There are two answers to the question why Rudolf (Rudi) Jung fabricates bicycle frames. The first is that he stands a lanky 6’3″ tall. While people with bodily dimensions that aren’t too far on either extreme of the bell curve can usually find an off-the-shelf bike that fits well, Jung never rode a bike that felt right until he up and made his own. The second reason, and more telling answer, is that Jung is the type of person who, if he grew up in Alaska, would forge his own dogsleds out of used tomato soup cans.
Jung did not grow up in Alaska, however. He grew up a BMX grom in California, and now he races regularly on the SoCal cyclocross circuit. So he builds bikes. When I asked Jim Cadenhead, the owner of Cranky’s Bikes on State Street, why he feels comfortable recommending Jung to customers, he referred to Jung as a “savant.” Aside from making frames under the moniker Gold Coast Bicycle Manufacturing, Jung paints his bikes himself and etches head badges out of used cymbals. He also restores motorcycles, print-screens T-shirts, and designs his own Gold Coast racing kits, available for sale at Cranky’s. “Anything Rudi sets out to do,” said Cadenhead, “he learns to do perfectly.”
It was Cadenhead who first suggested that I talk to Jung. At first, I blanched. A handmade frame is a worthwhile investment but not a cheap one. Well-regarded builders can easily charge upward of $5,000, to say nothing of all the components necessary to make a fully functional bike. As a relative newcomer, Jung commands more modest prices, but after seeing how much labor he put into the frame that I eventually bought, I actually felt as if I cheated him.
For whatever reason, I couldn’t kick the thought that Cadenhead had planted in my head. The benefits to having a custom frame are practical (tubes sized specifically to your body dimensions for maximum comfort and efficiency), idealistic (supporting a local craftsman who builds with American-made steel), and superficial (getting to choose your paint color!). Then one day, I happened upon a modest windfall — my long-forgotten winnings from the 2012 Santa Barbara Independent NCAA Tournament pool, the cash in an envelope buried in my messenger bag. When I saw that envelope, I took it as a sign that I should splurge on my next bike.
Jung can also thank a bit of serendipity for the start to his fledgling enterprise. He had dreamt of fabricating bicycle frames for eight years by the time he finally, in 2010, saved enough money to take a course at the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) in Oregon. But just before he left on his pilgrimage to the starting place for many a U.S. frame builder, Jung, who still primarily supports himself by working construction, was offered a job on a lucrative project that he couldn’t refuse. So he ate his UBI deposit, stayed in Santa Barbara, and decided his dream would have to wait for another day.
On the jobsite, one of the other workers drove his truck over Jung’s saw horses. In the ensuing confrontation, Jung learned that the worker had been a hobbyist frame builder himself. To make it up to Jung, the worker donated his old jig and tools. All of a sudden, Jung was in business.
To this day, Jung still hasn’t made it to UBI. Turns out he never needed it. Santa Barbara, a town recognized for its world-class surfboard shapers, contains a rich repository of bike-building knowledge, as well. Jung has received tutelage from old-timers like Karl Swanson along with tips and tools from up-and-comers like Aaron Stinner, just two of the several S.B.-based builders. Jung even offered to sweep the floors of another well-known builder’s shop. Although that overture was declined, Rex Stephens, the proprietor of Santa Barbara Cruisers, let Jung set up in his Haley Street shop. Jung has since moved into a garage on the Westside, little more than a block from my own home.
Bad news for Jung, because while he was working on my bike, I would sometimes stop in on him unawares. I could chalk it up to documenting his process, but even the non-journalist customer gets updates from Jung, who regularly texts photos of his progress while fabricating a frame. Much of the work, however, is done before a drill bit touches a piece of metal. The process starts with a discussion about the type of riding you do, the bike you envision, the features you’d like. For instance, I wanted provisions for racks and fenders, because I’ll be using this bike for my daily 20-mile roundtrip commute. Then it’s on to measuring your extremities, from your forearm to your femur. After all that, Jung renders a drawing of the bike and goes over it with his customer before ordering tubes. For my bike, he used True Temper steel. (OX Platinum for the bike geeks.)
There are a handful of methods for joining metal tubing, but Jung usually opts for fillet brazing. With this method, joints are created by melting a bronze rod around the tube junctures. This bronze loop is called a fillet, French for “ribbon.” More time-consuming than welding, lower-temperature brazing requires only a blow torch, and not a TIG welder, keeping Jung’s start-up costs lower. It takes a lot of practice to control one’s blowtorch in order to maintain consistent temperature and to create fillets that are structurally sound. Before he ever built a bike, Jung brazed hundreds of pieces of scrap tubes together. Then he would saw the fillets in half to examine their cross-sections. Many builders, like Jung, like to file their fillets so that when the bike is painted, there is a seamless transition between tubes.
Some builders outsource painting; some send their bikes to powder coaters. For now, Jung paints his own. Once he waxed it up, he dropped it off at the bike shop to have it assembled. Cadenhead built me a set of wheels, sourced what parts I didn’t already have in my bin, and got me on the road. Not only does the bike ride as good as it looks — I have to resist getting all romantic about it.
As much as I try to rationalize my purchase — it will last the rest of my life! — a hand-built bike is a luxury item, even for the most ardent of bike nerds. At the same time, it bespeaks a time and place, built by Jung, whose craftsmanship is heavily inflected by a tradition of Santa Barbara builders. Small touches, like a section of the rear bridge that was made from a stainless-steel bit that Jung found at Art from Scrap, are South Coast signatures. And in a world where we pay with virtual money for goods that are mass-produced halfway around the globe, there is something refreshingly elemental about buying something made lovingly by someone you know. As elemental as riding a bike.