This is an interview I did a little while ago with Salsa Bicycles founder Ross Shafer.
Ross is a great guy. He has a great sense of humor and has plenty of insight concerning bicycles and the bicycle industry.
What’s not well known about Ross is his deep involvement with the music world, especially concerning his tutelage building guitars under watchful eye of the late Taku Sakashta.
“Ross Shafer; Life’s been good so far… “
By Adam Hunt
Please, if any one confuses Salsa founder Ross Shafer with the motivational speaker and sometime standup comic Ross Shafer throw your bike into a bonfire then curb stomp it. Starting in 1976 with a Proteus frame building kit Ross built his first road bike. Shortly there after Ross built about sixty frames under the “Red Bush” name then from 1982 to 1997 Ross ran Salsa Bicycles then sold the company to Quality Bike Parts. Since them Ross has started his own design and manufacturing consulting company known as Six-Nine Design. Although his clients now range from Mesa Boogie and K&M Designs amplifiers to Steelcase office furniture he still keeps one toe in the bike industry and his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. From the back door of his Petaluma farmhouse you can easily throw a rock and hit Soulcraft’s production facility.
Ross has helped Sean Walling find his inner lugged frame builder. ” Sean approached me and said that he had always wanted to build a lugged frame but wasn’t entirely sure how to do it. I told him he all ready had the skills to it but it would take some walking through “. The result is the Soulcraft Alma Pura. Named after a local Petaluma taqueria the Alma Pura is a lugged steel fixed gear road bike with just enough spice and just enough soul to make things interesting. Photographer Mike Alden and I took a drive up from Berkeley to Petaluma to spend the day on Ross Shafer’s farm, shoot some snaps, flap some gums, and put on some road miles.Now, road isn’t dirt, dirt isn’t road, there are some dirty roads but that’s a little different.
Initially I tried to talk Ross into doing a mountain ride but he said his inner hippy prevents him from getting very excited about loading up a car and driving for 30 minutes to get in a short bike ride, especially he offer’s great road riding right out his front door. An offer that was hard to refuse.
Mike and I pulled up Ross’ dirt drive and Ross greeted us from his second story office window. From the parking lot we could see a small flock of sheep grazing on the hill and we heard Ross shout, “Hey, come on up and try not to ____ any sheep!”
” It’ll be hard not to, I’ve got some Scottish in me! ” Mike shouted back.
Ross has said that his somewhat offhand manner has lent to the perception that he was somewhat flippant at best and somewhat rude at worst. The prankster side of Ross is still evident and as far as being somewhat short with people over the phone, that’s something he’s sorry about.
” Sometimes, I’d get really caught up with things or I had a deadline then I’d get a call and I’d say, ‘ Can’t talk! ‘ and hang up. I feel really bad about doing that and that’s something I want to apologize for “.
Mike and I climbed up into Ross’ livery stable / office and I promptly bumped my head on the ceiling. The room was cold, with two large open windows, electronic bric-a-brac lay next vintage Salsa stickers, computers churned out cad/cam displays on flat screen monitors, two guitars sat forlorn and lonely in the corner like scolded children – maybe not the best place for an interview.
Ross brings up the idea of going outside. Sounds good. I turned myself around and tried to maneuver myself down a tricky ladder that led back down to the stable. ” Not the stairs you want to try to go down in a hurry, ” I said to Ross.” Aw, come on, my fifteen-year-old cat can make it, you can too! ” Ross, Mike and I made our way through his vegetable garden, pass the greenhouse, grabbed some chairs and I let Ross do the rest.
Adam: ” During one of our phone conversations you had described yourself as being ” self unemployed” but looking at your Six-Nine Designs website it hardly looks like you’ve been idle “.
Ross: ” Yeah, I haven’t been idle. ‘ Self-unemployed ‘ refers to the fact that I don’t want to work. (Laughs). No, it’s just a joke. With Six-Nine Design I go through long times without having much work. Especially with this last year. There’s been some really slow months so sef-unemployed is what I am when I’m sittin’ around waiting for the next customer to call up with a job that needs doing. I’m ‘ self unemployed ‘ by choice “.
Adam: ” That definitely beats having to be on a time clock or having to be some place at a given time “.
Ross: ” It does in a way although I’m finding, in my post Salsa years, it’s really difficult for me to motivate myself about certain things. It’s just me and the computer or it’s me and the shop. There’s not a bunch of employees depending on me, there’s not a bunch of dealers, there’s not a customer on a bike, its very different from my life in the bike biz. Not as much of a community aspect and the motivation that comes from that in my freelance work.”
” I don’t have to punch a time clock but Six-Nine I’m never off work, I’m always working, because whatever project I’m involved with is always going around in the old noggin’. I’ll be reading a book and after reading a few pages and I won’t know what the ____ I read because I’m still trying to figure out how I can dimension that one weird profile in some drawing I’m doing “.
Adam: ” What kind of clients are contacting you for Six-Nine Design? ”
Ross: ” All kinds….I’ve done a lot of work for Mesa Boogie here in town. For them it’s mainly tool making and helping them create work stations to help achieve better, more ergonomic production. It’s surprising how much of the work I get comes in from the referrals of folks I knew from the bike industry. I’d say over half of the work I’ve done since starting Six-Nine has come in some way from old contacts in the bike industry “.
Adam: ” Is it simply due to the fact that people are moving out of the bike industry for something that’s a little more remunerative in terms of the pay scale? ”
Ross: ” That’s certainly the case for a lot of people. It’s not so much that people are moving out of the bike industry as people like me who have made a choice to do something different and yes, in a lot of cases the pay is better “.
Adam: ” How big of truck filled with money would some one have to drive up to your house to lure you back into the bike business? ”
Ross: ” I’m doing a project for the bike industry right now and it’s totally on spec so I’m not getting paid anything! “(Both laugh)
” How big of truck of money? I don’t know… I’d have to have a satisfactory situation with people I like to work with and projects I’m really interested in. That’s more important than the money “.
Adam: ” Obviously you’ve kept at least one toe in the ‘ industry ‘ with your involvement with the Alma Pura project with Soulcraft. How did that come about? ”
Ross: ” That was a fun project. Unfortunately it hasn’t netted any sales whatsoever but it’s a cool bike. Sean (Walling) came back from the first hand built bike show in San Jose saying, ‘ God, all those lugged bikes are so cool, it’d be cool to offer a lugged Soulcraft’ so I said, ‘ You should just build one! ‘
Sean said, ‘ I want to offer this bike, but don’t have the time Why don’t you build it and we’ll charge a ____ load of money in order to get you to come out of retirement ‘.
Adam: ” Do you some times look back at your life in the bike industry and think that was a different Ross Shafer? ”
Ross: ” It’s funny you should ask that. I’m not sure how much of this I want on the record! ”
Adam: ” What advice would you give some one who was trying to make a career out of the bike industry? ”
Ross: ” The first piece of advice I give is get a job in a bike shop. Get a job in a bike shop and learn how to work on bikes. There’s so much education to be had by knowing what a day in the life of a bike mechanic or a store-owner is and that’s by getting to know the clientele – there’s no better way to get to know the market. ”
” The bike magazines tell you nothing about the market. Absolutely nothing. No body wants to write about the ‘real market’. Everything you read about in the magazines are niches. There’s just so much more to it. There’s a lot of personal relations and you have to understand the personal relations that people have to their bicycles, any way, I can go on forever because so many people want to bypass the bike shop step and it’s the most important part. How can you know the industry without some knowledge of the front line…the bike shop!”
Adam: ” You’ve worked as a manufacture in the US but you’ve also have outsourced products from Europe and the Far East, how ‘green’ do you think the bike industry is? ”
Ross: ” Not. Not. It’s not very green. There’s very little manufacturing worldwide that’s very green. It’s not necessarily the manufacturer’s fault but more societal driven, I guess. We’ve got this big boom and it’s hip to be green now and things are accelerating at a huge pace compared to the last… how old are you? ”
Adam: ” Forty-four “.
Ross: ” Forty-four? Holy ____! You look really young!”
Adam: ” I owe it all to rampant immaturity “.
Ross: ” That’s what I’ve got going for me, that’s why I don’t have too much gray hair “.
” Where were we? No body talked about ‘green’ twenty-five years ago except hippies. And now not every body’s a hippy but every body is talking about, ‘green’. The bike industry is no greener than the automotive industry it’s no greener than any other industry. Arguably, the usage of the product is greener than a car but you can say that about this chair too “.
Adam: ” I know that in particular with a lot of the ‘alternative materials’…”
Ross: (Laughs) ” Made, in China “.
Adam: ” Maybe…”
Ross: ” Because, they can. You mean,’ those materials’? None of the materials are made in green facilities. Steel, and aluminum are both hideously energy intensive to make and non green. I can’t pretend to know enough to say that steel is greener than aluminum or whatever, but there’s a reason why all of this carbon fiber stuff is being sourced in China. (Laughs) And a lot of it’s due to environmental and working regulations; that’s something I currently have a problem with the industry. ”
” They promote the bike as green product and at the same time they are promoting all this high tech wizardry so when it comes to carbon fiber bikes, the bulk of them are being made in China. You couldn’t make it in that volume, for that cost, in the US “.
Adam: ” Which current builders are you excited by?”
Ross: ” There’s way too many for me to remember all the names. For the most part I’m really excited by the plethora of custom frames being made these days. Don Walker’s NAHBS and all its offshoots have done a lot to bring more recognition to good builders….but these shows also give a lot of recognition to folks who are (or maybe should be) hobbyists as well. Anyone with the right skills and a shitload of time can build a few awesome frames and those frames can indeed be works of art.
I feel that the true art of framebuilding lies in one’s ability to produce high quality, durable frames that fill the customer’s needs and desires, functionally and aesthetically, while putting food on the table doing so. To me, building frames and being a framebuilder are different things. I’ve built guitars…but I’m definitely not a guitar builder.
I wish these hand built bike shows had a central concours area where all the builders put they’re fancy show pieces while focusing their booth space on the product that sustains their business. That’d give the public a much more accurate picture of what a framebuilder is….or isn’t”.
Adam: ” What I think is interesting that a lot of people who have been involved with the bike industry have also been extremely creative but that’s something that’s not been really touched upon. Sky Yeager does a lot of photography, Paul Price has done a lot of woodwork, Charlie Cunningham and Curtis Inglis have done auto restoration, and you’ve been working with K&M and have done motorcycle restoration, do you think there is a commonality? ”
Ross: ” The commonality is passion. Virtually everyone you mentioned there is passionate about their profession and their non-work interests and hobbies. For many of us making a living at something we have no passion for is just too un-fulfilling to consider very seriously. I can’t think of anyone I know who got into the bike biz because they thought it’d be a stylin’, secure and financially rewarding profession. No, most people get into the bike industry because they can’t help themselves “.
Adam: ” You said your son, Max, has decided to become a tattoo artist, that seems a long way from the bike world “.
Ross: ” I don’t know, there’s a lot of tattoos on bikers these days so it’s not too far! ”
Adam: ” Yeah, but we’re not talking about ‘ Sons of Anarchy ‘”.
Ross: ” It’s a long way from bikes but fortunately he didn’t grow up hating bikes. I think it’s kind of a typical thing. I definitely didn’t want to have to do anything with what my dad was into or doing, I think that there is a little bit of that with Max. At least he shares my politics. ”
Adam: ” Where in Southern California did you grow up?”
Ross: ” Orange County, baby, the Republican heart of California “.
Adam: ” Your educational background as a frame builder is pretty well known but at what point did you realize, ‘ Hey, I can make a living at doing this! ‘”
Ross: ” I built the first frame because I really just wanted to make a frame. I knew it wouldn’t be as nice as the frame I lusted for but couldn’t afford (a Wizard, built by Brian Baylis and Mike Howard). Even knowing it wouldn’t be an art piece like those Wizards, I was still excited about learning what went into building a frame ” ” I built the first frame and it took me three or four months to build, and realized, ‘ Holy ____! There’s so much to learn here! ‘”" After finishing the first frame I was out on a ride with a guy and he said it was a pretty nice looking bike (he didn’t know what he was taking about…believe me!) Where did I get it?”’ I made it. ” Would you build me one? ‘” I said, ‘ Yeah… Sure! At some point while building the next few frames I figured…hey maybe I can make a living at this”
Adam: ” What’s not well known is your involvement in music. You’ve built a couple of guitars, a mandolin and some amps what musicians inspire you?”
Ross: ” Ho! That’s like asking what frame builders excite me. You know, anybody I see perform, that I see enjoying themselves, those musicians inspire and excite me. But what specific musicians inspire me? Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Robben Ford, Steve Howe, there’s a zillion of them. Any body who has a lot of melody and I lot of skill I bow down to”.
Mike, Ross and I toured Ross’ spread. Ross said at one time he wanted be a ” hippy farmer ” and it shows. Not that things are disorganized, not that there’s scarecrows standing in a field decked out in flower children clothing but just a enough hippy touches here and there to make things interesting. Ross showed Mike and I his guitar collection including several show pieces. Hanging from the wall was a prized 1951 Fender Telecaster, one of the holy of holies for guitar freaks. Close by was a old Ibanez arch top which Ross got from Rock Lobster’s Paul Sadoff (who he got the Tele from also).
” Paul is a hell of a player,” added Ross shaking is head as if silently acknowledging his own self-professed shortcomings as a player. Ross was also keen to show off two of the guitars he had made under the watchful eye of Rohnert Park guitar builder Taku Sakashta. For those who are unfamiliar with Taku Sakashta, Taku Sakashta may be to the guitar world what Jeff Jones is to the bike world. Both are innovative builders, both have long lead times, both the frames and guitars are highly sought after, and either would be a prize for any collection.
Backing through the kitchen we noticed some large blocks of hand made soap waiting to be shipped out for the holidays. ” My wife Mari made it. It takes six weeks to dry before we can send it out “. Wandering out of the house and making our way through the parking area and past the Soulcraft production area,
Ross lead Mike and I to yet another workshop. Along the way a panicked sheep was struggling to free it’s head from a snarl of wire fencing. Both of Ross’ dogs were barking and nipping at the hooves of the terrified sheep as it continued to bleat uncontrollably. Ross shooed the dogs away, leaned over to help free the sheep and reminded us not to try to molest it while it was trapped.
The dogs chased the sheep down the hillside and Mike, Ross and I entered a renovated chicken coup that’s been turned into a workshop and rehearsal studio right next to Mary’s sewing studio. On our way out from the studio Paul Butterfield’s guitar ace, Elvin Bishop, had written on the studio’s wall ” Thanks Ross! Elvin Bishop ” in thanks for Ross’ lending him the use of the studio for a recent recording project.
After the grand tour of Ross’ farm and workshops every one suited up for a much anticipated road ride. The air was still crisp with a November chill and the sun was quickly disappearing over the horizon on its way to Hawaii, Wake, and Japan. Mike and I pulled down a couple cyclocross bikes from the roof of my aging Nissan mini truck and Ross pulled out the livery stable an incredibly sexy red and white lugged steel Six-Nine Design fixed gear road bike.Down the gravel driveway, through the gate, the three of us hit the road. The Sonoma County hills have now just exchanged their brown summer coat for a green winter’s jacket. Ross navigated us through a series of back roads and leapt onto a westward highway still peppered with fresh gravel.
Mike nearly takes a spill as his front wheel slides off the road and into the soft shoulder. He rights himself after a moment then begins chasing after Ross’ wheel. For a guy in his mid fifties on a fixed gear, Ross is still able to set a remarkably quick pace but that would soon be negated as the land lurches upward. The highway starts to get hilly, Ross urges Mike and I to roll along as thing start going vertical. Traffic, wind, and physical exertion make’s it somewhat difficult to carry on a conversation but I asked Ross what he wants to be when he grows up.
” I’m still trying to figure that out! ” said Ross still cutting a good clip on his fixie.
We start to loop south, then east back towards Petaluma. The road banks downward. Mike rockets down the highway with his usual disregard for personal safety. Ross is next but his legs can only spin so fast downhill. He cuts it as close to the speeding cars as he can, leaving more than a bike’s width of space between he and soft shoulder to his right. I figure, I can pass on the right but that would simply add to my long list of incredibly bad moves. I’m coming up fast on Ross’ six. He can neither see nor hear me so I chance passing him on his left. I move out onto the highway at about 40 mph only to hear the angry blare of a horn of a passing car before I can whiz by Ross and hop back to the safety of the bike lane.
The road levels out and we make a left then wind our way back through some residential streets to Ross’ place.Ross’ wife, Mari, greets us from their back porch and asks Ross how the ride was. ” Those guys were fast! ” Ross said stripping off his sweaty vest and wool jersey.
We also strip out of our riding gear. Mike and I pack up to make a side trip to Santa Rosa for dinner before making our way back down to the East Bay. Mike and I talk about the day as we slowly creep northward in congested rush hour traffic. ” You were really kicking up a good pace, Mike” I said.
” I was cold! I was just trying to keep warm! ” Mike said as the cabin of my truck slowly heated up.
” I was just trying to keep up with you two guys! ” I said to Mike, but I’m not sure I’m going to say that to Ross.
Fast forward…. It’s been two years since I had interviewed Ross and a lot had changed since then.
February 26th 2010. Ross Shafer’s friend and guitar making mentor Taku Sakashta is working alone in his Rohnert Park California’s workshop. His back is to the door and he’s on the phone to a client in Japan. He doesn’t hear Joshua Begley enter the building.
Begley is all ready on the run from the law. He had just escaped from police custody and he needs some money to keep running. As luck would have it Begley spies Taku’s prized Nissan in the parking lot of the workshop and Taku’s door is unlocked. For Taku it’s a fatal mistake.
By the time runs from the workshop Taku had been stabbed over a dozen times about the torso and face.
One week later Begley, a petty criminal who had two prior convictions, is leading the Rohnert Park police in a high-speed pursuit through a residential neighborhood and is shortly soon arrested as a result.
The tight nit Northern California music community is stunned by the death of Taku Sakashta. Ross and a number of other guitar builders including Tom Ribbecke, Ervin Somogyi, Toru Nittono, Michael Dolann with David Hunt, Two-Rock and Mesa Boogie amplifiers, immediately set up a fund raiser and trust for Taku’s widow.
Two months after Taku’s untimely death Rohnert Park’s Sprecklels Performing Arts Center is alive with music. The lobby area is filled with offerings from both the music community and Ross’ connections to the bicycle world to be auctioned off to raise money for Taku’s widow. Robben Ford and Boz Scaggs headline the event with opening acts ranging from Tuck and Patti, and Eric Gales.
Ross becomes a grandfather. His son Max is now grown and is working as a tattoo artist in Berkeley California. Far from being horrified by his son’s career choice Ross couldn’t be happier, and in fact he’s proud of his son’s accomplishments.
With a beautiful house, a great wife, a talented son – you couldn’t ask for more. Life’s been good so far…