Monday, October 01, 2012

Spending a billionaire's money

You might think that working on bikes for a billionaire who happens to have an enthusiastic cycling habit would be like having a press to print your own money. However, you don't get a billion dollars by being a careless spendthrift. He's a business man, not some stumble bum who won the Powerball. Even if he was, I'm too much of an idiot to expend his funds without functional justification. I love having a good opportunity to run through a few grand for him, but only with full knowledge and consent. It does not happen often. Only once so far. But repairs and modifications that run into the hundreds come up somewhat more often.

Most recently he has decided to have me reconfigure his Mount Washington Hill Climb bike into a flat-bar road bike. That looks like it should be easy, simply adding the parts the bike did not need in its original configuration: two more chain rings on the crank, front derailleur, front shifter, and a cassette designed for the open road, not 8-22 percent grade.

When is anything in the bike business ever simple?

Because he needed only a few gears for the hill climb I fitted the bike with a 7-speed shifter. Because the gear range was close, I used a short-cage rear derailleur because it's lighter and shifts more quickly. I custom-built a cassette with several close gears at the low end and a couple of small cogs just to get him from the starting line to the base of the real climb.

The lightest crank that would give the low gear he wanted was a mountain bike crank with a 5-arm spider and 58-94 bolt pattern. Try finding a lot of variety in those rings today. The gear range he has requested calls for chain rings that are not made in 4-bolt, 64-104. I did find the sizes he wants in 58-94. I could also do it in 74-110, but that would mean changing the bottom bracket to put on a different crank. This bike was built when ISIS and Octalink ruled the Earth.

The rings I found were hard to mount on the crank. Original rings would have had a different shape to clear the crank arm, but I only ordered an arm set with no rings for the climbing bike, and a single silver dollar chain ring to go on the 58 circle. The original middle and outer rings on a complete crank would have been smaller than I want, too.

Each hurdle has been surmounted with some hunting and scavenging by me and a launching ramp of money from him. Even so, we're dead in the water for the moment because we can't find the proprietary front derailleur bracket that came with the frame. I removed it as part of the psychological lightening process in which I also removed the water bottle bolts. I plugged the threaded holes in the frame with tiny set screws scavenged from the cleat plates of mountain bike shoes.

I gave all the parts I didn't use on the project in 2004 to the billionaire. He and his biking family members have a collection of bits and pieces from various projects and repairs over the years. Unfortunately, this one crucial piece seems to have slipped into a crevice. I've been given clearance to go to the family compound to look for it, but our staff is too small to spare me from the shop to go out there. I've been too busy on my days off to make a field trip then. So you see there's such a thing as too much downsizing.

Digging through the archive of parts in our shop I found a Cannondale front derailleur bracket I adapted to the Trek frame by using two hemispherical spacers from a set of linear-pull brake pads. The front shifting is not worthy of a bike that cost thousands of dollars and was custom assembled from cherry-picked components. It's really no different from piecing together a junk-box custom beater bike, but the carbon, titanium, and my own sense of craftsmanship seem to call for something more precise. Things can be weird but they have to work.

Our billionaire is small fry in the billionaire world, down below 500 on the Forbes list, but still, a net worth of more than 1.5 billion, and connections to powerful politicians give surreal dimensions to the ordinary tasks one performs for him. It's like bumping into a rock in the fog and when the fog clears you see that it's one corner of an immense pyramid.

I had a similar feeling when a US Forest Service employee handed me a US Government debit card to pay for ski wax. He ran a program called Ski with a Ranger, in which tourists could go for a guided ski tour with him in the White Mountain National Forest. As I processed the transaction I felt my own wallet shrink a tiny bit. After all, as a taxpayer I was buying that wax. I imagined someone else going into Bob's Bombers and plunking down the card for a B1, or Mitch's Missile Mania for some Stingers. Sometimes you get a clear look at how the little things connect to the monumentally huge ones.

The power of money in human societies gives celebrity status to any large amount of it. In many cases, the person standing next to it is merely incidental. We care who won the lottery because they won the lottery. We care who owns Microsoft because Microsoft has brought in billions of dollars. Warren Buffett is interesting because he knows how to amass dump trucks full of money. Many of the immensely wealthy people in this country and the world are not household names to most of us. Once you know who they are, though, you can't forget it. This does not include the ones who want you to know it and bow to it.

It's a pure quirk of fate that anyone of vast financial stature comes into our little bike shop at all. The fact that they are not grossly egotistical has eased our interactions quite a bit over the years. If they were looking for someone to fawn and grovel they would have left long ago. I believe that the kind of person who will pedal a bike long distances on the road develops or already has a sense of the equalizing nature of human physical effort. Your billion dollars will not get you up that hill faster even if it facilitated your entry into the event in the first place. You own the bike. You could afford to buy the Mount Washington Auto Road. You still earn your time.


RANTWICK said...

I really enjoyed that. I like it when you get on a roll and drift into observations beyond the details of the work, which provide a perfect and interesting springboard!

cafiend said...

Thanks. All the connections intrigue me.