Santa Cruz bike builder describes his craft in advance of big Sacramento show

03/02/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:35 AM

SANTA CRUZ – Scattered around town, rows of industrial parks are adorned with abandoned rusty cars, old pulley-operated metal doors and faded handmade business signs.

Inside the warehouses, painters, sculptors, jewelry makers and creative entrepreneurs such as Paul Sadoff work alone in sometimes haphazardly sized cubicles. Collectively, they make up a diverse arts community that belies the storage-shed landscape.

A full-time bicycle frame builder and, at 56, an occasional competitive age-group rider, Sadoff has spent most of the past 35 years accommodating discerning cyclists. He lives with his wife about a mile from his cramped studio. Barring severe weather, he commutes on one of his creations.

A study of Sadoff provides a window into the quirky charm and expert artisanship that attract a cult following and will lure thousands of bicycling enthusiasts to Sacramento to attend this weekend's North American Handmade Bicycle Show. The three-day showcase, open to the public and giving rise to numerous affiliated events, begins today and continues through Sunday at the Sacramento Convention Center.

"I work better in isolation," said Sadoff, who will attend the show for the fourth time. "I am fighting hard not to expand, so I can build each one of these things myself, start to finish. I guess I am kind of selfish. I just love the process, every aspect of it. I want to maintain control of it.

"I am able to focus and do the work. And it takes a lot of work. If you get distracted, you make mistakes. That makes more work and delays the order. You don't want to do that. You want to make people happy."

The Handmade Bicycle Show started in 2005 with 23 exhibitors and about 700 attendees. This year's event is expected to attract several thousand cycling fans and art aficionados. Held twice in San Jose, it's debuting in Sacramento after stops in Indiana, Oregon, Texas and Virginia.

While builders and other industry companies constitute the show's main act, seminars, dinners and other cycling activities are scheduled. A 14-mile ride beginning at 8:30 a.m. Saturday from deVere's Irish Pub in midtown Sacramento will take riders to the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame in Davis. A seven-mile ride beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday at the Convention Center will stop at Revolution Wines, at 29th and S streets, for refreshments.

Although new builders (designated by careers of making fewer than 50 frames) will be present, bikes are a life's work for Sadoff and other custom builders who have loyal followings.

Sadoff moved to Santa Cruz from Los Angeles in the late 1970s, rented a bedroom in a house and began building bikes in the garage. Early trials, which bore the name Routier (the name of the street where he lived) sometimes were catastrophes. By the time Sadoff moved out of his single-room dwelling, he was making frames bearing his last name.

In 1983, a few years after attending a concert with the avant-garde bands B-52s and Talking Heads, Sadoff was impressed and inspired by the B-52s' now-legendary song "Rock Lobster."

At the time, mountain biking had reached its first popularity peak. Manufacturers chose evocative names such as Diamondback and Stumpjumper, but the terms didn't interest Sadoff.

"They were all macho names, and I thought, 'I don't want something macho. I want something silly because to me mountain biking is really chaotic and silly.' You're trying to hang on and ride a bicycle down a hill in conditions where a bike hadn't been ridden before. It's very silly and comical."

The Rock Lobster name, reflected in the band's zany ways, has a double meaning. Flying rock lobsters appear in the beach scenes in the song's 1978 video. And about a decade ago, Sadoff discovered that "rock lobster" is a euphemism for hardened dog poop.

He shrugs off the less-than-complimentary reference to his brand, specifically because he's now made about 2,000 bikes and has orders pending.

Through his decades as a builder, Sadoff has catered to veteran pros such as Ben Jacques Maynes of Watsonville, a former national road champion, and Barbara Howe of Berkeley, the former masters national cyclocross champion. Plenty of recreational cyclists from around the globe buy Rock Lobster bikes, too, some via in-person frame fittings, many via the Internet.

"Having a custom-made bike makes all the difference in the world," said Scott Chapin, 28, of Santa Cruz, a pro cyclocross rider who owns three Rock Lobster bikes. "The thing about Paul is that he's kind of like a doctor. You tell him what's going with your body, and he says, 'OK, let's try this.' It's not that I'm just a customer; we've built a friendship."

Aaron Bradford, 27, also of Santa Cruz, the reigning cyclocross single-speed national titlist, owns two Rock Lobsters and also rides one of the brand's track bikes.

"I've ridden a lot of makes and models," said Bradford. "I kind of know what I want, and off-the-shelf bikes don't suit my needs. I'm pretty particular, so with Rock Lobster the fit is ideal."

About 40 frames, including a few of his earliest creations, hang from the walls of his crowded shop. Bike parts, metal shavings, faded race numbers and posters of cycling icons are all part of the mix. Sadoff works on a corner drafting table, surrounded by boxes.

In addition to touting his bicycles, Rock Lobster owners and friends periodically provide Sadoff with replica rock lobsters as tokens of appreciation. They're part of the shop's helter-skelter décor.

If pressed, Sadoff can make a bike in a day. But it's not his style.

"I'm not one of the fastest builders, but I'm certainly not one of the slowest," said Sadoff, who builds about 100 steel and aluminum frames a year for road cyclists, mountain bikers, trackies and cyclocross racers. "My bikes are pretty simple, but you still have to build them. It still has to be straight, and it has to fit the person. It has to be a certain level of quality or it doesn't go out of here."

Sadoff's frames begin at $1,350 and increase to $2,800. Complete bikes range from $2,700 to $5,000.

The entry level price is a few hundred dollars below industry standard. Clients, he says, buy Rock Lobster bikes "because they like the way that they fit and the way that they steer."

"I have really low rent, and I am pretty efficient with my time," Sadoff said. "I don't want to be one of those guys who charges top dollar. I make the bikes the way I do. They're very simple and straightforward.

"My bikes are not ostentatious. There's no exclusivity to them. People say, 'Oh, I wish I could have a Rock Lobster.' Well, you can have a Rock Lobster."

The process, like the bikes that Sadoff makes, is efficient and simple. "Make a $350 deposit," he explained. "And you're on the list.


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