Am I good enough yet?
When was I good enough?
The answers to those questions from frame builders today come in a wide range. Most who answer in the affirmative do not have years of experience while the chance of answers in the negative increase as builders get older. On the one hand, being good enough could legitimately mean being able to make a frame strong, straight and safe to ride. On the other hand, is that good enough? Does cleaner brazing make the difference between good enough and good? What about tailoring handling and center of gravity to a rider’s skills and riding conditions? Is that the last step to being good enough?
Somewhere around my tenth frame back in early ’77, I began to realize that my fourth frame had really been a poor effort. It was strong, straight and safe. But I’d gotten so much better since then. I’d arrived. I was getting some notice in my area. I started getting orders from national class riders. I was good enough.
A year later, when I had another fifty frames under my belt, more feedback, more of my own racing experience, more experimentation with subtle changes in geometry for different conditions and tracks, I could look back and see how wrong I’d been a year before. In fact, for my clients I’d been good enough back then. Not good, but good enough. But now I was getting the hang of it.
When I was hired by Ross Bicycles to head up their new handmade frame department in ‘79, I had to at least pretend that I was good. I surely knew a lot more than my employers did about handmade bikes. I was only at Ross for a year and a half, but I learned more than I could have imagined from people who knew very little about what we did back in that converted kitchen. During those 18 months or so, I made about five hundred frames. Only a few custom frames, but within a few weeks of arriving, I was building far better frames than I had ever built.
By the time I left Ross, I could build technically perfect, lovely frames in my sleep. It had become easy to do what had been impossible a couple of years before. So repetition was critical. Many hundreds of repetitions. Even with today’s eyes, those frames remain beautiful when they return for refinishing all these years later.
How do those frames stack up with what we build now? Not even close. Over the last thirty years, I have never felt that I couldn’t get better. I got over that long ago. I am always at a point where I am designing and building bikes that are easily good enough, even good. But never as good as they can be.
If someone thinks that they have worked to a level where they are as good as they can be, they need to find a new job. In fact, what they have worked to is a place where their understanding of what they are doing is so divorced from reality that they cannot improve enough to be good enough. Quit or get better. There are only two options.