Monday, July 15, 2019

Randy Smolenski Memorial Ride

This past weekend I took a drive up to visit with my Michigan friends and take part in a memorial ride for framebuilder Randy Smolenski. Randy probably wasn't that well known outside of western Michigan, but he ran what sounds like a pretty terrific bike shop in Grand Rapids, and built some great bikes for the racers and club riders in that area. He had died in 2017 at about 70 years old. His birthday would have been Saturday.

Riders on Saturday were encouraged to ride their Smolenski-built bikes, though not everyone could do that (myself, for instance) and so the ride was an opportunity to see a bunch of examples of his work together in one place, and for people to share memories and swap stories about the builder. I heard a lot of them, and all I can say is that Randy must have been a real character - extremely knowledgable about bikes, perhaps a little "gruff" about it at times. Didn't suffer fools. Heart of gold. If he gave advice about bikes, it was best to follow it because he was very nearly always right. My kind of guy. All I can say is I wish I could have visited that shop and met the man.

According to my pal Jim T. who organized the ride, Randy started building bikes back in the early '80s because he was increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of bikes he was dealing with, and that included the workmanship on expensive Italian bikes from very prestigious names. Alignment issues, poor brazing or mitering, etc. He just knew he could do it better, and so he did. Looking at some of the examples on Saturday's ride, it was clear that Randy had developed a very distinct style in his frames - most of which were for racing. Super tight geometry, close clearances, fastback stays, clean and simple lugwork - the bikes just looked fast. He didn't build a lot of bikes - Jim estimates the number to be no more than about 150 - but it's hard to say for sure because Randy didn't bother with things like serial numbers, meticulous records, or anything like that. It's possible he couldn't have given a more accurate estimate himself.

The ride was about 60 miles, mostly flat, with a lot of it on the White Pine Trail which is a former railway line converted to bike trail. That much of the ride pretty much followed the same course as another group ride I participated in last year. But then the route took us away from the trail, through some pretty countryside and out to place called Baptist Lake where Jim has a cottage beside the lake. There we had a nice lunch, prepared by his wife, then we rode back the way we came. It was super hot - upper 80s at least - but with a good breeze to make it tolerable. We were joined on the ride by Randy's widow, Deb, who was happy to see how well Randy was remembered by riders in the area. It was a real pleasure to meet her.

A Look at the Bikes:
This pink Smolenski is one of ride-organizer Jim T's bikes. Built with a mix of old and modern parts. That forward-facing rear brake is found on a lot of Randy's bikes as you'll soon see.
The bike was originally built for the shifters that mounted on the top of the down tube - but such shifters are nearly impossible to find these days, and adapters are pretty much nonexistent. When Jim changed over to brifters on this bike, Randy made him a nifty little adapter for the shift cable stops.
Again - there's that forward-facing brake (really nice SunTour Superbe Pro with internal springs). And you can get a decent look at the fastback seat stay joinery and internal cable routing. It's hard to see in the shade here, but that pink paint has just a hint of pearl to it. Nice.
Here's another small-framed Smolenski owned by John B. - like the pink bike above, it has a tight wheelbase, forward facing rear brake, and fastback seat stays.
The lugs on this one are a little different than most Smolenski bikes - notice that little scroll detail.
A larger framed bike with Henry James lugs and fork crown. Randy's bikes usually had minimal graphics (just the name on the down tube and an "S" on the head tube), but this example doesn't even have that - but other details make it unmistakeable as far as who made it.
Henry James fork crown is interesting. And this bike also has the top-mount shift levers.
According to Jim, this would have been among the first few bikes that Randy built for sale. Even as an early example, it has a lot of distinctive elements that would become part of his style.
Top-mount shifters, clean short-point lugs. Almost no graphics. The bone-white with black components looks pretty awesome.
Here you can get a really good look at that seat stay/seat lug joinery. That is just so tight. This early example has a very short straight seat stay bridge - a lot of later bikes would have an inverted "v" bridge.
I only have one picture of this one - Randy's personal bike. What's different is that it is lugless. What's crazy is that I first thought it was welded, with the welds then filed smooth. But no. It's fillet-brazed. I've never seen fillet brazing with such a small, tight radius.
Here is a real showstopper belonging to Jason P. It features a gorgeous two-tone paint scheme and lots of gold-plated components. The bike was immaculate and just gleamed.
Awesome gold-plated highlights on this old Superbe Pro derailleur. Even the cable housing is gold-tinted. That derailleur was state of the art in the late '80s, and as far as I'm concerned, is state of the art today, too.
Gold plated and pantographed Superbe Pro crank, and highly polished pedals.
Perfect look at that fastback seat stay cluster, and the inverted "v" bridge. Seatpost is pantographed and gold plated, and even the Selle Italia Turbo saddle has polished gold accents. So much thought went into the finishing of this bike. All I can say is "Wow."
Super clean looking seat lug, and a very excellent Dia Compe Royal Gran Compe brakeset - black and gold from the factory. 

Jason even sports a special "Smolenski Bikes Etc." wool jersey with 1947 - 2017 memorial dates on the sleeve. Very nice.
Another example of super tight-radius fillet brazing on this "not quite complete" Smolenski tandem.
There were a few non-Smolenski bikes along for the ride too. Here are some of the "Retrogrouch-approved" examples.

Skip M. brought this beautiful Jim Holly-built Griffon up from Chicago. Griffon cycles originally hailed from Santa Monica, CA. This one looks almost new and has a beautiful set of early generation SunTour Superbe components.
Someone brought this modern era lugged steel Bianchi with 80s vintage Campagnolo components.
A nice old Mercian King of Mercia model - probably '80s vintage if I had to guess.
And my own ride - Mercian Vincitore path racer - with Honjo fenders and small bags. My choice of a single speed fixed gear bike for a 60 mile ride was the topic of a lot of conversation throughout the day. But I'm just not convinced that derailleurs aren't a passing fad. Ha ha.
Saved by a Peanut Butter Wrench:

It turned out that my choosing a fixed gear bike had an unintended good consequence for the ride. Because I have my rear wheel attached with track nuts instead of a quick release, I always make sure I have a wrench packed in one of my bags in case I need to remove the wheel to fix a flat tire. And though there are smaller, more compact tools for that eventuality, I just make a habit of carrying a Campagnolo crank bolt wrench - aka the "peanut butter wrench," which is useful on crank bolts and track axle nuts alike. About 25 miles into our ride, one of our group suddenly discovered, to his horror, that one of his crank arms was coming loose. In a lot of instances, that would be the end of someone's ride. In fact, Jim was in the process of dialing his wife on the phone to see if she could drive out to the rescue. Once I realized what was going on, I yelled out "Oh my god - I've got this!" We got the crank bolts tightened up solidly and were back on the road in minutes. Peanut butter wrench saves the day.

Once again, it was great to get up to Michigan to ride with some old friends and meet some new ones. A big "thank you" goes out to Jim T. for putting it all together.


  1. Thanks for the ride report Kyle. Can't say enough nice things about Jason's bike. It is just lovely. That's the original paint as well. Jason's bike and Jim's pink ride were part of a his-and-hers set as I recall Jim telling it.

  2. I love how people always excuse bad tempered, unsociable folks with the phrase " doesnt suffer fools" as if that makes their behaviour somehow noble! lol

  3. Al, "doesn't suffer fools" isn't the same thing as bad-tempered and unsociable. That's why the old saying has the word "fools" in it. Randy was one of my best friends, and he wasn't bad-tempered or unsociable. In fact, he liked nothing more than getting together with friends, and meeting new people. He did not, however, brook ill-considered opinions about the machine we call a bicycle.

    1. I thought about responding to that - but this was better than a I could have said.

  4. These are some amazing looking bikes.

    I wonder if the fillet brazed frame used a type of joint similar to the kind that Motobecane/MBK used in the 1980s, which Motobecane called Inexternal Brazing. The marketing pitch was that the joint was brazed both inside and outside the tube, thus strengthening the joint. Peugeot did something similar/exactly the same.

    Despite the marketing, it almost certainly had less to do with structural engineering and more to do with mass production. I understand that they put rings of filler inside the tube ends and then heated it until the material was pulled slightly through the joint. The outside braze is usually minuscule to non-existent.

    The pictures of the Smolenskis show extreme craftsmanship at work and mass production was clearly nowhere near his priority list. But perhaps he used a similar inside and outside braze so that he could keep the outside radius so small while still making a strong joint.

  5. What happened to the peanut butter?

  6. Beautiful hand crafted bikes! I'm curious Smolenski name is from East Europe? Smolenski Memorial is place in Russia where Polish Officers has been murdered in Katyn Massacre.