Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Machinist Advantage

Bicycle manufacturing launched the modern era of mass-produced transportation, but because bicyles were relatively small they could be produced in small facilities.

Modern industrial economics moved the Bike Industry into gigantic (not to say Giant) facilities, but small operators still produce bikes. Some are status symbols from exclusive builders, others are obscure for various reasons. More people know about Richard Sachs than about Victory Bicycles, but Victory's immaculate reproduction Ordinaries are status symbols among their devotees. But I'll bet few people reading this have heard of Dennis McKinnon, Paul Carpentier, Albert Bold, or Brian McCall.

My machinist friend Diane, a partner in Victory Bicycles, grew up in a machine shop and then built another one with her late husband. At home they built bike frames, restored airplanes and motorcycles and generally built any sort of mechanical toy they wanted. In the 1980s, before the aero bike craze, they had already built themselves a pair of time trial bikes using aircraft strut tubing, aerodynamically shaped. They had to make all sorts of odd-shaped parts and adapters to get the componentry to fit the bikes.

Working for their own amusement, they never publicized any of what they did beyond the word of mouth they generated in the Orlando area and wherever else they might go.

Diane built her own 20-inch wheel adult bike to take in their Cessna. She figured out the gearing and geometry so she could sit at the height of a conventional bike and join group rides wherever she happened to find one. The bike disturbed some of the other riders because it looked so weird, but apparently it rode like a normal-sized one. Bike Friday makes the same claim. People I know who own them can't say enough good things about them.

I'm happy to be able to do as much as I do. Some people even consider me a good, experienced mechanic and a creative problem solver. But I tell you it's hard to compete with someone who not only miters their own tubing and builds the frame from scratch, but actually manufactures the rims, shapes the tubing, cuts and threads every spoke and practically raises the cows that produce the leather from which the saddles are made.

Every machinist I know has the same casual attitude toward building or rebuilding things most of us would simply replace. But they also have several thousand dollars' worth of serious stationary tools somewhere around the house or barn. Most of them do not earn their primary living from bike work. Even the Wright Brothers had to branch out. There's a perfect example of machinists who wouldn't say they couldn't.

No comments: