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Me and my bike: Don Walker

James Spender
12 Dec 2017

Not only did Don Walker found the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, he also shows some pretty mean bicycles himself

Don Walker points to the Russian writing on the driveside seatstay of his bike and smiles: ‘The Cyrillic says, “Handmade in Louisville, Kentucky, by American Capitalist Pig”.’

Even by the esoteric standards of handbuilt bicycles, this bright red machine is a masterpiece. It has been built by Walker, a 27-year veteran of the handmade bicycle scene, and is part serious collector’s item, part detailed homage to a bygone era of track racing and part comment on world politics.

‘The inspiration was the Masi track bike ridden in the Seoul 1988 Olympics team pursuit by Viatcheslav Ekimov,’ says Walker.

‘Ekimov was Russian, and it was the Reagan-Gorbachev era – the tail end of the Cold War. The world was a very heated place and there were lots of countries threatening to boycott Seoul.

‘In fact, it ended up being the last time the Soviet Union competed in an Olympics. The USSR dissolved in 1991.’

The Soviet Union wasn’t the only thing that was dissolved in the 90s. At one time bikes such as Walker’s creation were commonplace on the boards.

Known affectionately as ‘lo-pros’, they were built around a 650c front wheel paired to a 700c rear wheel. That meant the frames had outrageously sloping top tubes, as the long rear stays had to join up to the stumpy front fork.

The idea was twofold. Not only was the lead rider much lower down than with a 700c front wheel, but the smaller front wheels meant those following were able to tuck even tighter behind for a more aerodynamic pursuit train.

It clearly worked for Ekimov and his team, who took gold in 1988, but by 1997 the design had been outlawed after the UCI introduced a rule stating that both wheels must be the same size.

Happily, in the world of handbuilt bikes UCI rules don’t apply, so when long-time friend and amateur track rider Matt Haldeman came to Walker looking for a new bike, the Kentucky builder was only too happy to help. 

The low-down

‘I haven’t built a lo-pro bike since the 1990s, and I certainly haven’t done this type of fork and stem before,’ says Walker.

‘It’s also the first time I’ve done bi-lam construction. So with all that learning, trial and error and metal manipulation, I’d guess this was a 60-hour project.’

Most people will recognise a bi-lam construction (an abbreviation of bi-laminate) from seeing a mixed material frame, where a metal head tube is joined to a short section of metal down tube and top tube, which are then sculpted to look like traditional cast lugs before having carbon tubes slotted in.

The main difference here is this bike is all steel, and the bi-lam joints have been fillet brazed for a uniform look, where most mixed material bikes are TIG-welded.

More curious to the eye is the front assembly. It’s almost lost in the bike’s aggressive stance, but look closely and the stem and fork crown are one homogenous part.

The fork steerer is lopped off at the top of the head tube and secured with a stem cap, leaving the centre of the bullhorn bars barely a hair’s breadth from the top of the tyre.

‘The tubing is vintage Columbus KL, and the fork is period-correct Columbus Air. But I had to fabricate the crown stem from scratch.

‘It was trial and error with a 1.75-inch by 0.75-inch chromoly steel tube – fit and file, fit and file – then machine the other end to accept the stem clamp. It was all designed off the old photos of Ekimov’s Masi.’

As a labour of love, that would be enough for most builders, but Walker still wasn’t satisfied. He needed to get hold of the right components, and create the right paint scheme.

Riding through walls

Sourcing the components was almost as lengthy a process as building the frameset. The period-correct 3T Moscow bars, Selle San Marco Rolls saddle and flute-less Campagnolo cranks were one thing, but he nearly hit a roadblock with the seatpost and wheels.

‘They’re both 1980s Campagnolo, and truth be told the seatpost is wrong because we didn’t take into consideration the length of the aero portion.

‘This is as low as it can go, which is too high for Matt! And we just couldn’t find the right wheels, so we had to borrow these from a bike ridden by ex-pro track rider Steve Hegg. They still have his original tubs on.’

However, of all the details it’s the graphics that have Walker most excited. On the down tube is Cyrillic for ‘Walker’, there’s ‘Matislav Haldimanikov’ on the seat tube; the occasional hammer and sickle, and then there’s the man himself…

‘There was no way around it, the headbadge had to be a hammer and sickle, while pictured on the seat tube is Mikhail Gorbachev with another Cyrillic inscription.

‘Reagan said to Gorbachev in a famous speech, “Tear down this wall!” so the translation reads, “We don’t destroy walls, we destroy world records”.’

Perhaps no American Capitalist Pig has ever uttered more noble words.

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