The Godfather and Midwife of American Framebuilding
by Owen Mulholland
Owen wrote this in 1987
It could be a scene from a frameshop anywhere. On one side is a paint booth and next to it racks of primed frames hang from a wall. Neatly aligned rows of tubing and jigs cover a table that sits between a jig and a lathe, and in the midst a sweating, grimacing man recuts bottom bracket threads on a repair job. The screech gives new meaning to the term "heavy metal".
Just one feature is unique. The man has gray hair. South of the Canadian border and west of the Atlantic the new age of framebuilding is barely into its second decade. The legions of racers who laid down their leg razors and picked up their brazing torches are rarely past thirty.
At age 47 Albert Eisentraut is the midwife become godfather to the renaissance in American framebuilding. His position us analogous to the lonely watch kept by the monks on the shores of western Ireland who protected the flickering flame of civilization through three centuries of what elsewhere was called the "Dark Ages". This time may bit shorter and the mission only slightly less important, but just ask most current framebuilders what they were doing in 1959 and they'll confirm that that year was indeed in the Dark Ages, i.e. before their time. However, it was the year Albert first clamped tubes into a jig.
How many custom domestic bike frames were made in the fifties? Even a guess of a few dozen if probably optimistic. Today, Al alone has made over 2,500. Yet this artist with the gray hair, robust physique, and piercing blue eyes shows every sign of staying in the big chainring.
Critiques and insights lace his conversation. Nearly thirty years of production and he is still fascinated by the possibility of the all-American bicycle. His designs for derailleurs, cranks, etc. are on paper or exist as prototypes, lacking only the investment capital to be forged into reality. He once tried to interest helicopter tubing manufacturers in applications for bicycles, but they wouldn't take him seriously.
It's obvious that the limitations of American cycling development nettles him. "Our frames are some of the best in the world, " he says, "but there's an element of second-class to it until we make the tubes, the parts , and all that. Having to meet government specs for aviation purposes is unnecessary for cycling. A company like Tru Temper is showing what's in the realm of the possible."
If such scope seems a bit grandiose it is primarily because Al's roots go back to when all aspects of cycling were viable in the U.S. Born into a Chicago bike family, Albert grew up in one of the last bastions of the sport. His Father raced in the twenties and thirties, and later assisted at the six-days. The family frequently went to the races on weekends, and bikes were omnipresent in many conversations.
"One of my first memories, I was only three of four," Al explained, "was being in Oscar Wastyn's shop. Wastyn had raced with my dad and his shop was one of the two stores for hanging out. Oscar made frames commercially in the thirties, and then occasionally after that even into the fifties. I even worked for him a couple of years after I started to race during my teen years."
But it was Wastyn's rival, Ted Ernst (later of Manhattan Beach fame) who actually put the tools and tubes in Eisentraut's hands. "I was a regular bike freak," Eisentraut deadpans, "always wanting something a bit better. At the time I was going to the Illinois Institute of Technology working toward an engineering degree and worked on the side at an iron works where I ran the lathe mostly. So I made a jig in the machine shop and started putting things together."
Albert's description is so-matter-of-fact that it's hard to put his picture together with the more romanticized image one commonly encounters today.
Right away Eisentraut had orders. One was for Gordon Rudolph, a giant trackie who could never quite beat his Windy City competitor, Jim Rossi. Rudolph hoped a new bike would help. Albert remembered, "Ed Lynch was a hot southern California sprinter with pretty weird bike. It had a real high bottom bracket, 8 1/2" to 9" cranks, and real high gears. There was almost a cult getting bikes like this, and Rudolph wanted one too."
"Another bike I made was for a friend's kid. It had 20" wheels. Of course I made track and road frames for myself."
Two California bike titans, Jack Hartman and Bob Tetzlaff, were in exile in nearby Fort Sheridan. Al made a bike which his brother-in-law is still riding, but the more telling influence these two had was to convince Albert he should check out California. (Incidentally, the rivalry between Hartman and Tetzlaff continued right through to the 1971 National Veterans Road Championships where they finished one-two respectively!)
Eisentraut was ready, and after some hassles with his folks about dropping our of school he joined the army and ended up on the west coast. It was definitely bikieland, but very different from what he had known in the Midwest. One time he and Peter Rich took a kid home from a race. Al was a little shocked. "The mom was playing tennis, the dad golf, I think, and the kid was on his own. His parents weren't involved at all."
While Albert got into school teaching, Peter Rich built up the most sophisticated bike shop in the San Francisco area. As the business grew so did Peter's ambitions, and over time he hammered out his vision of a frame shop with Eisentraut.
Peter knew Albert was the only man possible so he sweetened the deal until it was irresistible. Within a year, by 1970, Velo-Sport bike shop and Albert Eisentraut were well known names from coast to coast.
Peter's dreams grew, if anything, faster than his gross receipts. By 1971 he was sponsoring the biggest road race in U.S. history, an eight-day tour that remained a high water mark for the U.S. until the Red Zinger became well-established nearly ten years later.
To the temple on Grove Street came everybody who was anybody and returned home with an Albert Eisentraut jewel in hand. John Howard, Mike Neel, Flip Waldteufel, Lindsey Crawford - these were some of the more prestigious names mounted on "'trauts" in that era.
Peter sent Albert to Europe for a grand tour of frame and accessory makers in the summer of '70. Raleigh, Lejeune, Colnago, Masi, Campagnolo, and numerous others were on the itinerary. Eisentraut returned home, much impressed. "That trip really changed my image of the bike business. Here, bikes were just sophisticated toys. It was hard to take bikes 100 per cent seriously. Going to Europe solidified things. You saw people committed for their entire lives. The industry wasn't out of perspective. It made framebuilding a more viable thing to do."
By the end of 1971 the almost inevitable perspective differences began to creep between Albert and Peter. When Lee Katz, one of the first masters of bike marketing, offered to set him up independently, Eisentraut went for it.
Between Lee's promotional genius, and Eisentraut's adaption to the need for a high quality production frame, the business took off. Each year for the next five years Albert's gross doubled. Eventually he employed fourteen assistants and pumped out a hundred frames a month.
His Oakland, California shop became a Mecca for apprentices desirous of learning the trade. So great was the demand that he gave framebuilding classes in such diverse places as Washington D.C., Chicago, Austin, Olympia and Vermont. He laughs when he remembers the first class in Chicago. "I took the kids (He's the father of triplet boys, as well as two daughters.) with me, and each one's baggage was a box of frame building supplies. No clothing - just more tubes!"
Graduates include the likes of Bruce Gordon, Joe Breeze, Mark Nobilette, and Skip Haysack. Each has made his set of ripples through domestic bikedom. In addition, numerous others were influenced by Albert's published guide to framebuilding.
Like all truly creative forces, Albert moved on. He stopped producing the "Limited", his bread and butter bike, so he could concentrate on custom work and such exotic projects as making his own tooling for the first investment cast lugs in the U.S.
Al pauses, a bit pained by the memories. He knows he produced excellent bikes, and been instrumental in the resurgence of cycling, but a touch of frustration crosses his face. Perhaps his fiancée's $175/hr attorney's fees have made the issue unavoidable. Just what is an activity worth?
Al continues. "I was naive. Somewhere along the line I should have gone to business school. The tech stuff is almost the easy part. I mean, I never went to a trade show until last year. You see mediocre people getting $100,000 a year and here I am busting my ass for $15,000 maybe. Of course the balance is the luxury of doing what I want."
Competition grew, the bike boom subsided, lease hassles forced a move, Schwinn bought the tooling for the lugs to use as dust collectors, and a grandiose dream to build the all-American bike with Basic Tool And Supply went bust after a strike.
The message was clear - back to basics. In '83 he invested his savings to set up a shop in a warehouse in west Oakland. It's just upstairs from the Vigorelli clothing people. With some updates here and there he's back to cranking out a near custom quality frame on a limited production basis. Much of his old dealer network is back in place and since he's the only employee, he doesn't get many days off.
Because cycling is still on a geometric growth curve, the name "Albert Eisentraut" will be new to many people, particularly since the man has hardly any advertising budget. It's almost a word of mouth thing. But the logic behind his production bikes, now called the "Rainbow 'traut", is as solid today as it was nearly 20 years ago. For the rider of average dimensions looking for a top quality bike at a modest price the Rainbow is an ideal solution. Frames come in two centimeter increments and as the height changes so do virtually all other measurement and tube specifications.
For custom orders Albert consults his computer where every imaginable body configuration has its corresponding frame readout. "We're set up to do everything here," he points out. "I recently made a 24" (wheel size) custom bike for an eight year old. But really, the custom bike isn't functionally better than the production version unless you're an atypical size, have a need for a special geometry, or dote on detail refinements. Most bike shops try to avoid custom orders. They take a lot of time."
For now Albert is pragmatic. "You can't really expect a million dollars of investment money to fall on a business that grosses $150,000 a year. I like building bikes, but I'm not taking advantage of all my ideas. Part of it is learning to be satisfied with all this."
One gets the sense he never will be, not quite. But for the immediate future he has some powerful distractions, such as making a tandem for his and Leslie's honeymoon ride through Italy this summer. Leslie, who had been very patient through the interview, felt it was necessary to add, "Albert's incredibly talented, and not just at making bikes. Remodeling, cooking, winemaking, other arts such as glass blowing (He's had museum pieces.), good music - at home we hardly talk about bikes."
"Yeah, " Albert interjects, "ever heard of a man named Applehaunse? He was supposed to b the best framebuilder this country ever had. He was back in the twenties. But who knows him now? That's just it, bikes get rusty. Bike building is not romantic. I've met a couple people who tell others they're framebuilders when I know they haven't made a thing. It's not going to get you laid. What's the point?"
Well, gray hair and a bit of skepticism go together. By age 47 you know the solution to every problem just puts you in the crossfire of more problems. In this quicksand the Eisentraut bike emerges as something solid, a lifetime accomplishment others only dream of. For Albert, it may seem just a down payment on what he could do, but for those of us who remember the dark ages, we need not be bashful in giving credit where it's due.