A conversation with Ray Hosler

A little over a year ago Ray Hosler answered some of our questions regarding his bike riding exploits and his relationship with Jobst Brandt (you can read that here).

We continued this conversation via email and to say it is insightful is an understatement. 

A conversation between Antoine Ventouse and Ray Hosler  (with introduction by Antoine Ventouse)

I discovered Jobst in 1990 when I first got internet access and found rec.bicycles.tech. (I began looking at the rides and race groups as well but soon stopped looking at those because tech had the more interesting and informative discussions.) Jobst's posts on the group stood out to me immediately. I was impressed in equal measure by the depth of his knowledge, how well he explained things and how little he seemed to care for people's feelings when correcting them or debunking the bike myth and lore! I liked the way he liked an argument and the way in which he argued. Reading these exchanges was educational and entertaining to me. I soon became obsessed with reading all of his new posts each day and became what Jobst's rec.bike detractors like to call a 'Jobst fanboy'.

I rarely made contributions myself - I was what was termed a 'lurker' on usenet at the time. But I exchanged a few private emails with Jobst and he was generous with the time he took to reply. He gave me detailed information about the dimensions and construction of his bike frame and he shared a couple of CAD drawings of his saddlebag support.

I bought a second hand frame following his advice and, when that broke years later, I had a new frame made with the specification Jobst had given me. He inspired me to do some lightweight saddlebag touring both in England and in the mountains of France. From short weekend rides to longer trips of a week or two. I haven't managed to emulate Jobst with a 3 week epic trip of the Alps. Maybe one day! 

1. Most of my friends for the last 25 years have been through cycling. I have never met anyone who had heard of Jobst before I told them about him. This didn't surprise me at first because Usenet wasn't a big thing. But after the web really took off and Sheldon Brown showcased Jobst a few years later, I expected more people to know of him. Does that surprise you? Do you know how well he was known in America?

Jobst Brandt is not well known in the U.S., even among cyclists. In the Bay Area he is a legend only to older riders, mostly racers. Why is that? Performance cycling is a small subset of cycling, for starters. Considering that Jobst's riding style was completely foreign to riders, it made him even more of an outlier. Being an aloof non-conformist, Jobst did nothing to burnish his reputation. He shunned the spotlight. Even when Jobst appeared in full-page tire ads for Avocet, he was not identified. I'm sure he wanted it that way. He believed that the performance characteristics of the tires should speak for themselves and not some well-known racer endorsing them to increase sales. Avocet adopted that philosophy, with the exception of cyclometers favored by Greg LeMond.

While Jobst's book, The Bicycle Wheel, sold well and continues to sell in English and German, it was considered by many industry insiders to be a platform for Jobst to continue his war against more modern wheel-building methods. The bike industry is market-driven and Jobst had no love for marketing. He butted heads with the industry wonks constantly, so he was no friend of theirs, beyond Avocet. The company bucked and set industry trends in its own way, often at the urging of Jobst. While Avocet pioneered many advances in cycling, where is it now? Gone.

2. Related to that last point, it surprises me that more people and bike companies don't know about the bike myths that Jobst debunked. Things like the supposed benefit of a tread or pattern on a road tyre, of deflating your tyres to get better grip in the wet, that short wheelbase bikes are faster and 'more responsive' and the obsession with weight at the expense of durability. Does it surprise or frustrate you that these things remain the same and cyclists aren't better served by the cycling industry after the many times Jobst convincingly made the arguments? Was Jobst himself frustrated by any of this?

Jobst railed against the trends in performance bicycling, but it fell on deaf ears. People buy into myths and snake oil, not science and facts. Probably his most strident position -- smooth tires -- caused him the most grief. He couldn't understand why people wouldn't buy into the science. Avocet proved beyond a doubt through exhaustive tire testing that a smooth tire had better traction, but the industry didn't want to hear it, nor did most cyclists. All they can imagine is smooth car tires. Dangerous! It's no surprise that even today only a handful of tire models are smooth. Avocet never gave up on Jobst's belief in smooth tires, but look where it got them? Those patterns on tires, such as found on the Continental brand, have zero value for improving traction. I'm sure Continental knows that but believes, rightly so, that a smooth tire would be rejected by most buyers as "dangerous." At least the bike tire industry reduced the depth of the patterns to the point of being visual blemishes.

Jobst pointed out failings in cranks from breaking at the pedal eye and went to the industry with his solution. They ignored him. However, I've noticed, and have been told by mechanics, that cranks rarely fail at the pedal eye today. It didn't take much to fix the problem by making the arms about 2 mm thicker around the pedal eye. His solution of adding a washer/conical-shaped pedal eye hole may have been overkill, but he was a heavy rider who rode on trails, the ultimate test for bike equipment. Once Jobst started using his solution -- parts machined by Peter Johnson -- he never broke a crank at the pedal eye, after many failures at that location. 

Jobst could be stubborn about adopting new equipment and tended to ignore the fact that everyone is unique. What works for one rider doesn't necessarily work for another. His "take it or leave it" attitude worked against him in the court of public opinion. But Jobst didn't care.

3. As I said earlier, Jobst seemed to like an argument on rec.bike. Was he the same in real life?

Jobst never shied away from defending an opinion or espousing a belief, even though it may have been wrong. His beliefs extended to personal values and attitudes, which have no scientific method for being proven right or wrong. That never stopped Jobst from talking like he had the right answer. Yes, it was Jobst's nature to be argumentative and opinionated. Those who accepted that as being a part of his personality got along with him quite well.

4. Were you, or the many other people who rode with Jobst over the years, influenced as I was by Jobst's evidence based opinions and logical arguments regarding frame design and equipment choice? I'd like to imagine there was a band of you all riding long wheelbase bikes with plenty of clearance, 25mm Avocet slick tyres, wheels with 36 swaged spokes and MA2 rims, Kool Stop Salmon pads and Silca Impero frame pumps.

For the most part, those who rode with Jobst all the time subscribed "lock stock and barrel" to his observations about cycling equipment. As soon as he switched from sewups to clinchers, everyone followed within a year. It was an amazing transformation. Jobst wasn't happy with the raised ridges on the early Specialized Touring II clinchers, but he felt they were easier to deal with than sewups. 

MA2 rims were highly desired among our cadre. Even today some Jobst Riders have a rabid need for acquiring new MA2 rims. I would call it an obsession. Personally, I'm happy with the current 36-hole Mavic rims even without the spoke eyelets that Jobst prized. I prefer the deeper channel of the Mavic Open Pro versus the MA2 or MA40. It makes for easier tire changes.

Jobst bemoaned the fact that most cyclists didn't have the aptitude to use a Silca frame-fit pump. He believed all other pumps were junk. Most older riders today who raced still favor Silca pumps of old. Now that the company is U.S. owned, they should issue a replica of the classic. They'd sell a boatload to the older generation, especially if they use modern materials.

When Jobst switched from toe clips to M series Shimano mountain bike pedals around 2000, those who hadn't already done so followed suit.

Most riders favored the Carradice travel bag because Jobst used it on his Alps tours. I was the lone exception, using the John Forester custom touring bag.

Where most riders separated themselves from Jobst was in gearing and shifting. Jobst refused to consider any gearing other than what he started with in his youth. It was half-step with a very narrow range. I think he used a 46 (maybe 48) small chainwheel, 52 large chainwheel.

In the rear he used a 5-speed, always downtube shifting, switching to SunTour and finally Shimano DuraAce derailleurs with a 6-speed cluster.

Jobst used Campagnolo Nuovo Record brakes until the end. He believed that their 1:1 ratio made them the ideal choice because they could accommodate wide tires without complaint and a wobbly rim after a spoke failure. However, Jobst had strong hands and could squeeze the levers with ease. He couldn't understand why the newer brakes with higher leverage ratios were all the rage.

When he switched to KoolStop brake pads, we all followed along, even though the pads tended to squeal. Because the KoolStops worked well in all weather and lasted forever, Jobst refused to consider other pads. He showed how to clean the rims by riding through water/mud, eliminating brake pad squeal. I still use them today, but only on the rear brake.

Jobst didn't berate people for their choice of frame, but his observations about a short wheel base giving a rougher ride are right on. I learned first-hand about the harsh ride when I had to ride a bike with a short wheel base while my main bike was being repaired.

5. What was the mixture of ability like on Jobst's rides? They sound pretty demanding from the various ride reports I read over the years so I imagine everyone had to have a good level of fitness. Did Jobst insist on people being fit enough to join the ride and/or to ride with equipment that was up to the task to avoid calamity?

You have to consider the decade. In the 1960s it was probably a civil pace since Jobst didn't have much of a following at that point. They were not serious racers, although Jobst did frequent the race scene for a season in the late 1950s and went on some rides with the racers in the 1960s.

Things changed in the mid 1970s when bike racing became popular and Jobst lived alone in a house on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Since the mid to late 1950s, Jobst had ties to Pedali Alpini, a loose-knit bike racing club on the SF Peninsula. Word spread among racers about his off-road rides (routes discovered when he owned a motorcycle) and pretty soon all the big names in the South Bay were joining Jobst on rides -- Tom Ritchey, Bill Robertson, Keith Vierra, Peter Johnson, Bud Hoffacker, Dave Perry, Dave Faust, John Porcella, Tim Nicholson, Ted Mock, Jim Westby, etc. His rides even saw riders from Marin County, including Gary Fisher. It was a Who's Who of Bay Area racing. And race they did! They sprinted for the city limits signs, king of the hill, on and on. They rode long and hard. If you could keep up so the waits at the top of the hill weren't too long for faster riders, it didn't matter whether or not you were a racer. Because the rides were so demanding though, it was pretty much a fait accompli that the riders were racers.

I struggled to keep up in the early 1980s when Jobst hammered, usually dueling it out with Tom Ritchey for "first to the top" honors. Jobst had an ego and while he didn't race much in his day, he never turned down a challenge to pick up the pace. The pace became more erratic, as did the turnouts, as the 1980s progressed.

Jobst's ride friends from the 1970s slowly drifted away in the 1980s to pursue their careers. A few new riders from the 1980s hung in their with Jobst through the 1990s, but most of the racers were gone. By the early to mid 1980s the rides became evenly mixed with racers (Sterling McBride, Dave McLaughlin and a handful of others) and sport riders, people like me or Brian Cox, Jeff Vance, John Woodfill, Bob Walmsley, etc., who dabbled in racing but were primarily interested in riding off-road for the adventure.

As an aside, Jobst rarely drove his car to start a ride, with the exception of Mt. Hamilton (he was known to ride from home -- 128 miles) and Pt. Reyes/Mt. Tamalpais north of San Francisco. 

Of course, you'd never see Jobst out on the Bay Area roads in July and August. He was always in the Alps riding with the most stalwart friends who joined him on Sunday rides. Everyone who rode with Jobst in the Alps came back with horror stories about endless rides, rides in rain and snow, but that was balanced out by the fabulous memories and views of the snow-covered peaks glistening in the summer sun.

The advent of the mountain bike changed the character of the ride and who turned out. First, Tom Ritchey quit riding with Jobst to pursue his business. Racers who liked off-road riding drifted toward mountain bike races. Adventure riders were drawn to the mountain bike. They didn't have any reason to ride with Jobst because mountain bike rides/racing involved much gnarlier routes, and shorter, than what Jobst tackled.

Yes, the mountain bike changed everything. Land owners and park rangers became aware of bikes and immediately started enforcing long-ignored bike restrictions. By the early 1990s the mountain bike had its share of negative publicity, such that Jobst saw the new bike on the block as a pariah. The situation was kind of like the guy who tells everyone about his secret fishing hole. Jobst didn't mind sharing the trails and never turned anyone away who joined him on a mountain bike, but the days of living under the radar on adventure rides were gone. The only mountain biker of note joining Jobst was Roman Dial, a wildlife biologist who found the Bay Area way to tame for his tastes. He moved to Alaska around 1990 and rode bikes in the wilderness.

I stopped riding with Jobst on a regular basis in the early 1990s when I got married and moved 15 miles away. We still rode Mt. Hamilton and sometimes the trails, but it was only a few times a year. Jobst typically had only one other person or two joining him. Through all the decades Jobst continued to do the same rides, like clockwork. He varied the routes of course, but they were the same in destination:Haul Road, Forest of Nisene Marks, Last Chance Road, Purisima Creek, Mt. Hamilton, Loma Prieta Road, Tarwater Trail, Zayante Road, Mtn.

Charlie Road, Coast Highway...Later he joined others to ride in more obscure locations, such as New Idria and Indians Road near Big Sur.

In his final riding years, Jobst often rode alone, usually doing his 118-mile loop down the Coast Highway through Santa Cruz and up Highway9. He became more detached from reality. His bike was a wreck with worn parts in need of adjustment. He had so many injuries and broken bones it's amazing he could even ride, but he did and he didn't back off on the long rides. He rode less off road at the very end, but still did the two-day Sierra Ride over Sonora Pass. I stopped doing that when I turned 55, but Jobst was still riding in his 70s!

6. Did you ride together in a tight group, moderating the pace to keep the group together or split up according to who could keep up Perhaps waiting at the top of climbs or descents or at some point further down the road. I remember Jobst saying somewhere that he couldn't understand people not riding to their ability and holding back on a climb so I don't imagine he held back much.

We rode together through Palo Alto starting out on our ride, but at the base of the first big hill up to Skyline Boulevard the pace quickened on days when Jobst was feeling well or being pushed by Tom Ritchey. Many riders peeled off on Skyline and went their own way.

The ride turned into a Slinky, riders strung out at the summit, where they gathered, then stringing out on the descents on occasions when riders couldn't keep with Jobst and the racers who blasted at top speed. Mostly though we managed to hold Jobst's wheel on the descents as long as they weren't too technical.

Other rides when racers weren't along could be entirely free of hard riding beyond the occasional surge. Jobst wasn't particularly keen on going fast from the mid to late 1980s on.

7. How impressive was he in the mountains? Both climbing and descending? I remember him setting someone straight about how good the pro's were at descending who had used Greg LeMond as an example. Jobst told them that Greg used to ride in his group as a youngster and that he was really good at going uphill but mediocre in the company of the rest on the ride going downhill.

Few racers could stay with Jobst on the descents, where he excelled. The only rider who descended consistently faster was Sterling McBride. Once Jobst broke his collarbone trying to keep up with the 1980 Junior National Road Champion on the steep and off-camber Moody Road curves. Jobst was a good climber for someone his size, but that wasn't his strength. However, when it came to riding on the really steep dirt trails/roads (20-25 percent grades), nobody was as strong as Jobst. It was amazing to see!

I don't know that Greg LeMond ever rode with Jobst. Greg occasionallyrode in the Bay Area on "training rides," and once joined some riders from Palo Alto Bicycles, but I never heard about him joining Jobst on a Sunday ride. There are no photos to support such a claim. Jobst's nephew Marc Brandt raced with Greg LeMond numerous times in Bay Area and California bike races. Obviously Jobst and Greg knew each other and exchanged words at races as well as through Avocet connections.

8. Can you tell me how Jobst came to collaborate with Avocet? Why was Avocet open to Jobst's ideas and advice while other companies rejected it? What do you think made them different?

Owner Bud Hoffacker, Avocet founder, met Jobst in 1971 when Jobst came into the Hoffackers' bike shop, Palo Alto Toy and Sport, later Palo Alto Bicycles. They went on a long bike ride to Santa Cruz (100+ miles) and Bud suffered because it was his first ride over 25 miles.

Bud got into shape and started racing in 1973 while going on Jobst rides. After some success with racing he realized he couldn't climb. He quit racing in 1975. Bud saw a market for an accessory company, so he started a mail order business and then Avocet in 1977. Avocet came at the right time, as the European market couldn't meet the needs of the U.S. market, which favored bike camping.

Jobst got involved with Avocet from the beginning, even suggesting the name and designing the company logo, an Avocet bird. It was developed off a wood block print Jobst made to create Christmas cards. Obviously, Bud thought highly of Jobst's abilities beyond his cycling skills. After Bud designed and patented a new bicycle saddle, the company saw a meteoric rise as the company introduced one hit after another in accessories -- saddles, shoes, clothing (polypropylene), cyclometers, tires. Jobst helped design Avocet's first touring shoe with a patented reinforcement strap. In the early 1980s Jobst and Bud developed a miniature electronic cyclometer. It used complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) in a gate array, at the time a revolutionary low-power semiconductor digital technology. They took advantage of being in Silicon Valley, hiring several brilliant electrical engineers. Jobst designed the case and became obsessive about the button design, insisting on only two buttons with excellent tactile feel.

Jobst badgered Bud all the time about new products and urged that he develop a smooth tire. Avocet came out with the FasGrip in the mid 1980s and featured Jobst prominently in its ads. I would see Jobst many evenings come into Palo Alto Bicycles and bound up the stairs to the Avocet office. Jobst also got involved with designing some hardware components that were to be manufactured in the U.S., but Avocet decided against competing in the hardware market where it would have faced an uphill battle against Campagnolo, SunTour, Shimano and others. The Avocet cyclometer 50 was another pet project for Jobst as he developed a patented algorithm that did not register altitude gains of less than 20 feet in a time period. Jobst argued that this constraint would eliminate "meaningless" altitude gains such as riding over an overpass and minor fluctuations in atmospheric pressure.

Finally, Avocet distributed Jobst's book, The Bicycle Wheel, easily the most concise and understandable publication that describes how to build a wheel.

9. I know Jobst disliked many of the 'in group' gestures and sayings (like 'car back') that are common on many rides. Was there an unspoken list of things you all knew not to do of Jobst's pet hates? (If there is, can you share some of them.)

Everyone who rode with Jobst for any length of time knew he hated "car back" and wagging a hand at road debris. He would make a snide comment whenever it was said. All of us made fun of the expressions from time to time to enliven the ride.

10. What were your favourite subjects to talk with Jobst about?

Jobst knew birds and could identify them at great distances. His keen eyes saw things that most people missed. I had an interest in birds as well, so he helped me identify birds I had never seen before, just while riding, like the roadrunner and phainopepla. He also knew the area history, plants, and people. The rides turned into rolling historical accounts of life in the Bay Area, biology lessons, you name it. Jobst had encyclopedic knowledge.

11. Did Jobst have an interest in politics? He struck me as  libertarian. Was that the case?

If I had to guess, I'd say Jobst was a registered Democrat. I would be shocked if he was a Republican, but he could have been an "independent," which means not claiming a party affiliation. We have a Libertarian party in the U.S., but I don't think he would have registered as such. He never talked about his party affiliation, but he would have told anyone who asked.

Jobst was a liberal for most causes. He was a Libertarian in the sense that he believed people should be able to "do their own thing." He didn't like much in the way of structure or big government except for public works. One of his favorite expressions was: "We don't need no stinking badges," in reference to the movie "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." He especially believed that trails and roads in the countryside should be open to the public and had little regard for private property. Jobst's attitude was "I'm just riding through. I'm not disturbing anything or causing problems, so how could anyone oppose my innocent activity?"

Although Jobst was liberal, he served in the military willingly (ROTC). He never talked about it and didn't have much to say about war other than it was a huge waste of money and human life.

Being the contrarian he was, it's really hard to pin Jobst down on much of anything. He didn't like conformity, so that could influence his thinking on popular mainstream causes. That's why I would never say Jobst believed something 100 percent. Even when it came to bike technology and products, he could be open minded, except for two items: He believed in steel frames and 36-spoke aluminum alloy wheels with 100 percent conviction: "We don't need no stinking carbon fiber."

All images provided by Ray Hosler with permission. 

Comments on this post (1)

  • Mar 16, 2018

    Great interview with Ray! I run MA2s on my steel frame because of Jobst.

    — Patrick

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