I suppose we should start this interview with a note to the readers to help them understand why they might want to read about you. We crossed paths when you used to show up in my beyond secret R&D shop inside the depths of Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill. To many (maybe not the younger readers) you’re an iconic frame builder. But you must have started somewhere.
What got you started on your path with bicycles?
Well, my tomboy next door girlfriend learned to ride a bike before me! This at 5 or so. I learned too and got a 26" Schwinn World from Goodwill for $1. The next phase was in high school. Young people may not understand how un-cool bicycle riding was in the early 1960's. The only, and I mean only guy to ride a bike to my 2,000 student high school was the absolute school nerd. I had a English 3 speed converted into a "racer". It had drop bars and a 3 speed derailleur lashed onto a Strumney Archer 3 speed hub. I of course did not ride it to school.
I worked starting at 15, became a motorcycle mechanic. Most of my motorcycle buddies did not go to my school. Senior year I met Lane, he was a Europe nut case. One of the things he was into was the Tour de France. So he had a very nice French bike, for the time and considering he was a high school kid with no money.
He talked me into buying a 10 speed,with some Campagnolo on it. When we got out of school in June 1964 we headed off on a ride across the USA, starting from Portland Oregon. Very little money, the plan was to find jobs as we went. Got to Denver, I could not find a job even though I had motorcycle skills. So I had to end the trip and ask my mother for the bus fare home. My bother ended up with the bike and became a bike racer. I went on to become a motorcycle hell raiser. I got so many tickets that they took my license away, many times. I had to get to work, this was when I was 21 or so. My brother said I should get a bike. So I did, and because I had to ride about 15 miles to work, and back each day I got fit.
In around 1969 I got into the bike scene in Portland. I met most of the players, it was very tight and small then. Met my future 1st wife, Virginia. She was really into bikes. At that time I was working in the dental industry. We saved up all the money and decided to ride around the world. Started in Aug. 1971 from Portland. Rode to Panama, then over to Portugal and down to Africa. Got robbed and burned out, so went home after 6 months. I went back to work in the dental job. After riding this big tour I was sure I could build better bikes that what I was seeing. So I just started making frames (1972 or 73).
How did you evolve on that path to starting and operating what I can only imagine was a successful frame building company known as Merz Bicycles?
At first I was just building bikes for myself. Soon other riders started asking me to build them bikes. At that time there was zero info, no tubing, no lugs. At first I made frames out of old broken frames, took the lugs off, saved the good tubes.
My wife was working for a good bike shop, so I got to hook up with suppliers. Finally figures out some of the tricks for getting stuff. Just slightly after I started building Andy Newlands started Strawberry Racing Cycles. He imported some tubing and lugs. Mark DiNucci was his first frame builder. We were friends, but competitive also.
Virginia did the painting and she was very good. Because I had a background in brazing and machining from the dental industry I had the skill and very importantly the contacts for doing bike frames. I did not drive a car for most of the 10 year I was building in Portland. We had very little money, but it was cheap to live in Portland back then. The successful part of all this was the friends I made, and the things I learned about bicycles. I was one of Mike Sinyard's first customers. He came to Portland on the train with his bike and stayed at my house, rode to the dealers selling his stuff.
In the 80’s you started working for Specialized Bicycles, specifically in the era of the now famous Allez steel lugged bicycles. What was the significance of that for you as a frame builder?
I could see the writing on the wall about continuing my life building bike frame for a living. I knew a lot about making a good bike. Custom bikes then had a very large range, track frames to full on touring bikes. My touring bikes that I made back then were state of the art.
Anyway, during these days I went to the bike show in New York every year. I got close to Shimano, Tange, Suntour, Reynolds. Campagnolo. So I knew quite a few of the serious players in the bike world ever before I worked for Specialized.
I would go to the Bay Area to visit Mike and other suppliers. Mike got one of the very first Ritchey MTB’s, I went down and he let me ride it. So I came back to Portland and made my version, without question the first MTB in the PNW! I knew Mike was going to make his version, what ended up being the Stumpjumper. I wanted him to hire me, so I could be the technical guy at Specialized.
He ended up hiring Tim Neenan, because he didn't want to pay my moving cost! After about a year Tim wanted to get out of San Jose, so Mike hired me. Sept. 1982. The first day on the job was flying from Portland to Japan! It was crazy; I designed everything, bikes, parts and even tires.
Where did all those lugs come from? You mentioned earlier how they virtually didn’t exist.
The lugs for all the bikes in the early days of my working at Specialized were from Japan. The MTB frames I designed had lugs; the first Stumpjuper was TIG welded. I don't remember who made them, but I designed them. Yoshi Kono made the top model Allez frames, and he designed the lugs for these frames.
I think I heard a rumor you lived in your VW bus for a while when you worked there. Is that true?
Well, there is a very long story about the changes after I was fired from Specialized in 1991. I could not work for year, after that I went to the company we used to made the M2 frames, Anodizing Inc. in Portland. While there I was the frame designer for their bike industry customers. This job lasted about 4 years, at the end Mark DiNucci started working for them.
I got too expensive for their taste and so I talked my buddies who had a bike company in Taiwan into starting a USA frame plant. Kinesis USA in Portland. I set this factory up, bought all the machines and did all the frame designs. Again this lasted about 4 years.
I then got a job for Browning, they had an automatic transmission for bicycles. Located on Bainbridge Island near Seattle I moved up there. I took the hand made prototype and made it into a fully tooled production product. I had to live in Taiwan for almost a year. Finally this Browning project was finished, and of course it failed or you would know about it.
So I was kicking around in Seattle with no job. Specialized needed someone to run the prototype shop. Kind of step down for me, but hey I need the job. This was about 2003, I was one of the first people in the bike industry to use 3D solid modeling CAD/CAM, starting at Specialized in 1985. I had my own system all through these jobs
No one had been there for some time, so the shop was a mess. The machines were all manual. So I got to build a dream shop, CNC mill and lathe, lot's of toys. I had no relationship during these times. After a few years I met my now wife Heidi Hopkins.
She moved into her childhood home in Big Sur right when we met. This is 2 hours one way to Specialized. Not good. I was ready to quit; they said why don't I work 4 days? Same pay! So I drove my Vangon camper and stayed 3 nights in the back of Specialized. It worked out great!
Let’s flash forward - when did you stop officially working at Specialized?
It's been about 7 year ago. As soon as I retired the big Basin fire burned our house up. We lost everything. (Just recently fire again threatened Jim and Heidi’s home – they luckily had no loss this time around)
What have you been doing since then?
Well, it took about 2 years of full time work to build a new house; this with others doing the work! I ride my bike. Spend time at our other home in Lee Vining. Backpacking and I took up serious photography again. I can still be found doing the odd project for Specialized, such as the revamped museum.
Tell us about your favorite tool. Maybe it’s a couple tools but it can’t be more than two.
Well, that's not so easy! One of the few tools that did not burn up was my TIG welder. Love it! I miss not having a CNC lathe!
What is your favorite bike? And why or what makes it special?
I have a lot of old bikes, mostly Merz vintage bikes. But my modern bike is the favorite. The current version of the Tarmac S-Works Disk brake with Di2 Dura-Ace is what I am enjoying nowadays. The best bike I have ever ridden! Perfect for the big mountains around Lee Vining. I am old and need all the help I can get!
I’ve seen you build wheels - what other great skills do you have? VW restoration perhaps?… that bus you have now is pretty sweet!
Yes, I still build wheels! Have a little shop and most of the bike tools I need. I don't like working on cars though. I take pretty good photos! I have built a lot of things around the house. Screen porches and doors. All made with steel tubing and TIG welding. I have progressed to the point were I can do a decent job welding steel!
What would you tell someone who’s looking to make a career out of this industry?
Well, it seems to me it is important to have a passion for bikes. It is not easy to make much money but if you can be happy around bike fanatics and get free or cheap bikes and parts then you can have a good life. These days it is pretty important to have an education. Once your foot is in the door regardless of what go you there… you still need to have passion.
You can follow Jim and see some of his Merz bicycles on his Facebook page which has an impressive gallery of nostalgia.
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