I’ve done a done quite a few of these bicycle factory tours at this point and I have to say they’re not all the same. Some folks like to walk you around and introduce you to everyone – they have to flip up the welding mask and give a friendly nod. I have huge admiration for these craftsmen and women. They build these bikes we love to ride.
Most have expert status. They’ve been welding frames for years, decades even. Sometimes I like to do portraits of the workers. I feel like it’s an opportunity to show the personalities behind a brand. It’s a joy to watch tubes being cut, bent, placed in a jig, tacked, finished, aligned, painted.
None of this happened at Litespeed. The factory was both hot and empty. We got a tour of the offices, but once we got to the shop, where the action happens… nothing. Just the buzz of fluorescent lighting. As Ian’s piece says, Litespeed work four ten-hour days. Great, of course we were there on Friday, the non-work day.
I’m guessing our Litespeed men and women were out fishing. It seemed like a bad joke. In my head I’m thinking perhaps we could have coordinated our visit to be on a day when the shop is operational. But that would be too tidy for Rouleur. They like things a bit messy, unplanned. I can appreciate that. Time to improvise.
It’s a bit odd to wander around someone’s empty work station, but also fascinating to imagine the workflow. I love the simplicity and ingenuity that goes into building a bike frame from scratch. I love to see how a company takes full size CAD drawings and builds a template. As far as I know, Litespeed built all their own jigs. There is as much utilitarian artistry that goes into the jigs as the frames themselves. They are pure function. I was surprised to see a half-finished frame still in the jig. Home time rolled around and our welder obviously said “This one’s gonna have to wait until Monday.” Fair play.
Photographing under fluorescent light you can see the flicker: there is a yellowish-green cast that runs horizontally, sort of a liquid discoloration. In this situation I shoot several frames of the same image and choose the flicker that’s least obtrusive. The cover image has a bit of that going on, but it’s limited to background and gives a nice mood that feels like a hot empty welding room in Chattanooga.
The image is more than the sum of its parts. It’s geometry, titanium tubing, TIG welding. It reminds me of time and process and building things by hand with simple materials, and taking hot, humid Fridays off and going fishing. Perfect and imperfect at the same time.
I’m glad, too, that I got to ride one of these titanium bikes on Chattanooga’s rolling back roads. I was surprised at the beauty of the area and how perfect it is for road cycling. The ride quality is superb. You don’t notice the bike itself, it disappears and you’re free to enjoy the ride. So, to the mysterious four-day a week craftsmen of Litespeed, I say thank you for building excellent bikes and letting me lurk around your workstations. I salute you and your craft, and your dedication to the four-day work week. Well done!
I think a lot about luck and talent and what wins bike races and what catches fish. We know cyclists can be superstitious, but fisherman beat us hands down. Don’t wear yellow or green and don’t bring a banana on board. Leaving port on Friday is bad luck, but leaving on Sunday is good luck. So maybe best to ride on Friday and leave the fishing until Sunday, boys and girls.