May 4, 2014

My Love Letter To Paul

  Sticking it to the man.  While this might have meant something deeper than the surface to ERA protesters, or those athletes who gave the Black Power salute at the Olympics in the 1970's, these days we- especially in our little sometimes-pseudo-urban cycling culture- generally use it these days in ironic jest.  But occasionally, just occasionally, someone still does manage to 'stick it to the man'.

How do we do that, though?  How, precisely, does one 'stick it' to this man?  In myth and legend, the  Luddites did it in England.  Literally stuck a wrench in the cogs of the machine.  We all know how that turned out.

It seemed like it was going to turn out that way for Paul Price, too.  He had the gall- nay, the hubris!-to try to compete with the Shimano Corporation.  Now, if you've ever read any of the history of Shimano, you may know that they were born before during and after the time of world wars.  Hard times for Japan.  Maybe because of this, they don't suffer competitors lightly.

So when Paul came along with his CNC'ed derailleurs in the early nineties, I imagine Shimano was at first bemused then grew a little irritated that this young American thought he could just come along and start shifting gears.  Hadn't they invented indexing and countless other shift "technologies"?  Now some colored parts (with rasta themes that likely confused them greatly) were taking away their sales?

The story goes that they then proceeded to release XTR- their prime mountain bike component group- and destroy an entire cottage industry.  And just in case generation 1 XTR didn't get the point across, the second generation came in precisely ONE color:  dull gray.

Most people would give up at that point.  I'm sure Paul had some long nights, maybe even made some whozeewhatsits for random machine-shop contracts.  I don't really know.

But just like wildlife under the snow is busy even if the snow looks peaceful, just like still rivers harbor deep currents, and just how the most peaceful ocean scene can hide both coral and creatures just beneath the surface, Paul knew something that Shimano didn't.  I believe two products made Paul Components the beloved company they are today, but you'd have to ask them for the full history.

The gospel of John in the Bible begins, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  Now, with no sacrilege intended, the gospel of Paul begins the same way.  When Bianchi (the venerable Italian bicycle maker) chose to release to the world the BOSS single speed in 1998 it included a special rear hub that was not a converted freehub (as most mountain bikes used then and now), and was not a track or BMX hub (they're much narrower).  It was also most certainly not made by Campagnolo, the almost-worshipped Italian component maker, who had tried a few runs of mountain bike parts, then given up, long before this. 

No, that hub was a bright orange Paul WORD.  You threaded on a BMX freewheel, and it bolted on.  Plain, simple, and for some of those fed up with component complication that ratcheted up a little more every year (Our derailleurs only work with 7 speeds!  Now it's 8 speeds!  Guess what?!  We made 9 speed for you!  Oh, and you'll have to replace your derailleurs, shifters, rear wheel, and all the sprockets.  You know, cause we made it work PERFECT for you) it was like that feeling when you take off ski boots or roller skates, and put your shoes back on.  I forgot it could FEEL like this!  For a few years, these bikes were the darlings of the industry, the must-have bike, until the next trend came along.  And Paul was seemingly all-of-a-sudden right back in the game.  Leading the race, as it were.  I can't imagine the conversations at Shimano that year.  Apoplexy comes to mind. 'But...  we... they... but...'

The second beloved product that (in my opinion) gave birth to the modern Paul Components is like the fraternal twin to the single-speed hub.  Identical in its breath-of-fresh-air simplicity, but diametrically opposed, because it enabled gear shifting again.  You see, along with the gear-of-the-year frustration I described in the last pair of parentheses, came ever more complex mechanisms to shift gears with.  Almost every one was from Shimano (though SRAM did make quite a splash with Gripshift, a throttle like shifter that launched their own empire, but that's a story for another time) and they were the black box of the modern bicycle.  Don't try to fix them, don't try to understand them, the parts are too small to even replace, put together by robots with fingers smaller than human fingers.  And they worked pretty well.    But the thing was, some people- darn them- just don't enjoy being told to ignore things.  Especially things they loved as much as their bikes.

So when Paul came out with Thumbies, a large chunk of people again slapped their foreheads and said "Of Course!"  You see, all along there had been a secret passage- an old way of shifting.  On the first mountain bikes, it had been done by thumbshifters- simple levers.  And a process called friction shifting.  

Friction shifting is the difference between telling your stereo to scan the channels for perfect signals, and tuning with a dial.  The presets work perfectly- until they don't.  And you have no way to get to the station you actually want.  Now imagine that missing that one station throws off your entire radio dial. 

And though those long-ago thumbshifters had become VERY hard to find, by some miracle, manufacturers were still making a product called bar-end shifters, and they still came with a friction shifting option.  Even Shimano still made them!

Thumbies are handlebar mounts that enabled you to take the touring/triathlon/road bike bar end shifters, and mount them right next to your fingers, in friction mode, just like super-deluxe thumbshifters.  They felt like the film-advance lever on an expensive camera.  And a certain kind of cyclist had to have them.  They were such an obviously perfect idea, for the right person, that it felt like they were suddenly everywhere, all at once.

And now Paul Components is humming along, selling out as quickly as they can produce each new product, and last year, made a color-of-the-month anodizing program (this is the process that seemingly "dyes" aluminum colors, rather than simply painting- very popular when Paul first started making parts).  What comes around goes around.  Or something like that.

Why do I tell you all this?  Who cares about some machinist from Chico, CA?

Well, to me personally, it speaks of renewal, rebirth, and hope.  Don't know about you, but hitting my early forties and not necessarily living the dream financially or physically can get to me sometimes.  We all resort to thinking about the good old days, don't we?  'Man, when I was 17....'  I always mocked people that talked like that but whether  it's high school football or halfpipe skateboarding, the feeling is the same:  I've spent all my life on a bike for THIS?   I can't even do a stupid wheelie. I weigh 100 pounds more than I did in high school.  Why don't I just grow up, give up, and be a fat and happy American like so many other people my age?  Make a TV watching schedule and let other people do the sports for me?  Sell the stupid bikes and get a second car...

But then I remind myself of the feeling of bouncing over roots, and I see the elegant simplicity of an idea like a singlespeed, or the renewing, untangling idea that the Thumbie represents, and I feel a breath of hope.  Paul the company came around again.  Anodizing came around again (which represents so much more than the simple color, to many of us).  

And maybe you and I can, too.

Thanks for reading.

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