Monday, February 22, 2016

The Passing of Brian Baylis

"I make a bike that pleases my eye and satisfies my soul. Even though my extra effort is not always rewarded monetarily, my 'payment' for this is self-satisfaction. When the finished product makes the client happy, and if some appreciate my skill and effort, then I feel complete. Builders who refuse to put in the effort, much of which involves lots of time, without financial considerations, are simply not driven as craftsmen in the purest sense. These people are in the 'business' of framebuilding." 
-- R. Brian Baylis
Some of Brian Baylis's exquisite craftsmanship.
(photo from Jan Heine's Bicycle Quarterly, with permission)

Brian Baylis passed away Saturday evening due to severe complications from pneumonia. He was widely considered one of the greats of American bicycle frame building, and even though a person might go their whole life without ever seeing one of his bikes up close, touching it, or riding it, his death is a real loss to the world of bicyclists and builders, artists and craftsmen.

Brian really was an artist and a craftsman in a very pure sense. He didn't make a huge number of bicycle frames, and that could be at least in part because he spent an inordinate amount of time striving for perfection in the details of each of the bikes he built. Fellow framebuilder Dave Moulton very recently wrote of Brian's attention to detail and workmanship:

"On hearing of his passing, for some reason I thought of a story I once heard of an old wood carver, working on a huge pair of double oak doors. The design was an intricate one with oak leaves and acorns, scrolls and winged cherubs in each corner. Someone asked him, 'How do you know when it is finished?' He replied, 'It is never finished, they just come and take it away from me'."

Brian was probably as well-known as a painter as he was as a builder. He painted bikes for a number of other builders over the years, and also did a lot of paint and restoration work on vintage bicycles. That was how I came to know, in a very small way, Brian Baylis. I had an old 1970 Raleigh Professional that was absolutely beat and battered, but the bike was part of a "limited edition" with a special numbered label, and I thought it might be worth restoring. Considering the bike's condition, I probably over-paid, and then I spent more restoring the bike than the bike was likely worth. Financially it was not such a smart move, but I was younger, more naive, and didn't yet have kids. And it got me in touch with Brian, so no regrets.


I sent the bike frame and fork to him in California, and then we spent some time talking on the phone about it. We had a few conversations like that. He was exceptionally cool to talk with on the phone, and I felt good about how the project would turn out. That bike frame needed a lot of work. It had a shallow dent in the top tube, a fair amount of rust (some of which went fairly deep), pitted chrome, and it had an adjuster screw broken off in the rear dropout. It took several months to get the bike back, which I've heard is actually pretty good turnaround time. When it came back, it was absolutely beautiful -- in fact, it was doubtless much nicer than it was when it first left Raleigh's Carlton factory in Worksop. The chrome gleamed. The tubes were straight and true. The paint, with its contrast panels, bands, and pinstriping, was flawless. Looking closely at the head-tube on the bike, I noticed that Brian even restored the headbadge. He had polished the brass and re-painted the little details in the recesses. He never mentioned it in our conversations, and it didn't show up on the final bill. I think it was just part of that attention to detail I'd heard so much about that he couldn't bring himself to put the dull and faded badge on that gorgeously restored frame.


Nearly a decade later, at a Cirque du Cyclisme show in North Carolina, I met Brian in person for the first time. I was mildly surprised, but he remembered me and my old Raleigh very well, and we had another nice conversation. He just struck me as a truly genuine guy, and I really wished I could spend more time, maybe on his own turf, in his workshop, sharing some beers and swapping some stories.

I kept that bike for a while, but some years later I ended up selling it to pay for a new-old-stock, never-ridden 1973 Mercian Superlight. But that old Raleigh was the closest I ever had to owning some Baylis craftsmanship.

A Little History - For Those Who Just Don't Know:

Brian Baylis got his start in the bicycle business back in 1973 when he got a job with the recently-opened Masi factory in California. He started out with tasks such as building wheels and doing bike assembly, then eventually filing, brazing, and later painting. After a few years, he and fellow Masi builder Mike Howard struck out on their own to form Wizard Bicycles. Another couple of years and about 80 frames later, both men were called back to help re-organize Masi. Then there was a brief flirtation with Medici which was itself sort of a Masi spinoff, then Brian went out to build, paint, and restore frames under his own name.

In more recent years, Brian was focusing on some other interests besides bicycles. I could have it wrong, but based on things I'd heard and read (some of it from Brian himself) it seemed to me that his work on bicycles was becoming more and more something he was doing for good friends and maybe to fulfill older obligations, and he was working quite hard at making really exquisite hand-made knives. His familiar attention to detail and craftsmanship was just as much a part of his knives as it was on his bicycles.

Brian with one of his bikes at NAHBS in '07
(photo by Jessica Lifland)
There are a lot of people out there who knew him a helluva lot better than I ever could have - people who can speak of the man's many passions. Bicycles. Drums. Dogs. He was even restoring a classic Bentley. I am glad to have even had the bit of interaction with Brian that I did. There are several other tributes to Brian going up around the web already - like the one by Dave Moulton that I mentioned earlier. One could also check Brian's own blog for some info and pictures of his work, or the Classic Rendezvous page about him.

I figure the best way to wrap up this little tribute would be the same way it started, with Brian's own words:

"Growing as an artist and craftsman never ends. Challenging oneself is what makes you grow and expand. Falling into a routine and doing the same thing over and over again doesn't satisfy me. This may work for many others, but results in being good at one thing. I prefer working on a broader set of skills and perfecting them, which keeps framebuilding fresh and exciting. I get my inspiration from this."

"Talk is cheap. The work must speak for itself. Simple as that."

3 comments:

  1. Oh, dear. My condolences to his friends and family. If you have any of his handiwork, consider yourself truly fortunate!

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  2. I love that first quote. Wonderful tribute, thanks.

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  3. Scroll work on lugs in photo 1 makes me drool.

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