Sunday, July 27, 2014

Meeting The Man, Keith Lippy

Tuesday, I received a call from Philip.  "Don't you have a Lippy tandem?  I've heard that Keith Lippy is doing the POMG Cross Vermont Tour this week." We do, indeed, have a Lippy that we purchased nine years ago from its original owner and which is the hands-down favorite of the many tandems we have owned.  Later in the day, after spending some time looking at the route they were to take, I got a call from Todd, who was one of the tour leaders, telling me the same thing.  Together, we hatched a plan to surprise Keith with a visit from one of his creations.

After the Thursday Eastern Tandem Rally ride, Jeanne and I drove over to Waitsfield, parking at the school.  We rode the tandem the mile from there to the B&B where the POMG group was staying.  Todd greeted us, then went up to get Keith, giving him a fictitious story about a couple of riders who were having mechanical problems, and couldn't he, with his experience, help them out?  No doubt, Keith was not excited about being tapped to work on his vacation but, being a nice guy, he skipped his shower and came down to see what was going on.  The look on his face when he emerged onto the deck and saw the tandem, in its original paint, was truly priceless.  Soon, his wife Pat joined us and we spent at least a half hour chatting about the bike and Keith's framebuilding history.

Keith quit building frames in the late 1990s to teach high school science.  He's got a few years left before retirement and says that he's leaving the door open to doing some bike work again in retirement, though not on a full commercial scale.  It was obvious that he took a great deal of pride in his work as a framebuilder and that he was an early developer and adopter of a number of innovations that found their way into accepted frame design.  Keith also corrected a number of misconceptions I had received from reading online posts from self-proclaimed "knowledgeable experts."

Keith did, indeed, build some frames and forks for Masi, but he did not master the trade in the Carlsbad shop, as some seem to think.  Once Carlsbad closed, Keith (who had started building his own bikes in San Diego around 1974, near, but not associated with Masi USA) agreed to manufacture for Masi under contract in his own shop.  Without mentioning names on the Masi side, Keith put his own business on hold to do the Masi work, but this proved difficult.  The Masi work came in fits and starts, with unexpected delays in obtaining components and orders that resulted in periods of weeks in which Keith didn't have work.  One cannot take custom orders without the ability to provide delivery dates, so he wasn't making money on the deal, overall.  Add to that delays in receiving payment, and it didn't take Keith too long to throw in the towel on the Masi deal, which still seems to be a thorn in his side.  This would have been around 1977, before Masi setup the Rancho Sante Fe and San Marco operations.

Keith said that our bike has the third generation of his decals (which was likely the last.  The serial number and information I received from the original owner places the frameset around 1987.  It has a number of unusual, custom details (more on those later).  Keith said that he was dissatisfied with the Columbus tandem tubing that was commonly used at the time.  Contrary to what has been stated by some of the aforementioned "experts", Keith did not use custom-drawn tubing from Pacific northwest aerospace suppliers.  Rather, the frame is made from straight gauge chromoly steel, with the oval top tube from Phil Wood, who was custom-drawing these for framebuilders at the time.  Phil had become a supplier for the tandem market, expanding his highly respected hub and bottom bracket offerings with an advanced (if fatally flawed from a design perspective) disk brake.  Keith also wasn't merely experimenting with oval tubes, as some claim, but rather had a design philosophy that followed from an analysis of the stresses on tandems.  He reasoned that the forces acting on the top tube were primarily horizontal, while stresses in the boom tube were torsional.  He felt that the best combination would be an elliptical top tube, and round mid and boom tubes, providing improved stiffness while softening road shock.  At least one other, now famous, tandem builder visited Keith's shop to benefit from his experience, though, having one of this builder's tandems from that era, I can tell you that he missed the recipe for Keith's secret sauce.

Here are some features of our Lippy.

That's the Lippy logo in the fork crown.  Keith said he had the fork blades custom drawn to use a heavier gauge steel and added an insert into the steerer to strengthen the fork in this critical area.  That's the original Dura Ace road headset, which is still in excellent condition.

Note the use of the oval top tube to internally route the rear brake cable.  The Scott Superbrake looks a lot cooler than it works.  Perhaps its lack of performance has more to do with the 25 year-old brake pads than the unique brake design.

Clean brazing on the front dropouts.

The brass head badge is silver brazed directly onto the frame.  It has discolored a bit under the clearcoat, but it's still classy, perhaps only challenged at the time by Bilenky's silver creations on his Sterling tandems.  The Scott Superbrake provides barely enough clearance for 28mm tires.

Here's a full-on shot.  The bike is a tad too large for Jeanne to allow fitting of a shock absorbing stoker seatpost , so we've replaced the rear saddle with a sprung Brooks leather model that has proven quite satisfactory.  The custom fade was done to the customer's specification by Keith, who did his own painting.  No stock colors or limited selections for Lippy customers.

Keith pointed out the large-diameter seat stays he used to stiffen the rear triangle, rather than to add an extra set of stays.  Keith didn't recall fitting any Campagnolo cranksets to his tandems.  These were on it when I got the bike, though I replaced the triple arm with one that was drilled for standard 74mm chainrings, to get a lower gear for our Vermont mountains.  I've always loved their clean, vintage look.

I don't think I ever noticed the rider in the negative image formed by the left side of this decal until Keith pointed it out.  Apparently, we were not the only ones who didn't see this in the graphic.

Note the custom seatpost binder and the points on the seat tubes, custom details that didn't make it onto all his frames, according to Keith.

Rear Brake Bridge Detail

Seat Tube Decal

We really appreciated the opportunity to meet the builder of our favorite tandem.  Keith had mentioned to the other riders on the tour that he had been a builder, but they were not aware that he was one of the legends of American framebuilding until we showed up with the proof of his skill and design genius.  There's a reason why, over 25 years later, people still skip over a hundred high-tech Cannondales, Co-Motions, and  Santanas, to see the Lippy at tandem rallys.  Keith said that, should he return to building in retirement, he will likely stick to singles, even though most of the frames he made were tandems.  Too bad--we told them that, if we could, we would commission him to make one like ours, but custom sized.  We love it!

Climbing the Dirt on a Tandem

The Rodriguez Toucan tandem passed the final road test on a 25-mile ride Friday, so we decided to put it through its paces, selecting a loop of primarily dirt roads, starting in Essex and going up through Fairfield. Many of these roads were unfamiliar, and the elevation graphs indicated that there would be some challenging climbs, but we felt that we were in good enough shape from the Eastern Tandem Rally last week to tackle it as we gamely set off.  I picked up the Toucan last spring, in my ongoing search for a good tandem for the dirt that actually fit.  Sadly, the purchase of a Santana that would have been a fantastic deal fell through, but the Toucan has turned out to be a really nice ride.  It has heavily ovalized top and boom tubes and a mildly ovalized mid-tube.  It was sold as an entry level tandem in 1998, but this was largely due to the component package.  The frame is actually quite nice.  I swapped out the crankset, which was junk, and replaced the drum brake setup with a standard, 8-speed mountain bike wheel.  The 26 x 32 gear seemed a bit too low, but turned out to be a good choice for this ride.  With the stem lengths finally dialed in, it's a quite nice riding bike and the fat, 26" slicks turned out to be perfect for the loose gravel and crushed stone we ran into, which would have stopped road tires.

It was a partially cloudy, 75 degrees when we started, with a very light tailwind, making for perfect riding conditions.  We started out heading up the long, easy climb up Woods Hollow Rd.  There was almost no traffic until we came out on VT-128 for the long descent into Fairfax.  We made the steep climb on Boissoneault Rd, stopping to look at the picturesque falls.  Starting out on the steep climb was a challenge, and we dropped the chain, while shifting into the smallest chainring, so I will need to add a guide to avoid that problem.  We realized that starting out on a steep climb on dirt is easiest when you are in the saddle, so we perfected that technique as we went along.

We continued knocking off the easy climbs on Huntville and Woodward Rds until turning onto paved Buck Hollow and its pleasant descent to South Rd.  There was some disagreement about the wisdom of selecting Ridge Rd for the next turn.  The stoker has decided that certain road names should be avoided.  This first included the obvious "Hill," "Mountain" and "Gap," and was extended to include "Hollow" and, most recently, "Ridge."  I assured Jeanne that this Ridge Rd was downhill in both directions, a concept that was immediately challenged, but since the road wound around with no steep sections visible at the start, there was no immediate mutiny.  True to form, the road soon pitched up to a decent, though not extreme grade, and there was some general grousing about having to do that much climbing on a road with the word "Ridge" in the name, but which had no view.  Eventually, we came out by some farm fields which the GPS seemed to want to send us off through.  This is not all that uncommon on secondary roads, where the databases sometimes keep the road on a route that was altered decades ago.  Soon there seemed to be a serious discrepancy, as the available options led us off the route, both proving to be dead ends.  Closer inspection showed a muddy, hidden, ATV trail as the likely alternative and, with much cajoling and an agreement to walk the bike, we set off through the woods.
"If this doesn't go through, it's all your fault!"
After awhile, the road leveled out a bit and was at least partially rideable.  Before it became an actual road again, it went past a sap collection shed and the sugarer had brought in a number of loads of large, crushed stone, laying it quite deep, apparently as it came off the truck, not bothering to grade it at all.  Surprisingly, we were able to plow through most of it with the fat tires.  We were rewarded with a nice, long descent on Romar and Lapland roads.

We looped around on Lost Nation Rd, to start back on Taylor.  While we had already hit a section that the GPS reported as over 23% (unlikely), Taylor Rd proved to be the most challenging.  It had a two-mile climb, with a short break about half way.  The last mile was the toughest, with an extended section over 15% at the end, approaching 19%, according to the GPS.  It was steep enough that the rear tire was skipping out on the dirt, something we hadn't experienced before on a tandem.  We made it without stopping, not wanting to try starting again on the steep grade, though we certainly thought about it.
View of Mansfield from North Rd
We were rewarded with lots more descending and some really nice views from North Rd.  We wound through Fletcher and then down to the river on Black Mtn. Rd.  After a stop at the store on VT-104, we headed up Sand Hill Rd.  Now, this does include the word "Hill" in the name, but the stoker had been so beaten up by the climbs that there was little more than some light whimpering and general resignation to the abuse ahead.  As it turned out, there was only a single short, if steep pull, before the road leveled out and started descending.  It was actually quite a bit easier than 128 would have been.  There was a long section of deep, very loose gravel, but signs gave us the impression that this was road work in progress.  Could it be that pavement is on its way?  If so, this will become our preferred route back to Westford.

We turned onto Brookside Rd for the easy climb past the Westford School.  Though Jeanne suggested we drop back to 128 and take the easy way back, we stuck to the route, making the steep climb to Woods Hollow, on Phelps, picking up Old Stage Rd and it's sweet descent to Chapin.  Ok, there's a little climb past the golf course, but it's easy, not to mention paved.

This was, perhaps, one of the toughest rides we've ever done.  Lots of loose stuff, plenty of steep climbs, with over 4k'of elevation gain, if the GPS is to be believed.  At 56 miles, it seemed harder than the paved Prouty century we rode a few weeks ago.  Jeanne keeps saying "Never again," (at least for some of these roads) but this attitude is bound to soften a bit, once she is again able to climb the stairs without complaining about her stiff legs.  The bike certainly proved that it is an excellent replacement for our old Santana.  The dirt is calling!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Prouty On!

Jeanne and I rode The Prouty for the fifth time last Saturday.  We've always done the full 100, on the tandem, of course.  The start was pleasantly cool, with a light fog, but things warmed up fairly quickly under a clear sky.  As usual, there was a huge number of riders participating, and we ran into a number of people that we know.  The tandem has its own speed, though, so we didn't ride for any appreciable distance with anyone in particular.
Moosilauke Highway
The worse part of such a popular charity ride is that there are almost always people riding slowly up every hill.  Tandems are not known for their hill-climbing prowess, though they descend like rockets, but it's really hard to go as slow as many of these riders.  On a single, you can simply accelerate around the group and then get back to your tempo, but it takes a lot more effort to do this on a tandem.  You need to time things so that you can get completely around the riders while there is a break in the traffic, and it doesn't help when they are going at different speeds.  It would be a lot easier if people would stay to the right, as the Prouty route features lots of wide shoulders, but this is, after all, a social event, so one can understand it if folks want to chat alongside their friends, where possible.
Sue & Dave approaching the bridge to Vermont
We caught up to Sue and Dave on their tandem a bit over half-way through the loop.  They had ridden the 100/200 back in June, the first to ever do so on a tandem!  They are a strong team and it was fun to ride with them, though they were stronger up some of the hills than we.  SAG stops are placed every ten miles or so on the Prouty route, and we were skipping every other one.  Being out of sync with the stops Sue and Dave were using, we were only with them for about 10 miles.  We added our names to those of the others riding for Team Hoss this year, mostly because so many Team Hoss folks have ridden the 100/200 over the past few years.  Team Hoss was the third highest fundraising team this year, raising over $86K.

Connecticut River, south of Wells River
As usual, we picked up a headwind when we headed south in Wells River, but it wasn't nearly as bad as in some previous years.  By the 80-mile mark, we were both pretty cooked and were happy when we passed the steel drum band on the final (and steep) hill, just before the finish.  We finished with an average speed of just over 17 mph, which was significantly slower than last year, but still respectable.  We'll be in good shape for the Eastern Tandem Rally in a couple weeks.

At the post-ride festivities, we loaded up our plates and headed for one of the three huge tents, randomly selecting one of hundreds of tables, where there happened to be two vacant seats.  After a few minutes, I noticed that a person sitting at the other end of the row of tables looked familiar and, sure enough, it was John Painter, along with Phil Surks and his family.  Now, it is a bit odd to randomly end up at the same table as someone you know in an event this large, but it's far stranger when this is exactly what happened two years ago, with the same people, and it's not like we were even sitting in the same place!  It reminded us of last year, where we ran into two friends at the 25-mile SAG stop and they each started introducing us to the other person.  It turns out that the two guys had never met before, and had randomly found themselves riding together and struck up a conversation on the climb to the SAG.  They didn't realize that we knew both of them already--and very few of the thousands of other people there.

We've lost too many friends of ours to cancer and have known far too many others who have contracted one form or another of the disease.  I am reminded of Richard Thompson's verse, "Too many friends of ours, blown off this mountain in the wind."  As we get older and that circle grows, and we realize it could happen to anyone, including us, riding the Prouty becomes more and more a compelling experience.  With our clutch of yellow ribbons bearing the names of some of these folks streaming from the back of our tandem, it's hard not to be reminded that any of them faced much greater obstacles than we did on this little ride on a beautiful summer day, climbing our little hills.  They were the giants.  They climbed mountains.