Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Intern

Some years back...maybe 2011....2012, I found myself in a conversation at our monthly art walk with an interesting, pleasant member of our community.  Of course it was conversation about handmade bikes; in particular it was a bike he'd seen me riding one through his neck of the woods.  The "Rust Bucket" as its come to be known in its retirement days; my original frame from UBI nearly nine years ago; Rust Bucket was still in its prime, pre-Colorado Trail.  The gentleman was an enthusiast and an admirer of the handmade segment and he mentioned to me the conversation with his son about the desire to learn about this craft.  Come to think of it I'm not sure if the desire was his or his sons.  Before I recognized the words coming out of my mouth for what they were, I heard, audibly, "I could teach him."  My own jaw nearly hit the floor.  Having been an outdoor educator out of college, I've always liked the idea of passing on knowledge of the world I know and love.  Soon a neighborhood kid, seventh grade and in the prime of his own awkwardness, started showing up at the shop.

The first time he came he was escorted by that good parent, by that sense of obliged fatherly duty that precedes willingly pawning your only son off on a total stranger.  We talked about the bikes in my fleet as I sussed out his existing premonitions about those bikes.  I'm having a hard time recalling the house fleet at the time, but I remember being impressed by his recognition of my same crudely-finished touring bike for what it was, 29x2.35s and all.  As one who started working in bike shops at an age not much older than this shy kid, I don't think I would have know what I saw before me were I in his position.  That day ended with an agreement; a loose but ongoing weekend commitment to teaching and learning in the bicycle world.  An internship was born.

Early assignments were generally the dissection of bikes; at that point I took on a good bit more repair work and general bike wrenching than I have in recent years.  Learn what you can from taking the right pieces apart, then reassemble to your level of comfort, and let me pick up the rest.  Knowledge gained one would hope.  After a few months of service though, the fleet in the other room brought more stares and wanderlust than anything I could offer through rusty old repairs.  With a commitment as loose as ours, the wanderlust was passable enough.  Dreamers are welcome with the least degree of help long as they're nice and respectful.  A day came when this middle school kid showed up with a big wild smile on his face.  He eagerly pulled a $100 dollar bill from his pocket and said "I want a bike."  I knew where that money came from and it wasn't from cutting grass.  Kids don't do that here...there's no grass to be cut.  I told him to give it back to his mom.  If you want a bike, you can work for one.  At that point the formalities began.  The resulting projects have been going on for, at this point, a majority of the time I've spent in my current shop space.

I told the intern he could work for a of his choice, built to suit his needs.  His time would be valued at minimum wage for materials compensation, and his labor compensation would be valued as one adult working month, 160 hours for him to keep track and deduct from his own ledger.  He was told that if he were working for this bike it wouldn't all be in the face of learning bikes, and that sometimes this work would not be glamorous.  Sometimes it would be the wood pile, sometimes worse.  He excitedly signed the name to the top of his time ledger "Jaccb." And thus began the years of ridicule  that followed.  Upon being granted this opportunity, he thought his time of completion would be that very summer, before entering the 8th grade.  I smiled and nodded disapprovingly, a gesture that would get ingrained into my muscle memory in the years to come.  Jaccb had never worked for a thing in his life; this thing was going to count.  

I can't entirely recall all the projects over the years.  They ranged from polishing the cabinet beneath the surface table, to disassembling and reassembling the shop space, to rebuilding my personal bikes throughout their various configurations I don't know how many times, to cutting up rags, to the wood pile.  Jaccb recently recounted his hardest day to me recently.  He showed up and I asked him if he'd eaten breakfast.  Cereal he said.  I shoved a plate of hashed browns in his face and told him to eat up, he'd need it.  We loaded up the chainsaw in the Volvo and went out to cut firewood.  He got a briefing on saw and scene safety and stated hauling the logs to the car.  Years later he recounted that day as one of the hardest he's had to date in his life....I nodded my head disapprovingly then, I nod disapprovingly now.

Over the months that followed our agreement I could see Jaccb's interest start to wane as his efforts peeled hours back by the single digits.  The realization of the actual time required for this payoff, began to set in by his eighth grade winter.  Ski season became more appealing than that unrewarded time spent slaving away cutting up rags in that cold shop underneath those beautiful bikes he wanted so bad to call his own.  Times between seeing Jaccb were, varied and could span months.  I would try to save him meaningful work that I thought would be in his interest and skillset, but eventually the work would need to get done.  My own availability would begin to change as well.  I started taking on other side jobs as riding the wave of Forest Service savings began to stifle my living situation.  Weekends were harder to come by, but Jaccb would persistently pull those ones and twos off his ledger as the months went by.  At one point a whole year passed without seeing my intern (to fault us both), I did hope that our agreement was not a lost cause.

We began to find our groove again when Jaccb was in his Junior year.  He had taken a job at Huppy Bar, and was saving for the parts he'd use to build his bike.  He began to realize his timeline.  I began to realize the commitment I had made to serve my intern's skillset.  It seemed unlikely that building a frame on his own would result from our agreement, but I was still optimistic that our time would provide him an insight into the skills required of a shop setting, and allow him to explore some of those specifics under his own artistic creativity.  He is quite an artist after all.  

My list of shop improvement projects grows longer by the day and rarely shorter, but this seemed to be a good proving ground for the intern.  I had him pick one...he chose the sign.  I've been in need of a sign for a long time for shows and for the shop's character.  We committed to this and I went shopping for materials.  Oak plywood and a crash course in power tools.  He completed a rough outline of the shape in cardboard, and set that to the plywood.  I think in the end he was blown away by just how long something that seemed so simple could take.  But persistence and diligence carried him through his efforts.  I can't recall how many times the words "I'm scared" were uttered from Jaccb's mouth.  To me this meant it was not all lost, that this effort could be in fact working.  He was scared to lose the time invested into his workpiece, a sign of pride in his own sweat and his will for that work to be good enough for my continued investment.  He finished the sign with roughly 40 hours left on his ledger, and I told Jaccb that his last 40 could be spent working on his own bike.  

By this time his project was penciled in his own mind.  He'd still have to make the decisions on geometry specifics though I let him choose up front whether he wanted to make "his" bike or "my" bike.  If he wanted to adorn the frame he'd worked for with with the moustache on the head tube, it would ultimately be subject to my design approval.  With this he made a wise choice to differ to hands on experience over what's trending in the magazines.  Within that construct Jaccb wanted something timeless, something outside the reach of his existing bike fleet (teenagers with bike fleets.....sigh), but something that would work within his preferred riding style.  Something that would take him to new places and farther distances than any bike before.  He opted for the rigid for its pure soul and dedicated character.  Keeping to the paint schemes familiar to this shop he designed a bike to the basic aesthetics of the Camper Special, but the geometry favors a bit more aggressive riding rather than all day slogs.  Its longer and lower, the rear end is shorter.  It is designed around a Maxxis Rekon 2.8" rear tire rather than the 3.0 of the Camper Special.  If favors a lower handlebar for a rider with a more flexible body and longer arms.  Before this bike Jaccb had never realized that a given bicycle rider might fancy a given seat height between bikes (my thought:  "I must have failed you, intern").  So this is his first bike to consider seat height in the overall setup.  Whoa.

As we worked through the project, the parts started massing.  Jaccb built his own wheels (his first set), did all the drafting work, metal prep, some milling, some drilling, some mitering, plenty of math.  He dropped things.  Expensive things.  He professed those things as being "OK" despite having absolutely no idea.  He carved out the head badge, and generally stood guard as the pieces and his patience started coming together into something more tangible.  Finally.  It was becoming my debt to pay rather than his to earn.  The finish work is his own, save for a few touches I just couldn't let slip through the cracks.  After staring off into that sea of beautiful bikes hanging in the fleet, practicing a bit, and mostly just a lot of idle waiting, this is how the intern builds his bike, right down to the color and post paint work.  I had the privilege of supervising as this bike got built up the day before Thanksgiving.  We spent the day, despite me having heard the hurry up spiel multiple times from the now overly-anxious intern.

The sun had set before the once prototype XTR brakes were bled and the final bolts checked for tightness.  Jaccb sent out the door.  Some time had past before his enthusiastic return and proclamation of perfection.  It was a lengthy and proper late fall test ride.  I asked for my spin.  I was impressed too.  For being a bike that pushed my comfort zone a bit in terms of design balance within a riders perceived desires and actual abilities, I was pleased that a bike as long and low as this one felt so....shreddy.  It steers with a quickness that you'd want in a rigid bike but feels planted and stable so that corrections aren't a constant.  Accelerations are snappy and despite a rugged build, the bike keeps an overall feeling or light nimbleness that felt refreshing.  I hope for an extended test ride.  Good thing we didn't end up building this bike that summer of eighth grade, I have a feeling it would have turned out a lot differently!  

Jacob's own words from his Thanksgiving Day ride freshman year of college:

"Ride report!  This is the only bike I've been n that feels right on the first ride; the handlebars and where the wheel sits makes a super comfortable ride I get along with perfectly.  Its super nimble, easy to throw the rear around and put it down right where you want it for maximum pump.  I was definitely not any slower than I would be on my Chromag and I didn't have any problem doing the same lines.  It climbs very well and super comfortably.  I had the front tire at about 17 at the beginning of the ride which bounced me everywhere and it made it very difficult to hold a line but dropped it down to about 10 and that feels perfect, it handles the rough very well.  The long front end and the rigid fork does make it harder to bunnyhop but I'll get used to it.  I am so stoked on this bike and it came together perfectly, absolutely nothing I want to change about it.  I also test fitted my bags last night and the seat bag will work with the dropper but only gives me a few inches of drop before the collar but its enough drop to help with long tours, no problem with it hitting the rear wheel.  The crossed braced handlebars give the handlebar bag a nice wide platform and keeps it super secure.  Love all the parts we picked out and the gearing is perfect.  Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity Richard, it has been such a great experience and I learned a ton.  The bike is just a fraction of what I got out of this.  Can't wait to ride with you!"

Nodding, this time approvingly.