Today, we bring you the final story in our series Makers and Menders: profiles of people who use their hands to create useful goods. So far, we've met a long-time Flagstaff wood worker, visited a family-run welding shop and met a creative, savvy seamstress. Today, writers and producers Michael Collier and Rose Houk introduce us to a Flagstaff bicycle maker who pursues his craft with remarkable determination.
Steve Garro builds bicycles and he lives life large. He hit the streets of Flagstaff at 16, on his own with just a $20 bill in his pocket. He kept body and soul together as a baker, mason and a tree trimmer. He worked as a Forest Service Hotshot and bicycle repairman, but still found time to enter 20 mountain bike races a year.
'Well, I've never driven a car and I still haven't. So I needed to get around and then bikes just took hold. I started mountain biking in 1985 right when it was kind of really getting going on and so it was just really fun back then.'
Garro was a charter member of Team Mutant in the 1990's. This group of beer-powered cyclists raced throughout Arizona, Utah, Colorado, California. Steve says they drew inspiration from naked fire jugglers and witches in hula skirts.
'Every country has bikes. Every religion rides bikes. Every color of people rides bikes.'
As a Mutant, Steve raced hard and broke bicycles like match sticks. He bent a Bontrager frame. He cracked a Salsa's plate gusset. He used duct tape to splint the seat tube on his Yeti FRO while cycling the length of New Zealand. Perhaps it was inevitable that a repairman who rode bicycles so passionately would one day have to build his own.
'There is no way you can be a frame builder without having been a bike mechanic first because you just don't know how bikes work. It can be the prettiest bike in the world but if the deraileur doesn't fit right, what good is that?'
Steve has been brazing bike frames from the ground up since 2003.
'The hottest flame that man can make.'
His garage is festooned with tubular steel. The walls everywhere are papered with race entry numbers that were once pinned to his shirt. There are vises and clamps and jigs, all just a little closer to the ground than you'd expect.
'And here is the art of the hand drawn blueprint. This is the person's stand-over height; this is the crotch. It gives you a point of reference. Basically, I draw the person on this. Their propensity is towards more of a torso or more of an arm. People are different. Decide which of these goes toward the top tube and which measurement is leading toward the stem. And so once I put the person into a linear value, then I put the bike inside of it.'
The tubes are variously straight or softly curved - a trademark that sets Steve's bikes apart.
'The art aspect comes into it then. A lot of this is just metal work. Here you know I can just work on the perfect radius. Then it even brings on a jewelry-esque aspect of it. Bring the beauty into the form and the function. It's flowing, it's smooth, it's beautiful and at the same time, it rides perfect. It's pleasing to the eye.'
Other frame makers around the country have noticed and begun to copy his work.
'To surpass the master is to repay the debt. Hopefully I'll have something to leave for the next generation of this.'
Steve married in 2000; he and his bride, Denise, honeymooned on bicycles through South America. Living large indeed. But 5 years later, he pedaled downhill...and head-on into a truck.
'I counted over 40 fractures when I was hurt.'
He lay in a coma with a punctured lung, liver and kidneys torn. His spine was broken. When he awoke, his legs didn't work.
'Oh, they had a sign on my door that said, "Do not help this man out of bed." Because I kept trying to convince everyone that if they just stood me up and put boots on my feet, I would go home because, dang it, I needed to get to work because I told people I'd build their bicycles. I got crushed on October 5th and I went back to work on Christmas. I had a leg bag, 3 external drains, and I couldn't lift a hand drill, but I went back to work. I told my wife that was the only part of the original me left.'
Seven years have passed since the accident.
"I've come to peace with not being able to ride. I'm even able to look at my favorite bicycle. I rode that for an entire month with my wife throughout the Andes of Chile and Argentina.'
Steve works from his wheelchair, building bicycles that are among the most beautiful and functional in the country. Customers are lined up 11 months deep on his waiting list.
'People say, "Do you love building bikes?" and I say, "No, I love my wife, Baja and tacos." The satisfaction of the job completed is definitely what makes it worth it. Seeing a bike you built 8 years ago and just being like, "That is a really nice bike! I forgot I even made that on." People say, "What's the best bike you ever built?" I always give the same answer, "The last one." If you ever made a perfect bike, walk away.'
Steve Garro isn't walking away. Along with the other Makers and Menders - Joe Guida, Frank Mayorga and Jenn Jones - he's part of the fabric of Flagstaff - people who add to our lives, people who make things.