Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Great Conundrum

I discussed this question with my pal Hassan Ibrahim (of the desert folk) over the last week or so in Crested Butte, and thought it was worthy of a post.

First off, I'll admit it. I'm as superficial as the next mountain biker (or, heck, road biker). When I see someone roll up in the snazziest new baggie shorts, with a brand new full-suspension carbon wonderbike, I think "goober". Likewise I have a prejudgement available for grizzled 50 year olds riding rigid bikes with cantis (and wearing what appear to be discarded styrofoam coolers as helmets), shaved-leg racer wannabes with their number plate from 2 weeks ago still attached to their bike, etc, etc.

I judge people based on their appearance, in other words, probably just like you do. And a lot of it (at least in the world of bikes) has to do with what they're riding.

So here's the problem - when I'm out on the trail, I inevitably get asked questions like "What do you think of that Waltworks/29er/rigid bike/hardtail/etc?" and "Cool bike, where did you get it?" and "What kind of bike is that".

Now, I of course ride a bike that I built. And *I* think it's pretty nice and generally rides great. But there are some problems with using my bike as a piece of advertising:

-I never wash it. The darn thing looks like it's been dipped in poop (and some of that gunk on the downtube probably *is* feces of one kind or another). Best case scenario: people I meet on the trail think I'm hardcore. Worst case scenario: people think I'm a lazy, dirty, scumbag. Truth: somewhere in between.

-The parts are all junk. Sure, DT240 hubs are really nice. But when they're 5 years old, the stickers are half peeled off, and all the spokes are different colors (and buttings) from me having replaced broken ones, the wheels don't look all that nice. Likewise the LX cranks - I think they're a great deal and work well, but the average person on the trail isn't going to be impressed. I'm also rocking/running/schluffing old Avid BB-7s that are 6 or 7 years old (really!), ESP5.0 brake levers from the late 90s, a Thomson post so scratched you can't see what size it is or the minimum insert level (not to mention the deliberate scratches I've put in it to mark how high it needs to be), a Bontrager saddle so broken that it sounds like I'm sitting on a rusty bedframe, and a Ritchey stem that looks like it's been through the washing machine with some rocks. Which it has, basically. In short, the bike is a few steps away from looking like it was assembled by a homeless person.

-I wear weird old clothes. I should probably wear Waltworks kit 100% of the time, but I feel like a pretentious jerk riding around in race kit constantly, so I often wear old performance brand jerseys from teams that ceased to exist 15 years ago, or shorts I got at Veloswap for $5 with holes in them, or whatever. Until recently I was riding and racing in a pair of first-generation SIDI Dominators that for all practical purposes had no soles.

So I make a bad impression on the trail, I think. At least for other shallow people like myself. The question is, should I try to change that? I recently ordered the wrong XTR brake for a customer (it's a post-mount one, he wanted ISO) and my BB-7 stopped working entirely on the front, so I bit the bullet and installed it on my own bike. And I even ordered a matching rear one. What's next, a new stem, or crank? How far down this road should I go? Should I build myself a new frame (the current one is on season 5 now) with all the sweet new tubing and nice bits that have become available in the last few years?

So the question, really: is being a nice guy on a beat-down bike a problem? Would more people want one of my bikes if I was clean-shaven and had bright shiny XTR everywhere? Or is it enough to be a friendly dude on a bike that gets ridden a lot?


cornfed said...

The fact that you are riding a 5 year old frame says more to me about your product than what you're wearing.

LeeAB said...

UH..where did you get the imression you were nice?

The only real reason to go "Whole Hog" as my mom would say is to attract more attention to your bike. Whic might help you sell more frames. Though there is absolutely no problem riding a well loved bike that works and runs well, but more people are going to be interested in what you have if it is bright and shinny as in cleaned.

In short, clean the thing once in awhile, especially if you think it is nice, treat it as such. If the saddle makes noise replace it, that's it. Besides you would not get as much joy out of new bling as others anyway.

Dave said...

I vote for friendly dude. That´s what it´s about anyway to me.

I resemble many of those descriptions you made, and in reality, each of us has a little bit of those in all of us.

If you´re riding and having fun, the rest is not so important.

Bikewright said...

I remember back when I was racing I would try and size everyone up. I didn't worry about the guy on the new bike and a sponsors kit. It was the dude on the Bridgestone that was going to kick butt!

People that you what to sell a bike to will know what you are riding..Just love your bike.

Anonymous said...

Depends; do you wanna sell bikes?

The buying public expects organized, clean cut, professional businessmen. The way you present yourself and your frames says a lot about how you run your business and makes inferences about your frames as well.

If you want to sell more frames then you'll have to polish your image, and that includes your frame, parts, and clothing. It may suck, but it may be necessary to continue a thriving business. And by extension, how proud would you be to show your customers your workshop?

Corey said...

If more people want your bikes due to your trailside bling...could you keep up with the extra demand?

If that second bike pic is yours, I think it looks great! replace what breaks, otherwise just ride it!

And it's the eggbeaters that make you look hardcore, by the way :D

Anyway, my daughter has the hardcore look down...notice where the left shoe is:

Walt said...

Good points, all. Keep in mind, I have no interest whatsoever in "growing" my business. The business is just fine the way it is. I always have work, I make fair (well, ok, that depends on your definition of "fair") money, and I don't have to work 60 hours a week.

So the question isn't whether I need to advertise my business. I have as much (more, sometimes) work as I need.

The question really is - should I polish myself and my appearance to try to sell bikes to people who are also snobs, and hence likely to spend big bucks (ie "full SRAM Red for me, Walt", vs "Dirtbag me, dude"). The money is at the high end - do I want to move that direction, or keep being a guy who does more basic/value oriented stuff?

I like the fact that my friends can afford my bikes (without giving them crazy deals), and I think I'd rather hang out with the crusty guys on 20 year old Bridgestones anyway... but I don't know.


Walt said...

Oh, and btw, Anon, people come to the shop all the time. I'm not embarrassed about it at all. It's a bit messy, sure, but c'est la vie. Neurotically organized OCD people drive me nuts!


VT Mike said...

If you have to raise your frame prices to get all of the XTR bits, I might not be able to afford another one.

stqeno said...

if i look at the bike you are hardcore, dont care about, change What breaks and ride it, this bike has more soul as any new massproduced superbike. Question is, if you start to sell to snoby folks, what for benefits gives it to you? could you raise the prices? could you gain more customers? Can you serve this higher demand with overproduction? I start to interest what would it cost to ship to europe, next year is 29er time also for me finally.

Eric Wever / Pisgah Productions said...

I think your 'every guy' persona and your 'no curved tubes' basic / value oriented frame building style is exactly what has brought you the clientele you've had thus far. The question should be do YOU want to build high-end geekery that may or may not be ridden or do you want to build frames that people will ride into the ground over 5 or more years? Do you even care? Does your current clientele pay their invoices? If so, why change?

When it comes to bike aesthetics, try to match your post and stem, front and rear rim color, seatpost clamp and headset color, and f and r brakes. Then NEVER clean anything but the drivetrain. You'll look part dapper gentleman, part sloppy drunkard.

Anonymous said...

Don't change a thing. Keep being the chill frame builder that you are!

Nowork said...

Walt. This is BS!!

Admit it!!

I saw you wash your bike 3 years ago. You can't deny it! I was there.

And as for keeping your bike clean, well the main reason should be to check for any minor/major dents/cracks every few weeks. Even if you haven't crashed, something thrown up from the trail.

Ed said...

Whew! I'm not quite 50 yet and I don't wear a styrofoam cooler on my head.

I don't think I need to tell you where I stand on the subject, I mean my bikes are the epitome of shiny, happy bling ;-) Sounds like you're in a happy zone so keep on keepin'on.

As you were.


js said...

As we're on the road, I'll keep this brief:

I think the parts say a ton about you and your sensibilities. The dirt; no problem there either.

The issue... your frame is five years old. Having owned a bike you built a while ago and one you built earlier this year I think I can say that there are some major differences.
Does the old frameset work? heck yeah. Does it even vaguely represent your current work? Heck no.

Oh yeah, if you always rocked WW kits we'd have to punch you in the nuts.

Walt said...

Well, um, thanks, guys. As usual, any thread involving making fun of me seems to get the most responses. I guess self deprecation pays!


a bespectacled man, pipe and book in hand said...

Growing your business is important, and building upon your no-nonsense brand equally.

As for style points, yeah, shabby chic, hillbilly haute couture, whatever! Be comfortable, as you being the fabricator is the business.

On that note however, you should look into expanding your business to include some passive income, which will not only reinforce your brand, but grant you more financial leverage, if not only to experiment.

For example, taking on an apprentice to specifically manufacture handlebars under the WW badge. Anyway, it's a thought, and something worth considering.

word verification: pessesti

Corey said...

And in a way, isn't your described trailside appearance the very definition of self deprecation?

Eszter said...


That's really all I've got.

I don't think I'd recognize you from a mile away if you didn't wear the most hideous jerseys in the world.

b.asti said...

sometimes I see people on the street wearing worn out jeans and a not-that-white-anymore tshirt and they look greater than 99,5% of all posh dresses people just because their jeans and shirt fit like a second skin.

Waltworks bikes are like long loved jeans to me. I´m pretty sure you like your bluejeans customers more than you´ld like the armani guys. And there are way enough framebuilder for the "money isn´t an issue-folks. I wich time wouldn´t be an issue but that deserves a seperate mail.

Concerning your personal bike, I ´ld vote for a new paintjob for the fork to match the frames color. Just in case a customer is going to get the very same color and you can send in your fork too easily ...;-)