Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Memories of a Bike Shop Owner – Part 2

February 21, 2011

Mike Jacoubowsky, owner of Chain Reaction bike shop in Redwood City, California, talks about his bike racing days and bike shop ownership. First photo shows a 1974 ride over Mt. Hamilton, with Mike in the group. The second photo shows Mike, right, with Jobst Brandt and Jim Westby riding on Loma Prieta Road in the early 1970s.

Memories of a Bike Shop Owner

February 15, 2011

Listening to Mike Jacoubowsky, owner of Chain Reaction bike shop in Redwood City, California, talk about cycling is both revealing and engaging. His description of his early days of cycling on the Peninsula will strike a chord for long-time area riders.

As part of a Legends of Northern California Cycling video series, Terry VerHaar and I met with Mike last September. We talked about his growing up in the Bay Area, racing, the bike shop business, the bike industry, and what keeps today’s kids from riding to school.

Where Mike’s passion for cycling really shows through is on his website. It’s a vicarious experience to get to know Mike and his family through his bike ride accounts on his Almost-Daily Diary.

What you’ll like about Mike is that he isn’t out to sell you a bike (although he’d like that), he’s out to sell you on the fun of cycling. That’s something the industry and too many bike shops are missing in their business plan. Here’s part 1 of a three-part podcast.

An Appeal for Help

January 14, 2011

At the Mt. Hamilton summit overlook, about 1970, from left: John Hiatt, Anwil McDonald, Dave Lucas, George Varian, Jobst Brandt (Photo courtesy Jobst Brandt)

This photo is the oldest I can find of cyclists on Mt. Hamilton. I hope someone out there can direct me to much older photos for my upcoming “Mt. Hamilton by Bike” magazine. I’ve tried all the obvious sources and came up empty.

Cyclists have probably been riding up Mt. Hamilton since the 1920s, or even earlier. If you have a solid lead, let me know. Even an account or a remembrance would be nice. The oldest account I have is 1955.

Mt. Hamilton by Bike

December 19, 2010

Coming soon on

Here now, an exhaustive (what else for this ride?) look at Mt. Hamilton from the cyclist’s perspective. Historical facts about the road, past and current rides, and a detailed map of my updated century route over Mt. Hamilton and through Livermore are included.

Mt. Hamilton Road in 1900-10

December 17, 2010
Mt. Hamilton Road

Mt. Hamilton road around 1900. Much better than the 1876 photo I posted, but still not the place to ride in the summer. Note the dust. (Alice Hare photo, 1859-1942)

Bike technology: More than the Ordinary

February 15, 2010

Albert Pope introduced chainless bikes in 1897, but they were expensive and had other issues. Now they're back.

In my last column I asked “is bike innovation chasing its tail?” Probably so, but that doesn’t mean engineers have given up trying to make improvements. New materials and technologies will continue to be discovered and benefit cycling.

Here’s my technology wish list, and some that were invented, then abandoned.

Flat-free tires. OK, they’re already here (also tubeless) but the rub is reduced performance. I’m not sacrificing rolling resistance for flat-free riding, at least not on my performance bike. I once met an elderly fellow retracing the route of Thomas Stevens and he had his tires filled with expanding foam. No flats, but a bumpy ride.

36-spoke rims. Wait, didn’t we used to have these? And weren’t they so reliable that if you broke a spoke it was no big deal? And didn’t Mavic make the reliable MA2? (a rim that I still ride and has 100,000 miles). Leave those 16-spoke wheels for the pros.

Direct drive. Chains are a filthy nuisance. We have the elegant direct drive today, popular for a short time in the 1890s. Belt drive is another option, from Trek. These technologies have their issues, but they work reasonably well for around-town riding.

Biometric handlebars. I’m thinking of monitoring heart rate, oxygen uptake, etc. I’d also like to see speed, distance, grade, etc., built into the handlebar.

Safe cranks. They break all too often at the pedal eye. A tapered pedal opening (like car lug nuts) will fix this.

Light, strong frame. Of course I want my frame to be supple, as strong as steel, and to weigh two pounds. That would be unobtanium. Carbon fiber comes close but doesn’t last.

We all want our bikes to work flawlessly and without maintenance. It’s a pipe dream, like unobtanium, so enjoy your rides with what’s available now.

Bike innovation: Chasing its tail?

February 5, 2010

Campagnolo index shift lever

When we talk about innovation, what does it mean for the bike? I wonder. How much innovation has there been in the past 20 years? 30 years?

Not much, beyond frame materials. Index shifting came along in 1984, and so did clipless pedals. I think they’re the last two meaningful innovations in recent history.

Headsets have come a long way from threaded to internal. It’s one of those hidden improvements. If pressed to name the most innovative change in the past decade, I’d say it’s the internal headset.

Let’s face it, the bike hasn’t changed much since the diamond frame and gears. You can ride a bike from the 1960s and get the same enjoyment as a bike made yesterday. You sure can’t say that about electronics.

This isn’t a bad thing. The bike’s simplicity is a blessing, not a curse. Marketing does its best to put the “new” into bike equipment, but I don’t think it helps sell bikes. Marketing would do better promoting the joy of riding.

Next time I’ll give my wish list for what engineers can work on. There’s always room for improvement.

Machinists Turn Wheels of Progress

December 24, 2009

Brian Spitz works with a block of aluminum

Brian Spitz is a machinist, an increasingly rare job skill in the U.S., and certainly in Silicon Valley. It’s rewarding work, but global economics comes into play here.

As with many machinists, Brian has a close connection to cycling. A bike is a relatively simple machine. With the exception of the chain, the aspiring machinist could fashion an entire bicycle. Today there’s a modest industry of U.S. built bike components.

I’ve known Brian since his days as an eager teen working at Palo Alto Bicycles. As a mechanic, he quickly took an interest in frame building. It wasn’t long before he found out about Peter Johnson, a well known machinist and frame builder in Redwood City. “I would hang around Peter’s shop and watch him work,” says Brian. “He never tried to hide what he was doing. He’s why I’m a machinist today.”

Peter Johnson -- racer, frame builder, machinist

The machinist is crucial for building the things that make the world go round. Every part starts with the machinist, who fabricates from raw materials the prototype, which will be duplicated hundreds, thousands, or millions of times over. He works with expensive, computerized machinery that control the machine to drill or cut with incredible precision.

I visited Brian in a San Jose industrial area, a mishmash of warehouses filled with machinery and raw materials. Brian and co-worker Harold Wheeler, also a cyclist, were working on blocks of black acrylic. Jets of water cooled the drill bit as it cut the hard resin. A lot of the work machinists do in Silicon Valley is done for companies in biomedical, solar, computer, and other technology industries.

When he built frames, he lived at home and worked out of the garage. Frame building has never been a way to get rich, but machining is in strong demand in the markets he serves. He loves his work and the freedom it brings, something cyclists know only too well.

Brian still rides his bike to and from work, an easy two-mile commute. He fondly recalls the days when he could ride up Old La Honda Road with the best of them. In one memorable ride, he raced Dave Faust, an accomplished Category 1 racer, and won handily in 16:20. “I thought Dave was saving himself so I rode as hard as I could the whole way,” Brian recalls.

That was then. Today, Brian’s Spitz Design & Machine is building the parts that will make the world a better place to live. We wish him well.

He Made a Business Out of Bikes

December 11, 2009

Bernie Hoffacker talks with Jim Sullivan. Craig Maynard, center, hired me in 1979.

I consider the 1980s the Golden Age of modern cycling. While it’s true I was at the peak of my game, consider this: Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France. Campagnolo reached its zenith as the manufacturer of the best bike parts in the world. Shimano was coming on strong. Mavic introduced the MA2 clincher rim, the best ever. The mountain bike became a household name.

And, Palo Alto Bicycles thrived. I had the privilege of working there. I can’t tell you I got rich: nobody does in the bike business. I had fun and adventures to last a lifetime. That’s the payoff.

Palo Alto Bicycles isn’t any bike shop. It has been around since 1930 (moving to University Avenue in 1973). That’s a long time for a business much less a bike shop. It’s family-run, which has its good and bad points. Do your job well and they treat you like family. It’s an intangible job benefit that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

Bernie Hoffacker – The Owner
The driving force behind the shop was Bernie Hoffacker. He was well into his 60s when I started working there in 1979 as a fumbling “mechanic.”

Bernie had a way about him that left an impression. Nothing escaped his attention. A child of the Great Depression, he never let you forget every penny counts and no job is too insignificant or unworthy of being done just right.

One of my jobs was taking out the trash. Every night Bernie made the rounds and he always asked me if I had emptied all the cans. “Make sure you press it down real good,” he’d say. We had only one dumpster and sometimes it was a chore cramming in all the discarded bike boxes.

Bernie didn’t ride a bike, but he was athletic. I’d watch in amazement as he headed up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. In his youth he played baseball for the San Francisco Seals. One day we had a company picnic and Bernie showed up to play shortstop. When a hard-hit ball came his way he scooped it up like a pro. He had the moves!

Bike shops draw all kinds of people to work there and shop owners can tell you it’s a challenge keeping everyone in line, maintaining a professional manner, handling the dark side of owning a retail business. Bernie had that down in spades. His commitment and drive made Palo Alto Bicycles what it was and is to this day — a thriving business. Now Bernie is gone, age 92. He lived not just a good life, but a great life. I’ll miss him.

GM Architect of Light Rail’s Dismantling

November 3, 2009

Light rail tracks on The Alameda in 1984 near Santa Clara University

As GM gets its multi-billion-dollar government bailout using taxpayer dollars, let’s take a look back in time and see what this goliath did to assure its climb to power at the cost of public transportation.

GM began by funding a company called National City Lines (NCL), which by 1946 controlled streetcar operations in 80 American cities, including San Francisco.

“Despite public opinion polls that showed 88 percent of the public favoring expansion of the rail lines after World War II, NCL systematically closed its streetcars down until, by 1955, only a few remained,” writes author Jim Motavalli in his 2001 book, Forward Drive.

They went on to back a powerful lobby for an interstate highway system. The money we poured into building freeways could have gone toward bullet trains crisscrossing the country.

The freeway-building madness finally ground to a halt in the late 1960s when the cost became too high and the environmental movement got underway. Let’s not forget:

Freeways were slated for Highway 84 from Woodside to San Gregorio, Highway 17, San Francisco (several), Highway 1, Highway 29 Napa Valley, Highway 121 Sonoma Valley, Highway 35 Skyline Boulevard, San Tomas Expressway, Lawrence Expressway, Capitol Expressway, and that’s not all.