The Legend of Blue Collar Bikes

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Words: Robert Ives
Photos: Courtesy of Amigos’ Archive
Originally published in Issue #192

My name is Robert Ives, and to the best of my knowledge what you are about to read is a true story about making something from nothing and perhaps also about why that might be important to some, and most likely not to most.

At age 21 I gave up alcohol, cheeseburgers and a steady half-packa-day Camel Light habit. I decided I was tired of being flabby and hit the gym. Shortly after, a good friend came riding over on a pink and turquoise Specialized Stumpjumper, the first mountain bike I’d ever seen, and my newest addiction was set to start.

Mom helped me with the purchase of a badass Mongoose Iboc for my birthday because she’s awesome like that, and I was off. Hammering away five days a week in the gym and six days a week on the bike, I learned I possessed a tenacity I had not previously been aware of or had otherwise tapped. I realize now that I’d had it all my life, just never channeled it into anything that was going to have positive results.

I had grown up terrible at sports—close to last kid picked for gym class teams almost every time, couldn’t jump a BMX bike to save my life, and a skateboard was the quickest route to the emergency room for me. I never really found any sport I cared enough about to devote the effort into getting proficient at it. That all changed as soon as I wrapped my hands around a pair of mountain bike grips.

A friend of a friend who worked at a local bike shop in Sacramento, California, and with whom I’d ridden a time or two, rode an aluminum Ventana that was absolutely insane and way out of my broke-ass price range. During one evening ride, he told me that Ventana’s owner/ builder was selling off his personal bikes to raise money to rent a shop and expand the business out of his garage. Within a few days’ time I found myself in a small backyard in Folsom, California, at the home of Sherwood Gibson, who has a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering and is also a bicycle frame builder.

He wanted only $600 for his Marble Peak hardtail, complete with a Ventana custom aluminum stem and Suntour XC Pro parts group. I scraped, begged and borrowed from as many sources as I could to pull it together and returned a week later with enough cash to make it mine. With a new, killer steed in the stable, I finished out the ’93 season with a few promising race results in sport class and was ready to start racing with the big boys in expert by ’94.

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I had bumped into Sherwood several times after purchasing his bike, made friends with some other locals who raced for him, and was beyond stoked to be invited to race for Team Ventana. I dropped by the shop one day to see Sherwood mitering a massive 3-inch diameter tube that would be the foundation for the El Conquistador de Montañas, a prototype full-suspension off-road tandem featuring a Turner Bikes suspension rear end that would eventually end up as a production model featuring Sherwood’s own design. I was infatuated immediately.

Shortly after the Conquistador’s unveiling, I abandoned my flailing “solo” expert class racing career in favor of stoking the beast, with Sherwood as captain on the tandem. We did every ride and race we’d normally have done on our own just to see what we could pull off. As a result of our newfound interest, I was hired to work at Ventana on a new carbon fork project with a “wink-wink” that we’d have more time to train together on the tandem, which was exactly what we did. I loved my new job and I spent more hours staring at Sherwood’s back from the stoker seat of the Conquistador that year than I could possibly count. We were having a great time—work and life were good.

It was then that it really struck me how someone with some good ideas, skill and knowledge could create some pretty bitchin’ stuff without a great deal of machinery or resources.

I still liked riding single bikes and had a brand-new XTR-equipped Marble Peak hardtail on deck. The winter of 1994 promised to bring the full brunt of El Niño to California, and I was not about to destroy my expensive new components while training for the upcoming race season. I’d seen a few friends over the years riding singlespeed mountain bikes and had my ass kicked around a course by one or two of them occasionally and thought the perfect solution to my soon-to-be-weather-drenched woes lay with a winter singlespeed “training bike.”

So began my daily and monthlong campaign of harassing Sherwood to build me a real Ventana singlespeed. Sherwood politely shut me down at first, but I refused to be dissuaded. When I showed up to work every morning, the first words from my mouth were “Good morning, singlespeed.” I prefaced the answer to every question asked of me throughout the day with “singlespeed” followed by the actual answer.

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It took a month of this ridiculous badgering before Sherwood had enough and finally gave in, albeit with conditions. “In that drawer,” he said, pointing to a billion-year-old wood cabinet, “are 10 pre-mitered frame sets with smaller tubing than the Marble Peak but the same geometry from a discontinued batch of frames I was building for a distributor in Germany. If you can presell all 10 frames, I will make the dropouts we need and build a batch of singlespeeds.”

I do not expect he thought I could do it, which was exactly the motivation I needed. Within two weeks I had browbeaten enough of my friends to nearly complete the minimum sales requirement. Not to be left out, Sherwood became No. 10, and the first batch of Ventana El Toro singlespeeds were born. To the best of my knowledge, these were the first legit “production” mountain bike singlespeeds in modern history.

Once I started riding my single I rarely rode anything else. Come February, I signed up to race the Cool Mountain Bike Race, a notorious mudfest even after normal winters, and I ended up winning the singlespeed category.

On one of my many “ride up Mount Tam as many times as you can” training sessions in March, I ran across a nefarious-looking character named Leroy riding a hodgepodge-y Klein converted to a single.

He eyed me and my fancy Ventana up and down a bit before he spoke. “What is that?” he asked. I told him who I worked for, how I got the bike and that I was training for The Lemurian in April.

“Well,” he said, “that’s great because some friends and I have a little singlespeed race series we call the California Crusty Cruiser Cup, and The Lemurian is our season opener. Just find us on race day at the start line.”

The Lemurian Shasta Classic is a notoriously brutal sufferfest. I showed up at the rain-soaked starting line feeling pretty good but a bit out of place. The rest of the “SS” crew were friendly enough but were definitely wondering where this fancy lad in his team kit and fancy bike had come from.

The race was a mass start, headed immediately up a climb that lasted at least an hour. When you’re in the middle of 367 riders of all classes it’s easy to lose sight of whom you are actually racing against. I found myself riding alone for fair stretches of time, like I was in a dirt purgatory somewhere between those who could and those who couldn’t. I pressed on, eventually sliding my way down the infamous mud-and-rock-strewn “chute” descent to cross the finish line in a surprising first place in singlspeed and around 28th overall. I was as shocked as anyone; it was by far the single greatest day I have ever had or ever will have on a bike.

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I was congratulated by a few of the other “Crusties” when they filtered in and was told there was free beer for all singlespeeders at their campsite. I had rarely drank in the last few years, but that day of all days I’d felt like I’d earned it. I meandered around the parking lot until I recognized the group I’d seen at the start. By the time I left for home, I’d met most of the 13 hearty and friendly Crusties, got myself a singlespeed “race” schedule for the year and swore off racing anything with a derailleur ever again.

For the remainder of ’95 I cared about little else than riding my singlespeed, racing the Crusty Cup series and getting to the party afterward. I eventually roped two of my previously multigeared co-workers/ co-conspirators into the fold.

In early 1996 Sean Hunt, Scott Berg and I formed the Amigos one-speed team. Ventana supplied some sick new frames, but we were on our own as far as obtaining any other sponsors. In those days there were precious few options for 135 mm rear hubs that were suitable for off-road singlespeeds; most folks were chopping up and modifying cassettes or running goofy chain tensioners on frames with vertical dropouts. Paul Component Engineering made cool front hubs that we all wanted to run, but none of us wanted mismatched hub sets on our blinged-out new rides.

Sean, one of the most persuasive and clever individuals I have ever known (think of him as the “Faceman” of our “A-Team”) came up with the brilliant idea of hitting up Paul to make us true 135 mm bolt-on singlespeed hubs, threaded for a BMX-style freewheel. He was initially less than receptive to the idea, but after a fair amount of arm twisting and begging, he eventually buckled and built us the first batch of real mountain bike singlespeed hubs. I still remember the disclaimer as plain as the day he said it: “I’ll make these for you guys, but don’t bother trying to push them. Nobody else is going to want to buy these things.” Famous last words.

The ’96 race season for the Amigos was a nonstop alcohol-fueled shit show filled with more fun and hijinks than any of us can collectively remember.

What we were up to was working: Ventana El Toro orders were steadily picking up; batches of 20 or more at a time were not uncommon. Paul was flooded with customer requests for the rear hub. Not everyone involved was as excited about our “success” as we were, however.

Back at Ventana headquarters there were some concerns about how our drunken escapades were reflecting on the company. They tried on multiple occasions to have rational discussions with us about our antics, but we were having none of it. Just before the ’97 Sea Otter Classic (one of our all-time favorite expos for hijinks) we came up with a new Amigos team kit, the now infamous orange prison-style jumpsuit.

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Scott and I were already conspiring on branching out with our own style of bike business at some point, one where drinking and carrying on were the sheen of the company image rather than a blemish. After a short deliberation we settled on the name “Blue Collar” as our moniker since we were both happily doomed to be chained to blue-collar jobs for our foreseeable future. Scott screened a hand-drawn version of a drunken sombrero-wearing “amigo” and our current sponsors’ logos on our new uniforms. Ventana’s logo was intentionally left out, replaced instead by our fictitious company name.

Before the ink was even dry, we loaded our trucks and vans with copious amounts of alcohol, a big batch of “magic” brownies, as well as assorted other party favors and tore ass toward Monterey. The orange jumpsuits were a perfect fit for where we all were in our lives at that point in time. I for one felt pretty invincible, like I was wearing Superman’s cape. Turns out, though, there was more kryptonite around than my new super suit could repel.

A big cup of Strong Blonde ale combined with a way too potent “magic” brownie Saturday morning left me slouched in a camp chair flanked by the freshly upped remains of both my breakfast and lunch. I was unable to speak and nearly comatose; it was the middle of the day. I could hear and understand everything going on around me but had zero ability to respond to it. I rocked in that chair for hours and remember hearing all the voices and funny comments of my friends and cohorts passing by to witness the spectacle.

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At one point late in the afternoon, Sherwood and a few others from headquarters stopped by and expressed concern for my well-being as I sat there and bounced in that chair, but my compatriots convinced them I’d be fine and I just needed to ride it out. I came to just after nightfall, crawled into my van where the newest Amigo, Stevil Kinevil, was already nestled in, slapped a high-five for a job well done and drifted off to sleep.

Sean got it first, then I got called into the office. Sherwood apologized and was hardly a dick about it, but I was getting the ax. He tried to convey that he was worried about me; my binges and my recent exploits of the weekend were more than he could take. A lot of back and forth occurred.

I was pissed and I stomped out of there with my stubborn ears having reduced the whole interaction down to one sentence that went a bit like this: “Ever since you started riding singlespeeds your life has been on a path of self-destruction.”

I did not take the firing well. Instead, I made a spectacle of the whole affair, which was really unfair to Sherwood’s true intentions. In hindsight, I’d have fired my obnoxious ass way sooner than he did. On the bright side, Sherwood and I eventually got past the whole ugly affair and we still work and play together on a regular basis.

I soon turned my anger into inspiration. There’s no easier way to put it than to say that Blue Collar Bikes was born from spite, piss and vinegar.

After getting canned from Ventana, I was not going to be seen riding one anymore. Though my Amigo Scott was still employed by the big “V,” he was still down with the cause, so together we conspired to create the first two Blue Collar frames. After driving out to Nova Cycle Supply in nearby Rocklin and buying two Tange Prestige tube sets and some track dropouts, we commandeered a small portion of my dad’s garage and went to work.

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We used threaded rod and fender washers to fashion a bottom bracket perch and dropout holders on my dad’s somewhat straight “welding” bench. We sanded out wooden blocks to use for tube holders and did our best to lay out our frame’s geometry as close as possible to what the El Toro’s had been. We ground away nights after Scott got off work and often until the wee hours of the morning.

We had no real way of mitering tubes so we shared the sharpies, bench grinder, a fat stack of files and on most nights a 12-pack of PBR. We flogged away at the tube sets for a week’s worth of nights until we had something we could stick together. At that point we burned through my dad’s entire stash of brazing rod and what had to be at least 10-year-old powdered brazing flux just to stick two frames together, then commenced with another week or so worth of sanding down our frame’s lumpy joints.

Neither of us were sure these bikes would hold up after all the caveman-style beating and grinding their production required, so we both agreed a down tube gusset would be a good safety measure. Always the artist, Scott was fond of painting flames on the head tubes of his frames, and somehow, in a probably less than sober moment, we decided a flame-shaped down tube gusset would be the sickest thing ever.

We each gave our frames the best rattle-can paint jobs we could. Mine was matte black and Scott chose John Deere green. We masked off and “airbrushed” the flame gussets and were all set but for the lack of a logo and decals. Having been to numerous Interbike tradeshows over the years and having made tons of friends in the bike industry, we did have hoards of other companies’ decals, however. It only took a few beers before we came up with the Blue Collar kidnap font, made by cutting the letters we needed out of the stacks of stickers we’d collected in our toolbox drawers, glove boxes and stash spots.

We debuted our new machines at the very next Crusty Cruiser Cup Race at Pine Mountain in Marin County. I’ll have to admit, rocketing down some of Pine Mountain’s rocky descents on the first frame you have ever built was a bit nerve-wracking. After the shakedown I never worried again, and old No. 1 is still rideable today.

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I eventually scored another dream job at Ibis Cycles in Sebastopol, California. At Ibis I was shoehorned into the position of mitering and tacking all the steel and titanium frames and finally got my hands and foot on a TIG welder. I was beyond thrilled to be a part of such an iconic brand, and the crew there was amazing. It felt like home.

One night at one of our many watering holes, my buddy Dom asked me why I wasn’t building and selling my own frames for Blue Collar. I replied that I hardly thought anyone would want one. He disagreed and put his order in right then and there, assuring me there were others that would be interested as well. He was right, as it turns out.

Within a week of our crew finding out I was building Dom a BC, I had enough orders for a proper production batch. I was using much of what I’d learned at Ibis and busted out the first batch of BCs in around two months. Scott helped some, but he was also busy starting his own ironworking business.

When we worked together, we’d pass the time dreaming up intentionally obnoxious ad campaigns for BC that we were sure would weed out anybody too stuffy to get where we were coming from. The slogan “Made by Drunks That Care About You” was one of my personal favorites.

I vowed that I would never build something that I would not ride myself just because someone is willing to pay me to do it.

That proclamation has kept BC a side project rather than any real source of income for me for almost two decades, but most importantly it has kept it fun and 100 percent mine. Eventually, the lease on our house in San Fran ran out, so I bid farewell to the boys at Ibis and back to Sacramento I went.

Upon returning home, I did some fab work at a hotrod shop for a while before slipping back into Ventana’s production crew. I’d pick up where I’d left off with Blue Collar frame building occasionally, usually when one of my friends wanted a new frame. It was nice to knock one out every once in a while with no pressure, just an opportunity to create and try something new without any economic pressures to conform to whatever was the big thing at the time.

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I have ramped up BC-related work with renewed fervor in the last few years. I have finally built my own shop, but I still refuse to let anything get too serious. I have designed and developed one of the first steel tapered head tubes available with my good friends at Solid BMX, as well as designed some 29er chainstays for Nova Cycles that are now getting a lot of use on 27plus size and fat bike frames by custom builders all over. Both projects took some time to come to fruition, but to be able to build frames how I think they should be I am happy to put in the time.

I’d rather dig ditches—and have, many times—than make a compromise I’m not happy with for just the sake of convenience.

No matter what happens with Blue Collar in the future, I plan on keeping the steady paycheck of a part-time “real” job so that I can maintain my mortgage payments and my sanity and still afford to exercise my freedom as a builder and occasional shit stirrer without fear of starving to death.