Ten Years – part 3.
I knew going into this business that if getting the ball rolling was a challenge then keeping it rolling could be even more so. The funny thing is when you first hang your shingle you have no money at all but you have the luxury of time……….but when you get orders in hand and feel the pressure of getting bikes out the door on schedule the balance shifts a bit………you have a little bit of money but no time whatsoever.
This lack of time in my case was mostly of my own making. Since I had no money but had lots of time I opted to make most of my own jigs, fixtures and tools. This includes my own jig to set up frames in. A good jig costs thousands of dollars and I had only hundreds so I designed and built my own set up that was VERY cheap to build, exceedingly accurate and very, very slow to set up. It mattered little as I had time…….at least at first. The catch is of course if I couldn’t make the bikes in a timely fashion I couldn’t make enough money to afford to purchase more conventional tools. I vowed from day one that I would not barrow any money to get things rolling and that the business needed to generate enough cash to afford any upgrades out of pocket. This meant I needed to figure out how to make what I had more efficient. I never conceived of my ‘reverse jig’ being fast and it wasn’t………..but with some tweaking I cut the time needed to set it up way down. Oddly – learning to save time takes a lot time.
The same thing happened with my tube mitering. I’ve hand mitered my tubes from day one. Back then I did it by hand because I didn’t want to incur the expense of buying a machine to do it. In time I was able to tighten up my processes to the point where I can do it in little more time than it takes to do the same process on a machine…….and I don’t have to take up precious floor space with a machine I would use only minutes a week. But tweaking this process and teaching myself the tricks to get a very tight miter in a very short period of time took time too.
There was a lot of this kind of learning in 2004.
2004 was also the year I could have lost the business. As a new venture cash flow was tight and timing was everything. When I started building I used the good folks at Cycle Fantasy to paint my bikes and they did a very nice job. I was happy with the arrangement and we were always tweaking things to make the process more efficient. But then the rug got yanked out — I got a call from Cycle Fantasy telling me that due to health issues they had decided to stop painting……….as in right now. I had at least eight bikes or so there and they wanted to know where I wanted them sent. Now finding a good painter in this biz is the Holy Grail and mine just had to shut the doors. I more than understood why they had to do it and don’t fault them and at the same time I was up the creek sans paddle.
The first person I called was Joe Bell in Spring Valley Ca. I knew he was considered to be the best and everything I’d seen in person looked just right to my eye. I called JB and told him my predicament and told him I was looking for a long-term relationship and a partner. He said something like “I’m expensive but I’m really slow.” That sounded a bit ominous but he said he was willing to give it a try so I was too. I had Cycle Fantasy send my bikes to Joe and Joe stepped up in a huge way. He knew that I was going to need to get these now late bikes to their customers to keep them from loosing faith and for me to have much needed cash flow. He painted 3 bikes in less than 2 weeks for me and got them right out. Without that I might have gone under. JB and I have become good friends and partners over the years and I consider myself lucky to have his decal on the chainstay of every bike that goes out the door.
Another noteworthy thing in 2004 was the development, testing and finally release of the curved Terraplane seat stay option. Following on the work I did while at Serotta I wanted a seat stay design that was simpler, lighter and more attractive than the Hors Catagorie design I did for Serotta. I felt it needed less rear wheel travel and that with this very limited amount of travel damping would not be an issue. I started working with various designs and did a lot of static testing of spring rates on individual stays not in a bike. The hard part here was figuring out how to take a very thin (.5 mm) tube that was double tapered (larger in diameter in the middle than at either end) and that was heat-treated………..and bend it into a smooth and graceful shape. The very strong tendency is for the tube to kink or collapse during the process. I did a lot of study and settled on a method used typically in bending the huge and long tubes used in structures like bridges and arches. I scaled it WAY down and with some expensive trial and error (a lot of very expensive tubes when into the recycling bin) I got the bending down.
Once I had control of the bending of the stays it was time to test ride them and change the design as needed to get the ride quality and amount of wheel travel I was looking for. Changing the travel was pretty easy. I made a tool that accurately and simply measured the travel. The harder part was getting the ride as I thought it should be. I took my personal bike, serial number 1, and cut the stays out and replaced them over and over again with various stays curved with differing radii and with different duration. That bike looked BAD with burnt paint and unfinished brazing. But it taught me a lot. Taking what I learned on that test bike I built myself a new bike with the new stays and rode the crap out of it. At some point along the line the name “Terraplane” came to mind (a machine that flies over the land) and it stuck.
After I was sure of the merits of the design I offered it for sale and posted photos of it online. The reception was ‘lukewarm’ at best. Many said they didn’t like the look and some said it will never work…………a few even said it was dangerous. Frankly those folks had no idea how the design worked as a whole and just didn’t understand it. I did my best to explain it but no explanation in words would get the point across. In time the customer ride reports got out and they were universally positive. This meant more folks took the plunge and ordered the Terraplane option and their ride reports went out and so on and so forth. In time over 50% of my clients have opted for the Terraplane option. In the 9 years I’ve been building with the stays I’ve not had a single failure and every ride report I’ve gotten has been positive. It was a real risk at the time but one I’m very glad I took. I wish I’d kept the photo of the serious pile of seat stays that I ruined while learning the bending process — that was worthy.
After some time the Terraplane became more established and accepted and I got few really interesting phone calls from other folks in the business posing as potential customers asking how I did the bending. It was so transparent that it was funny. In one case the ‘customer’ was asking only about the stays and nothing about the cost or the paint or anything — they only wanted to know how I bent the stays. It was an odd conversation to say the least. When it was over I thought about it for a minute and then called the caller’s number back and a person answered the phone “XXXX Cycles, how may I direct your call?” Funny stuff.
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