A Conversation with Cycling Icon Richard Schwinn of Waterford Bicycles

RIchard Schwinn of Waterford BIcycles. Photo: Courtesy Waterford Bicycles

By Lou Melini

There are over 300 bike companies (past and present) in the world according to Wikipedia. The most recognizable name from that group that symbolizes American bicycling manufacturing is Schwinn. If you are old enough, you may remember the sleek precision built Paramount. The Schwinn Paramount was one of the most coveted bikes by racers and bike aficionados all across the country. I had the pleasure to converse with Richard Schwinn who has continued the tradition of precision built bicycles through Waterford Bicycle Company. Waterford is located southwest of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the town of Waterford, Wisconsin. On the web it’s Waterfordbikes.com.

Cycling Utah: I see on your website Schwinn catalogs going back to 1895. Is that when Schwinn was founded?

Richard Schwinn: Yes. Schwinn was originally named, Arnold, Schwinn and Co, because Arnold was the money guy and Schwinn was the engineer. Arnold had top billing.

C.U.: What is your relationship to Schwinn?

Richard Schwinn: My great grandfather Ignaz immigrated to the United States after being an engineer in both piano and bicycle factories. Ignaz’ father, Frank had been a master carpenter, and I had the honor of playing his masterpiece, a pump organ.

C.U.: Do you have other family members also in the bike business?

R.S.: Our children both work in the bike industry. Our son works for SRAM and our daughter works for Quality Bike Parts, designing their All-City line of bikes. The husband of one of my cousins still sells bikes for Schwinn – and does a terrific job of it. Outside of that, the family’s pretty much out of the industry.

C.U.: Do you have relatives remaining in Germany in the bike business?

R.S.: The German side of the family never touched bikes. They are farmers and regular people living about 40 miles from Frankfurt. The town of Hartheim has several dozen Schwinn cousins living there – but the bike business is but a footnote to them. The biggest town hero is the guy who designed the lens for the camera that went to the moon.

C.U.: When and how did Waterford come into existence?

R.S.: Waterford started in 1993 when Marc Muller and I took over Schwinn’s Paramount Design Group (PDG) factory in Waterford, Wisconsin. Mark had been the head of PDG, which was Schwinn’s “Skunk Works”- style R&D department.

C.U.: How would you describe Waterford today regarding its manufacturing capability compared to other manufacturers in America?

R.S.: Waterford is one of the largest framebuilders in America, and the largest producer of steel frames and forks. In addition to our showcase Waterford custom frames and forks, we have a line of economical custom bikes named Gunnar. In addition, we build for companies like Rivendell, Terry, Volae (recumbents) and Rene Herse. We even build and occasional Paramount for our friends at Schwinn.

C.U.: What can the customer expect with a Waterford built bike?

R.S.: Waterford is all about superior craftsmanship and custom design. When you need a bike built specifically for you, we’re the place to go. There are lots of people who’ve started building custom steel bikes, but we offer relatively quick order turnaround – typically 6 weeks – instead of the 6 months to 2 years for the little builders. We also have capabilities for a wide range of designs from hot road race and time trial bikes to loaded tourers and commuter bikes.

EJ Muller is Waterford's top brazer. Photo Courtesy Waterford Bicycles.

C.U.: What were some of the steel tubing used in bikes say 30 -40 years ago and how has steel tubing evolved?

R.S.: Up until about 35 years ago, if it was good steel, it was pretty much Reynolds 531. Reynolds was the company that invented tube butting (where the walls in the middle of the tube are thinner then the tubing by the ends). In the 30′s, Reynolds introduced high alloy aircraft tubing, which they called 531. No, there’s no formula behind the name. It’s just a name. 531 dominated the pro cycling world until the early 70′s when Italy’s Columbus started to challenge them. Reynolds then introduced a heat treated version of 531, named 753. Heat treatment jacks up the strength of the tube allowing Reynolds to lighten them up. The process is quite tricky, so they suffered a number of early disasters. By the time Waterford came into existence, they’d gotten it down to a science and we were able to build a terrific palette of tubes for use with the first-generation Waterfords.

In the mid-1990′s, Reynolds had introduced a new generation of steels known as air-hardening alloys – called 853. Higher in performance than 753, it was also more tolerant of TIG-welding. TIG welding has revolutionized bike building by dramatically increasing our design and fabrication flexibility. 853 was a real hit, as was the American-made version, True Temper’s OX Platinum. We created an entire brand – Gunnar (named for our recently deceased dog) – built with TIG-welded, heat treated tubing. By 2002, Waterford added TIG-welded designs to its regular line-up. Things have been rockin’ ever since.

Four years ago, Reynolds introduced a new high performance stainless steel alloy- 953. It has many of the same properties as 853, as well as corrosion protection. We expect this and similar alloys to grow in the coming years.

C.U.: What tubing is used now at Waterford and do you use specific types of steel tubing or thicknesses for specific applications? For example, what would you use if a customer was going to use the bike for commuting applications vs. touring vs. riding century rides.

R.S.: You heard me use the term, “palette” of tubes. We stock 60-80 different steel-alloy tubes to support a wide range of riding. Many are custom tubes – dimensions we specify to Reynolds and True Temper. Others are “off the shelf”. The combination lets us tune the ride for each individual rider. Commuters and tourers need beefier tubes to provide a solid, efficient ride while carrying a load. Other riders, like bike racers and club riders, appreciate a lighter blend. We factor in rider size, weight, preferences and the bike’s intended use when designing a bike frame.

C.U.: Waterford makes bikes both in stock sizes and custom sizing? What is the best way to order a bike from Waterford?

R.S.: Waterford is now pretty much a custom bike house. We still publish geometry tables, but these days we design from the ground up. That way, we figure out how we can meet your needs, instead of you figuring out if you can fit what we have to offer. If you go on-line, we have an extensive three page questionnaire that walks you through the steps in designing your own bike. We divided the process into the four “F’s” – function, fit, feel and finish. By function, we mean designing around your intended use and your designed components. That means things like tire sizes, derailleur systems, brakes, fenders, racks and so on.

With fit, we depend very much on talented fitters in various areas. You guys are lucky because you have Mike Hanseen in your area. He’s one of the most talented fitters in the country and his shop, Millcreek Bicycles, is right in Salt Lake City.

The concept of “feel” means handling and stiffness. Handling is also tied to fit, so it’s important that we settle on the right fit before we tune the ride qualities. If you look at the Waterford web site, you’ll see all sorts of models – Road Race, Stage Race, Road Sport and so on. We now treat these really as handling platforms.

Finally, there’s finish. It’s amazing how much people struggle through the issues of color and styling. Our feeling is that if you like the ride, the color, no matter what it is, gets prettier with every pleasurable mile.

Many people might think the order form way too daunting. It’s really designed for people like Mike to use as a checklist for working with their clients. We find lots of riders who use the form just to think through what they want for their next Waterford.

The Gunnars are our stock bikes. Technologically, they are similar to our 14-Series Waterfords. We’ve put together a nice range of designs to fit nearly the full spectrum of riding today. This includes cyclocross, road racing, light and heavy touring plus a range of off-road hard-tail designs. We’ve recently added disc brake cross and commuter designs which offer great tire clearance and wet weather braking.

C.U.: Since I do commuting and touring articles, what should one look for in a commuter bike and a touring bike?

R.S.: Commuter and touring bikes are in pretty much the same part of the design spectrum. They should be sturdy, stable and functional. Reliability is the key. We err toward a more upright riding position, and, in general, we like drop bars.

C.U.: People may not understand that there is more to Waterford than building bikes. What does Waterford do to promote cycling?

R.S.: First, we support the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and their efforts to build cycling infrastructure in the state. Second, we also support our local bike club, helping out with their annual fundraising ride. Finally, we put on three rides from the factory each summer. We work with area bike clubs to put on the ride, which are free and open to the public.

C.U.: How would you describe the riding where Waterford is located? What is your favorite ride?

Our area is ideal for cycling. You can ride to the city of Milwaukee if you want, but to the west and south is a network of rustic roads through the rolling hills of the southern Kettle Morraine area. We don’t have the dramatic scenery and climbs you have in Utah, but we have a wide variety of nice routes in every direction from the shop.

Favorite ride? I’ve been blessed with so many great riding experiences – whether it’s the Elroy Sparta trail in western Wisconsin with its 3/4 mile tunnel, off-roading in the Needles District at Canyonlands National Park or even weaving in and out of traffic on a congested evening on the Strip in downtown strip in Las Vegas.

C.U.: Schwinn bicycles did their manufacturing at one time entirely in America. How large of a facility was Schwinn?

R.S.: Schwinn’s factories got to be pretty big in the 1970′s. I’d guess that Schwinn at one time had well over a million square feet under roof in their Chicago factory compared to the 8000 sq. feet Waterford has.

C.U.: Do you see bike manufacturing returning to the U.S.? What would it take to bring more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. in bike industry?

R.S.: It’s ironic that America is seen as the world leader in bicycle design – from race bikes to utility bikes. It’s hard to imagine rebuilding meaningful production capacity without a number of structural changes in our economy and our society. We’re primarily a consumption and investment driven economy, as opposed to our competitors in Taiwan, China and India, who emphasize exports and economic efficiency. We want low prices and high returns on our investments. They want full employment and the efficiency needed to earn a vibrant export business. This issue transcends political parties, so the partisan bickering we’ve endured for the past 20 years serve our competitors more than it serves us.

Little niche players like ourselves can eke out a living, but don’t look for any shifts until we see a shift back to a more self-sufficient and even export oriented economic philosophy.

C.U.: While I was in Europe, nearly all of the bikes were very utilitarian with fenders, racks, and lights. Do you think that that could happen here in America?

R.S.: There are plenty of race bikes, riding clubs, and all the kinds of riding popularized in the big bike rags. The race scene in London is way bigger and more intense than in a place like Chicago. A Tuesday night bike race there might have 250-300 riders, not 20-30. The same goes for mountain biking, cyclocross and touring.

What you see in Europe is a commuter world we are just starting to see here. This is particularly true in areas with good cycling infrastructure, like most of the German and Scandinavian cities. Since it’s easy and safe to ride, and since it’s hard and expensive to drive, people are biking. It’s as simple as that. The cities have figured out that by converting car into bike trips, the quality of life goes up and the cost of government goes down.

Many US cities are doing the same and getting the same results. Just this year, Chicago has created protected commuter areas, with barriers from cars. That’s quite a breakthrough. Interestingly enough, weather is not a factor. The biggest biking cities are in the northern half of the country. Minneapolis has an incredible bike commuter population – winter and summer. That’s because it has dedicated transportation corridors that are maintained just like other roadways.

C.U.: How have bike sales been for you and the industry?

Bike sales have been cyclical since the early 1970′s. There have been shifts, but bike sales per capita have actually fallen. Average bike revenue has gone up, though, and the total miles ridden have also gone up – just by a somewhat smaller number of “riders”.

I remember the “boom” days of the 1970′s, seeing people going for a few rides and then getting frustrated by dangerous traffic, flat tires and sore butts. There are millions of unused bikes hanging in garages throughout our nation. In 1990, this pattern was still true, with 80% of people who call themselves cyclists riding an average of only 15 miles per year. With the growing US cycling infrastructure, the miles per bike will continue to rise. Because the bikes are also of better quality, the need to replace them is not as great as it was 20 or more years ago. So, sales may not be going up, but companies like ours can benefit from the trend toward better bikes.

C.U.: Thank you Richard for your time. I should get out on one of my Waterfords and go for a ride.

 

Posted by on February 29, 2012. Filed under Fall Winter 2011,Interviews,Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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  2. Jeff Dionne says:

    I really enjoyed the interview with Richard Schwinn. I have been looking for a touring bike and Waterford and Rivendell are two i have considered. Waterford are very expensive and Rivendells are a close second. If you want a nice lugged frame made in the U.S. this is about it. Koga Randonner is an awesome loaded bike for 2,500 but import thieves will hit you for 900 to get it here(Commuter Bikes of California)
    Jeff Dionne