Jeffrey Lyon of Lyonsport lives in Grants Pass, Oregon. Jeff is a fisherman, a surfer, a father and a husband as well as a bicycle frame builder. He grew up racing in the Bay Area and early-on became determined to learn the craft of building. Lightweight bikes weren’t readily available and the small bourgeoning domestic building scene was secretive and unproven, so he moved to England. After seven years of apprenticeship, Jeff returned to America to continue building and innovating.
I got exposed to lightweight bikes at an early age. I saw my first at a shop in my hometown of Palo Alto. It was a Giordango, an Italian racing bike. It had Clement tires. We thought they were called sew-ons and we barely new how to pump the tires up because all we knew were the car-valve stems like on our Schwinn Stingrays. It was the lightest bike I’d ever seen. You could take that bike and drop it and it would bounce a little bit where everything we had just made a “clunk”.
Climbing was the only way out.
Upon seeing that bike, I was addicted. I became a shop rat and any chance I could, I’d borrow that bike and go for a ride. I wanted to get out of the neighborhoods. The other kids hated me, they wanted to go to the ice cream shop but I only wanted to go up hills. We were surrounded by hills so climbing was the only way out.
There was a big racing scene in Palo Alto. I’d see guys go by with their funny little hats on and their little jerseys and I thought, “I want some of that, that looks right”. I was sixteen when I started racing. I was a runner and on the track team so I got it, I liked sweating and effort. Of the six guys selected to go to Junior Worlds on the road, I was riding with five of them all the time – Keith Vierra, Steve Lundgrend, Jack Bouyee, Hank Tolhurst, David Meyer Oaks and I’m missing one. It will come to me.
I want some of that.
Tom Ritchey and Peter Johnson appeared out at the races, these guys were the same age I was and they were building their own frames. I thought “yeah, I want some of that”. In high school we had acetylene bottles in shop class and I was already taking as many industrial art programs as I could. I had no illusions that I could make a better bike but it took a year to get a lightweight racing bike. It’s not like you could walk into a bike store, buy a bike and be on a ride the next day.
I might have stayed working at Lynches in Menlo Park and doing my $3 wheels on the side, except for these two English guys I worked with. They said I should go and I thought, “hell I got nothing else going, why not”. Everything was in Europe. Either I wanted to be a racer and that was in Europe, or I wanted to build the race bikes and that was in Europe. I wrote probably half a dozen letters and I got replies from maybe two guys. Witcomb and Ken Byrd. Witcomb seemed like the right place to start so I called him a number of times to make sure everything was in order and I went. I got to Deptford in South London where Witcomb was and it was totally cool. Form my suburban Northern California lifestyle where every lawn was neat and every third house was owned by a Lockheed or a Hewlett-Packard engineer to working-class gritty, grimy London. It was such an extreme difference, bikes were everywhere and races always happening. I was a fish out of water and I loved it.
Mister X Builders.
It fell apart on the first day. Before I left, I’d sold my lightweight frame expecting to show up and find a brand new 23” Witcomb ready and waiting for parts. And it wasn’t. Instead, they had this touring frame for me. I hated that bike but it was all I had so I raced it. Two weeks later I met Ken Byrd, he wasn’t building any frames but at least he was a real mechanic and had a real shop. At Witcomb we weren’t brazing or really building bikes anyway. I can’t even remember now what we were doing there, it must have been something. So two months later I moved on to Ken’s. He wanted a frame builder on the premises, he was using what they called ‘Mister X Builders’, guys that didn’t build under their own name they just built for whomever. But Ken didn’t have any control over what they were doing, he just gave them numbers and it might come out like he wanted to and it might not. He wanted more control and I wanted to apprentice but I wasn’t able to recruit anyone.
Eight months later I needed a cross bike for the worlds in Switzerland when my landlord told me to go talk to Bill Philbrook. At that point I was working for Ken’s brother, Alec Byrd, in a little shed behind a women’s lingerie store. I supplied the elbow grease, Alec had the cutters, a torch and an account with the BOC to get bottles – which you couldn’t get right away, there was year-long waiting list and no other way to get them. Philbrook started to help me out whenever I had a problem. I’d just put a bike on my shoulder, get on my scooter and buzz down to his shop. Later when I was building a tandem to take home, my first return trip in two and half years, he recommended that I share his space when I got back.
After I got back Philbrook and I built a couple more tandems. One ended up at Fulton Street Cycles and mine at Buds Bike shop. Bud’s wanted us to build 30 tandems a year. I was filing them all by hand and doing the paint work, Philbrook was doing the brazing and already had a year back log at the time, so we said no way. They used that double lateral design and went on to become Santana.
Better luck next time.
Every time I went home I’d see how much the guys here (in the US) were earning and getting for their frames. At the same time the English vibe and feeling like a second-class citizen started to get me down. You’d tell people that you worked on bikes or built bikes, and they just thought, “too bad buddy, better luck next time”. So I moved back to the Bay Area for a while, then Seattle and finally Grants Pass, Oregon, where I’ve been since 1990.
All-rounder point of view.
Some builders have specialties but I take the all-rounder point of view. The rando thing is an interesting exercise. After you’ve done a few hundred road bikes you realize that they are all pretty much the same. I also really enjoyed the early days of cyclocross when you couldn’t walk into shop and buy a complete bike off the rack. I enjoyed converting touring bikes, retrofitting brake studs and building new forks. I like cross because it looks like fun but it isn’t. It looks like playing in the mud but it’s much harder than road, there’s no sitting in, no hiding. Mostly it’s an hour-and-a-lap time trial.
Watching the brass flow never get’s old. I’ve got a tig machine and was tig-welding bikes but I couldn’t get into it. I don’t like being all scrunched-over and rigid. Frames start with wheels, tires and brake clearances. It works backwards. You want a bike that you won’t have to fight. To me it’s both a craft and an art, there are days when I say “you know that’s artful”, and there are days when I simply feel like a journey craftsmen.
For more information visit: lyonsport.com.