you like the clothes you see here, or like the ideas Eastep expresses, I encourage you to take a peek.
Looks like fun to me!

Q:  (Editor’s Note:  This question was originally buried in the middle of the interview, but I moved it to the top so that, if you read anything in this interview, you read this.  Eastep’s answer is wonderful)  Would the world be better off if everyone had their clothing custom made?  If so, how?

A:  Yup. Certainly.  That would mess up globalization for sure.  And add beauty, expression, quality to our world. If everyone had their clothing made by someone nearby that they knew, there would be more people doing dignified work, working with their hands, continuing a beautiful lineage, passing down the skills.  There would need to be support to make it happen, mills and suppliers. This would be great for the economy.  Simple exchanges over the everyday stuff of life help to build relationships, community.  And, if made by skilled hands, the clothing would be better.  It would fit better, last longer, be more suited to our individual tastes and expression.

It is not so long ago that that was the case.  Mass production of clothing changed everything.  Used to be one went to a tailor, or to the fabric store to get their fabric, and to their seamstress to have it sewn up.  Before ready-to-wear, your old suit was your workwear.  Clothing lived longer.  Bespoke suits are made so that the trouser pockets and lining can be replaced every few years.  The system was smart.  And, in a word, sustainable.

A very lovely example of Eastep's handiwork
Photo by Ralph Granich
Q:  You design and create custom bicycle clothing.  What inspired you to choose this career?

A:  I love making clothing, and I love wool.  As I continue to develop my skills as a clothing maker, tailoring is a natural course for me, as opposed to other possible paths, like couture ball gowns, which would also certainly challenge me.  Natural in that I am attracted to tailored clothing.  Well made, it is so beautiful.  And it is perfectly suited for most any activity, short of Olympic swimming.  Or sleeping.  As bicycling is the most common of urban active activities, tailoring for  the bicyclists puts the clothing in service to movement, breath-ability, durability, all of which are great whether or not you are riding. 

The story I tell about beginning along this path, is that a dear friend handed me a stack of his pants that had been chewed up in his bicycle chain, and that stack of alterations changed my course forever.  I began making wool bike knickers.

Knicker Ninjas, ATTACK!
Photo by Ralph Granich
Q:  Why have you chosen to creating individual clothes for each customer, rather than designing and creating various lines of clothing to sell to retailers?

A:  There are a number of reasons why.  One is that there is no ready wholesale market for tailored bike clothing.  Bike shops are in the business of selling bikes, not expensive clothing, so that has proven not to work.  The fashion industry has no niche for tailored bike clothing, either.  Though cycling is gaining in popularity, and that may change. 

Personally, I would rather cut and sew B. Spoke Tailor clothing myself, for my interest in the finished result.  If I tried, and I have, to be a manufacturer, I would not be tailoring, but managing others to do something less than beautiful tailoring. 

There are no facilities that are capable of manufacturing the type of clothing I make.  There simply is not an industry domestically anymore.  Small-scale brands have always had it tough in an economy of scale, and that sense, none of this is news.

Due to the amount of labor involved, (cost of materials aside) the clothing is expensive.  If I do the same work to sell wholesale for a lower price, I cannot make a living.  There are very few boutiques and clothing stores that can sell clothing at the prices it would need to exact.  And of these, which ones are interested in bicycling attire?  Tell me!

I love the direct connection I have to my customers.  Delightful.

Wow.  Just... wow...

Q:  What are some of your most popular items?

A:  My cycling breeches AKA bike knickers are still the most popular item.  I also sell a good number of trousers.  More and more people are ordering vests, a great cycling accessory.  My arm warmers are also very popular.  My women’s waxed cotton raincoats are well-loved, but I am on hiatus from making them, as I need to keep my product offerings within a manageable range.  I tend to spread myself thin.

Soft, cozy goodness
Photo by Carrie Cizauska
Q:  Who buys your clothes?

A:  Men and women who live in cities and bike for transport who like style and wool and are willing to pay for custom tailored clothing. Sartorial types. Randonneurs. Bike messengers, mountain bikers, road and cyclocross racers. Non-cyclists who just like the clothing.  My family. Most tend to be older, say 34-60.  They want to own less clothing and really love it.  Some wear it to commute in and change at work.  Some wear lycra to commute, and change at work!  My customers tell their friends about the clothing, or are seen wearing it on the streets or trails, at work or in a cafe.  It is almost all word of mouth, though having promoted my line via Momentum and Bicycle Times mags has helped.  Facebook.  The internet.

Sounds impressive, but I really don't make that many clothes.  If I am lucky, I average four garments per week.

The fashion runway redefined
Photo courtesy of Richard Masoner of bike blog
Q:  Can you really survive on the money you make as a bicycle tailor, or do you have another side gig to help make ends meet?

A:  I can and do survive.  Barely I might add.  No side gigs, though I sometimes muse on possibilities.  Any ideas? 

I am very frugal, don't require much to be happy.  I love to cook!  Don’t own a car!  My son is not a teenager.

Q:  Are you a bicyclist?  If so, what kind of riding do you do? What kind of bike(s) do you have?

A:  I do bicycle every day.  It is how I get around.  And Jason is my tailoring mate and we have been taking morning B. Spoke Tailor "training rides" up to the hills.  This involves about a half an hour if riding up an easy slope, he on his Bianchi cross bike, me on my clunker, an old, heavy, lugged, steel frame Raleigh that was supposed to sit in as a loaner after an accident I had a year ago.  I bought an old, lugged Bianchi frame that fits me perfectly, and is in the hands of Davey Archard of Brazen Bicycles.  He upcyles old frames.  That is more my style.  Maybe one day I'll be able to afford a new bike.  Not sure what that would be.  I'll have Adam Shapiro to guide me.  I have an Xtracycle Radish for when I need to haul things, and kids. 

I love to tour, though I rarely find the time.  I once road tandem down the coast to Santa Barbara.  I like to ride around Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge.

More knickers
Photo courtesty of David Niddrie of Momentum Magazine

Q:  You live and work in one of America's bicycling centers, the Bay Area.  Do you feel like your business is a part of the local cycloculture?  Are most of your customers local?

A:  I think most of my customers at this point are local to me.  

I have felt very well received by local bike culture.  Much of what is bike culture, as seen in the media and even on the streets (like Bike Party and Critical Mass) is a young culture.  If I were younger, not a parent, not running a business, I might feel more a part of all that, though I am not a stranger to it.  I love to pop in and out as I have the leisure for it.  And to collaborate with it, like showing up to events, putting pieces in bike fashion shows, sponsoring races and rides. 

Q:  I am desperately allergic to even the very softest wool.  If I wear any kind of wool, even if I have a layer of cotton underneath it, I break out in a nasty eczema rash.  What are you recommendations for fine bicycle clothing for someone in my situation?

A:  There are many other possibilities, what matters to me is durability. Cotton can be nice, though if you sweat a lot, it takes a while to dry. Hemp holds less water. I would recommend a heavy twill. The synthetics designed to emulate wool can be good, though the treatments for wicking have a short life.

Soft, smooth merino wool underwear
Photo by Ralph Granich
Q:  Are all the clothes you make reminiscent of designs from 50-100 years ago?  Or do you design and create anything that is obviously contemporary?

A:  I like to say I make modern clothing, because I am not trying to replicate the past.  Whether you are building a house or a meal, you are drawing upon tradition, and the best designs usually have history.  So I would say all of my clothing is modern, even though at a glance people sometimes assume it is vintage.  The techniques and cloth I am drawn to are old; manufactured (modern) clothing has bypassed both in most cases for profitability.  And of course, spandex is another thing altogether!

Q:  What else would you like to say?

A:  I hope to see merino sheep and a wool mill in Northern California before I die. 

Q:  What do you like for breakfast?

A:  Eggs!