Polished stainless steel sloping fork crown.
Last fall (2012) I contacted a local artisan who hand-crafts steel-tubed, lugged bike frames. To my surprise, he would be finished with his current project in a few months, so this past January I eagerly began working with him to come up with the design for my dream bicycle. This was originally going to be a 60th birthday present to myself, but since I was already the focus of the bike builder, I would be riding this one-of-a-kind work of art by Labor Day 2013 (“at the latest”).
For too many years, as Chromoly steel-tubed frames have been replaced by over-sized aluminum ones and then unbelievably light and stiff carbon fiber ones, my cyclist’s brain still lusted after a classic steel-tubed frame with polished stainless steel (not chrome) sculpted lugs. Now that I had found an award-winning builder of these rare frames living just 10 minutes east of me, I began counting down the months till he would finally be finished with mine.
We selected the tubing, the design of the front forks, the specific length for each tube that would match my riding style and stage in life. He watched me ride up and down his street, making suggestions and making subtle adjustments. He told me to ride for a week or two with those changes, to be sure that they were improvements.
Then we parted ways for the next several months. I went about my life while dreaming of the day when I would straddle the freshly painted top tube, snap into my new pedals, and then take off down the street, with the morning sun glinting off my mirror-like lugs. He continued to work his 40 hr/wk job, co-parent two young and rambunctious children while painstakingly cutting, grinding, cleansing, braising, and polishing the assortment of Columbus tubes and stainless steel lugs after dinner and on weekends.
He missed pretty much all the deadlines he would give me, but I was understanding. After all, I chose a perfectionist on purpose to make my dream bike. Finally, as August was speeding towards September, he told me that he was completely finished prepping and polishing my bike and would be shipping it to San Diego in a few days to legendary bike painter Joe Bell. “He usually takes 4-6 weeks to finish a job. Since yours has polished lugs, he’s going to have to mask those separately, which takes more time.”
That first week of waiting was excruciating. But before I knew it, Week 3 was coming to a close. I sent the builder an email and TM, wanting to know if the builder had given him an ETA on the frame’s coming back to him. Nothing. Silence.
Hmmm… ok, don’t panic. I called the painter and asked if he had any idea when he’d be shipping my frame back to the builder. “I still don’t have your frame.” What?
I sent the builder another email, telling him about my conversation with the painter and wanting to know why he failed to ship my frame to him. My mind was filled with all kinds of possibilities. But I never guessed what actually caused the latest delay. The builder finally called me.
“Everything was ready for paint, but when I mounted the custom stem that I made for you, I could see it wasn’t straight and true. So I had to make you another stem from scratch.” Ok, that made sense. I responded, “Ok, but is it possible for me to pick up my frame, stem and fork from you this Wednesday so that I can drive them down to the painter myself? I’d love to discuss my ideas for painting this and I think it would be much better in person.”
“Sure, fine.” Part of me really wanted to believe he would be able to make this deadline, but part of me really doubted that he would.
Got a TM from him on Tuesday, telling me that all the fine polishing he was doing and really done a number on his fingers. Could I come over on Thursday instead? “Sure, sure. I called the painter back today and we agreed that I’d be at his studio tomorrow by 1 P.M.” I honestly told my builder that because I wanted to put not-so-subtle pressure on him to be ready to hand me my unpainted bike on time.
This evening, two hours before I was due to retrieve my bike from him, the builder called and said, “Ken, I’m sorry, but I have some really bad news to tell you about your bike.” Did I just hear him say that? Now what? What could really bad news be?
“In doing some really fine polishing of one of your stainless steel lugs, I came across a ‘void,’ a small space left by an air bubble when they were casting that lug. If we were going to paint over the two head-tube lugs, this would be a none issue. But because you’ve chosen to have them polished and clear-coated, this little flaw would be quite visible. Your fork and stem are down. You can take them with you, if you like. But as far as your frame goes, I have to start literally from scratch. There’s no way to repair that void. When I realized this this afternoon, right before I called you, I almost broke down and cried. I’ve sunk all kinds of money and time and energy into this frame. And since I made it just to your specs, no one else can ride it. Either you can choose to keep it and paint over the two front lugs, or it’s just going to sit here in some dark corner of my garage. What do you want to do?”
I could sense that he was dreading having to start my bike over, that he would LOVE for me to let my dream of a polished lug steel-tubed bike be replaced by a bike that had painted lugs and rode exactly the same as the hoped-for one. The residual people-pleaser part of my brain kept coaxing me to paint over both front lugs, but before it took control, I managed to mumble, “This entire journey was about you building a light, customized steel-tubed bike with polished stainless steel lugs for me. As tempted as I might be to drop that dream so that I can drive this frame down to the painter tomorrow, I’m going to stick with my original dream. Even if it means you have to start from the beginning again. And even if it means I won’t have it to ride during my entire sabbatical–contrary to what I’ve been planning to do. I’m prepared to wait until I finally have the bike I’ve always wanted.
He let me bring the custom stem and straight-bladed fork with polished sloping crown home with me. “Maybe if you have these two pieces to stare at, it won’t be as hard for you to wait another two months.”
Am I disappointed? You bet. Frustrated? Are you kidding me? Upset? Well, maybe initially. But I’m glad he’s not the kind of artisan who hides their mistakes or doesn’t mention the problems. However, as painful as it is for me, I can’t begin to imagine how painful it was when it hit him that this lug manufacturer’s defect meant not just that he’d have to start all over on my frame, but that it was unlikely he’d ever be able to recover the cost of the original materials, to say nothing of being paid for all the hours he’d invested in this work of art.
I guess we both could have remained frozen tonight on his driveway, unable to move a muscle. But we both concluded that the first step toward producing my special bike was to accept what had happened as a freakish occurrence, and then create a clean emotional palette to begin again.
Having now just re-calibrated my expectations of when I’ll have the finished bike (this Christmas? By my 59th birthday at the end of the year?!?), I was careful to attach a conspicuous mental asterisk to it. Because there’s always a chance that it won’t be ready when I want it to be.
But since this was supposed to be a 60th birthday gift to myself, any delivery date before 12/29/14 would mean that it was early!
Have you ever had to admit that, in spite of what you wished the way things were, there was an unfillable void in some part of your life? Did the prospect of scrapping whatever you’ve worked so long and hard on and starting over keep you in denial even longer? How do you know when it’s time to give up trying to make something work? How do you know if there aren’t some alternate solutions that you’ve yet to try? What do you do when you feel like you’re wasting your time, that your optimism is simply an advanced form of denial?
Less than 12 hours after meeting with my builder and deciding together to start over, he contacted me with a possible work-around. He’s going to grind off the two lugs and remove them and the headtube. If the top tube and down tube look intact, he’ll then braise together two new lugs and a new headtube and then repolish the lugs all over again. We won’t know if this will work, but if it does, it means not having to trash the frame and start from scratch. He’ll have to put in a ton of work before we’ll know if this is the solution. But life can be that way.