December 16, 2007 by Austin
Natalie and I were in REI today picking up a couple of things when we found ourselves the recipients of their holiday marketing campaign: Love. The word was everywhere. Love, picture of a sweater. Love, picture of a bike. Love, all by itself.
Like the word “sustainability”, the word love loses traction the more liberally it is applied. A campaign for the Humane Society (Love, puppies) would seem to fit the bill. But a campaign for REI (Love, Pieps DSP Digital Avalanche Beacon) probably doesn’t.
That is when I had my Carrie Bradshaw moment: Does Sweetpea Bicycles do a good job of participating in the love economy? If we say that “This is the bike that will love you back”, is it just more hollow marketing?
A recent event in the shop, I think, answers the question. A couple of weeks ago, Nat finished a very special bike. It had been technically challenging to design and build, and she had poured in weeks of effort making it as beautiful as she could. I can attest from my vantage point that Nat puts in a ton of effort, skill, and concentration into every bike she builds. But there was something really special about the woman she was building it for, the type of riding for which the bike was intended, and collaborative effort they shared along the way.
When I re-read that last paragraph, I don’t think I still quite have it: This bike had a very real and personal story. A story that came from who this woman is and the way she rides, which Natalie translated and formed out of metal. Every detail had a personal mark to it, from the racks, to the mud-flaps, to the color which had a story all its own.
So when the bike was damaged in shipping back from paint, Natalie was devastated. The customer, to say the least, was devastated too. And while both women were able to keep their composure on the phone and agree that the only way forward was to start from scratch; tears were quick to follow.
It might sound strange to think that Nat might hold a welding torch one minute and cry over a damaged bike another, but it is hard to keep your distance when making something as personal as a bike. Everyone pours love into the process, and when the result of that is taken away, it hurts.
Any bike builder can tell you that there is nothing quite like handing off a completed bike to a customer. There are months of anticipation, followed by recognition and joy. But in this case, that moment will come, but will come later than expected. Monday, Natalie will set up the jig, miter a new set of tubes, and pour herself into into the bike a second time; and that new bike will be just as important and beautiful as the first.