Handbuilt Bicycle News


Bob Mandelson

Monday 10 June 2024

True Love: My Steel Davidson

Industry veteran Bob Mandelson recounts the infatuations and enduring loves of his long relationship with bicycles.

True Love: My Steel Davidson
Bob Mandelson's 1987 Davidson Road Bike. Photo: Paul Skilbeck

There was a painfully long time I didn’t ride a steel bike. Yep, it was painful alright. And I think I'm probably not the only one who can say this. If you've spent a great many years with bikes maybe it's happened to you too, but let's get back to the beginning. What started all this, my great love for steel bikes, that was several decades ago when steel was still the main material for bike frames. I would drive semi-weekly from my place in Portland up to Seattle on business, and I made a habit of visiting Elliot Bay Bikes there. Over time I developed a customer/business relationship with the co-owners, Bob Freeman and Bill Davidson, and in the fall of '87 I had them build me a custom 'signature' frame. The signature meant that the frame would be especially built to my specifications, and on the seat tube would be Bill Davidson's signature.

I am not one of those fellows who is knowledgeable about bicycle frame angles, rake, and degrees – you know, the technicalities of frame design. Also, at that point in my life I’d never seen myself as a racer type, having only been a good strong club rider. So I let Bob decide on the frame dimensions and details, which is usually the best course anyway if you want a bike that rides well. 

On a drippy Seattle Friday, it was mid-morning, Bob and Bill presented me with my custom Davidson. The sky may have been grey, but that bike shimmered like a spotlight was on it! The white 'D' on the head badge was truly NW understated, which I loved, and the bike was radiant and looked just beautiful! I was lucky enough to have them install a full SunTour Superbe Pro groupo. Bob himself built the wheels. The Portland Wheelmen were impressed!

In 1991 or so, I started an unglorious and aborted Cycle Cross racing career riding a cobbled together steel POS frame with assorted parts. Then I traded a saddle and 4 brake pads for a new KHS (Knowledge-Health-Safety) frame and fork. This frame fit me much better and I continued to race Cross with it until Colon Cancer (stage 3) came and gave me a visit. That ended my Cross career for a season. Actually I never really returned to Cross in a serious way.

Somehow the titanium buzz passed me by, but when carbon fiber became the rage, I got caught up in that!  I was at a shop in Sacramento, where my daughter and her family had moved to, and I picked up a sweet deal on a Felt Z4, full carbon, full Ultegra. A few days before I bought the Felt I had just completed a fully loaded tour from Lincoln City Oregon to San Francisco, riding a 1980s Japanese-made Fuji America… with a Brooks Pro saddle no less. This Fuji rode well and, in my humble opinion was one of the best production steel touring bikes ever made!

I have to say: Riding in over the Golden Gate Bridge in the warm late afternoon light, that was a milestone. There cannot be many better ways to finish a bike tour than that!

Pre-carbon I owned various steel rigs apart from the Davidson and Fuji: there was the KHS, a Vitus, and a Raleigh. For a few years I tried my hand at road racing on the Davidson and the Raleigh. The Davidson was always my favorite ride in Portland, since I left the Felt at my daughter's place in Sacramento.

Then for a decade I didn't ride any bike at all. Zero! Still living in bike-centric Portland, one afternoon I decided to pull down the Davidson and give it a try. How would it feel? And handle? How was my balance? Before I hit the pavement, right out of the garage it felt fantastic to be back on a bike. 10 cold bikeless years! I decided to ditch the car when I could and bike commute the 6+ miles to work. I commuted on the KHS and Davidson rain or shine for about 20 years.

So back to Steel and the Davidson. It is now fall 2018 and I moved to Sacramento to be close to my daughter and her family. The Davidson hung in my garage for 8 years. Unused! Unridden! And Unhidden! Bad Bicycle Karma! My toes hurt every time I looked at it when I hung up another bike after coming in from a ride. By now I have sold the Felt, sold the vintage Fuji America (a mistake!) bought a Giant Advanced full DuraAce (we were run over), bought, rode and sold a mountain bike (did some 550 miles of the Continental Divide Trail), I’d taken a few trips to Europe with a Ritchie BreakAway, and done a few time trials on a Quintana Roo Lucero, and lastly, a BMC Team Machine SLR01. So I am not without bikes. Oh, there is also a Trek 1200 hand-me-down rain bike which was a gift, but that barely counts for I am no lover of that brand!

October 22, 2018 to be exact, I finish a ride and for some reason took down the Davidson. I just couldn't resist the clear clarion call. Years ago I had upgraded to Campy/Sachs Ergo shifters, but besides that the bike is unchanged. By this time Bill and Bob have closed Elliot Bay Bikes (I cried a little). Bob, I hear, is retired making money (hopefully) restoring and selling vintage bikes; a true love and passion for him. Bill set up shop with another friend and they are still building bikes in Seattle. Once it's in your blood it's in your blood. I dusted off the frame, spun the wheels- round and true as they were when new- measured the seat height, pumped up the the tires and, with some apprehension, out the garage, out the drive way and down the street I went.

A sweet 20 miles. Amazing! Rides like you're on a cloud! Fits to a 'T'. I feel younger! Brings a shit-eating grin to my face, ear to ear! Why was I so enamored with plastic? I know, the pros. But now I’m back on the Davidson! Ture Love! Solidly responsive; not squishy. Not hesitant. Tracks straight. Built for me. Been too long, We are back together, loving its ride and feel. I know you'll understand.