It was recently reported on the Classic Rendezvous that Francisco Cuevas had passed away in Barcelona at the age of 90. Classic Rendezvous is an online haven for people who love vintage bikes with lugged, steel frames.
Francisco was a builder of custom bicycles, and I was fortunate enough to make his acquaintance when I was a younger man. He left an impression on me and I was sad to hear of his death.
In 1974, I was living in NYC and obsessed with riding and working on racing bicycles. I would rebuild my friends' bikes, just for the experience of tearing apart and reassembling different makes. Eventually, the small apartment that I shared with my girlfriend was completely cluttered with bikes and parts. One day, in exasperation, she said to me, "If you love bikes so much, why don't you get a job in a bike shop?" I think there were some other words in there, but you get the idea. Funny thing, the idea had never occurred to me. It was one of those moments when you look up and you're torn between exhilaration and feeling incredibly stupid.
Within two weeks, I was working at 14th Street Bicycles, on the corner of 1st Avenue. This shop was well known at the time for the huge mural of a bike painted on the brick wall above. The mural originally had a chain and lock that wrapped around the vent pipe. I have a photo from 1972 somewhere, but can't find it. It was owned by Denco Distributors, who had a total of 5 shops in Manhattan and Queens. They put me to work selling bikes and I took to it eagerly. I had never enjoyed a job so much. Talking to people about bikes, answering their questions, and helping them pick out the right bike for their needs, was my idea of heaven. Needless to say, I started selling a lot of bikes.
In the back room was an older gentleman who was the head mechanic. He was a fit looking 60, with muscular arms and shoulders, olive skin, thick salt and pepper hair and a huge smile. This was Francisco Cuevas. He spoke no English and the interaction I had with him for the next weeks consisted of me trying to communicate with sign language what repairs were to be done on customers bikes. Slowly I started to learn the Spanish words for brakes, gears, tires, and began to put them together into coherent phrases. Francisco was a good teacher, laughing when I'd make a mistake and gently correcting me. Originally he said he'd teach me Spanish, if I'd teach him English. Well, I learned some Spanish, but that's about as far as it went.
Anyway, as time went on I began to take notice of the racer types who would come in to the shop and go back to chat with Francisco. They were always wheeling beautiful bikes with frames that had no identification on them. This may have been before the Cuevas crest was created. I any case, I never saw one until 10 years later. I asked one of the other employees at the shop about the racers and their great looking bikes. He told me that these were Francisco's customers, for whom he had built custom frames. Wow. Turns out that he was building frames after hours on his own time. My budding friendship with Sr. Cuevas quickly turned into a serious case of hero worship. I would stay after work to watch him and talk.
He told me about his life. How he was from Barcelona, and his pride in being Catalan was apparent, but had to leave when the political situation became intolerable. So he took his family to Argentina and continued to work in the bicycle trade that he learned in his homeland. He said he had a bike factory and, if I understood him correctly, he built 17,000 frames there. Now my Spanish was very rudimentary, so I could have misunderstood the number. Looking back now, it seems like a lot. Then, a few years before I met him, he pulled up stakes and moved his family again, this time to New York City. His sons, Paco and Andres also worked in Denco shops, and one of them (Andres?) painted some of the frames that Francisco made.
It didn't take me long to start asking about having a frame made. The price was $175.00 for a bare frame. I put down the deposit and the deal was done. I started staying after work more frequently and actually got to do some of the filing during the construction of my frame. I remember one evening when Francisco had set me to work filing while he did other things. After a while, I asked him to have look and tell me if it was good enough. He peered at my work a moment, then turned away with a shrug, "It's your frame, if you think that is good enough, then it is." I went back to filing.
Francisco's technique of building frames was a unusual in that he did not use jigs to hold the tubes in place as he brazed them. He would tack the tubes and lugs, eyeball them, make adjustments, and when he was satisfied, he'd complete the brazing process. He used brass instead of silver for his brazing. He was very much the old-world craftsman. The frame he built for me was numbered 026, indicating the 26th frame he built here in the States.
When the frame was complete, I sent it down to Proteus in Maryland where they painted it in forest green Imron for the astronomical price of $30.00. Over the next two years I assembled the bike using Zeus components from Spain. I had become friends with the manager of the Zeus distributorship on 11 Stone Street downtown, and traded work for components. It seemed appropriate to set up the Cuevas with Spanish parts. I have a a few pictures I scanned from photos of the bike taken at it's completion in 1976. The details are not clear and the beautiful lugwork is not featured in the pics. Really, the dark green paint job had no lug lining or highlights and did not do the frame justice. This is not to say that there was anything wrong with the paint job that was done by Proteus. I chose this paint scheme for an understated look, which I felt was a better idea while living in Manhattan (I had already lost a bike to theft).
For comparison, I want to show these pictures of the same frame taken in the mid-80's after it was repainted by CyclArt. I had ridden the bike across the US in 1977 (the subject of a future post), and the paint was looking pretty shabby. The folks at CyclArt detailed the frame with highlights and added Cuevas decals which I had never seen before. This is how the bike still looks today.
After being at the 14th Street bike shop for around a year, I was transferred to the shop on 96th Street and Broadway. I kept in touch with Francisco, visiting him from time to time. I left New York in June of 1977 to do the cross country ride and lost touch with him at that point. I have read accounts of him going on to work at Paris Sport bikes in New Jersey (I think). Eventually he worked out of his own shop in Queens with his sons, and then, at some point, returned to Barcelona to spend his remaining years.
One of the things I find most curious about his work is that it doesn't command higher prices on E-Bay. Complete bikes stall out well below the $1000 mark. Seems strange, given the fact that they don't often come available. I do not want to speculate on why this may be, or relate stories I have heard about problems with Cuevas frames. I can only relate my own experience with one of his frames. This bike has endured many hard miles, at least 3,000 of them with 50 pounds of gear hanging from it. Never had a moments problem with it.
I wish that I had some great words of wisdom of Francisco's to recount. But I don't. The hours I spent with him I remember as being comfortable and interesting. He was a great guy with a terrific sense of humor. I feel fortunate to have been his friend, even if only for a short time.