Did you imagine the archive when you began saving the pieces?
Did you imagine the archive when you began saving the pieces?
This is a letter from Neville Smith. It was sandwiched between so many other sheets of paper from the 1970s and I rarely gave it a second glance. When leafing through the folders, the hand drawn images and numbers always looked back at me while I searched for more interesting pieces of my puzzle. And then tonight I did something I rarely do – I focused. After seeing this yellowed page for the hundredth time, I realized it’s one of the first orders I received after leaving Witcomb USA to begin anew.
August 1975 was a pivotal time in Chester. I was busy making benches, having decals made, sourcing material, buying fluorescent lights, and opening accounts with various tool suppliers. I don’t even think I had torches then. The goal was to be ready for the International Cycle Show in New York that February. I went to the Coliseum at Columbus Circle with a load of bicycles and some frames, and never looked back.
Neville Smith was a bit of a fixture. He’d show up regularly at the East Haddam shop and regale Peter and I with stories from his life as a racer during the Six Day era. Even then, Neville was quite a bit ahead of us, age wise!
This was the eleventh RS made and the first track frame to bear my name. It’s number 115 in my log book. I know some people collect facts like this. A local cat named Sonny Braun painted it a nice blue color using automotive enamel. The frame ended up in Oz and was the subject of a photo spread on the FYXO site. Click here to have a look.
Here is an image from a collection taken for a brochure printed in the middle 1980s. It shows me and my Bike Machinery Braze-on-Mobile. They didn’t call it that, I did. For a brief moment in time, the only thing I wanted more than the ability it took to be a better framebuilder was to have function-specific fixtures around that appeared in all shots taken in my studio, regardless of where the photographer was perched.
I had been to Italy three times between 1979 and 1985, and visited/toured/been escorted through and around every framebuilding shop that mattered to me. All of it was eons away from my simple beginnings in Southeast London where neither a power cord nor a precision measuring device would be in anyone’s line of sight.
To bolster my self-esteem, I spent money. Lots of money. I set as my goal to have a workspace completely outfitted with all the Italian machinery necessary to make one frame (or sometimes two, or maybe three…) at a time supremely well and without compromise. I envisioned an environment that suggested “Radiology” rather than “Abortion Clinic” to anyone with a lens. My head was in such a place that the only way to make this happen was to buy my way out of those earlier years and ready myself for what would come next.
My aforementioned ability eventually improved. But I can’t hang that hat on any tool folly. The skill and intuitive sense I yearned for would only come by standing at the bench and making a bicycle frame, and then coming back the next day and doing it again.
The first hands-on task I was entrusted with at Witcomb Lightweight Cycles (coffee making and errand running notwithstanding) involved files. Filing, for a framebuilder, is a way to transform a part. It’s a way to make it fit better and look more elegant. And in those times, it was also necessary because on all counts, the materials needed to be reworked before a frame could even accept them as part of the birthing process. Before one brazes or even holds a torch, developing a routine with a file – a set of files, actually – was a way for a young person to one day, in the far future, have value at the bench.
The job of a framebuilder encompasses many skills; he has to be a joiner, a metalsmith, he has to understand bicycle design, he needs to understand the working relationship between his frame and fork and the range of components a client might hang on it, and most importantly atmo, he needs to be a mediator. Taking eight pipes and all the little pieces that accompany them, the fixtures that hold them (or don’t), and the dance that occurs when metal, heat, and human nature collide – this is the acid test for each of us.
Back in 1972, the folks in London showed me how to use a file. I had already watched them use theirs for months. There’s a huge gap between the watching, the showing, and the learning. Nothing is rushed. Filing is a deliberate action using sharp tools, experience and muscle memory, and a vision of what you want when the task is complete, and then showing the whole lot who’s boss.
One piece of my puzzle, my first Hurlow frame, cost me a whopping £60.60 GBP. After it arrived, I’d order two more before I’d ride a bicycle with my own name on it. Bill Hurlow had a profound influence on me. The man’s work was, of course, beyond elegant. But the act of the commission, and those dozen or so letters we exchanged to make it happened, are what put the needle in my arm. Ultimately, I wanted to channel that experience and roll it into my routine.
It was a classmate of mine from Yeshiva, Henry Krol, who’d be the link between me and the framebuilder from Herne Bay. Henry knew I loved my Frejus Tour de France and encouraged me to contact Mr. Hurlow. The Frejus was the bicycle I bought at Tommy Avenia’s to replace my first ten speed bicycle, an Atala Gran Prix. All of this took place prior to my flight for London to spend a year with the Witcomb family.
There were many serendipitous paths taken before I landed in the trade. It was the stew of them that delivered me to a workbench years later. And even then, I was simultaneously ready for the task as well as bewildered, wondering how this all happened and where it would all go. Sometimes, playing pretend can make things real. I never had a business model. But I had a role model, and got very good at channeling. It’s a skill I’ve used many times since.
I see you had to pay for the chrome!
Aside from trivia, why Bill Hurlow had such a great influence on you? I guess, mainly due to the better/more precise manufacturing?
I’m calling time out. I’ve been opening up drawers, scanning artifacts, and writing about pieces of my puzzle every day for the last several months. If you missed any or want to see them again, they’re stored on my site. Click here to read about the world according to me.
The reflective words and sepia-tone photographs will come again someday. For now, I’m clawing my way back to the present. I’ll still add content. I may even shift focus and post images of Buddy the Maltese Milkball, or what I had for lunch. Or do a montage (that’s French for Age Mountain) showing folks wearing RS socks. Look out Bill Cunningham. Maybe I’ll keep you informed as I reach race weight over the next few weeks. My Withings scale reads 144 today and I have a pair of 30” Tellason Denim jeans begging for another intimate moment with me.
The cyclocross season begins soon. Once it does, I’ll be shameless in letting people know every detail of every RSCX Team rider each day every weekend until the Natz are over in January. Deal with it. For now, consider my typewriter ribbon dry and in need of replacement, or that my supreme level of self-absorption has left the building. I’m sure it will return soon. In the meanwhile, I’ll deal with it.
This image shows a sill near the bench of a studio I rented for most of the 1980s. For the last several months I’ve stood at my own window daily and looked in. I’m going back to looking out again. I hope to see you.
Thanks for reading atmo.
mmmm, I need Alitta's phone...
Aimar Fraga Angoitia
I saw this on my Facebook feed. Funny - I began using Samson cast parts in 1982 and probably made 800 frames with them before I transitioned into OS dimensions by the mid 1990s. Now, Mr. Harada is using my cast parts on his frames. It's a nice feeling. His post had the words "SAMSON- illusion/atmo" accompanying this image of one of his latest builds. Click picture to enlarge. Life is good.
Sloping TT with RS lugs? I didn't knew that.