25 February 2016

A Proteus Bicycle: They--Or You--Could Build It

The other day, in writing about the Tokheim "Gear Maker", I mentioned that a number of American manufacturers tried to cash in on their country's "Bike Boom" during the 1970s, even though those companies had no experience in making anything bike-related.  Most, like Tokheim, were either out of the bike business or defunct within a decade. 
Then there were companies like Cannondale and Bellwether that entered the market during the decade, which also included a "boom" in hiking, skiing, camping and other outdoor activities.  Bellwether made bike bags and clothing; they are still in the bike clothing business.  (I still use some winter items of theirs I bought years ago.)  And, of course, Cannondale is one of the best-known names in cycling.  They still offer small seat and frame pouches, but not the panniers or handlebar bags many of us used in tours past.  "C" also has a line of bike clothing in addition to their bikes.  Ironically, when Cannondale first appeared on the scene in 1970, they did not make bicycles or bicycle clothing (those items would not be part of the company's offerings for another dozen years); the hiking, camping and skiing  gear they made in those days hasn't been made since the mid-1980's.
During the 1970s in the US, there was also something of a mini-boom in hand- and custom-frame building.  During the days of the six-day races, there were many such builders, especially in the New York, Detroit and Chicago areas, as well as in California.  Some hung on during the "dark ages" of cycling after World War II and catered to the small but enthusiastic community of cyclists still found in the 'States.  But most of those builders had either died, left the business or retired by the 1960s.  So, the American builders of the 1970s were mostly a new breed.
One of the most respected was Albert Eisentraut, who worked in the San Francisco Bay area.  One way in which he and the other new American builders differed from those of the previous generation is that they were home-grown and, in many cases, self-taught, in contrast to earlier builders who came from the other side of the Atlantic or had spent considerable time there.  Also, the new builders didn't even have the remanants of a racing or general cycling culture the earlier builders could draw upon.
That lack of precedent was both a hindrance and a help.  Of course, it was a hindrance because it steepened the learning curve for the newcomers; also, there were some (whom we don't hear about today) who didn't stay in the "game" because they overheated frame tubes or made other mistakes that resulted in their frames failing or simply not riding satisfactorily.  On the other hand, the lack of antecedents also gave the newcomers the freedom to approach their work in ways traditional builders never would have dreamed of.


A Proteus touring bike, circa 1977

 One of those new builders was really a collective known as Proteus Cycles.  Founded by Barry Konig, Larry Dean and Steve Schuman in 1971, they weren't French-style constructeurs who built the whole bike from the ground up with custom-made components.  They even, in some ways, parted company with British builders like Ron Cooper, from whom they learned many of their skills.  Builders like Cooper, Bob Jackson and Mercian usually sell frames, whether custom or stock, and customers or their local shop build them up with components the customer chooses (although those builders sometimes sell complete bikes).  But the frames you get from such builders are entirely their own work; while the customer might have a say in designing it, he or she leaves the actual building to the builder.

The customer could order such a frame, or a complete bike, from Proteus.  Or, he or she could let them build it, and finish it him or herself. Or he or she could build the frame and Proteus would finish it.

Dan Rovelli's 1979 Proteus.  From Classic Rendezvous

That last option was particularly intriguing.  You see, at its peak, Proteus held frame-building classes and even published a book about frame building, penned by a fictitious "Dr. Paul Proteus."  Konig, Dean and Schulman were, of course, the probable authors, and they recommended that anyone who wanted to build a frame should read it first--even before taking their classes or ordering one of the frame-building kits (which included tubing, lugs and other fitments) Proteus sold.  It was even possible to buy individual frame fitments, such as fork tangs, from the builders.

Ben Dillingham's Proteus, with modern touches

I like to think that Proteus was more like a studio or a gallery combined with an art-supply shop than a traditional bike-building enterprise:  the artists/artisans not only worked on their creations; they also conducted classes and the organization sold the materials needed as well as related publications.  To my knowledge, no European or Japanese (or, for that matter, any other American) builder offered such a wide range of products and services.

I have tried to find out when, exactly, Proteus stopped being, well, Proteus.  Apparently, that happened some time in the late 1980s or thereabouts.  At that time, technology started to displace craftsmanship in the bicycle world, and I think that people simply didn't have as much time (or money) to spend on classes or to build their own bikes. I know that when I have a limited amount of time, I'd rather ride my bikes than work on them!

Today there is a bike shop called Proteus that is a descendent of the legendary bike-building collective.  Apparently, the Proteus partners continued to operate a bicycle retail business after they stopped building frames and, in time, sold the business to others.  According to the shop's website, it holds social events and holds classes as well as rides.  I guess, in some way, they are keeping up the spirit of "Dr. Paul Proteus."

(P.S.:  Jill Di Mauro bought the shop in 2002.  In 2007, Di Mauro married her Canadian partner in Canada.  Though Maryland would legalize same-sex marriage four years later, federal laws--including immigration statutes--didn't recognize their union.  So, when Di Mauro's wife's visa expired, she had to return to Canada.  In 2012, Di Mauro sold the shop and moved to upstate New York to be closer to her wife while she applied to return to the US.)


  1. I like the blue one. Shame about the modern ugly stem fittings...

  2. Coline--I agree. Even with those stem fittings, it is the prettiest of the bikes.

  3. This blog is becoming a series of well researched tales from the history of cycling. You send me on long enjoyable expeditions into the net. Love it.

    Totally off topic: You are an English teacher. What do you think of streamlining "he or she" and "him or herself", and saying "...they could let them build it, and finish it themselves", warping a plural pronoun into a sort of pseudo-singular? I find myself doing this in spoken English. The problem never arises in Finnish as the language has no gender at all, and the same word means "he" and "she", and "his" and "hers" are identical.


  4. Leo--Finnish has no gender? Interesting. I wonder how that came about.

    When I speak, I often use "they" or "them" instead of "he or she", even though I know it's not correct, at least according to current rules of English. It certainly rolls off the tongue more quickly than "he or she". When I write, though, I avoid it, if for no other reason that I tell my students to do the same.

    The day may come when "they" and "them" are acceptable as singular gender-neutral pronouns. After all, rules and conventions in language--at least in English--come about through usage, as we don't have an equivalent of the Academie Francaise dictating what is "proper" or "correct" usage.

  5. Did I ever tell you I worked for proteus around 93? when larry still ran it. tons of frame building tubes and lugs in the back in boxes. Yamaguchi used to build there. there were three of us, david ran the shop and victor monegro was head mechanic. around that time larry got MS and started firing everyone. including david. it was a terrible time. a lot of crazy stuff, gutting the adams morgan store, larry's stock at his house. the bob jackson rep getting his frames back. every day was insane.