Winslow takes it easy on Washington Island


Julie is a nurse.

She likes her Dahon Vitesse i7 folding bike because it’s easy to transport in the back of her car and easy to store. And because the gears are inside the hub, there’s no derailleur to get dirty and bent out of alignment.

Winslow seems happy just to be along for the ride.

We caught up with them at Nelsen’s Hall Bitter’s Pub & Restaurant on Washington Island. Pretty good salad bar and excellent soup.

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Catching up with Jeff while crossing Porte des Morts

IMG_6712Jeff is an “almost retired” brokerage professional who continues to work as an expert witness in legal proceedings when he’s not riding his road bike hundreds of miles each month just outside of San Francisco. (He stays away from off-road riding because he doesn’t want to risk falling on his artificial hip.)

IMG_6717On the ferry to Washington Island, Wisconsin, he said he was in the midst of his second Carolina Tailwinds trip, the first being the group’s Chesapeake Bay Bicycle Tour along the eastern short of Maryland and Delaware. This fall he plans to ring up his third Tailwinds outing: the Florida First Coast Tour in the northeast part of the Sunshine State.

Jeff’s hometown? Toluca, Illinois, about 40 miles northeast of Peoria. He talked about catching a double-header against Peoria’s Manual High School–and then almost being carried from the diamond due to exhaustion from the heat and humidity.

Of course that was well before getting married in 1966, moving around the United States and, more recently, celebrating his 75th birthday.

On the ferry this fine July day: little heat, and no humidity worth mentioning.




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Fat times three. You’ll want to sit down for this


A Surly fork and a 26 x 4.9 tire? Sure, that happens. A Surly fork, 26 x 4.9 tire and one-piece crank? That doesn’t happen as often…


And I believe this cosmic confluence is even rarer.

But it happened at least once once. The proof is in Wheel & Sprocket’s Brookfield, Wisconsin, store.

Not big on a fat trike? How about a fat tandem?

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The welder will see you now: Eriksen’s Brad Bingham

Brad Bingham at the 2015 North American Handmade Bicycle Show.

Brad Bingham at the 2015 North American Handmade Bicycle Show. All photos by Mitch Hull. Thanks again, Mitch.

Brad Bingham welds titanium bicycle frames today because he went to school next door to the Newberg, Oregon, company that created the world’s first successful air-powered saliva ejector.

“My school shared a property line with A-dec, the largest dental equipment company in the world. The company had a cooperative work experience program, so junior, senior years in high school I got to work there half days. I kind of fell in love with making stuff, and one of the engineers got me into mountain biking.”

Eriksen's isn't the only name you might find on an Eriksen frame.

Eriksen’s isn’t the only name you might find on an Eriksen frame.

In short order, Bingham broke two bicycle frames, and the engineer asked him why he didn’t just make his own. So he did.

“I went to UBI [United Bicycle Institute], took a framebuilding class and learned from Gary Helfrich, the founder of Merlin. He was incredible, a great teacher. Moots got my name from that class, said come on out and weld for us. So I took a 69-cents-an-hour pay cut. Worked with Moots for 15 years and came to Eriksen two years ago.”

Best TIG-welded joints in, well, the joint.

Best TIG-welded joints in, well, the joint.

Kent Eriksen Cycles is a four-person operation based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, that turns out a wide variety of custom singles and tandems–and piles up the awards, including, most recently, Best TIG-Welded at the 2015 North American Handmade Bicycle Show.

  • Bingham loves titanium. “It’s a real nice material. To weld it properly, it has to be almost sterile. The welding process doesn’t create any smoke. It’s a pleasant environment.”
  • Not that he avoids other materials. He was more than happy to work with the steel and aluminum that went into his restoration of a 1973 Airstream trailer.
  • And he likes variety. Asked about his own bicycle stash, he lists a road bike, full-suspension mountain bike, a fat bike, a hardtail 29er and a commuter. “My girlfriend also has one of each.”

    In English, laser-etched motto reads,

    In English, the laser-etched motto on this particular Eriksen reads, “Nothing without effort.”

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Time shifting in Louisville: 1950s derailleurs


Derailleurs displayed in The Kentucky Wheelmen booth at the 2015 Handmade Bicycle Show in Louisville.

It’s a deceptively simple thing, the rear derailleur: a mechanism that moves the chain from cog to cog at the rider’s command. But it took decades after the bike boom of the 1890s to arrive at a configuration we’d recognize today.

These derailleurs were built in France in the years around 1950. Five of them mount to the chain stay, forward of the freewheel, and operate without a parallelogram, the deformable rectangular structure that is today universal among mechanical derailleurs.

The one in the lower right features a parallelogram and mounts to the rear dropout, close to current practice, but it sports just one, not two, jockey wheels, which Disraeli Gears contends doomed it to uselessness.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke contended that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But once that technology ages, particularly when you’re dealing with the relatively transparent technology of a bicycle, the magic fades and disappears.

Today’s gear shifters work much better than these old French devices, but we expect precision. And precision is not the realm of the indefinable, the ineffable or the mysterious.

I’ve been told the speed and accuracy of Shimano’s Di2 derailleurs make them magical things. And they may be, to the extent that tight tolerances, electricity and hidden motors are magical.

But these old derailleurs (and earlier, three-speed hubs and Campy’s Cambio Corsa) were closer to the wizard’s wand.

Change gears on the go. Adapt your strength to the irregularities of the Earth itself. No stopping to move a chain by hand from one cog to another. No electricity. No motors. Just your desire and intent to change.

All you’re changing is gears, of course, but if you can change gears on a bicycle, what else might you be able to change, accept, improve or discover?

What magic might you find at the end of a derailleur cable?



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Recycling the past: Specialized Expedition

specializedex15Here’s John Ringham the night he joined dozens of people to pedal Bushwhacker’s bicycle inventory from the old Metro Centre store to the new Junction City building. This is his personal bike: an early 1980s Specialized Expedition, complete with wingnut-secured Kirtland handlebar bag.


If Specialized reissued a modern version of this touring machine, it would sell them in no time. Note the three water bottle cages, hill-busting granny gear, chain stay-mounted generator (it’s below that plate that looks like it should bolt to a kickstand) and historic black-plate Vitesse Cycle Shop sticker. The front wheel has 36 spokes; the rear, 40.

specializedex18Time travelers rejoice. The SunTour MounTech derailleur–Disraeli Gears says it was the first derailleur designed for a mountain bike–is still on the job. Sure, it’s the first thing I’d replace, but it is a beautifully sculpted piece.


The bike’s ready for indoor training, too. Here’s the bracket for the Racermate wind trainer. Remove the Expedition’s rear rack, fit the Racermate fan assembly to the bracket (the fan rolls on top of the rear wheel) and attach the bicycle to a stationary base.

specializedex17A couple of parts survive simply because they’ve never been given a decent funeral. I’d put these popcorn gum hoods in that category.


Other components soldier on because they were built to last, like the SunTour bar-end shifters, or forgot to wear out, like the Grab On-style foam grips (but surely those aren’t original to the 1980s, are they, John?)

And, oh yeah, I still want an Expedition. Maybe something around a 54-centimeter frame?

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Frame building for credit at the University of Iowa

From left: Willy Tan, Man Ho (Billy) Cho, Tom Teasdale, Hailey Kurtz. Photo by Steve McGuire.

From left: Willy Tan, Man Ho (Billy) Cho, Tom Teasdale, Hailey Kurtz. Photo by Steve McGuire.

It’s obvious that before you display your work at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show you have to build a frame. In the United States, builders have learned their craft on their own, on their own using the Paterek manual, and sometimes under the gaze of an honest-to-gosh frame builder. But few learn to build in a college setting.

At the University of Iowa, students pick up college credit as they build frames in a course called Fabrication and Design: Hand Built Bicycle. The class attracts a wide variety of students, majoring in ceramics, computer science, engineering, English, accounting, whatever–somebody with one of those majors is likely to have built at least one frame, maybe more than one.

A student I met at the 2015 Handmade Bicycle Show in Louisville, Kentucky, pointed to his third bicycle, “the second one in titanium.”

Yeah, titanium.

Steve McGuire, a professor in the School of Art and Art History and endurance-event enthusiast, has taught the class since 2010. Up until mid-2014, he was often assisted by friend and mentor Tom Teesdale, who built bicycle frames in West Branch, Iowa. That’s when Tom died of a heart attack during The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI).

Obviously, Tom brought a lot of frame-building expertise to the class.

Tom really enjoyed teaching. And, students really enjoyed learning from Tom. Tom spent many more hours than might typically be the case working individually with students. Many times, students would make a trip to his shop. Tom imparted a sensibility of improvising–improvising fabrication and improvising with tools. This had students seeing that they were always in a position to solve novel problems.

I know Tom taught you how to build. Any other memories you’d care to share?

Tom and I traveled some years ago to Camp Courageous, a program in Monticello, Iowa, for students with disabilities. Tom had made some custom tadpole recumbent tandem trikes that allowed able-bodied and disabled riders to partner, and we brought them to Camp Courageous. We spent the day being tandem partners with various students. Tom was so completely present with each person.

Bees. Tom raised colonies of bees to produce honey. And many folks thought it was some of the best honey they had ever tasted. In the winter, Tom brought the hives into his shop and created a conduit system for the bees to travel. Bringing bees inside in the winter takes quite a bit of technical know-how to successfully pull it off. But he did it. “But he did it” is a way of understanding Tom.

Willy Tan discusses his Alex Singer-inspired creation.

Willy Tan discusses his Alex Singer-inspired creation. This and following pictures by Mitch Hull.

_DSC0353 2

Decades after going out of business, Mafac makes one wonder if they turned out a blue-million brakesets or if the same ones migrate from bike to bike. Rack provides handlebar-bag support.

Decades after going out of business, Mafac makes one wonder if it turned out a blue-million brakesets or if the same ones migrate from bike to bike. Rack provides handlebar-bag support.

I’m impressed by the variety of degrees pursued by your students. You seem to have successfully married art and science in your class. What is it about that marriage that is important to you?

Well, students in engineering have a keen desire to match their screen-based study with tool and fabrication skills. You’ll hear, “I decided to be an engineer because I wanted to build things, but I discovered that we don’t have much building practice.” Art students have, typically, good tool experience, but less experience interpreting geometry.

At its core, a beautiful frame is a well-built frame that implements lessons from the history of bicycle design and fabrication. I hope the course expands the definition of beautiful and allows students experience making something from their hands that they can use for years.

_DSC0057 2What does it take to complete the class successfully?

  • Project commitment. Students learn to TIG weld, and this can take 40 hours to get to a level where they can weld a frame. I tell them no one has not ever been able to weld, but it does take practice. Students also learn to braze. Historically, frame building often begins with brazing the first frame. But TIG welding is a more universal skill in terms of application. You don’t braze a trailer hitch, for instance; you weld it. So, we focus on TIG welding from the start. By the way, Tom taught himself to TIG while doing the first Fisher frames. At the time, people favored smooth, fillet-brazed joints. So what Tom did was TIG weld the miters and then fillet braze over them. He learned to do it well.
  • Patience. Good welds require tight miters, and tight miters mean repeating cuts and filing.
  • Basic knowledge of geometry. Interestingly, students are intrigued by the difference between conceptualization captured in a drawing and the physical placement of tubes in three dimensions where level, square and triangulation reveal success.
  • Attention to precision, not only detail. A cut that’s a half degree off and not corrected will compound as a problem.
  • Most important: A student who doubts their first measurement for a given cut typically arrives at the better success.

At the end of the semester each student has a completed frame, aligned, reamed and faced.

Single-chainring SRAM drivetrain showed up at the University of Iowa's booth and several others.

Single-chainring SRAM drivetrain showed up at the University of Iowa’s booth and several others.

Let’s talk about a bike you built: the single-speed fat bike. Could you tell me a bit about that design?

I built the bike for Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, which I raced and finished this past January. The idea was to build a single-speed frame that would allow me to take gear, such as my bivy bag and stove, off the fork and place it more or less under me, since a punchy trail is a greater challenge with weight on the fork.

The frame is 135 millimeters longer than would otherwise be the case, which gives the bike greater directional stability on snow-covered trails cut up by multiple tracks. I needed to be able to track well with the single speed, because I couldn’t use gears to make up for the loss of momentum.

Extended chainstays on McGuires single-speed snow bike allow gear storage behind the seat tube, right above the chainstay. And yes, that's a titanium frame.

Extended chainstays on McGuires single-speed snow bike allow gear storage behind the seat tube, right above the chain stay. And yes, that’s a titanium frame.

McGuire's single-speed snow carver has two rear wheels, one of them on the front.

McGuire’s single-speed snow carver has two rear wheels, one of them on the front.

So, why single speed?

I’m 57 years old. It’s easier for me to do well in an event if I pace myself. On a single speed, if I’m going too fast for a sustainable effort, I run out of gear, which tells me to slow down. If I come to a hill too steep to pedal, I would probably end up walking even if I had gears.

Here’s how a typical event goes. At the start, 99 percent of the riders are probably in front of me. After 50 miles, I’ve passed a few of them. By mile 150, I’ve passed 70 percent of them, and it’s because I don’t overexert myself.

I haven’t ridden a geared bike in years. I like the overall efficiency of a single speed. And I’ve eliminated the possibility of breaking a derailleur hanger.

When I’m on a single speed, I’m always in the right gear, because it’s the only gear I have.

 Follow Iowa student-frame builders on Facebook.

The University of Iowa Museum of Art is curating the first, and what promises to be the annual, Iowa City Downtown District Handmade Bicycle Exhibition with the work of five frame builders exhibited in downtown businesses through May 25. Builders featured: James Bleakley, Kent Ericksen, Eric Noren, Steve Potts and Stephen Bilenky.

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