While walking about town, one of my favorite things to do is to puruse the commuter bikes locked up outside stores and study some of the gems being ridden around. Sometimes, I come across a really special bike, and marvel at the notion that the bike’s owner might not have any idea what piece of history they’re riding. For example, I saw an old Vitus, decked out in 7-speed Dura-Ace, beat up and locked up to a lamppost in Ballard yesterday, it’s owner no-doubt unaware that Sean Kelly taught the world the upper limit of the word Hardman aboard that same bike. Then there was the Concorde painted up in PDM colors, which to my knowledge was never available in the States, so I can only marvel at how that awesome piece found it’s way to be locked up outside a cupcake bakery (also in Ballard).
This past Friday night, I was walking by Prost on my way home from the local market when a full-carbon Bottecchia caught my eye. This was obviously not a commuter bike, this was a full-fledged race bike complete with the Dura-Ace 7900 groupo. Had this been a steel steed – like the Vitus – it would have occupied a completely different place in my mind, but I was surprised to find almost nothing interesting about this machine, despite the considerable significance of the name it bore on it’s downtube.
It got me wondering what it is about the old, handmade frames that captures my imagination so. Am I little more than a hopeless romantic, trying in vain to recapture the appeal cycling had when I was a younger lad? Am I the Jack White of cycling, trying to get on with Rule 5 and pretend technology does little to make us better cyclists and instead just makes everything too easy? As much as I’d like to think that’s the case, I also know that I would never give up any of my 10 cogs, brake-mounted shifters, deep-section rims, and stiff frame. The undeniable fact is that when it comes down to my Number One Bike, it’s Rule 43 all the way. Besides, Rule 10 implies that all that stuff doesn’t make riding a bike easier, it just makes us go faster.
I think the bottom line is that as more and more bicycle companies outsource their manufacturing operations to countries like China and Taiwan, the allure of the “hand-built bicycle” diminishes. My steel and aluminum Bianchis were hand-built in Italy, by an Italian framebuilder who cut the tubes, placed them in a jig, and welded them – making little mistakes along the way. Each of those bikes are completely unique and have a different ride quality from every other bike in the world; that’s the magic of “hand made”. The very top-end carbon frames still have this same quality to them since the sheets of fiber are laid into the mold by hand and, even though they’re built in Asia, the frames are all still slightly different from one another and you can still sense the human intervention in the assembly line when you study the frame.
But what of the the companies who know and care little for carbon and have turned to producing frames made of it purely to satisfy market demand? In this case, what does Bottecchia know of engineering a frame not made of tubes, but of fibers? These companies excelled at picking steel tubesets and identifying ideal geometries through experimentation, not engineering. To them, frame building was an art form, not a science. Seeing this carbon bike in front of Prost, the first place my mind jumped to was the stories of factories in China that produce identical frames for countless bands, each differing only in the address on the shipping labels.
I suppose that’s why those old bikes laying in dusty piles in the forgotten corners of good bike shops or leaning up against a downtown lamppost hold such intrigue; each are a work of art, with their own history hidden inside their tubes waiting to be retold.