I haven't done everything or been everywhere, but I've been many places and seen lots of things and have learned incredible volumes of things from people I've met, worked for, and befriended. Thanks to all of them for contributing to Polkadot in one way or another. You know who you are.
My first experience with what I would call a "real bike" was an old road bike that Bill Carney sold me. It was rusted and living under the stairs outside where we lived. A friend, Ron Burkett, grew up in a bike shop and he spend about a half hour working on this rusted hulk and turned it into a magical bike. I was amazed.
In college I rode a heavy department store bike with five speeds and a bent pedal. It worked fine until a friend let me ride his shiny new road bike he purchased from Lincoln Schwinn on Pioneer's Blvd in Lincoln. I was hooked.
Without doing any research or talking to anyone I stumbled over to another popular bike shop. I test rode a few bikes and decided on a purple Univega Gran Sprint. It weighed about 21 pounds and seemed ok. A few weeks later I noticed a few things wrong with it and took it to Deluxe Bicycles on 19th and O (18th?) and met Tom Spahn. He threw my bike into the rack and in a few minutes returned to show me a bone-dry headset which had been pitted and destroyed. The same with the bottom bracket bearing. He replaced both parts and neither one ever needed servicing for the entire time I owned the bike. I commuted on it my 4 years at UNL and for 2 more years in Germany.
One day, in 1985, I stumbled into Lincoln Schwinn and saw an Italian Torpado in pearl beige, just my size. It was the beginning of my love affair with hand-made steel bicycles. To this day I have never been on a bike that rode like that one. Although the entire bike was only $449 at that time, I've attempted to purchase that frameset online and the cost for it and all the parts which were on it now approaches $3200. There is definitely a difference between a hand-made bike and one which comes from a huge factory. Maybe not so much in how they feel when you ride them, but definitely in how they maintain their value. I'm not saying everyone needs a super swank handmade, I am merely pointing out the differences.
On my second foray to Germany I lived in Berlin, mostly. I rode what everyone in Europe rides, and for good reason. I rode a city bike with 5 speeds, a front basket, mud guards, spring saddle, and generator light. In the two years I rode it I never had a flat or put much money into that horse. Ironically, it was stolen in Hannover shortly before I returned to the US and then, since I had put these wild yellow grips on it, I spotted it not 50 meters from my old apartment in the Nordstadt 23 years later in 2015. It was still going strong with a new saddle, but the same everything else. Steel bicycles, when used properly, can last quite some years. If you're thinking about a commuter, don't overlook the classic European commuter from KHS at $449.
I was attending Grad School at UNL in 1993 when on a trip to Deluxe Bicycles on 25th and O St the owner, Greg Dunbar, asked me if I wanted to work a few days as a sales guy and maybe learn how to properly work on bikes. I had been working on my own for 10 years, but that's not exactly the same and working on bikes for Greg. I started the next day. Like a kid in a candy store, with a beer fridge in the back, I watched Tom Spahn, Patrick Donohoe, Greg Dunbar, Adrian Contreras, Patrick Farrell, John Kohtz, and Shawn Hinrichs use their incredible talents to run one of the premier bike shops in the Midwest (according to my opinion). There really was nothing these guys couldn't do well.
Art vs. Commerce and Innovation vs. Development
When you're looking at watches, films, cars, bikes, winter clothing, or almost any product made by humans or machines you're going to run into these questions.
1. Is this art or commerce or a bit of both? The example might be, is this film I'm seeing on the screen because someone thought that this story needed to be told in a way that reflects the vision of the screenwriter, director, producer, etc.? Is this film a vehicle for a bunch of investors to make money on their investment? Neither one of these is necessarily bad. I loved Star Wars and American Grafitti. I also love the hundreds of experimental and underground small-budget films that come out of Hungary, Italy, and far away places that never get top billing at huge movie outlets. Many bicycles made by people with a vision which are unique and irreplaceable often cost less that the bicycle version of Batman. So keep that in mind when you're shopping.
2. Is this innovation or development? If you ever shop at Goodwill you've undoubtedly seen the quartz watches in the 99-cent basket. If you're an old guy like me then you can think back to when a LCD or LED watch cost $159 from Sears. Those were super cool for about a year then, as technology advanced the price came down to where you got one with your Sports Illustrated subscription. This is the same in the bike world. The super-duper carbon bike that was $3000 in 1995 is now sitting rusted in front of Southeast High. The dual-suspended mountain bike that someone saved for years and years to purchase now shows up on Craigslist for 200 bucks and nobody wants that old technology.
A few months ago a guy brought a Rolex watch he purchased in Saigon in 1967 to Antiques Roadshow. Since that Rolex is only marginally different from the 1950 version and the 2016 version it's held its value and they estimated it to be worth $700,000. If you bought a steel Cinelli Super Corsa bike in 1967 and kept it in your living room it might be worth 5-10x what you paid for it, maybe more. The reason being that Cinelli and Rolex work tirelessly to make proven design better every year. A product that works great made to work better. This idea is in contrast to a product engineer sitting behind his laptop trying to think up crazy bike plans that may or may not work and may or may not sell or may or may not even be safe to ride. Since I sell KHS, I'll just mention that KHS relies only on time-tested proven design for all their bikes.
The Bike Industry
I love bikes. I understand that people in the bike industry have to make money and live. I know filmmakers start small, make it big, they wish they could go back to small. I know all this. I've seen it.
In 2015 I met one of the foundations of custom frame-building in the USA at the North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show in Denver. Alta-Vista that if you don't know what I'm referring to. The man's name was Bruce Gordon who has since passed away. He told me that he loved building bikes for earnest people who loved the sport as much as he did. He said that when he saw a huge company in the USA making tons of money off of Chinese mass-produced bikes that were similar to his he decided to play their game. He sent his design to a small frame fabricator in Taiwan and ordered around 1000 framesets. Within weeks he was selling them online. Within weeks he also went from being an icon in the frame world to being an import/export clerk. All his time was spent on the computer chasing orders. When I met him he had 9 frames left in inventory and couldn't wait to get rid of them. He hated it.
Another guy I met spent all his time flying to Taiwan to check on the production of his frames/bicycles. If he was not there at least 5-6 times per year the stuff he would receive would slowly and almost imperceptibly start deviating from the specifications he had paid for. Paint would get thin, brake cables would go from stainless steel to the cheaper galvanized. Tires on one bike would be different sizes or models than the ones in his catalog. Not big stuff, but stuff that would eventually catch up with him. After all, his bikes started at $2500 and that's no place to skimp. He had kids in college and he had demand and he was doing the American thing and putting himself between supply and demand, but it's darn hard work.
Polkadot doesn't sell stuff online. We have a shop and we enjoy putting people on bikes that they love. We love to build high-quality reliable bikes that will last forever and be worth something and be repairable when your grandkids inherit them in 2058. We're not chasing the cash. We aren't on the forefront of cool. We do not much care about any of that.
I've read reams of stuff on bike history and lived a bit of it, also. Here are some disjointed bits for you to chew on.
Marshall Major Taylor's bikes fit in velvet-lined suitcases and weighed around 12 pounds in 1896. None of them are around today because a 12lb bike with a world champion athlete on it can't stand up for long.
The average speeds in the big pro races in 1953 were not much slower than they are today when you consider that they raced on gravel, took cold showers, traveled by train and didn't have nutritionists. Their bikes were fairly light, also.
Most innovation in the bicycle world had taken place before 1930. Many "new" ideas are just old ideas dusted off.
There was a bike built for around two decades in the 1920's that required you to pedal backwards to climb hills. Even looking at a photo of it doesn't help much in figuring it out.
Eddy Merckx from Belgium won over 400 professional road races in his career. Nobody else has even won 300.