In the mid-’70s, Ross Shafer acquired a serious taste for the bicycle. After building his first frame from the famed Proteus kit, people began asking, “Can you make one for me?” He said, “Sure.” That was almost the beginning, but it took a few more years of research and job experience for this California boy to create Salsa Cycles, one of the most highly regarded and recognizable brands of frames and components in American cycling.
It’s a small business success story that required a lot of commitment and hard work from everyone involved. After shipping many an order worldwide and witnessing many a change in the industry, the decision was made to sell the company in ‘95. At that point, Shafer pretty much left the bicycle industry, but that didn’t dampen the will to create for this homegrown engineer.
I had the opportunity to talk with Shafer in preparation for Dirt Rag’s issue #100 and it was a pleasure. As a veteran of the bike industry and a rather successful one at that, his insights helped answer some of my questions and created some new ones about the business side of a particularly useful and simple machine. —Joel Kennedy
Ross Shafer: Did you just call here?
Dirt Rag: No, it wasn’t me.
Really? Weird. The phone just rang like, 10 seconds ago.
Oh you’re right, it was me. I screwed up, my bad. What a way to get started.
Anyway, what have you been up to since you sold Salsa? Can you explain what happened there?
No, I can’t. But, I sold Salsa. And I decided not to work for the new owners after a year and a half. Then I kinda went out on my own. Out of the gate, I was doing some pretty high-end fabrication. I did some electric bike frames that ended up being for a major American auto manufacturer who showed them at the Detroit Auto Show. Then shortly after that auto show, supposedly more work was coming. These were completely non-working prototypes. They were just … auto show fluff.
Were they functioning bicycles?
They were marginally functional electrically; if what the engineers who completed everything were telling me. They just sent drawings for a bizarre kind of frame that they needed, to fit all this goofy bodywork that was gonna be on it and whatnot.
That’s the high dollar world, man. The auto manufacturer was laying down tall dollars for that project. And the company came to me and said, “Hey, we need these two wacky frames built, and we need somebody to find someone who can do this, this and this.” I got some of my buds involved. Some of my old long time bike buds. It was a really cool project, because it was intense. I mean, I got drawings two weeks before this shit was due. Well, preliminary drawings at like three weeks, and I think things were finalized at two weeks. This is the really high-end design world. That’s how they work. They’re always on these outrageous deadlines. The customer ended up saying, “you know, I want to see a change in direction … and we still need it on the show floor.” And I was like, “Oh, OK.” I was on the phone a lot, on the emails a lot, down in the shop a bunch—had to do a bunch of wacky bending. It was exciting.
I made way big bucks.
How does that compare to the custom bike building world? You know, regarding the demands on the spot, changing deadlines and stuff.
The one customer—your big corporate entity. In this case where it’s a design firm, they’re pretty much used to working with people like me. They find out what you can do, can you absolutely promise it by then. And they know that they’re probably going to have changes, but that you can only do what you can do and they have to be willing to pay; because they’re charging, who knows? Eight hundred or 1,000 bucks an hour for the project, something silly. They need to be willing to pay for this next day and whatnot, and they go in knowing that. Your average custom bike customer doesn’t. The average custom bike customer, I’ve talked to a lot of them over the years, and I have a strong affection for most of them so I don’t want to sound too negative here. But, the average customer doesn’t think the clock should be ticking while they’re talking to you on the phone, because there’s a set price on the frame. There were many times over the years that I said to somebody, “You know, the more we’re talking about it, the longer it’s taking. Plain and simple, I’m not in the shop if I’m on the phone with you.”
So, the customers know what to expect in the corporate world. More professional, I guess.
To a certain extent. Then there’s corporations that certainly don’t have a clue.
Are you trained as a designer or engineer?
No. I just kind of taught myself and scraped knowledge off whatever friends I could muster. I’ve never walked through anybody’s shop without doing the mental recording. “Hmm, how did they do that … Ooh, there’s a machine … Oh, they’re cutting that this way … Oh, they’re bending this that way. It’s just acquired knowledge. I mean, designing and engineering tends to have so much basic logic involved. Somehow, there’s a fair amount of people that like my work, and I never went to college.
So, I did that right out of the gate and that was a really exciting project. Then right on top of that I was hired to build some motorcycle frames. It was another pretty exciting project. However, not nearly quite so quick, nor well-paying. I had to make two exact copies of a motorcycle frame that was built in the ’50s, of which there were only four made and there’s none in existence now.
It was a model that had seen a lot of evolution over time. I had a frame that was two years older to go by, as well as some history books that go, “Well, this year’s model was adapted from that year’s model, and they changed this and that.” I was doing drawings on top of pictures in books, making copies of pictures and doing drawings on them, just to derive geometry figures and distances from things. Of course, the pictures were never a full, perfect, ninety degree shot.
No, of course not.
Even so, you couldn’t take perfectly scaled measurements. It’s just a guideline. As my old Salsa production manager John said, (he made some oil tanks for this project), “This is more like motorcycle archaeology than it is motorcycle building. Jesus!”
Yeah exactly. Reverse engineering with just skull fragments. So, it took me a long time. It took me about a year to build the two frames; to do all the research and make every little bracket. I mean, we’re talking from the ground up. There’s nothing you can buy.
What about bikes? You build any bikes lately?
No. The only bike I built recently was a super beautiful, lugged, fixed gear road bike for myself. I’ve turned into a fixed gear nut. It’s really all I ride, but it’s got a broken brake lever now. I gotta fix that. I’ve just turned into a fixed gear nut, I love it.
Well, what do you like about it?
It’s so … This sounds way too hippy trippy but it’s so natural … and … simple. It’s the pure cycling experience.
Yeah, you’re one with your bike.
Absolutely. You ride differently. I think it makes you a better rider. I think it makes you understand what your body’s place on the bike is a lot more.
Yeah. Position is important.
It’s just fun. You know how I best explain it to people? I go, “ it’s simple, watch this.” And I walk. I walk and then I stop walking. And they go, “What!?” And I say, “I’m not going anywhere. And watch this.” Then I walk backwards. “Well so what?” I say, “That’s what it’s like, but on a bike.”
Total control man, and you only get out what you put in, and to me that’s always been the fun part of cycling.
Yeah, it is fun.
A little cycle huh-huh, pun intended, of energy in, energy out. And there’s no clickety clackety, no adjusting the derailleur. I know I sound like a whiney shit.
No, man! I’m with it. It’s total assimilation of machine and person.
Joel, this is the truth. Until my brake lever broke a few weeks ago, I had ridden a geared bike two times in two and a half years.
Nice. That’s something to be proud of!
It is! And now I’ve been on my geared bike, maybe 10 times. I haven’t been riding much. I’ve been too busy working on other projects. But yeah, I’m totally into it. I almost never mountain bike anymore. I’m ashamed to say that.
What do you think of the industry right now? You been going to the show lately?
No, I didn’t go to the show last year. That was the first time since … 1976 I guess.
That show didn’t even exist back then. But some show or other did. I mean, I used to be one of those guys that was going to like four or five shows a year, cause there’s all those freakin shows in Europe and shit. The travel was fun, but a show is a show is a show.
Yeah, I’m sure. That’s why it’s funny that last year was the first one you missed.
That was cool actually, not going. But I very much missed seeing people like … the Dirt Rag gang. And that’s the truth; having a drink with Maurice …
Yeah, he wanted to know how the farm’s doing.
Oh, the farm is just … totally wonderful.
Right on. So, what do you think about all this technology? I’m assuming you have a bias toward simplicity, but there’s some seriously high-tech stuff being made.
There is some serious high-tech stuff being made, and I’ll be a gizmo nut until the end of time.
Yeah, I like all that stuff in a weird way, too.
I appreciate it and I like looking at it and I like laughing at it at the same time. It’s like—that’s totally cool, it’s so bitchin. They took that design from like, 1895, and made it with new manufacturing methods and new materials and now it really works great …
… and everybody thinks it’s a brand new idea. But, it’s beautifully executed. The last few years I’ve been going to the bike show it becomes more and more clear that you can only market technology so far. People buy into this technology and they get home and find out that their thirty pound gut is still keeping them from getting up the hill as fast as their $4,000 wonder should. It still hangs on the wall. The passion that gets built from true cycling enjoyment, which makes long-time bike customers, doesn’t happen. You know, I go to the bike shows, the last few years I did go, and there’s beautiful fabrication. I go, “God damn, I’d love to be able to put down a bead like that, I’d kill to be able to make that, I’d kill to have had the idea for that linkage.” It’s beautiful, it’s cool, it’s great … I don’t get it. These guys should be making fucking space shuttles, getting paid for their time and doing this for a hobby and really doing it for the passion of doing it.
I know you keep hearing passion, but I don’t talk about cycling without passion.
Well, you shouldn’t really.
It’s involved, and that’s the thing I miss the most. Thank God even those big companies are full of people with passion. You know, if the industry … well, it’s just plain too late now. I’m a pessimist extremo now that I’m an old person. But, if the industry had really embraced transportation, 10 or 15 years ago …
When it was gettin’ hot.
… and really pushed and made it easy for people to buy a transportation bike, we might have a far, far, I mean, immensely healthier bike industry. And the trick stuff would be tricker! Because it would have this healthy industry to feed it.
Instead of the trick stuff being the carnival barker of the whole show.
And what ends up happening … Joel, this is a true story that I’ve told eight billion times.
Let’s hear it!
I was selling a car, and a family comes looking for a car for their college son. They’re very obviously a counter culture, ex-hippy, left wing kind of family. They walk into the garage and they go, “Whoa, look at all those bicycles” and I go, “Yeah, I’m into bikes.” The lady’s lookin’ at one of my bikes and she sees the shifters and the brake levers on the Campy equipped bike that I had in there, and she goes, “You know, I have a friend who’s a cyclist, and she has these too.” That’s the first thing she recognized, those trick parts. And this is a fifty-year-old mom.
She was dazzled.
The lady goes, “Oh, the friend of mine she has a light bike. It’s not made of metal. She’s a triathlete.” “Oh, it’s probably a Kestrel,” I say. “That’s right, it is! How did you know?” “I just know bikes.” And she goes, “It’s such a beautiful bike, but it’s so expensive. I guess you just can’t get into bikes without spending a couple three thousand dollars.” This is a fifty-year-old woman who’s totally into it. It’s her husband’s hobby. He’s into getting old bikes out of the garbage, fixing them up and giving them to inner city kids.
Oh, right on!
So this is the totally amenable couple. The perfect life cyclists, and she’s got this image that you can’t enjoy cycling without spending a shit bag of money.
And that’s why? Because she’s standing in the grocery line and she’s checking out a cycling magazine and she goes, “Whoa, I don’t even understand what they’re talking about.”
I know. Last time I talked to you, you said it’s all about loving to make stuff. So in general, it’s the will to create?
That’s my deal. I love it. Around here, we make our Christmas presents, as a family.
Everybody does? Well, how big is your family?
I have a wife and a seventeen-year-old son. His mother and I are not together, so he’s only here one week out of two. So, it’s a small family and my wife is totally into the farm and gardening.
Sounds pretty bucolic out there.
It is. I’ve turned into a hermit. There’s no reason to leave the farm. I’ve got my shop; I’ve got my office. I go, “Oh god, I don’t want to go to town.” I end up saving all my errands. I go all of three miles to town … once every two weeks.
It sounds like you have the rural life down pat.
It’s … totally wonderful.
Well, on that note I think I’m going to call this interview. Anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to add, and this is not ass kissing, happy hundredth anniversary issue.
Right on. Thank you.
Because, when I’m saying that people stand in the grocery lines and see the bike magazines, and all that’s being shoved down their throats is this technology and shit, they’re not seeing your magazine enough.
Right on. Well, we’re trying.
For a long, long time, it’s had a lot of soul and far more passion and true promotion of what cycling’s about in it than, well, than some of those other really great magazines that I think are really great, too. Put it however you want.
No man, I appreciate it.
I don’t want to turn people off. If someone comes to me with a job from the bike industry, I’m gonna look at it.
Well, that’s just livin’. But, we try. And getting back, the average person is not Joe NORBA, but they ride too. That’s kind of the approach I take when I tell people what Dirt Rag is about.
Right, he isn’t. And it’s so exciting when the average person starts to tell ya how much they love riding.
It is! That’s who’s out riding bikes.
That’s who’s supporting the industry. So, make sure you’re writing stuff for them, which you guys are.
We’re working on it.
It’s getting your magazine to them, that’s the tough part.
Yeah. Always. Distribution’s a bitch.
It is. Because, they don’t even know to look for it. They look at the other magazines and go, “Magazines are like this,” and they do tend to be that way.
Yeah, people aren’t looking. You have to really try to get their attention.
We’ve published a lot of stuff in 27 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.