Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Hetchins Comes Home

My Hetchins! (Or what's left of it.) It is being held by its owner of 45 years standing in his magnificently-equipt workshop.

There is a thought experiment in philosophy that imagines a very old and famous ship named The Ship of Theseus. As the result of repairs over the years, The Ship of Theseus has had every single part replaced at one time or another. Is it still the same ship? That is the question I asked myself as I looked at my Hetchins fifty years after I had last seen it. I had sold the bike to Roger of the Modesto Roadmen in 1968. In 1972, Roger sold it to Mike, the man holding it in the picture above. Mike rode it extensively, way more than I would have, so that the Hetchins has already had a long and useful life. Mike is a real tinkerer, so was constantly swapping out parts; the TA cranks were replaced with Campagnolo cranks, the wheels were replaced and so on. And then there was the day that an inattentive driver ran a stop sign and hit Mike while he was riding the Hetchins and bent the frame. A local frame builder1 replaced the rear triangle and bottom bracket. It was perhaps at that time that Mike made other changes to the frame, getting rid of some brazed-on fittings, adding others, to allow the use of cantilever brakes, for example. What's left of my original Hetchins is the three main frame tubes, the fork, and most of the beautiful detail work on the frame, including the gorgeous lugs. But all things must pass, Mike acquired newer, more functional bikes, his cycling habits changed with age and increasing traffic, and soon what little remained of his well loved Hetchins sat in the attic, a source of guilt rather than joy. At the Modesto Roadmen reunion in 2016, Roger told me that Mike would be willing to give me the Hetchins back, if I wanted it. With so much going on in my life at the time, I declined, but the subject came up again a few weeks ago, and this time I accepted Mike's generous offer; I drove up to his home in Santa Rosa, and picked it up.

The Hetchins, Switzerland, 1967. Notice how little seatpost is showing. We rode them big, back in the day.

So what is the big deal about this Hetchins? Hetchins is one of the most prestigious of the steel frame custom bike brands made back in the 1960's. They are so prestigious that there is a market in counterfeit Hetchins. For me personally, my ride through Europe in the summer of 1967 was one of the transformative events of my life, so this particular Hetchins has great meaning to me. And yet, I never loved this bike. When Spense Wolf and I designed it, the plan was an "all purpose" bike that would work for long distance touring, but which would also work as a racing bike when I got home. This sounds like a very silly idea today, but back in 1967, most bikes were general purpose; the same Peugeot PX10 that I used for racing, I used for our week-long bike camping trips in the Sierras. However, I carried a lot more luggage that summer than I ever had before, and Alf Hetchins designed the bike to do that. This resulted in compromises that made it a rather poor racing bike. Also, to be perfectly honest, as prestigious a name as Hetchins is, there are aspects to that bike that probably should be characterized as "mistakes." There was so much going on during the two months I rode this bike in Europe, and the bike was so heavily loaded, I don't think there was any way I could have had an opinion about the bike one way or another, it worked fine. However, when I got back and started racing, I found its performance disappointing. A few weeks after returning, I competed in the 1967 Tour de Graceada on this bike, I attended the 1968 Great Western Bike Rally on this bike, I competed in a race or three on it in early 1968, but by the 1968 Mountain Loop in August, I had sold it to Roger and purchased a Bianchi Specialissima.

Me, racing the Hetchins, 1968

So what am I going to do with it? Good Question! When I decided to take the bike back, my plan was to build it up as a maintainable, rideable, Eroica-legal bike. Although it would be extensively cronenberged2, I would make it look as much like my old Hetchins as I could by using silver rather than black components, for example, and I would stay within the Eroica guidelines. My thought was that would free me up to restore my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima to be a period correct display bike without worrying about keeping it practical, and riding Eroica on the Hetchins which would be equipped with very low gears to help me deal with the heroic aspects of Eroica. That plan survived until the day after I brought the bike home. Mike and I talked extensively when I picked up the bike, and one minor comment he made during that long conversation was that "the Hetchins was kind of big for me." He then went on to say that the frame size is 24 inches, and he normally rode a 21 inch frame. I found that comment alarming as I, too, normally ride a 21 inch frame. I commented somewhat lamely that "yes, we rode them big back in the day" but made a mental note to carefully measure the frame when I got home. For comparison, I measured the bike I ride every day, my Surly Cross Check. To my alarm, the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the top tube was an inch and a half longer than the same measurement on my Surly. If you look at photos I took of the bike while riding through Europe, you can see how little of the seatpost is showing, consistent with this measurement. That by itself is not a deal killer, it makes standing over the frame harder, but by lowering the seat, the bike should be rideable. The measurement that concerned me more was the distance between the seat and the handlebars. I find my Surly a bit too long in that dimension, so I was hoping the Hetchins was proportioned differently to make that distance no longer. Sadly, that was not the case; the distance between the center of the seat tube and the center of the head tube measured along the top tube is a full 3 inches longer on the Hetchins than on the Surly! If the Surly feels too long, how did I ever ride the Hetchins?
Hetchins Head Badge

Honestly, I have not decided what to do. Should I just hang it on the wall, a bit of memorabilia? Should I build it up for a member of my family who is larger than I? Should I sell it to a Hetchins lover? Would a Hetchins lover even want it, with its frame modifications, and would that be fair to Mike, who gave me the frame gratis? Is there any chance I could ride it after all? Three inches front to back is a lot, but maybe that can be corrected with the right handlebar stem. My original plan would have been very expensive, paying to have the frame professionally repainted (replacing the head badge which Mike gave me and the Hetchins decals) and outfitting it with high end components, and to do that without confirming the resulting bike would be rideable would be insanity, but perhaps a trial build makes sense. My son acquired a 1970s Centurion which he is not using, and to my eye, it looks like many of the components on that bike would be compatible with the Hetchins frame. Could I temporarily build up the Hetchins with parts from the Centurion so that I could see how rideable the resulting bike would be and to what extent I could modify the fit with changes to the stem, for example? So far, my time in California has been massively overbooked, and it doesn't look like that will change any time soon, especially with a second grandchild on the way, but maybe that won't last forever. For now, I think I should store this frame carefully and wait for things to play out. Mike will be disappointed, he was looking forward to seeing pictures of my build. Que Sera.

1) Kimo Tanaka, who is still building frames in Davis, California, under the name Innerlight Cycles.

2) I coined the term "cronenberged" to describe a bike modified to be very different from its original design. A Cronenberg is a highly modified human in the cartoon series "Rick and Morty", named after the director of a genre of horror movies that focus on human deformity, David Cronenberg.

Human Cronenberg
David Cronenberg