Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
Every spring it’s one of the most-read cycling magazines, so you may already have seen Bicycling magazine’s 2019 Buyer’s Guide issue (all-white cover, which reminded me of the Beatles). It hit the newsstand back in March and arrived in the mail even before. If you read closely, you might also have seen a couple of small pieces by me on pages 8 and 46.
What’s a RoadBikeRider editor doing in Bicycling? My roots with the magazine run deep. I penned my first piece for the mag in 1977 and then became the technical and new products editor. I opened and helped run their Northern California west coast office from 1989 to 1999.
One of my favorite projects at Bicycling, was rewriting Bicycling Magazine’s Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair book, which became a best-seller. Since my full-timer years, I’ve helped Bicycling out in a freelance capacity when they need me.
This time, for their buyer’s guide, they needed an expert who could answer the following question:
“What the hell happened to head badges?”
Here’s what I wrote,
As a recovering headbadge hoarder with way too many in my collection, I’m often asked why these artsy 3D makers’ marques no longer decorate bicycles – the way they did going way back to cycling’s beginnings in the 1870’s. One reason is stickers are way cheaper than sculpted metal or even plastic. Another is that the few extra grams matter to a whole lotta riders. And the near coup de grace was probably that they were usually attached to the frame’s head tube with rivets or screws driven straight through. Not such a good idea with modern materials like aluminum and carbon. Still, while the headbadge may be down, it’s just too cool to die. If you want a bike with one, they’re out there. Two favorites of mine today are on Jeff Jones Customs (a classic winged-wheel motif) and Ibis bikes (perhaps the most ethereal badge in history).
The Ideal Cycling Collectible
Unlike vintage bicycles, headbadges are small and affordable, so to me they’re an ideal collectible. I found my first one in 1978 and now have about 1,000. I have a few large display cases for my badges and lots more in boxes and drawers.
What hooked me is that headbadges are small works of art that add interest and class to any two-wheeler. For long periods in their development from the 1880’s to now, bikes were often nearly exactly the same in appearance. A unique badge helped set one model or brand apart from the crowd.
I also like the fantasy themes on the badges that transported rider beyond just pedaling the bike and into an adventure on two wheels. People can get so attached to their badge that when their bike dies, they toss it and save only the badge. They relate to it most of all and keeping it around reminds them of all the fun they had. Similarly, as a collector, I hear from folks looking for help to find only the head badge from the bike of their youth (hint: almost every brand and model of badge turns up on eBay.com sooner or later).
The Missing Photos
Unfortunately, as can happen with a jam-packed issue like Bicycling’s buyer’s guide, there apparently wasn’t space to include photos of the Jones and Ibis badges I mentioned. So, I wanted to show them here along with three more of my favorites.
Knowing of my collection, Jeff Jones was kind enough to give me one of his badges at a bike show years ago. He told me that his girlfriend was a jeweler and she designed the beautiful and classic motif for his bikes and then centrifugally cast it in pewter. Its shield shape and winged wheel are both popular themes for badges.
Notice, though, that’s it’s clearly a mountain bike theme. I especially like the detail showing in the hub, spokes, rim and wings. In case you don’t know of Jeff Jones and his extraordinary custom bicycles, visit https://www.jonesbikes.com/.
The founder of Ibis Cycles, Scot Nicol, gave me the Ibis badge (upper right) when he visited our Bicycling office. He was just up the road in Santa Rosa, California at the time. I had wanted one of these elegant badges for my collection since it first appeared.
As Ibis says on their history webpage, “the bird was beautiful in flight, very graceful and the headbadge is meant to reflect that.” I couldn’t agree more and I especially like how minimal their badge is. You can actually buy your very own Ibis badge for a mere $9.99.
Like the Ibis, Tim Neenan’s Lighthouse badge is minimal and a lovely complement to his custom bicycles. It’s among my favorites because Tim worked at the Bicycle Center here in Santa Cruz, a shop I later worked at. By then, Tim had moved, but many local riders owned and loved his bikes so I have worked on many.
I’m not sure if it’s true, but I like to think that the Santa Cruz Lighthouse inspired Tim’s design. This badge is another that’s a piece of jewelry and centrifugally cast. This one is brass. I understand that you could have ordered silver or gold, too. A super cool detail is that the two tiny screws holding the badge to the head tube are mostly hidden because they pass through the waves at the base of the badge.
Here’s a great example of a fantasy badge. What 10-year-old kid wouldn’t love a bicycle that with just a little imagination put them on a Viking longship seeking conquests and glory across the sea?
The badge itself is stamped aluminum that’s plated to achieve the gold highlights and then the details are painted. What’s fun about Viking is that over the years they stuck with the Viking motif but it became more stylized with each new rendition.
Last, but hardly least, we come to the Chief, arguably one of the most impressive head badges ever made in my opinion and experience. You have to hold it and feel how heavy it is to appreciate the quality. It’s stamped from a thick piece of brass to create the basic bust, headdress and lettering. Then, the surface was etched. And the best part is that the color isn’t paint, it’s porcelain, which is why the colors stand out so much. It’s an elaborate decorative treatment called cloisonné.
The Chief was a deluxe bicycle offered by Sears, Roebuck and Company circa 1915. It was built for Sears by the Davis Sewing Machine Company of Watertown, New York. This was when the USA bicycle industry was trying to jump start sales by making bicycles that resembled motorcycles so that kids could copy dad. Ads read, “Our new Chief Motor-Bike, built like a motorcycle.”
Before closing, I want to warn anyone who wishes to begin collecting headbadges that it’s getting tricky to know what’s what out there on the market. Companies have begun reproducing vintage badges and not always clearly explaining that they’re not original badges.
Now you may be fine collecting any and all headbadges and don’t care if they’re fakes or not. But, understand that there’s a difference in quality and value between originals and repops and some of the repops are priced high.
I’m happy to offer advice and information about headbadges if you’re interested in collecting them. Feel free to contact me.
Ride total: 9,296
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.