Hint: It's not chocolate, it's ...
When Fat City Cycles was sold to the holding company owner of Serotta Competition Cycles in ‘94, bike junkies everywhere wondered what would happen to the soul of the company. Riders discussed whether or not a Slim Chance or Yo Eddy! Made by Serotta’s builders still constituted a Fat Chance. The issue arose because the new owner of Fat City announced none of the old employees would be retained; only Chris Chance and his partner would move to Saratoga Springs, NY.
Soon after, Steve Elmes, Lloyd Graves and other former Fat City employees announced the formation of Independent Fabrication, complicating the question. There was no doubt any bike made by the Serotta staff would be fine, but the people behind Indy Fab had been touted as the heart and soul of Fat City. So what were they now, (pardon me) chopped liver? For those concerned with brand equity, the situation was something of a conundrum: In what did the soul of Fat City reside? Was it the bike with the FCC decal or the bike made by the world-famous staff in Somerville, Mass?
What gives a bicycle soul? People talk a lot about soul and which bikes have it. There's no doubt a Sachs or Weigle has it in spades, but some of that is only appreciable when you get off the bike—you can’t really admire the lug work at 25 mph. We can discuss beauty all day long, but bicycles are made to be ridden and the most important part of any evaluation of a bicycle should be based on the ride of the bike, not how cool the paintwork is (which, in the case of Weigle, Joe Bell or Brian Baylis is undeniably so). Judging a bike on ride quality is the only way to level the playing field, otherwise the bikes made by corporations would all be considered crap. Oh wait, I suspect there are a few bikies out there who already think that.
John "Columbine" Murphy's hand-cut lugs and stem
As a rule, soul is associated with any bicycle made by an individual; Sacha White's Vanilla Bicycles have soul even though most cyclists don't know much about the guy (worth finding out). Simply put, if the decal on the side of the bike is the name of the person with metal slivers in his (or her) fingers, the bike has soul. If the decal only carries the name of a corporation and therefore doesn’t point to an individual with the hands of a craftsman, we don’t recognize any soul. We seem to grant certain manufacturers soulful status due to the quality of their fabrication. I think most cyclists would agree that bikes from Serotta, Seven and Indy Fab all have soul. And yet you can’t know who built the bike just by looking at it.
At what point does soul evaporate? How much of that has to do with the head of the company serving as the personality of the company itself. Rob Vandermark doesn’t build frames himself, but who would argue that Seven’s personality, its soul, isn’t inextricably linked to his own. Seven is certainly a projection, a manifestation of Vandermark himself. It's the same for Ben Serotta. But what is Moots now that Kent Erickson has left? Wasn’t the alligator Erickson’s alter ego?
Richard Sachs was—for a time—bewildered by the fact that his most expensive frames are his most popular. The reason is simple: His most expensive frames demand more of his time. More of Richard’s workmanship translates to more of his soul in the inevitable calculus of craft. Who would want less of the legend?
The sexy lines of the LeMond Tete de Course
So now to play Devil’s advocate: Why can’t the bikes from the big corporations have soul? The auto industry isn’t like the bike industry; if it were, Ferrari would be disparaged for their engineering prowess. Consider that some of the biggest bike companies around build bikes from some of the most advanced materials available and ultimately sell some of the most expensive bikes on the market. So why can’t Trek, Giant or Specialized be cool in the way the independent framebuilder is? As a guy interested in the technical advancement of the bicycle, I’ve learned more by talking to bike company engineers in the last year than I have from anyone else in the industry (save the fitting gurus at SBCU, but that’s another post).
In my mind, I’ve begun to visualize the conflict as the difference in sprinting styles between the Merckx generation and current PROs. Merckx and his contemporaries had to execute their sprints with finesse and through high rpms. Today, it’s all horsepower. You don’t see Ale-jet or McEwen turn the pedals at 150 rpm but their accelerations explode with Porsche ferocity. Both sprints are things of beauty, as surprising in their unfolding as opening a Christmas present. So why should we prefer one to the other?