Happy holidays all.
I’ve been going through my archives and I had this one floating around for a while. If memory serves correctly I spoke to Steve Potts about two years ago on a rainy December afternoon at his workshop out in west Marin so I thought it would be an appropriate time to share this with every one.
Steve is an amazingly talented frame builder and one of the founders of Wilderness Trail Bikes (WTB) and is one of the one of the nicest guys you’ll ever hope to meet.
That said. Never ask him to arm wrestle you. No really, you’ve been warned. Just don’t go there.
Mapquest doesn’t work very well in this part of Northern California, nor does Google Maps and even Thomas Guides are unreliable here. Fortunately the people in Point Reyes Station the people don’t yank the street signs from the outskirts of their town and may even point you in the right direction if you get lost.
Yes, photographer Mike Alden and I were lost. So rather than driving around the better part of West Marin I pulled my truck into the swampy parking lot of the town’s only bike shop, Black Mountain Cycles, to ask owner, Mike Varley, for directions to Steve Potts’ mountain bike frame building shop. As luck would have it Steve had just popped in to grab a box to ship a fork back to a customer and told us to wait for his return.
Steve had cobbled together his first off road bike in 1969 using a frame rescued from the dump near San Quentin Prison. Time marches forward but if you wanted a mountain bike in the late seventies Steve Potts was one of the “go to” people for one of these Paleolithic era creations. Fast forward; early mountain bikes are starting to be made with some regularity on both sides of the Rockies but the hubs, rims, tires and even brakes that were commercially available at the time were inadequate for the rigors of off road use. Steve Potts and fellow cyclists Charlie Cunningham and Mark Slate formed one of the first companies dedicated to making high end, durable mountain bike parts; a little something called Wilderness Trail Bikes. “We wanted to build parts that would last seventy-five years,” recalls Potts.
Alden and I waited at Black Mountain Cycles for a couple of minutes for Steve’s return. Good thing too because the chances of us finding Steve’s remote workshop and home by ourselves would have hovered somewhere between “slim “ to “none”. After Steve’s return we trailed behind Steve’s bio fuel modified truck back to his place where Mike and I were treated to a brief tour of Steve’s workshop and living quarters.
Steve began our tour by showing us his self-made workshop- a tinkerer’s delight if there ever was one. Lathes, mills, work benches, hand tools, frame alignment jigs were all neatly arranged in a clean well lit room. Hanging from the rafters were an array of bikes that would be the envy of any collector, such as an one off Potts made cyclocross bike with custom made front and rear roller cam brakes, a and a rare WTB Bon Tempe full suspension bike fought for elbow room next to a couple of long time friend Tom Ritchey’s creations.
For me, it was a trip down memory lane as I spied some samples of pieces of mountain bike memorabilia I had either personally owned or simply lusted after. After a while photographer Mike Alden eyes began to glaze over as I became overwhelmed with nostalgia. Steve carried on like a proud parent as he showed off his “children”. Eventually Steve picks up on Mike’s uneasiness and asks him what was going on. Being relatively new to mountain biking Mike says that he’s never seen any of Steve’s bikes or any of the WTB archival material before. Steve asks Mike how old he was and Mike says he’s twenty-five. “It’s funny to think, “ I tell Steve, “That I’m old enough to be Mike’s dad”.
After our tour of Steve’s workshop Steve, Mike and I settled down in Steve’s spacious living room over looking Tomales Bay fired up some water for a pot of tea and offered both Mike and I a plate of cookies made by one of Steve’s two sons. Steve made himself comfortable and spoke at some length on a wide range of topics which included his stint as a motorcycle racer, the early days of mountain bikes, his love of the outdoors, the pride he feels in his sons, and the green economy.
Steve Potts is very much a do-it-yourself type of guy. Seated at one of his dining room’s chairs Steve makes a broad sweep of his hand out towards his deck, and says, “My sons and I made this deck. Every baluster, every post, every piece of wood on that deck we milled every stick of that”.
“That’s a common thing for bike builders, “ said Steve after talking about some of his wood working experience, “They like to do everything. I had to do my own painting, do my own head badges, make the tooling, and make almost everything. I build my shop, build my house, and I milled all the lumber for it. It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you just want to make stuff”.
Potts credits his main source of inspiration, as a builder was his dad. Like Steve, his dad was also a single parent as Steve’s mom had died when he was eight years old. “My dad built bows and arrows and telescopes, so when I say he built telescopes he ground the mirrors, he built the focal testers to measure the parabolic curves of the mirror”.
“My brother and I came home from school one day and my dad drilled a hole in the floor, two holes, and we said, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ The holes were ten feet apart and my dad has a posthole digger in the earth and he says, “Don’t worry, I’m building a foundation so I can test the mirrors and don’t worry, I’ll make a cap for the floor’”.
Later Steve’s dad inserted steel tubes into the ground so he could pour concrete into them. When the evening air was still and he hooked the mirror up at one end and had a micro adjuster at one end so he could move the thing and he made all these patterns,” I still have them”, says Potts, so that way he could determine what part of the mirror needed to be ground. At the other end he had a focal tester and that’s where he would shoot a beam of light down and with an aid of a shadow from a razor blade he would determine where the high and low spots of the mirror were.
“He was really, really talented, he was offered a job at the Lict Observatory, he made my mom’s wedding ring, he made a violin that played in the San Francisco Philharmonic, and that’s how I got started watching my dad make all of this stuff”.
Another one of Steve’s passions is music, “I was eight or nine, my mom died when I was eight, and I wanted to take drum lessons but you had to take private piano lessons and we couldn’t afford it. I wanted to play so bad that there was no way that I was not going to play the drums so that summer I made my first snare drum at nine”. This love of music would later lead to Steve being involved with the northern California music scene and, eventually, develop forty-year long friendship with famed drummer Billy Cobham.
“A lot of guys I played music with I turned them onto diving and fishing and they went completely nuts and loved it. These were city kids and who were incredible musicians and all they knew their whole life was music but they had never been windsurfing. These guys went nuts because they didn’t know what the rest of the world looked like”.
Recalling our previous trip into Steve’s workshop, “Do you remember that first bike I showed you?” A red, non-descript bike hanging unceremoniously from the rafters, “I did that in the high school machine shop of Tam High with Dino Volandri – great guy. And here’s the deal, I didn’t have a car or a truck as a kid and I didn’t get my license until I was eighteen. I would pay my buddies to go to the dump, the San Quentin dump, and this was in the sixties and we would negotiate at the dump for bikes for twenty-five or thirty-five cents. I would take these bikes where they were broken or where I thought they were going to break I would braze in metal gussets, fix them up, clean them, strip them spray paint them, bought leather at the thrift store and redid the saddles, built these wheels with these beefy one-oh-five spokes and everything weighed just a ton”.
Things got a bit more serious when Steve went to college and delved further into machine and metallurgy classes. At that point mountain biking was still in its infancy and had yet to gain a toehold in the broader bicycling world. Steve had all ready gotten his toes wet working at Joe Breeze’s frame building shop; coincidently enough, the same workshop where both Steve and Joe’s dads had worked together making telescopes. As of that point Steve still hadn’t yet decided to dive in with both feet.
“The real clincher was when Joe Breeze and I went to New Zealand in 1980. When we went to New Zealand I was a sheet metal worker, I was a foreman at McPhails where I was paid well and I owned a house and the whole thing but when I was in New Zealand I thought this was too good, I want to build bikes”.
“There’s nothing better than riding around through the mountains or through the country and meeting the people, being in the elements, being in a snow storm, fishing, riding to a creek and dumping your bike into the bushes and catching dinner, or bushwhacking through the alps with a topo map and your crazy friend Joe Breeze. Going to a town and having people come up to you and say stay with us and they turn out to be David Ivan Bannister (the uncle of Roger Bannister who broke the four-minute mile mark in 1954) the old lady who rents from Sir Edmund Hillary, or the Nut Man of New Zealand”.
“I came back, I sold my house then I rented a shop for thirty-five bucks a month and I could barley pay the rent. That was my first bike shop. I bought a lathe and a mill then I thought, I don’t know who is even going to buy these things!”
“When some one bought a bike I was in complete shock”.
As the nascent sport of mountain biking had begun to gain traction the industry production moved from domestically crafted frames and accessories to offshore factory made bikes and parts. When Wilderness Trails Bike eventually chose to outsource production of some of its parts; other changes in the company soon followed. While the topic of Potts’ departure from WTB wasn’t discussed during the interview the general industry buzz has been seen as contentious at best.
“We’ve been an early adapter of going green. Being green means where you buy stuff and where is it made. The United States is making the big push about being green but in reality we have been buying things from third world countries, which pollute like crazy like China for one and I’ve always been a proponent of trying to make things here. I try to buy all American tubing because it’s the best, really, titanium but you have to buy months if not a year ahead of time, because part of the thing in manufacturing in the way I manufacture is that when the customer comes to me they get my full attention – they pay for my hours and my experience and they will get something that they simply can’t get by purchasing a mass made bike.
“What happens is when you buy a commercial bike, though they really good and there’s and there’s absolutely no two ways about it, is that all the money that you pay for it has gone into engineering and advertising. But they are made overseas with very cheap labor in countries that don’t have the environmental standards that we have here.
“Eventually all the manufacturing will come back home because we won’t be able to afford all of the fuel costs”.
It’s matter of debate and deeply held opinions. Academic careers teeter on such speculation. Who discovered Point Reyes? Some say it was a privateer under service of the queen named Francis Drake. Others say it was it was Spaniard Sebastian Vizcaino. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, the Coastal Miwok people may have something to say about the matter. What is not a matter of debate is that Point Reyes based frame builder, Steve Potts, has well earned his status as a master frame builder.