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Inclusiveness in the Custom Bicycle Industry

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There’s been a bit of hullabaloo this week over a couple of posts by the venerable Richard Sachs about ‘newbies’. I kinda promised myself I would concentrate on the ‘making’ part of this page rather than the ‘talking’, but I want to make a few quick points about the biz from my perspective as an interloper.

1. The custom bike industry is archaic. It doesn’t have any certificates, standards, official body, advocacy group, peer review system….nothing. As much as it’s a ‘badge of honor’ for every single new builder to ‘find out for themselves’, it really is quite backward, wasteful, and amateurish.

2. The custom bike industry is feudal. If you haven’t cut your teeth making 1,000 production frames in some factory in the 70’s, your not worthy. If you haven’t been around for at least 10 years you’re not worthy. If you spent time recently on anything that isn’t related to the act of sticking 8 tubes together, you’re not worthy. You either kowtow these and other colourful mantras or you’re not one of the cool kids.

3. The custom bike industry is xenophobic and insular. Heaven forbid if you don’t enter the industry through the ‘correct’ channels, or align yourself with the establishment, or if you subcontract, or if you’re anything but a craftsperson. Heaven forbid if you’re not from North America. If I don’t know who you are, you must be shit.

The industry isn’t the way it is through design, or because it’s being steered and represented by governing bodies, or there’s a collectivist push towards educating the consumer as to the benefits of custom bikes vs production, it is the way it is because it’s a feudal backwater of old ways and ideas, staunch individualism, and hierarchical behaviours. But like all industries, it is what you make of it, and it is what it is by the types of people that constitute it’s numbers. The industry is mostly ‘lone-wolf’ types, individualist craftspeople with either enough ego to think they can make a better widget or simply the desire to express themselves individually through their hands. Conducive to collectivism and doing whats in everyones’ best interests? Er, no.

And so what we have now, expressed through Sachs’ recent posts, is a Groundhog Day style bemoaning of the fact that people aren’t learning the ‘craft’, that they think they can become a framebuilder through going to a seminar, starting a blog, and researching online. However, if there are no traditional channels – no production houses, no apprenticeships, no full time colleges – and the establishment is (of course) not doing anything about this, how do you get into the industry?

Well, you do what I did and many others do every week. You cut your own path.

For each individual, that’s going to be different, and I fully embrace that. I want artists, jewelers, designers…anyone with a creative bone in their body to have a go at this bike frame thing. The problem is with the ‘one true path’ theory is that that spits out the same result over and over again. I doubt there’s be such a thing as a mountain bike if we all went to the Sachs School of Bicycle Design.

And I just can’t bemoan the absolute mind-numbing cornucopia of information, connections, media and mediums available these days and call it a bad thing. When I went through Dave Bohms’ carbon course last year, he said to me that the weeks spent there would save years of searching, researching and experimenting by myself, and I wholeheartedly agree. Why spend 5 years going something you can now accomplish in 2?

I don’t think anyone can deny that skills take time to develop, but I think the industry rightly or otherwise promotes itself as “The myth of the framebuilder” when the reality is I think for most framebuilders the struggle is with everything that isn’t the building of the frame. We’ve lost touch with the very concept of how things are made, so it’s in the best interests of the industry somewhat to promote itself as this mythical being, rather than the brutal reality which is that it doesn’t take all that much to stick 8 (or 9 or 10) tubes together.

Now when I say that, I’m not saying that it’s easy, but there are plenty of people doing way more complicated physical tasks than making a bike frame, and we need to keep that in mind and not get hung up on it. After having made just one measly frame myself, I’m pretty confident put in the same workshop with the same tools I could make an identical one without too much trouble. By the 5th frame it would then all be about efficiency, repetition, and improving procedure and tooling. I don’t think it would take me 100 frames or a decade to think I’d ‘got it down’.

And that’s where the ‘individual path’ (and ‘not being delusional’) comes into play. I fully believe that some people with no direct experience could come in and bang out a frame just like that. I’ve met people from engineering and aerospace backgrounds that I believe could do it with their eyes closed. Conversely, there are people that probably do need to make dozens of frames before they’re vaguely competent, and that’s okay, too. That decision is up to the individual, but the industry should be doing everything in it’s power to welcome newcomers and show them the path. The very idea of having a New Builders section at NAHBS that was just there to raise revenues and look like you’re doing something for the industry is just not enough, and neither is self-serving advice that at the end of the day helps you sell merchandise and cement your position as one of the establishment.

I’m highly critical of the industry but it’s only because I want it to be representative, inclusional, and diverse. An inward looking, insular and xenophobic custom bike industry is not a good one, and I think most of us to some degree need to pull our heads in, give the middle finger to the status quo, and make it a bright and interesting sphere in which people from all backgrounds can come have a go.

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