Monday, June 21, 2010

The big reveal

I've never been one to name inanimate objects. I never named my cars or any of my other bikes. I always thought the idea was kind of fun and seems to be somewhat of a tradition amongst the women of the Brailey family--my aunt Joan's car is actually named Sarah and I can't tell you how many stories (wonderful stories!) or references I heard growing up about my Great Aunt Lucy's car, "Miss Dexter". But I felt like if I was going to name something that could theoretically "live" forever, it should be something that really spoke to me. And none of my cars or bikes ever really spoke to me...before this one.

This project has been such a labor of love and has consumed my thoughts and well, my entire being really, for the past six months. I've become about as attached as one can get to something that can't hug you back or snuggle up with you. I've also never been one to identify a sex with a car, but my mechanic insists that all bikes are female. I'm inclined to believe he holds this opinion because he is in fact, male, but when it comes to this bike, I actually agree with him. She is a feisty, temperamental but ultimately gorgeous creature. His theory is that she thought she was retired and going to spend the rest of her life relaxing in a barn and now was doing all she could to resist being ridden again. Well, I am just as stubborn a female, so I was determined to ride her. I knew it would be worth it.

So, I really wanted to name her but I knew the name had to come to me. And late one night, lying awake in bed, it did. Temperamental, unique, incredibly special, gorgeous, perhaps a bit of a diva? Duh. I'm an opera singer, how could it not have occurred to me earlier? This bike was clearly meant to be named after Maria Callas, one of the greatest divas of all time, who also happened to be a favorite of mine and my father's. Callas's nickname was La Divina, and so the Nolan has been reinvented as Maria Divina. Here's a brief sample of the awe-inspiring talent of her namesake singing "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma:

And this is my favorite photo of her:

I feel like I ought to have a naming ceremony for her. Maria the bike, that is. In Hinduism, a naming ceremony is a big to-do. When it involves a baby, the cradle is decorated with flowers and ribbons; friends and family gather for praying and feasting. In an adult naming ceremony, the convert chooses a Hindu name, a fire sacrifice is performed and the convert then writes his or her name into a tray of uncooked rice. I'm not sure about the sacrificial fire or writing in rice, but I am always a fan of celebrating. I think feasting and toasting can definitely be arranged in Maria's honor.

So, I still have to ride her for a while to work out whatever kinks may come up. The bar tape seen here is just temporary--I still have to decide whether I'll need a longer stem or if the current one will work. Eventually, she'll have matching leather bar tape to match the beautiful saddle. That she is! My Maria Divina.

Home stretch

After I got the frame back from Leon's son, I rode it back over to Greenpoint to get the color powdercoat done. We took a moment to lament Leon's fate. Apparently he was sharp as a tack up through his last days. He was 93. I wonder what his secret was.

I decided to go with a deep bluish indigo for the frame color. The color scheme (blue frame and gold decal) is a little kiss to my Swedish heritage. Here's how it turned out (waiting for the final moment to christen it with the decal):

The last detail that remained was the fork, or more specifically, the absurdly long steerer tube. You can see how long it is in this photo:

For several reasons that will go unshared, I had to go on another wild goose chase to find someone who would thread and cut the steerer tube down to the correct height. This was easier said than done, but yet again, the internet provided the answer. I found an eccentric guy on an online bike forum who offered to do it for $25. I just had to take the train up to Westchester to come to his shop. He was clearly one of those old school roadies who loved talking bikes to anyone. In fact, he even knew the guy from Madison who had modified the frame! He told me that it was very unusual for this guy to make a mistake, so of course it had to be the one irreplaceable frame that he messed up. (I'm obviously not naming the Madison guy or his shop on purpose, out of respect, if you haven't figured that out by now.) He seemed very knowledgable and confident in his abilities, so I decided to go for it.

His "shop" turned out to be the 2nd floor of a huge warehouse with an office in front that hadn't been redecorated and perhaps not even cleaned since the mid '70s. Piles of paper, miscellaneous tools and bike parts adorned every bit of free space. There were probably 60 rows of bicycle brakes alone lined up on the floor of one room. This man was *quite* the character and clearly not someone who liked to play by the rules. I learned almost his entire life story in the brief time that I was there. He wasn't a fan of the environmental nonprofit at which I work--said we resort to "scare tactics". Whatever. I just kept my mouth shut and struggled to keep my facial expression neutral. He did seem to have some respect for my other career (opera) and shared memories of singers from the Met coming to perform at his high school auditorium in the Bronx when he was a kid--I guess we did have some common ground.

So, all in all, a funny experience and just another colorful detail to add to this already outrageous story. Unfortunately, the fork didn't end up working for technical reasons that didn't have to do with the threading and that only the biggest bike fanatics would find interesting. Maybe not even them. Maybe only bike mechanics. Anyway, if you ask, I'll tell you, but I won't bore everyone else with the details. We chose a chrome lugged fork to replace it and I'm actually quite happy with how it looks. I may be able to make the original fork work in the future, if I find a framebuilder to weld a different steerer tube onto it. I'm pondering the various ways I can enshrine the fork at home in the meantime. Suggestions welcome.

With the frame modifications complete, all that remained was to put everything together. My shop built me some beautiful wheels with 36-hole silver Mavic Open Pro rims and Panaracer Rivendell Ruffy Tuffy gumwall tires, armed with a Kevlar belt to withstand the rubble-laden streets of New York. I tried to be as patient as possible while my shop made the final tweaks. Any day now...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Leon's legacy

The frame arrived while my Dad was still in NYC, but after he had left Brooklyn. I got the email from my shop during the intermission of Lulu at the Met. Every time my dad comes to visit, he takes me and his sister, Joan, to a matinee. My dad was off to Connecticut to stay with Joan after the opera, so unfortunately he would miss the chance to see the frame with his own eyes.

Naturally, I headed over to the shop as soon as I could to check it out. Despite my apprehension over the size, I couldn't help but grin as soon as I saw it. It was really gorgeous. The joints were stripped of their paint and down to the bare steel, but they had this beautiful patina that took my breath away. We put it up on the stand and took some measurements to see how we could modify it to make it work. It would need a longer seatpost and spacers between the head tube and the stem--we would essentially "add bike" (additional height) to what was already there. Of course, all the guys in the shop had varying opinions as to whether or not it would work, but I remained hopeful...or perhaps just stubborn.

Here's a before and after:

The next task was to get it painted. Always susceptible to the power of suggestion, I decided that instead of stripping it and repainting a new color, I would just get it clearcoated and preserve its current deconstructed state.

Well, the string of snags really began when I took the frame to the powdercoater.

Powdercoating is different than painting. I think it's what auto body shops do to paint cars, but basically the frame is coated with a dry electrostatically charged powder and then baked in an oven at high heat in order to adhere it to the metal. This creates a durable finish and is more reasonable (though still not cheap) than "wet" paint.

I asked the guy at the powdercoating shop if he could put a clear coat over the current paint job. He took a look at it, verified that it was a factory paint job, and said yes, it should work. Awesome.

He called me the next morning saying it was ready to be picked up. Wow! That was pleasantly speedy. I hopped on my bike and made the trek to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to his shop. I got there and took a look at the frame and something didn't look right. The decal had blistered. I sort of timidly asked what had happened and he mumbled something like "oh, there must've been a sticker there or something." Of course there was a "sticker", you #@*%&! It was the name of the bike and you told me it would be fine! But in a moment of Midwestern submissiveness, I just paid and left. So, Nolan's name had gone from how it looked in my previous post to this:

Ugh. What to do? Try to scrape off the blistered area and put my decal on the bare steel? But then there would be a big patch of gray beneath it, and besides, the new decal I had made up was gold, because I was anticipating a different frame color. (This is what I get for being both indecisive *and* impulsive). Get a new decal made in the original reddish lettering with a gold background? No, what are the chances of getting the same shade of gold to match the rest of the frame?

After consulting with my shop, I decided the only option was to get it redone. This also meant another decision was being made for me--I would have to get a completely new paint job. Was this the universe telling me to trust my gut and go with my original instincts? Or is that reading too much into it? Anyway, I hoped the powdercoater would give me a break the second time around, since he had initially told me it would work.

I pushed through my Midwestern timidity, mustered up some Brooklyn assertiveness and got him to agree to do it again at a discount, though not without first enduring a bit of attitude. This time, however, the frame had to be stripped first. He recommended taking it to the sandblaster with whom he often worked, whose shop was in NoHo, around the corner from Joe's Pub and nearly across the street from Great Jones Cafe, this great Creole restaurant. (Not for vegetarians, but sinfully delicious if you're a carnivore.)

So, I slung the frame over my shoulder, hopped on my bike and commenced another trek through the city streets with the frame bouncing on my leg as I pedaled. The funniest part was the two feet of steerer tube on top of the fork sticking out the side of my bag. (The steerer tube had yet to be cut down, it was still absurdly long.) I was just waiting for a car to get too close to me and smash its mirror on it, of course blaming me, but I arrived unscathed.

The sandblaster was this old gentleman named Leon--a real salty New Yorker, the kind of man who you could see definitely had some stories to tell.

I dropped it off on Thursday, May 13, and his assistant said it would be done that afternoon.
I think I had rehearsal or something that wouldn't have allowed me to pick it up that night, so I didn't think much when I didn't get a call from them. By Saturday afternoon, I was starting to wonder and by Tuesday, I started calling the shop. No answer. Called Wednesday several times. No answer. No answering machine. No website or email address. I rode by Thursday morning and there was a padlock on the door and a sign saying "Closed due to family emergency." Geez, what happened? I started to call this Snag # 553 and joked to my friends, "Leon was really up there in years, I hope he didn't die!"


See here.

He had died that past Friday, the day after I dropped off my bike. I got a call the next afternoon from his son, telling me his father had passed away, they were closing the business and could I please come get my bike frame? ..."Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry for your loss I'll be there right away."

Leon sounded like a pretty great guy. He was in the army in WWII as a radio and cryptography technician. He bought the sandblasting business the year before my mom was born in Staten Island. New York was a pretty different place back then. The obituary says the shop was the last industrial business left on Great Jones today, and now it's gone, too. Now this bike is a little part of another lost legacy.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Snag # 1

In April, my brother drove the bike down to Madison. The shop stripped the frame of the components and shipped them to my shop in Brooklyn. The plan was to use all the original components, if possible. Turns out they were all good quality and in great condition. Excellent. So far, so good.

My next task was to figure out the aesthetics. I can be pretty indecisive, which is kind of funny considering I'm a relatively opinionated person. I originally wanted to replicate the look of the original bike, same paint job, etc. However, apparently most of the paint was going to be destroyed during the rebuild, so I had to decide if I was going to repaint it the original color (gold with a reddish logo) or completely reinvent the look of the bike. I wavered for a long time but eventually decided that since I was going to all this trouble to rebuild the bike, I might as well really make it my own. It would still be an awesome tribute to my dad--a different paint color wasn't going to change that fact.

This also meant that I had to find someone to make decals to recreate Nolan's name. The shop owner in Madison said the letters were either Zipatone or Normatype (K & E) letters, which meant nothing to me. Apparently they're now considered vintage so I was having quite a time trying to find a replica. Luckily, thanks again to the internet, I found a guy out in California who makes bicycle decals, including a huge amount of vintage ones. I sent him a photo for him to work off of and he sent me a mock-up the same day--awesome. I decided I would get the decal in gold in order to pay tribute to the original frame color.

Here's the original:

And here's the new decal (blurriness only the fault of my unsteady hand, not the decal itself):

So, all that remained was to wait for the frame to be finished. My dad was coming to visit soon, so I thought it would be cool for him to be able to see the frame in its new state. I emailed the shop in Madison to ask if it might arrive soon and yes, it was almost finished! I could barely contain my excitement.

A few days later, my high came crashing down when I received the following email:

"Here are snapshots. I was about to add the final cable fittings tonight when I reviewed the papers for it.

You said 57 but I wrote 54 on the worksheet. That's over an inch difference. I'm not sure what to say at this point."

What? It took a few seconds to sink in. He cut it too small? Did I read that right? He cut my dad's frame too small. My dad's one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable bike frame. Okay, what does this mean? Oh my god, is this fixable? I don't think it's fixable. How could it be fixable?

Still in shock, I forwarded the email to my mechanic and another bike friend. I'm big on advice (a habit that my indecisive nature only exacerbates) and I definitely needed advice from someone knowledgeable at this moment. I was distraught. I know it's "just a bike", but at the moment I was sitting in the middle of my bed, staring at my laptop, tears streaming down my face at the thought of not only having maybe just lost the chance to ride this bike, but having potentially ruined it for all eternity. (...ok, maybe that's a bit dramatic, but that's why I'm an artist. This stuff just spews forth effortlessly.) Three centimeters may not sound like a lot, but ask any bike person and they'll tell you it is. Was I ever going to be able to ride this beautiful machine? Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of sleep that night.

It took almost a full day before I had gathered my wits enough to write back and I still didn't really know what to say. I tried to convey my dismay as politely as possible and asked him what my options were. He responded immediately, saying he was so distraught that he rode home and slept on it. He said he would ship me the frame immediately and I could decide from there. So, with a bit of trepidation, I awaited the frame. Despite my now soggy spirit, I was determined to find a way to make it work somehow. It just had to.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Learning curves

I never used the term "learning curve" very much until I started working at my current day job. I work at a kickass environmental non-profit and am surrounded by decidedly non-artistic folks, not economists per se, but much more economically-minded people than your average musician. They talk about curves and discount rates and all sorts of things that are a bit over my head. That said, my learning curve on all economic matters has sped up dramatically...ok, maybe only somewhat...just through osmosis.

My learning curve on bikes, on the other hand, has soared. Can a learning curve soar? See, still not so well-versed on the concept. Can it bend straight up? I feel like mine has, in any case. Even just through conversations with various mechanics and other bike-minded people, my knowledge base has grown considerably. Take this, for example:

"Disassemble front end, disassemble rear end, shorten head tube, shorten seat tube, shorten top tube, shorten down tube, shorten seat stays, 2 new head lugs at appropriate angle."

Huh? Seat stays? Lugs? This is what the guy in Madison said he was going to do to my bike. Six months ago, I'd have thought this was a foreign language. Yes, I've been biking for almost 25 years now and I never knew what a seat stay was. FYI, there's nothing very exciting about seat stays, they're just the part of the frame that come down from the seat tube to the dropouts where the rear wheel is attached--part of the "rear triangle", another bike term. (Cyclists have a lot of lingo.) Lugs, however, are pretty cool.
Up until the last twenty years or so, bicycle frames were constructed differently than they are today, i.e. they weren't welded. They were built using lugs, which are basically metal socket at each joint of the bike frame. The tubing is cut and mitred precisely for a snug fit, and then inserted into the lug and brazed together using a molten metal like silver or brass that basically acts as permanent glue. Since brazing doesn't require as much heat as welding, this allowed framebuilders to use thinner, lighter tubes. Since then, there have been developments in metallurgy allowing tubing to be heated to higher temperatures without adverse reaction, thus eliminating the need for lugs and decreasing the overall construction costs.

I like lugged bikes. I think they have more personality. The framebuilder can put a more individualized touch on a lugged bike. Some get really fancy and hand-cut snazzy lugs like this one made by Rivendell or this super intricate one by Hetchins. Others are purely functional, which is just fine, too. I hope it doesn't become a lost art.

Here's a shot of the Nolan's lugged head tube after the rebuild:

So, while I am nowhere near an expert now, I have begun to pick up the general lingo and have definitely been bitten by the bug. I have two hooks in my bedroom ceiling now--shh, don't tell my landlord--one of which eagerly awaits Maria's arrival. However, as it turned out, she wasn't going to come without a fight...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Brooklyn Bike and Board

Just wanted to post a quick shout-out to my LBS. Check out their newly released, hot off the airwaves mini-documentary. Cool guys and total sweethearts--pay them a visit and help support the little guys!

Friday, June 4, 2010

The wonderful world wide web

The internet is this entirely new dimension, this other world that didn't exist when I was born almost 30 years ago. Now that I think about it, it's pretty cool to be growing up (yes, I am using present tense--I still feel like I'm not *really* an adult) throughout this totally crazy revolution that has changed so many aspects of how we think about this world, or at least how we interact with the world. I remember when we got our first computer back when I was in middle school. It took forever to dial up and get online. I grew up on 65 acres on top of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi in rural Wisconsin, no neighbors in sight, so I was accustomed to things taking a long time. Driving "to town" took a good half an hour and since my mother is one of the most obsessively energy-conscious people I've ever known, we weren't allowed to take spontaneous drives into town any old time we felt like it. We had to consolidate trips. It had to be really worth it. My dad used to commute to the hospital on his bike, which was an impressive feat. I biked to my high school a couple times and that bluff was totally impossible to bike up on the way home. It took half the time of the total trip just to walk up it with my bike.

Needless to say, the internet has sped up significantly since then, which appeals to my personality. As zen as it sounds to give up all ties to technology, I just can't. My mind and life move too fast and the internet is just too useful. Thirty years ago, when this bike was built, I wouldn't have had the help of the internet to put all the pieces together and track down the people who have helped me make this project a reality. It would have taken a long, long time.

The first step was figuring out if it was even possible. Would anyone even consider such a major overhaul of a bike when it would be cheaper to just buy a new one? Luckily, my LBS owner totally appreciated my pie in the sky idea and put me in touch with a shop in NYC that would probably consider the job. When I contacted them, they said they'd have to see the bike first, but yes, it was possible. Well...the bike is in Wisconsin, I explained. Would a photo suffice? Radio silence. In my typical impatience for an answer, I started thinking, it would probably be a lot cheaper to get this job done back home in Wisco. Had to be, right? I mean, the bike is already there. It has to be shipped here anyway at some point, so why not get the work done first? So, I got online and started googling "Wisconsin framebuilder", etc. After a few "won't do it" with a hint of "you're crazy" responses, I found a guy at this legendary shop in Madison that agreed to take on the job. I remember this shop vividly from my time in Madison for grad school, and even when I visited Madison as kid. It felt somehow serendipitous to have the bike worked on there. After all, it was born in Madison's backyard, so to speak. The shop owner's only question was who had made the frame because he wasn't aware of any standard models that were so large.

I should back up for second. This is the problem with recounting a tale that is now months old--I am inevitably going to forget the order of events a few times, so bear with me. I could edit and make it all neat and orderly, but where's the fun in that? You're probably wondering why I didn't just call up the original framebuilder and have him modify the bike, right? Well, I didn't know who it was. My dad couldn't remember his name. It was thirty years ago! My dad has a razor sharp memory, hence his great stories--ask my friend Heather about when he said he remembered Vermont back before the roads were paved--but he couldn't remember the framebuilder's name. I said, didn't you write it down anywhere? Would any of your old bike buddies know it? Nope. No such luck.

About a week later, I see my cell phone light up at work. It's my dad. My parents very rarely call me at work, so of course I thought something was wrong and I picked up right away. He found the name! On the bike. The framebuilder's name was on the bike. Naturally. So, the guy's name was Nolan. I immediately googled "Nolan, Trek" and found this on

Dick Nolan is the guy on the right with the awesome beard. He was Trek's first engineer back when Trek was operating out of a barn in Waterloo, WI. The other guy, Mike Appel, was one of Trek's first brazers. Appel left Trek for a while to build his own bikes--there are still a few floating around out there--but word is he's now back at Trek working as a custom painter. Check out all the frames lined up behind them. Pretty sweet.

So what happened to Nolan? No clue. He seems to have vanished into thin air. I've run across a few folks who knew him back in the day, but no one has heard from him since the early '80s. I even found a guy who is good friends with Mike Appel, who checked with him, but Appel hasn't the foggiest idea, either. Even the guy at the shop in Madison who took on my rebuild knew him! Nothing.

The mystery of the framebuilder's identity was solved but the puzzle was so captivating that I was even more hell bent on getting this job done, which was not easy to do, being 900 miles away. Fortunately, I have an extremely generous brother who also happens to love bikes. He said he would drive the bike the 2.5 hours down to Madison to drop it at the shop when he and his wife took a roadtrip there in the spring. Whoo hoo!

And so the project began for real.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The story of how the Nolan became Maria Divina: Part I

The tax code in this country is not designed to benefit those of us who don't solely or primarily work a typical 9-5er, i.e. musicians, independent contractors, etc. I am 28 years old and have never received a refund...until this year. You can imagine my excitement when I realized I was going to have a nice fat (well, fat for me, anyway, I'm not even sure what a typical tax refund is) refund check coming my way. I decided to be frivolous for once and treat myself to a new bike.

As my interest in biking has grown over the past several years, the idea of a custom-made bike has started looming large in my already overactive imagination. Clearly, this was the time to make that fantasy a reality. I went downstairs to my favorite LBS (local bike shop) Brooklyn Bike & Board to talk to Brian, the owner, about building me a bike. We discussed the various options and I went merrily on my way, off to scour craigslist and local flea markets for a frame that would work.

After about a week or two, and without much luck finding a frame, I was having my regular Saturday morning chat with my Papa and telling him about my plan to build a bike. He agreed that it was a great idea and asked if I remembered the story of his bike. I said I did vaguely, but would gladly hear the story again--my dad tells great stories and I never tire of hearing them.

If you're not sure if you've met my dad before, then you probably haven't. He's hard to forget. My friend Steve has always said he looks like Ernest Hemingway and apparently his mother, my grandmother who I sadly never knew, used to say the same thing. He's very distinguished. And very tall that he had a bike custom-built for him back in the 70s because he couldn't find a standard model big enough for him. He read an article about this guy who worked at Trek, which was just starting out at the time, who lived in Sun Prairie, WI and built bikes on the side. So, my dad just called him up and asked if he could build him a bike.

My dad had been riding an old Schwinn at the time with the seat jacked way up and wanted a bike that would fit him properly. The framebuilder said sure and a short while later, my dad drove the five hours down to Sun Prairie to pick up the bike. He was living with my mother in the Twin Cities at the time, so he took it back up there and mounted it on the wall in her garage.

A week later the bike was stolen. I don't know what kind of idiot thief took this bike or how he even rode it away. He must have been a giant--the frame was SEVENTY-SEVEN centimeters. For those of you who don't know bikes, that's laughably huge. Most people don't believe me when I tell them it was that big, but I swear it's the truth. I remember that bike as a kid, and the thing was practically bigger than I was.

So, my dad called up the framebuilder again, told him what happened, and asked if he could build him another bike. The kicker was that he needed it in two weeks because he was due to go on a bike trip with his group of friends that routinely took bike trips across the upper Midwest. Amazingly, the framebuilder said he could do it. (Somehow I doubt it would've been that easy in this day and age.)

Two weeks later, my dad was off to Door County on this bike (well, plus wheels):

And he's had it ever since. We went on many bike trips with it when I was little. I vividly remember one in Minnesota or Wisconsin (maybe to Trempealeau?) when I accidentally ran into him and somehow he crashed but I was totally fine. He had the hugest black eye--I felt awful. It's a long way to fall from the saddle of a 77 cm bike! I've had my own fair share of crashes since, not to worry.

Back to Brooklyn. So, I hung up the phone and started telling my roommate the story of my dad's bike when I stopped mid-sentence with as much of a light bulb moment as I've ever had. What if someone could resize my dad's frame for me? Take it apart, shorten the tubes and put it back together. How cool would that be? I mean, really, how special would that be to ride around on the bike that was built for my dad, who was the one who taught me to love biking in the first place? My dad doesn't ride it anymore (he's 80) so what was going to happen to it otherwise? It seemed a shame to let such a cool bike go to waste. In one of my typical bursts of spontaneity, I called my dad back right away and asked him what he thought. He agreed that it was a neat idea and said the bike was mine, if I could find someone to take on the project.

Thus began the wild goose chase.

To be continued...

Inaugural post

I'm taking the plunge.

My Communications Director at work always says, if you wrote an email today, you probably wrote a blog post. I write plenty of emails, so I'm going to think of this as an exercise in overcoming my perfectionist tendencies. No editing (or not too much) just writing.

Bicycles, opera and food...and maybe Brooklyn...and probably knitting, in the winter. Oh, and bread. Ooh, Bicycles, Brooklyn and Bread! My penchant for alliteration is coming out. It's a hard thing to squelch. Squash. Suppress. Okay, I reserve the right to edit my topics. They are still yet to be determined as of post #1. The thing that really prompted me to start this blog was Maria Divina, my "new" bike. It's a long, complicated story and it keeps getting longer and more complicated so I thought I should start writing it all down to capture it before I forget all the details. And there are some pretty unbelievable details, trust me.

Stay tuned...