9: Gary Helfrich
Today’s subject is one of the more challenging ones to talk about.
Challenging because there’s so much to talk about and so many stories
simply won’t make it onto the website, mainly because our typing monkeys
are still a bunch of hunt and peckers and are not that fast.
So we’ve enlisted a bit of help. Ben Fischler is a former employee, entertainer, dj, art critic, interior decorator and bon vivant at Ibis but we actually were paying him to weld pieces of titanium together. He had the Helfrich stamp of approval (not a gimme, that’s a hard-earned testimonial). First, we’ll give you a visual, here’s Ben in the back of a beater 1956 Cessna that Scot flew around in back in the day.
Take it away, Ben:
How many real live mad scientists do you get to meet in this lifetime? Not many. Gary Helfrich was a mad bicycle scientist and his metallurgical concoctions brought us the birth of the modern titanium bicycle.
There are people who break the mold and live lives that seem a bit too incredible to be true, folks who don't really care whether anybody else understands or approves. As an MIT educated Aerosmith roadie, Gary Helfrich broke more then a few molds on his way to revolutionizing bicycle framebuilding.
It was back in the early 80’s with Chris Chance at Fat City Cycles that Gary helped usher in TIG welding as the up and coming fabrication technique for mountain bike frames. It was at Fat City that Helfrich first pitched the idea of building with Titanium. But it didn't happen. Chris Chance wasn’t convinced it was realistic.
It wasn't until he teamed up with Mike Augspurger (later of One-Off Titanium fame) and Gwynn Jones to launch Merlin Metalworks that the titanium bike was born.
Helfrich and Augspurger did the real work of determining just how to go about making a bicycle frame out of Ti. This was long before you could find suitable tubing for bicycles so Gary turned to sourcing tubing from aerospace. It was also long before you could go take a Ti framebuilding glass at UBI (which Helfrich later taught) and so everything had to be worked out from scratch.
Before too long Helfrich went his own way, leaving Merlin Metalworks and later reconstituting as Arctos Machine. With the advent of Arctos, Gary headed westward, ho.
He'd had his fill of Massachusetts and the east coast so he pointed himself west, to NorCal and the Ewok Village of Camp Meeker. Of course, "moving" to Helfrich meant something slightly different then loading up the family trickster.
The legend of the boxcar loaded with thousands of pounds of machine tools and industrial equipment is like a lot of things about him: too crazy to be true until the evidence is turning metal chips in front of you. From the out of the boxcar came mills and lathes that ended up in services at Ibis and in Gary's own machine shop, in the bowels of his home. How many people have CNC mills and lathes in their basement? Few, very few.
At Ibis Gary’s presence was felt regularly as we licensed his beautiful stem designs and put them into production. Those gorgeous Ibis polished stems are the original bike bling and many are still in use and treasured to this day.
The original Ti Mojo owed much of it's lineage to Helfrich. Gary helped us tool up with Wes for production as well as working with Ancotech to design and fabricate the Ti Moron tubeset. This was the first time butted Ti tubes were used on a bike and the ride was incredible. Gary was also responsible for machining the signature dropouts on the Ti Mojo.
Of course, Gary had other talents other then just turning metal into bicycles. He was also adept at hucking bicycles through the air and his bike tossing techniques were respected across the land, securing legendstatus at his Dumpster Classic gatherings circa mid ‘80’s.
In addition to bike tossing prowess, Gary had a fondness for riding the rails and is likely the only person on the planet to have built a titanium bike built expressly for being chucked onto a moving freight train.
Mad science in full effect.
BACK IN BOSTON
Gary might have been the original person to recommend ‘buy the worst house in the best neighborhood’. Or maybe it was “create the worse house in the best neighborhood?” Gary’s street in Somerville was an interesting place, the next-door neighbor, who was the curator of one of the museums at Harvard, noting all the lathes and industrial detritus completely covering his back yard, told him over the fence one day, “I like your yard. It’s very…kinetic”. Steven Tyler lived down the street (Gary got a scholarship to MIT but eschewed it to instead be a roadie for Aerosmith). Gary’s house was a two-story affair with few creature comforts. Comfort? Conformity? Flower boxes on the front porch? Not Gary’s style.
Before we had trials on a pickup truck in Sebastopol Gary had trials on machine tools in his back yard. There’s even a shirt to commemorate. The shirt was done by Leni Fried, wife of Mike Augspurger, co-founder of Merlin.
The multiple east coast/west coast forays between the Fat City/Merlin and Ibis had given Gary an appreciation for the west coast weather, and soon he succumbed to the pull of the Redwoods. Gary knew he wanted to bring about 20 tons of equipment (NOT an exaggeration) with him so he hatched a plan. He knew Ibis was growing and moving into a new facility. And that we’d need new machine tools. And that there was a huge 5 day auction in Lynn MA, selling off a GE steam turbine manufacturing factory. GE—“We bring good things to life”—like lathes.
So he invited Scot out there, they bought another 20 tons of equipment, and Scot agreed to pay for the shipping if Gary loaded the container. The container had a cargo limit of 44,000 pounds, but that didn’t seem to worry Gary (doing the math, we had 80,000 lbs). So Gary loaded the container with all the new Ibis goodies, along with his personal effects, and loaded it on a freight train in Boston, headed west.
Probably the only time we’ve ever actually seen Gary worried, was when this train was barreling across Kansas, 100 cars strong, carrying a couple hundred containers (including at least one grossly overloaded one) at 80-90mph. Now THAT is some kinetic energy (yes, we’ve used the word kinetic twice today). Gary had visions of a massive J&L lathe ripping through the side of a container and impaling a school bus full of children waiting at a crossing. Fortunately, this did not happen. The freight company had rather sophisticated tracking systems back then (1988) and we always knew where the train was. Gary checked the progress often, and was relieved when the train pulled in to Oakland, our container in tact. Since the container was 40,000 pounds overloaded, and grossly over the GVW allowances on California’s roads, the driver bringing the container up to our loading dock in Sebastopol wanted nothing to do with it. We had to rent a huge flatbed and unload half of the container in Oakland. For some reason, they were not as worried about the rules in Boston.
As Ben mentioned above, Gary moved all of his stuff into the basement of his house in Camp Meeker (or Damp Bleeker as the locals call it). “The Camp” is just a few miles up the road from Sebastopol (or Stupidasshole as people who don’t live there call it) which is a few miles up the road from Santa Rosa (or Santa Grossa as everyone calls it).
It didn’t take Gary long to settle in and make himself comfortable as you can see from these pictures. Gary’s idea of comfort is different than most.
We learned how to work with Titanium from Gary. He designed the titanium stems we made, and ‘mass’ producing them was our first big project in titanium.
From there came the hook-up (via Gary) with Ancotech and the production of the amazing double butted titanium tubeset found on the TiMojo and TiRoad.
During the scanning of our archives, we’ve uncovered some previously unpublished pictures of the inner workings of Ancotech, when they were still in business. So we’re going to step off now and go work on our Ancotech story, and hand the work over to Mike Ferrentino, who wrote perhaps the most insightful piece we’ve seen on Gary. It appeared in the June 1995 issue of Bike Magazine.
We’ve also add the text from Mike’s article here (OCR actually works sometimes), without the express written consent of Mike or the magazine or anybody. But really, you should download the PDF, the pictures are great.
DANGEROUSLY TALENTED, HEAVILY EQUIPPED
By Mike Ferrentino
Originally published in the June 1995 Bike
Gary Helfrich is a hard man to find. He shouldn't be, since he's a big, shambling bear of a man, but he covers his tracks well. Does a good job of obscuring his movements. So good a job, one could be led into thinking that Gary had a much more sordid life to hide than the general public has seen. Which is not actually the case. He just has a lot going on all the time, and little of it seems to have any connection to the bicycle world. What the public knows of him is this: He is the godfather of bike titanium, that lucrative geek buzzword filled with mystical power, according to all them magazines.
Gary was one of the founders of Merlin Metalworks, the grandparents of the durable titanium bicycle. That's common knowledge. Few are aware of what went before this. Prior to Merlin, there was Gary building bikes for Chris Chance at Fat City, in Somerville, Massachusetts.
At the time, Gary was a self-taught tinkerer, a could've-gone-to- college-if-he-hadn't-been-such-a-derelict kind of guy. Faced with a choice between taking MIT's scholarship offer or being a roadie for Aerosmith, he did what any Eastern Seaboard lad of 19 worth his salt would have: He chose rock and roll. It was during this hectic tenure that he honed his welding skills. He also developed a healthy fear of aluminum as a structural metal, as he found himself spending an inordinate amount of time welding lighting rigs and platforms back together between shows. After a few years of wretched excess, Gary found himself faced with the next big choice: go to work at Fat City or become yet another drug-addled statistic of rock'n'roll. So he went for bikes.
"l slowly floated from being a drug-crazed roadie into becoming a framebuilder. The interesting thing about Fat City back then was that it was honest-to-God rock and roll. The only difference was that you didn't have to get on and off a bus every night. You'd work, 16 or 17 hours straight, 'til you just dropped. Then you'd get up and start all over again. The working conditions sucked...everything about the place sucked. l've never had more fun working anywhere."
Fat City in 1984 was busy building uncharacteristically light and quick-handling mountain bikes with tight angles, fillet brazing, and Prestige tubing. Gary was breaking more than his share.
"The problem for me is that I'm gravitationally challenged, and when I crash, the bike becomes gravitationally challenged. So it came down to how to make these light, quick bikes stay in one piece," Helfrich says. So, with his road crew fistful of experience at TIG welding, he started looking into titanium.
"The first titanium bikes we built were not built to be light. What they were built to be was strong. That's why we switched to titanium. We wanted something that was stronger than the steel bikes we were breaking. It didn't really matter to us whether it weighed more or less, as long as it was in the same ballpark," he says.
Bang. There you have it. The birth of the titanium mountain bike. 1985. There followed a harrowing search for an adequate source of 3/2.5 tubing at a time when the military industrial complex was still healthy enough to view prospective ti bike manufacturers as little other than a pain in the ass. Then came Merlin Metalworks. Gary teamed up with Mike Ausberger, and, "What ended up happening is that we ran into this guy by the name of Gwynn Jones, and he had almost as much money as Bob Rodale. His checks always cleared, no matter how many zeros you put on them...and so the three of us started Merlin."
From the time they were actually selling bikes, in 1986, Merlin took off. By which time Gary was already looking for a new challenge. The personality differences between the three partners were becoming difficult to ignore, and the better mousetrap had been effectively built for the time being. So he packed up and moved to Northern California in 1988.
Camp Meeker is a dot on the map near Sebastopol. There's a cargo container on wheels painted postal blue, white, and red nestled in the trees next to the fire station, above a bend in the river. That's it. Sum total, Camp Meeker. It is not terribly easy to find. Cary lives on a hillside across from the recently burnt-out wreck of his neighbor's house. There's an unnaturally slick, slightly off-level, moderately terrifying wooden platform poking out over the near vertical hillside. Visitors park here.
The house itself is a rambling shack littered with titanium things, sitting above a basement filled with huge machines, surrounded by trees. The radio antenna is nestled atop a Douglas Fir standing right next to his house, guessed to be about 210 feet tall. "Yeah, I got ldiot Darryl to climb up and install it for a six pack. Ha! I even made him take pictures while he was up there. Now I can get KFJC [a college station about 120 miles away]...l figure that this tree has to fall one day, and it's got about a 140-degree zone where it could really make my life miserable; that's better than 50-50 odds." Shrug. Then, pointing at the road below his house, "Of course, some retard cutting a road right through the middle of the root ball doesn't help any."
Gothic is the easiest way to describe the setting. Only without the fancy houses usually associated with that word. The phrase "Squeal like a pig, boy" also springs to mind. It rains about 85 inches a year, compared to an average annual 35 or so inches for every other town within spitting distance. A wet and gloomy meteorological anomaly, Camp Meeker's the sort of place where you'd expect to find carefully inbred, "Family tree looks like a phone pole" types. Gary loves it here. He'll point to a redwood tree and launch into a detailed explanation about how the generational buildup of acidic elements (fallout from the tree's own bark and leaves) in the soil has reached the point where nothing new will grow there anymore, except maybe tomatoes and pumpkins, consequently leaving the trees without a source of nutrients for the future. He knows his own backyard. Having done the titanium bike, then started Arctos, and done the polished titanium stem, he had to find new puzzles to occupy his time, the backyard being one of them. The man is fast. He may look shambling and ponderous, but he walks fast, eats fast, talks fast and probably thinks faster than about 99 percent of the rest of the world. And, being naturally curious, he needs those new puzzles.
After joining the Camp Meeker volunteer fire department, Helfrich and some of the other dangerously talented and heavily equipped locals converted his lveco diesel camper into a new paramedic/fire engine. One still has to wonder, though, how fires even get started in Camp Meeker.
The Helfrich basement-which he carved out down to the bedrock, set a monstrous slab of concrete in, reinforced the whole underside of the house with 12-inch wide steel girders from-like the rest of the house, is a mess. One end is dominated by a chunky CNC mill. Plastered to the front of the mill is a sticker: "Checked the Z offset?" On that" says Gary, "That's a reminder. One of those thousand dollar mistakes... Hey, wanna be a CNC machinist? Here, take this and put it in That vice." He hands me a flutelike piece of titanium, indicating a vice beneath one of the dozen or so heads of the mill. "Now, make sure it's tight. Hit it with this hammer." Taptaptap. "No! Hit it like a machinist" WHAMWHAMWHAM! "O.K...Now push that red button. The one with 'start' written on it. There you go. Congratulations! You're a machinist..."
The rest of the basement is packed with lathes, welding rigs, drill presses, upright mills, and benches, all randomly strewn with tools, shavings, broken bike parts, and scraps of titanium. The yard is littered with titanium tube stock, hundreds and hundreds of feet of the stuff. lmagine a stealth bomber crashing into a dumpster, and you begin to get the picture.
Showing visitors around, Gary gestures toward the stacks of tubing, "This is the titanium industry's screw-ups. l'm not saying it's bad; actually, a lot of it, if it were steel, would be first class Columbus or Tange tubing. But the standard for what's screwed up in some cases, like medical applications, or some of the aircraft stuff they do, is just so critical..." This is the tubing that Gary uses to teach people how to build frames at the United Bicycle Institute, in Ashland, Oregon. "We had seven of them built in this last class. Now, that was hideous...See, what happens with learning how to weld steel is you can go buy muffler pipe to practice, but learning how to weld titanium, you can spend 20 bucks a foot. This free stuff that the public probably doesn't know about Gary Helfrich could make a good handbook for subversive lifestyles: He would rather drive a fire truck than ride a bike (secretly, wouldn't we all?), is one of Bruce Gordon's only friends, and can teach a journalist who has never wielded a torch how to build his very own titanium frame in two weeks. He can swing one of his cats by the tail and it still seems to love him. He is a dangerous foment of curiosity, intelligence, and destructive mischief. But that would only be scratching the surface.
If the monkey in every works was a hairy,250 or so pound man, you might be looking at Gary. Some of the stories about him are almost too much to believe. Take the time he mistook some metal stripping solvent for a jug of Ernest and Julio's finest. "This is brutal stuff. If you drop a derailleur into this shit there's nothing left but white foam in about five minutes. And I drank 10 ounces of this poison before I realized it. No, I didn't have to get my stomach pumped, 'cause I threw up my whole stomach lining." Twelve months of liquid diet later, Gary still remained staunchly loyal to tannic and combative red wine.
There's his fascination with jumping freight trains. "I'm really just an apprentice at that. Mark Norstad [of Paragon Machine Works] is the master. He knows everything, from the schedules to who the driver is likely to be on a given day. I'm more like Weedhopper, 'Yes, master, O.K.'The kind of bike you need for train hopping? The thickest tubing you can find, like a two millimeter wall thickness, and 2O-inch wheels. This way, you can throw it from a moving train and still end up with a rideable bike. It also has to have a really long wheelbase, about 45 or more inches, so it can be ridden through this ridiculously deep gravel, the kind you only find at freight yards, with a case of beer balanced on the rack, at a level of intoxication that is likely to have long term consequences."
And then there's the Spud Gun. "Now that, that was a perfect example of reverse engineering. Norstad and Dwight of lbis read about them in the paper. There was this article about the Martinez police department confiscating these homemade guns that could fire a potato through the front and rear windshields of a Volvo. And there was this picture of a cop holding this long PVC tube up for the camera. So we started from there and worked our way backwards. Once we had the design finalized, the big problem became what to use for a propellant. For field conditions, we found that Aqua Net hairspray was the best. Field conditions being after the keg is empty. In a strict environment, acetylene was actually the most effective propellant, but it's just a little too volatile to be messing around with in the field. "5o there's this thing, this weapon that can be totally assembled from parts readily available at any decent farm supply store, the kind of place that you'd find on the outskirts of Bakersfield. Then you lust drive a little further until you hit one of those strip malls, pick up a 50-pound sack of potatoes and a case of Aqua Net, and you're in business." So it goes. Aside from indulging in his pyromaniacal habits, Gary plays part-time as a consultant to the titanium bicycle world, an industry that seems like a fun diversion to him.
"Admit it. Bikes are cool, but they're only bikes. You lust can't take them that seriously."
The rest of his time is spent finding other new puzzles. Like tracking down the story behind the turbocharger from a P-38 fighter plane wreck that he found in the woods. "This is the only part of that plane that didn't corrode away to nothing. The alloy they made these turbos from is called lnconel, while the rest of the plane was steel and aluminum. So everything except that turbo sort of dissolved during 50 years of coastal fog." Or hiking the Greater Camp Meeker area with a rented CPS locator for an entire summer, then downloading the information into his computer and coming up with his own personal 3-D CAD map of the area. Or heckling people on the lnternet: "Where are their senses of humor?"
Staying in trouble and keeping in motion. Happy to be labeled an eccentric burr in the industry saddle, as long as things stay interesting, he is contentious proof that there's much more to life than Just bicycles, something many of us could do well to remember.
But, perhaps most importantly, he can laugh as hard at himself as he can at anyone else. "Can somebody tell me why there are all these people in this business who're afraid to admit they're over 20 years old? Me? I don't have a desire to look like anything but a 40-year-old, fat, bald guy." Make that a real smart 40-year-old, fat, bald guy.