Andrew Juiliano

King of the Crustaceans: Rock Lobster Cycles

Andrew Juiliano
King of the Crustaceans: Rock Lobster Cycles

Photos by Ben Popper


In 1978, Paul Sadoff built his very first bicycle. It was a lugged, track bike painted the coolest metallic blue. Thirty-five years and nearly 2,000 custom built frames later, the one man behind Rock Lobster Cycles fondly reflects on his initial attempt: “It was a real piece of shit.”

He then offers a more philosophical take on that bike: “I think that experience was the material’s way of bitch slapping me and telling me my priorities weren’t straight.” Functionality trumps the aesthetic façade. That rule has defined Sadoff’s approach to building custom bicycles.

Like his bikes, Sadoff, is neither flashy nor fancy, but he brims with character nonetheless. His shop sits in a brown, corrugated tin industrial complex that houses artists, craftsmen and a dried fruit wholesaler on the West Side of Santa Cruz, California. Sadoff opens the metal door and greets me with black t-shit reads, ‘Hello, my name is bitch.’ A USA Cycling hat rests atop his head as white hair curls from the cap. His glasses sit on a face tanned from years in the California sun. Grinning, he extends a large hand, calloused and scarred by more than three decades of frame fabrication and guitar playing. He claims his thumbs, whose tips are the size of Polish sausages, come from his father and not the thousands of tubular tires he’s glued over the course of his life.

Sadoff is a simple man who derives joy from building and riding bicycles, drinking red wine and honking an antique car horn at the local cyclocross races. He grew up in Los Angeles and in 1977 moved north. “My 22nd birthday present to myself was relieving myself of Los Angeles.” He worked in bike shops, played the guitar and finally settled into a career building custom bicycle frames, his full-time gig since 1988.  During the early years he built in backyard sheds and garages. In the fall of 1996, the operation moved to its current location, within the brown walls of Mission Industrial Lands.

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He walks into the Rock Lobster workshop, which is stuffed with eclectic components, and scores of hand-made bicycle frames hung from the walls and ceiling. Stepping inside the shop is like stepping into an organized chaos of modern cycling history. Race numbers, autographed posters and fading photos cover the walls as bikes dangle from all available rafter space. Stacks of components cover the floor creating a labyrinth between the drill presses, lathe and welding station. On the heat shield, Aaron Bradford’s autographed single speed cyclocross national champion jersey hangs with a large hole melted through the torso. What appears a quagmire is actually and organized Sadoff chaos of bike parts, from new Dura Ace track hubs to an unused Reynolds 531 tubeset from 1975.

 

“There’s an external, tapered King bottom cup in here somewhere,” he says while digging through a pile of headsets on the work bench.

 

In the center of the shop sits a drafting table where Sadoff sketches frame drawings to fit each customer’s dimensions and riding style. Eschewing the crutch of digital measurement, Sadoff designs his bikes around simple numbers taken from a tailor’s tape and conversation about what customers want. Is the new bike for racing or recreation, commuting or crits?  Instead of lasers and computers he lines customers up against a metal door in a process that feels more like a visit to the firing squad than a custom bicycle maker. From this formula of tape measurements and discussion, Sadoff hand draws frame plans on the central workbench. His designs focus on three main attributes weight distribution, handling and fit. Finding harmony between all three results in a comfortable, stable frame.

 

Sadoff sits down at his welding jig and reveals, “For me, making a well handling bike is out of necessity, since I’m not very coordinated, and riding ill-fitting bikes in the past made me crash a lot. The handling and comfort need to be super dialed in. You don’t want the bike to throw you any curveballs.”

 

Between loud buzzes from the TIG welder, guitar riffs from Sadoff’s professional musician days waft from the shop speakers. These are wired to a cassette deck, which plays mixed tapes and recordings from past shows. Among his personal favorites is a show from the Grace Baptist Center in San Jose. He played annual shows there for developmentally disabled adults who thrived on sing-alongs and audience participation. “There’s nothing that will throw off your rhythm like a tambourine player with down syndrome,” Sadoff says, before adding, “but that was one of my favorite shows to play every year, such a rewarding experience, and all the people are always so stoked. ”

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Sadoff calls the small nature of his business one of the major benefits when it comes to building better bikes. “Frame building is a constantly evolving process. New people are always breaking bikes in different ways. My entire manufacturing process is in house and self-sufficient. I can change things really easy.” He mentions this as he takes a drill to the inside of an already painted and clear-coated bottom bracket shell. He’s auguring out a bigger hole so one of his cyclocross team riders can fit a Di2 junction into the downtube. He then returns to his welding jig to affix cable stops to a work in progress.

Flipping up his welding mask, Sadoff pauses and matter-of-factly states,  “I don’t anticipate having the ability to retire…but I do want the company to continue. Who knows though, people identify a custom bike with a guy, and how would the bike sell without the guy behind it.” With what he calls “the tunnel at the end of the light” looming Sadoff will continue to build bikes for his growing cult of followers. Despite his increasing popularity, he remains humble in his take on the craft of building bikes. He doesn’t celebrate himself as the Michelangelo of the bicycle world and instead offers a more practical take on his profession.  “Of everything I’ve tried, this the most fun way I’ve found to put food on the table.”

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