Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Conversation with Curtis Odom: Inspired by Classic Hubs

If you visit the website of Curtis Odom's Vintage-Styled Bicycle Parts (, one of the first things you'll see is Curtis's mission statement: "To create the most beautiful bicycle hubs ever made." That is a pretty lofty mission, but some would argue he's well on his way, if not already there. Curtis Odom's hubs and other bicycle components take their cues from great designs of the past, but update them with modern technology and materials. Did I mention that they are absolutely exquisite?

An assortment of Curtis Odom's hubs, as well as other components
displayed on a "bed" of tools. (Photo by Michael Graves)
According to his website, Curtis has been "bicycle racing, collecting, restoring, building, repairing, and eventually manufacturing" bicycles. I was curious about his actual career path and/or training.

"My career path started when I was in middle school," said Curtis. "I was always a natural 'Gear Head' mechanical kind of guy. Shop teachers would cut me from the herd and teach me more advanced skills. By the time I graduated from high school I was already adept at wood working, metal work, graphics, etc."

After high school, Curtis got his introduction to the bicycle industry at his local bike shop. "From there I did twenty years in the bicycle industry, working my way up from mechanic/sales/management and ending as the designer and production manager for a triathlon bicycle company," he said. "After enough time in the biz I decided to go to improve my skill sets so I went back to school. A few real corporate jobs later and I ended up at Black & Decker where I topped out as an Engineering Manager. My years at B&D polished all the tools I needed to make a go on my own."

Curtis explained to me how he got started making hubs. "I made my first two pairs of hubs around 1995. These were for a custom cruiser project that was shown at Interbike. From bending, swaging, and ovalizing tubes for the frame, to designing and manufacturing components, were all done from scratch. This was a joint project with the Topline Bicycle Products Company and the Auto-Tec machine shop. I still use one of those pairs of hubs on my delivery bike."

A "Clubman" hub, with one of Odom's track cogs mounted.
Regarding inspiration, Curtis's website mentions the following anecdote: "There is a story of when I was a little surfer grom wandering the alleys of my home town of Pacific Beach, California. I was twelve or thirteen years old and I knew nothing of bicycles beyond your common Schwinn Stingray or Typhoon paper delivery bikes. As I walked these alleys I spotted a rusty and bent wheel sitting on top of a trash can. I picked this wrecked wheel up and noticed that the hub was different from others that I was used to. The hub was made from aluminum; the lack of rust intrigued me. Then I noticed that the center of the hub had writing on it. I rubbed the grime off to see the name Campagnolo. Some instinct told me that this was different; this was special. I keep this hub. Today it sits in front of me on my desk, full of inspiration." I asked Curtis what else inspires him.

Some "design DNA"
"A lot!" he replied. "I am a real believer in design DNA. My range of design DNA is quite large: architecture, industrial design, furniture, tooling, automobiles, planes, trains, and obviously bicycles."

Curtis also puts an emphasis on people as inspirations. He said, "Often it is as much about 'who' inspires me. I have been lucky to have had many great mentors over the years. Without them I never would have learned how to express my creativity. A short list would be these: my grandfather who crushed my feelings when at five years old I gave him a present I made for him, he told me it was a piece of junk but he also taught me to have design intent before starting every project; my high school shop teachers; my first bicycle shop boss Reed Pike who taught me wheel building and mechanics; my automotive mentor, hot rod builder Jon Guilmet who taught me to have the “Eye” to know when a shape is perfect; Photographer Michael Graves who has pushed me for decades to be a better artist; Dan Empfield who first cut me loose to do my own design work on his Quintana Roo products; Steve Hed who taught me so much about aerodynamics; Ricardo Cruz Sr. and Jr. who taught me machining and still manufacture my products. Ricardo Cruz Sr. once said before he passed away “I want you and Ricky to make bicycle parts together.” Ricky is the reason this all started. There are many more, including my beloved wife of twenty five years Heather Odom."

Curtis's "Holey" hubs. Some will recognize the BH Airlite
influence.  (photo by Michael Graves)
When it comes to the hubs that Curtis Odom makes today, one can see echoes of the past. The original Odom hubs, the "Holey" hubs, are a favorite and were inspired by the BH Airlites. Other classic looks include the "Bacon Slicer" hubs, inspired by the vintage Harden hubs from the U.K., or the "Pepper Pots" which may remind some of the old French-made Prior hubs.

Curtis says, "Airlite hubs were the first to make an impression on me when I was a teenager. I first saw them and the Schwinn Paramount 'Phone Dial' hubs on WWII vet old time racer Robert Bergen’s track bikes at the San Diego Velodrome. I always wanted some and never came across any for sale so I made my own. Now we have restored one of Bergen’s track bikes and it rides on Curtis Odom hubs."
Looking closely at Curtis's hubs, it is pretty clear that they are built on a three-piece shell -- similar to some of the vintage hubs such as the Airlites, or early Campagnolo Gran Sports -- as opposed to being machined in one piece like a lot of current production hubs. In fact, when ordering hubs, one has a choice of aluminum or stainless steel for the hub center. But even though they look like the vintage hubs with their pressed-on flanges, according to Curtis, there is a bit more to it than that.

The "Pepper Pot" track hub.
"Unlike the earlier hubs mine are much more complicated to build," said Curtis. "The flanges are threaded, epoxied, and torqued to the center bodies. All spokes holes and designs are milled or drilled after the bodies are assembled. There are two reasons I build them this way, one is the four inch diameter flange with thin center sections are almost impossible to machine without issues caused by such a deep cut and flex, the other is that I really wanted to replicate the chrome center look by using a stainless steel center."

In addition to the use of updated technology in the manufacturing, CO hubs are made with modern sealed cartridge bearings (or magneto bearings for an upgrade), and in cassette hub versions for either Shimano or Campagnolo-compatible cassettes.

If one checks out Curtis's Flickr site, they can see some of the other projects that he has in the works. These include disc brake and even coaster brake hubs, riveted flange hubs, a "retro-direct" hub kit (which gives a different gear ratio while pedaling backwards!), chainrings, chain guards, spoke wrenches and a stopwatch holder. There are even some non-bicycle-related items such as coffee pour-over stands, mugs, furniture designs, and more. "Would you believe I am most excited about a tool roll I am working on?" he added.

An Ascari Bullitt track bike with Curtis's "Sweetheart" hubs
on display at Ralph Lauren's RRL store in NYC.
(photo from Ascari Bicycles)
Of course, the hubs and other components are extraordinarily beautiful -- and one would fully expect to see them at a show like the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS -- where Curtis has, indeed, displayed his wares) or at some other bicycle industry trade show. But who would expect to see them on the pages of a fashion magazine, or in a shop display surrounded by high-fashion clothing? As it turns out, Ralph Lauren's RRL store on Bleeker St. in NYC has recently put bicycles on display made by Ascari Bicycles, some of which are equipped with Curtis Odom's hubs. Ascari Bicycles are very much vintage-inspired designs, incorporating warm, natural elements such as wood and leather, which complement the vintage theme of RL's clothing line. And of course, the high-flange CO "Sweetheart" hubs are the perfect choice.

On the CO website, Curtis says, "Modern bicycles in many ways get better with every generation. This does not mean that they get better looking. Fact is, they have not." That got me wondering if Curtis sees himself as a retrogrouch. He replied, "I never do consider myself a retrogrouch but sometimes I come close. I have a real love for many types of bicycles including modern race bikes -- well, at least for the way they ride and not so much for how they look. Sure, people call me that but it makes sense based on my own work. But my work only shows one area of my passion."

I'd like to thank Curtis Odom for his time to answer my questions. Thank you for contributing to the Retrogrouch Blog!

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