Monday, January 25, 2021

On Again - Off Again - and (Maybe?) Back On Again

As if to prove that keeping a "keeper of the flame" classic steel bike business alive in a carbon-fiber world is no easy feat (complicated further by our current pandemic realities), we have seen the Leeds, England-based Bob Jackson Cycles die, get resurrected, and die again all in the space of about 3 months.

After announcing last October that the 85-year-old company would be closing its doors by the end of 2020, it was then announced the following month that the company had secured some new investment and new blood, and was poised for another 85 years. Visitors to the site would have been pleased to find this announcement on the homepage in November:

Well then, apparently whatever deals or arrangements that were being made to keep the brand alive must have fallen through. By the first week of January, the message was "We are ceasing trading with immediate affect."


It seems, however, the brand may not be entirely finished after all. Though I haven't seen anything posted on other sites, it was recently announced by Kevin Sayles, the Master Framebuilder at Woodrup Cycles (which, like BJ, is located in Leeds, England), that the rights to the Bob Jackson brand, along with some of the old shop's tooling and materials, have been purchased by Woodrup. Frames built by Woodrup, but badged as Bob Jacksons, may soon be available. Exactly how that arrangement will work has yet to be announced, but if true, the brand is in good hands. Woodrup has been in business since 1949, and still has a full-service bike shop. Their hand-built "bespoke" frames are beautifully made and have an excellent reputation. For Sayles, the arrangement brings him around full circle in a sense -- he was a builder at Bob Jackson early in his building career back in the 1970s.

Like I said, there seems to be little information anywhere else about the arrangement - it's not even on the Woodrup website yet - and to the best of my knowledge, details about starting production, pricing, ordering, or anything else haven't been determined yet. I guess that makes this is one of those "Watch This Space" kind of announcements. 

In the meantime - I suggest visiting the Woodrup website and drool over some of their handiwork. 

UPDATE: 1/27/21 - more info just came up on CyclingWeekly. The new Bob Jackson will be run as a separate company from Woodrup, with a goal of getting production going in about 6 months time. The plan is to have a new website where people will be able to order frames - and have a renovated workshop in Leeds (separate from the Woodrup shop) where the frames will be built. Here's a link to the news from Cycling Weekly.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Hindsight is 2020

As 2020 comes to a close, now seems like a good time to look back at a year like no other.

It's been a while since we've had such
a "White Christmas."
I'm going to start this by mentioning that I don't know how much biking material will be in this post. We had a big winter storm come through our area beginning on the night of Christmas Eve, dumping over a foot of snow, and that meant no Christmas bike ride this year. Even now, on the Monday after, my street is still a thick sheet of ice since no city snowplows ever rolled through my neighborhood. We are low priority, I guess.

Sorry to say, but the Covid-19 pandemic will NOT be over when the new year is rung in. It's crazy to think about the fact that it started almost a full year ago, first being reported in China last January - though it didn't really come to dominate our news and our lives until March when everything shut down. More than 300,000 people have died here in the U.S. since then, and the spike in cases is far beyond what it was back in March. Hospitals across the country are overwhelmed and healthcare workers are exhausted and desperate. Yet somehow there are huge swaths of the American public who refuse to even believe that it's real - even when they're dying from it. Without getting too specifically into the politics of it, I'll just say that the national-level response has been a disgrace. And the state-level response, depending on the state, has been equally pathetic. I felt pretty good about the response by our Governor here in Ohio, at least early on. But when our state's excellent health director started getting death threats and had to resign as a result, the state response has become much more anemic.

Prior to the coronavirus, most of my posts at the beginning of 2020 dealt with my project of restoring this beautiful vintage Specialized Sequoia. I had just finished it when everything "hit the fan."

I was looking back at my blog posts from the past year, and mentions of the virus come up in the majority of them, beginning in March ("Corona Virus Blues") and continuing right up to now. There are posts about working from home, working on bike-related projects during the shutdown, a Covid-19 bike boom, and escaping the quarantine by bike. It's kind of funny to think that someday those posts could be part of some future historian's study of life during the pandemic. A modern Journal of the Plague Year, if you will, as I'm reminded of Samuel Pepys, or Daniel Defoe, in that regard.

The pandemic has already changed many things about our culture and society - both for better AND worse. I'm saddened to think of all the businesses, particularly restaurants and small family-owned businesses, that have either closed or will close before it's all over. I'm frustrated at the way fake news and conspiracy theories have replaced reputable news and common sense as the guiding forces of so many people. I'm concerned that the pandemic has really exposed the serious weaknesses and inherent inequalities in our systems, including economic, political, and healthcare - and I fear that the people who benefit from those weaknesses and inequalities will prevent anything from making them better. I'm not an optimist, and I haven't been since 1992 (yes, I can actually pin it down that specifically).

But have there been any good things to come out of this dumpster fire of a year?

Well, I think it has made people (at least some people) consider what is really important. For every one selfish and ignorant person who refuses to wear a mask because of a twisted and self-indulgent interpretation of "freedom," there are perhaps several more who are making sacrifices to help an elderly neighbor. I think a lot of people have gained more appreciation for family, and cherishing whatever time they are able to spend together.

I've hated many aspects of trying to teach remotely - but I've loved the fact that I've been able to see my wife and my own children so much more during the day (in between our various zoom meetings, etc.). I know that when I do have to return to work, that will be something I will miss.

And, as was mentioned in the post about a pandemic "bike boom" - it seems that a lot of people have come to rediscover the joys of riding a bike. Being stuck indoors has made people crave some kind of release, and bicycling turned out to be a great way to find it. Living so close to a national park, I could see firsthand how people were flocking to the park to enjoy the simple pleasures of a hike or a bike ride through our natural resources.

Here's another thing: people have been driving less, and there has been a marked improvement in the quality of air and water in some places. I wouldn't be surprised if car-related fatalities for 2020 show a significant dip compared to previous years, too.

There is a vaccine now, which means we can almost see a light at the end of the tunnel. But the challenge, as I see it, is staying healthy until one can actually get the dose, and that could take months. When that time finally comes - maybe some time next summer - when we can feel comfortable enough to sit in a theater, or a restaurant - when we can hug that friend or relation without hesitating - when we can begin to feel "normal" again - what will we do? How will we respond? Will we be ready to to make serious changes to our addiction to oil? Will we finally be ready to address issues of inequity and very real weaknesses in our safety net and access to health care? Will people keep riding those bikes they bought - or shove them back down in the basement?

The Anglo-Saxons of the so-called "dark ages" believed in something they called "Wyrd." It's from this word that we got the modern-English word "weird" (and why, incidentally, Shakespeare's witches in Macbeth were called the "Weird Sisters"). The belief in Wyrd was essentially that the skein of any person's fate was woven long before they were born, and nothing they do can change the outcome. But even as we cannot change the outcome of our fate, we can control our response to it -- and it is our response to it that determines what kind of person we are, and the way we will be remembered. This past year has been a reminder that life can sometimes deal us things that we simply can't control. But we can always control how we respond to them. How will future generations view our response to this very weird 2020?

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Bike Safety 101: "This Is Johnny's Car"

Covid is surging. There is a vaccine currently making its way to the highest-risk folks - but the rest of us still have a long wait. Schools are "online" again as our region has reached the "purple zone" on the state's risk-level color chart. I'm working from home, alongside the RetroKids and my RetroWife. We're all on computers in separate rooms fighting for internet bandwidth and distraction-free zones for our various Zoom meetings. 2020 is drawing to a close.

Damn, that sounds almost post-apocalyptic, doesn't it?

So I'm digging around through some old boxes in my basement, looking for what, I don't even remember, when I came across this:

I have no doubt that this little bike safety pamphlet is older than I am. I don't even recall where I got this nostalgic gem, but as usual, I couldn't throw it away. It's a voice from a much simpler time. In the context of our current realities, from pandemic to political, finding this felt a bit like Charlton Heston finding the statue of liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes. This faded little pamphlet is clearly evidence that our world was once a different place.

"This is Johnny's car" and "Johnny is a safe 'car' driver . . ." the pamphlet proclaims. You see, while ostensibly promoting safe bicycle riding, the true message is pretty clear. A bike is something for kids - just a step on the way to the real goal of any true-blue (and staunchly non-socialist) American - Car Ownership.

The safety advice is pretty typical for the time, which I assume to be pre-Bike Boom, and relatively benign - mostly phrased as what Johnny does or doesn't do.

"Johnny Doesn't . . . "

Johnny Doesn't Wobble - on purpose or by accident. "Be sure you ride your bike well before you go out on the highway." Well, at least they admit he's allowed on the roads - but I'm a little surprised they encourage kids (the obvious target audience) to ride on the highways

Johnny Doesn't Let Anyone Sit On His Lap - Ever.

Johnny Doesn't Hog the Road. "Always ride single file. And just like slow cars . . . keep right so faster cars can pass."

Johnny Doesn't Hitch a Ride. "Ever run head-on into a wall? You will if that car stops"

"Johnny Does . . . "

Johnny Observes All Traffic Signs. "For extra safety, he walks his bike across busy intersections. You should too." A bike is "equal" to a car -- but don't go getting any ideas now. 

Johnny Looks Before He Leaps. "Cars don't barge out of driveways and alleys into traffic. You shouldn't either." (except when they DO!).

Johnny Uses Directional Signals. That's nice -- I encounter a lot of drivers who don't.

Johnny Has Lights for Night Riding. "And a horn or bell, too." Funny thing, when the CPSC started regulating bikes in the 1970s, they specifically decided NOT to require lights. But yes - definitely use them.

The tailfins on that car give a clue as to the age of this thing.

"Safe Bike Riders Like Johnny Make Skillful Drivers"

Now there's something I can definitely get behind. I'm convinced that people who routinely ride with traffic are generally more observant and better able to predict the behavior of other road users. I sometimes describe it as "Spidey Sense" - and it comes from knowing how badly most drivers drive, and how clueless (or even aggressive) they can be when it comes to cyclists. I also recognize how much that carries over when I'm in my car.

The pamphlet also explains that according to state law (Pennsylvania, in this case) a bike and a car are the same - and subject to the same rules. Good to know as a cyclist - but it's something that probably bears repeating to drivers more. Equal in the eyes of the law - but the real problem to us as riders is getting drivers to recognize our rights - or even to respect us at all. Especially when their attention is compromised by that addictive attention-sucking cell phone. But then again - such things were the stuff of science fiction when this pamphlet was published.

In that same box, I found a few other old pamphlets with similar, and sometimes dated, safety advice.

The Bike Riders Rules for Safety from Employers Mutuals (sounds like an insurance company to me) suggests that kids only ride on streets where traffic is light, dismount and walk at intersections, always pull over to allow cars to pass, and (oddly, if you ask me) always park your bike on the sidewalk. 

The ABC of Safe Bicycle Riding from the Bicycle Safety League looks to me like something that would have been hanging from the handlebars on a new bike in the early '50s.

There was another one that was more like a little handbook than a pamphlet: Fun on Wheels from The Insurance Office.

This one has so much to it I may have to save it for another post. But it all begs the question, where the heck (and when, and why?) did I get all these things?

Thursday, November 26, 2020

An Interesting Development

Happy Thanksgiving, folks!

Just a super short post today. Readers might recall it wasn't so long ago that it was announced that Bob Jackson Cycles in Leeds, England, was closing down. Apparently, there was such an outpouring of interest in the marque that plans had to be changed. This notice is currently on their website:

It sounds like someone stepped in to keep the place going financially, and I'm assuming some new, younger staff have come to learn the framebuilding trade. I'd call that encouraging.

As I had mentioned in my earlier post about Bob Jackson Cycles, they offer some excellent traditional "keeper of the flame" steel bikes - built and painted to order - at very reasonable prices. I guess it isn't too late, after all.

Fans of classic steel bikes, let's give thanks!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Peak Fall

It had to happen eventually. After several weeks of gorgeous riding weather, our good-weather-fortune seems to be coming to an end. I'm sitting here on a computer at work on a chilly, rainy, miserable day - and the forecast looks like more of the same this week.

This past Saturday was glorious, though, and I got out on one of my vintage Mercians to enjoy brilliant blue skies and sunshine, cool temperatures, and vibrant fall colors.

I stopped for a photo on a quiet road that winds its way through the woods where the light just looked like gold filtered through the fall leaves.

There may still be some nice riding days left this season, but I've got no doubt that trees will be far more bare and a lot of the color will be gone. I'm reminded of a line from a well-known poem by the renaissance poet Robert Herrick, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." I'm glad I got to enjoy it while I still could.

That's all for now - just a short post today.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Sad News - Bob Jackson Cycles Closing

It's sad to say it, but another great name in classic bicycles is about to disappear. Bob Jackson Cycles, also known as JRJ Cycles (for John Robert Jackson) is expected to close their doors later this year. Between an aging staff and a global pandemic, the company decided that the time has come to call it quits. 

I contacted the current owner of the company, Donald Thomas, who tells me "It’s as simple as this: we are very much an aging workforce and over the last 10-15 years we have not been able to find younger members of staff willing to take on this kind of light engineering work and get their hands dirty. So we are simply retiring. We have four key members of staff, including me, who have said 'enough is enough - let's stop and have some quality time while we can'." He also noted that sales have been trending downward for a while now, what with aluminum and carbon fiber frames dominating the market.

Thomas cites the current pandemic as another factor - if not due to its direct effects on the business, then because of the way it changes the mindset and rearranges priorities. All in all, I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise - but it still saddens me a bit.

In terms of quality and style, I've always felt that Bob Jackson Cycles were a lot like Mercian, which has long been a favorite of mine. The bikes and the companies just always seemed to have a lot in common: lugged steel frames, made to order with traditional methods and traditional materials. There were also some similar frame models, and paint schemes, etc. But JRJ is/was a bit older than the brand from Derby.

Bob Jackson began producing bicycles in 1935, with a hiatus during WWII while Jackson served in the RAF. Frame production resumed after the war, and over the years the company has produced other brands as well. In the 1950s, they acquired South London-based Merlin Cycles which they produced until some time in the 1980s. In the late 1970s and '80s, they built bikes for Hetchins, which was for a few years under the same ownership as JRJ. Even after Hetchins and JRJ were separated and Hetchins resumed building their own bikes, JRJ retained rights to produce the famous and distinctive "vibrant" or "curly-stay" designed frames. 

The Bob Jackson "Vulcan" (from their 
current website) is the only bike other than
Hetchins authorized to use that "vibrant" rear
triangle design. Brand new, starting at only £850.00 
(about $1100!). Sorry, too late now.

Bob Jackson had retired in 1986, and according to their own history page, the company had some troubled years following. In 1993, about the time that the Hetchins and JRJ companies separated, Donald Thomas took control of JRJ Cycles, with Bob Jackson as an advisor, and brought new energy for improvements and expansion. All building and painting operations were updated and brought in-house for better quality control. Mr. Jackson died in 1999, but the company continued.

I suppose signs that the company was "winding down" have been popping up for a couple of years now. They had a retail shop which I'm told was closed a few years ago, though frame production continued. Frames could be ordered through their website, either fully custom built or "off the peg." But custom orders were recently halted, and they had stopped taking new work for frame renovations and repairs, which was another thing they were known for. Their website still says folks can order an "off the peg" frame, but that needs to be updated because Thomas says they are not accepting any more new orders at this time. "We have had orders flood in since the word (about the closing) got out, so I would say now, no, sorry we will not have enough time left to build more orders."

Thomas told me the plan is to finish the last of the orders that have come in and close the doors by mid December. When it's all done, he added, "We are going to build ourselves new frames each, the last ones to leave the factory in the 85 years and 30,000 frames we have built."

There really aren't many of the old traditional builders left in Britain any more. Woodrup is still in business, with Kevin Sayles as the builder, and Mercian is still going. I believe one can still get a Hetchins as well. If someone wants a new "keeper of the flame" British-built lugged steel frame, the options are are really thinning out. Such a shame to see it happening. I'll be wishing all the best for the folks at Bob Jackson. You'll be missed, lads.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

A Beautiful Autumn For Biking

There's been lots in the news lately about wildfires in the West, and hurricanes in the South, but for the past few weeks here in Northeast Ohio, we've had just about the best weather for riding a person could ask for. We've had very little rain, mostly sunny days, cool temperatures overnight (down into the 40s typically) but up into the 50s and 60s by afternoon. I've been riding to work nearly every day. In fact, I've only driven my car once since Labor Day.

Early in the morning on my ride to work on Oct. 1st, the clear skies were lit by the harvest moon - seen here, just getting ready to dip below the horizon. It looked huge to my naked eyes, but I only had my phone for a camera, hampered by the limitations of that tiny wide-angle lens. This was one of those times where having my SLR camera with a telephoto lens would have given a much more impressive photo, but that's not something I normally carry with me on my ride to work. October this year will see a second full moon, the "blue moon," on Halloween.

At this point in the season, my rides are in darkness all the way to work, so I'm really relying on my lights for the morning commute.

Our weekends have also been beautiful, and the roads, paths, and other facilities of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park have been booming with cyclists. This morning, which was perfect and clear, with temps in the low 60s, I got up fairly early and suited up for a ride into the valley. The Saturday morning farmers market is still going on in the middle of the national park, and I made a stop for some goodies. There are only a couple more "outdoor" farmers markets scheduled for this year before they move to an indoor venue for the winter. I brought my orange Mercian, which has an assortment of small bags (most of them made by Berthoud of France) which would be useful for carrying my purchases from the market. Vendors have a lot of nice produce to offer, as well as meats, fresh pasta, and bread and other baked goods.

I stopped at the train depot near the historic Botzum farm for a photo on my way through the valley.

The "orange pearl" on the Mercian is a great color for a fall ride. The headtube is done in a cream color that looks very similar to the paint on the train depot. Coming back from the market, those bags will all be full.

Our leaves are only just beginning to turn color for autumn, but I anticipate they will be spectacular in another week. Hopefully our excellent riding conditions continue through that peak of color. 

That's all for now . . .