Many years ago, I wanted more than anything to be a welder. While I can easily lay down some industrial quality welds, I never developed the talent required to braze together nine tubes into rolling art. So I jumped at the chance to interview legendary frame builder Dave Moulton. Here’s how the Q&A went:
Q. Your frames have been ridden in the Olympics, the TdF, and the World Championships. Did you find validation in that, or was the passion of building them enough motivation?
D.M. Back in the 1970s there were strict rules regarding amateur status, especially Olympic athletes; an athlete could not accept money to endorse a product. Deals in the form of free frames and equipment were done “under the table.” So the fact that certain riders chose to ride my bikes was a definite validation; they could have got a similar deal from several other frame builders at the time. I doubt a small builder today could get his bike in the Olympics, but then if you are paying someone to use your product is it really a validation?
Q. Of all the custom frames you’ve built, is there a story behind one that stands out as being historically significant in the history of Dave Moulton bikes?
D.M. There’s not any one particular frame that I can think of. At the time I built them, the last thing I was thinking of was that these might be future collector items. I still have my original frame number record books from England in the 1970s and from California in the 1980s. They contain very sparse information; at the time I was only recording frame numbers. I never expected to be corresponding with people about these same frames some twenty or thirty years later.
Q. Materials and construction techniques have changed since you stopped building frames. Titanium and carbon fibre are commonplace on bikes today, yet you still get email from people riding frames you built years ago. Is steel still real?
D.M. The feel of steel makes it real. A steel frame is like a very strong spring, when you make a sudden effort it has just enough “give” in it, but at the same time all your energy goes straight to the rear wheel. It’s called responsiveness. Other materials don’t have quite this same feel. Then of course there is longevity and reliability; a steel frame will not fail suddenly. Titanium is nice, and it won’t rust, but with a quality steel frame lasting 30, 40, even 50 years. That’s a lifetime of riding, how long do you need a frame to last? Titanium is about $30,000 a ton; high carbon alloy steel $1,000 a ton. That’s a lot more to pay for rust proofing.
Q. You still give the odd bit of sizing and fit advice in your blog. What other words of wisdom from your past would you like to impart on cyclists today?
D.M. After I got out of the bike business I worked for a man who carried quite a bit of extra weight, bordering on obese. Every year he would go sailing for one week, golfing for another week, and in the winter would go skiing for a week. I doubt that he was good at any of these sports, but at least he could participate and even enjoy it. Cycling, and in particular riding a road bike is not one of those sports that you can do once in a while and enjoy. You need a certain degree of fitness just to ride a road bike, and many of the aches and pains that riders blame on the bike or their position, would go away if they did enough miles. People say things like, “This frame is so stiff, it beats me up on a long ride.” No, six hours of hard physical exercise beats you up. If you went out and dug ditches for six hours you would ache, you wouldn’t say, “This shovel is too stiff, it beat me up.” There is nothing like the joy and satisfaction of riding a road bike at speed for a long distance, but you have to be prepared to endure some pain until you reach a level of fitness it becomes a joy.
Q. You spent nearly 40 years custom building bicycle frames, and then left the industry and started a new career as a writer and songwriter. Has your new endeavor been more rewarding, or was it a matter of simply applying artistic energies to a new creative outlet?
D.M. It is one thing to take metal and paint, and create a thing of beauty, but to string words together and invoke thoughts and emotions in others, to me is the ultimate in creativity; creating something out of nothing, if you will. Song writing and music takes it one-step further because you are taking musical notes out of nowhere and adding them to the equation. Perfectionism brought me success as a frame builder but failure as a human being. Writing is wonderful therapy; I became a better person for having written Prodigal Child. Others have read the book and said their lives are better for having read it. To me that is the ultimate validation. The bikes I built continue to bring pleasure to those who ride them, but I doubt they change anyone’s life.
Q. What’s a question you haven’t been asked lately, that you wish someone would ask?
D.M. I had a quite serious bike accident in December when a woman driver turned in front of me and I slammed into her SUV. My question would be, “How is your recovery?” The answer is slow but definite. The worst part is a nerve in my right eye was damaged and I still have severe double vision. This means I can’t drive so I have to rely on my wife and others to chauffeur me around. The prognosis is that it will get better, but it may take a while. I hope to get back on my bike before too long as I feel the exercise would aid my recovery. I was in the middle of recording a 15 song CD when I had the accident; I’ve had to put that project on hold. I feel the CD will really complement my book. Many people will not make the time to read a novel, but when they hear the CD, they will know that I am just as serious about my new endeavors as I was about frame building.
Q. I’d like to thank you for taking the time today. Is there anything you’d like to add?
D.M. Thank you for such thought provoking questions that have made me touch on things I wouldn’t have done otherwise.