Crandall Shrugged

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This is a re-publish of an article featured in the Albion.

I am not posting this to shed more light on my ego, but to show gratitude for their efforts in making a great magazine, including me in it’s final issue, and for showcasing the beauty of shared efforts, talent, hard work and community that make up FBM.

The following is Steve Bancroft’s interpretation of FBM, and I, after a few days spent hanging out. Although it may be a bit generous, I am honored, and humbled. Thanks man…

“Steve Crandall, the owner and founder of FBM Bicycle Company, is the most important man in BMX today. Without him and a small handful of other prime movers, BMX as we know and love it would be in a horrible state.

FBM are the only believable bicycle company in BMX right now, the only one with a message worth pushing: a wholesome message promoting living a honest, hands-on, shared and fulfilled life ‘“ the good life.

Steve Crandall reminds BMX what is important, he keeps it in check, he stops it becoming too lazy or complacent. He is a Guardian. A Defender of the true spirit of bike riding and it’s founding values.

It’s a role he never asked for, but through 20 years of swimming against the tide and upholding his beliefs while most of the BMX world was slipping the other way, it’s a position that he has bestowed upon himself. Like how in Greek mythology Atlas carries the Earth on his shoulders, Steve Crandall carries the future of bike riding on his.

Steve Crandall would never go on strike ‘“ so ingrained is his version of BMX that for that to happen he’d have to die ‘“ but if he and a select few other industry heads were ever to withdraw their efforts and influence from BMX then things would quickly slide into a dystopian mess…”

Words and Photography by STEVE BANCROFT

Crandall met me at the airport of his hometown Richmond, Virginia. After a boring flight it’s great to see such a bright and friendly face. It’s a mischievous face. Even if it was disassociated from the images of unbridled fun and mayhem, with its wonderful enthusiasm and sparkle of energy, it is a face that is impossible to dislike. We shake hands, hug and head out to the car. Dylan is driving us as Crandall’s personal means of transportation is limited to a BMX, a Harley Davidson motorcycle or a 40ft matte black school bus, none of which are practical for an airport run. As I’d come to realize over my stay with the founding owner of FBM Bicycle Company, his approach to owning vehicles is mirrored in the way he lives his life and runs his company: his apparent theory being that the most practical and efficient way of doing something is rarely the most fun or rewarding, but if you connect with like minded people and work as a community then things become easy and exciting and you can accomplish whatever you want.

We pull up outside his apartment. He lives above a bike shop called Re-Cycles. The rusted steel steps that lead up to his front door are decorated with old wheels and bike parts. There’s a cat sat outside. His name is TopSpeed. The shop down below is owned by long time FBM associate Evan Venditti, who’s away spending the winter riding and surfing in Puerto Rico. So Ricky’s running the show while he’s gone. This is another typical example of the FBM mentality, to typical folk there is a distinct choice that needs to be made between being a business owner and being a thrill-seeking nomad, but under the FBM philosophy, by working as a collective with like-minded people, there is no predefined path.

Once inside there’s work to do. Not a lot, but some. We drop my bags off and head back out to the store to pick up fresh vegetables for tonight’s meal. Steve is having a whole bunch of people over to his place for soup. Making a big batch of soup and inviting 20 of your good friends round to share it with you is a very cheap and simple way to have a good time. With everyone present being of the same persuasion as Crandall, and with Crandall being a fun-seeker, it’s not long before the beer starts to flow and the stories start to come out. Stories from the road, stories of strippers, stories of Kelly Baker, stories of Mike Tag, stories of FBM. The best kind of stories. It’s a fulfilling evening of good food, good company, good conversation and getting blind drunk.

The next day we wake up and drink coffee. I ask my host if it’s okay to take a shower. He looks at me and with an unarguable sincerity says, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ I showered and we gathered our things and headed out the door. His comment resonated with me throughout that whole time and the entire car ride to the trails. And when I think about Crandall’s life and all he’s accomplished ‘“ from traveling the world, to making bikes, to filming videos, to organizing events, to influencing whole generations of kids – I can’t help but see how he wasn’t just confirming I could use the amenities in his apartment, he was espousing his whole philosophy on life.

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The line is well tarped up and covered in autumn leaves, but with many hands is doesn’t take long before every jump is uncovered, swept, watered and ready to roll. These are Crandall’s own personal trails, a place he’s built over the last few years with a couple of good friends, a place where he can withdraw from being a public figure in BMX. A place where he can get back to what it is that has led him to dedicate the last 20 years of his life pursuing, promoting and living.

The line starts with a tight roller and berm section that winds its way down the hill before opening up and picking up speed for more spread out stuff towards the bottom. A rollercoaster ride of fast and technical into bigger and faster, twisting and turning the whole way down – it’s bicycle motocross at its finest and we spend the morning flying through the trees without a care in the world. Legendary Pa trail builder Dave King Ain’t Shit is in town and he stops by, and yet more stories are told, and yet more bikes are ridden.

The next day we take the six hour drive north to Binghamton, the home of FBM. We use the time to chat about how FBM came to be. Starting at the beginning we talk about how his dad was in the Navy, and how that led to an early life of moving around ‘like a gypsy skirting around blue collar neighborhoods’. He graduated high school at 17 with best friends Mike Tag and Jeremy ‘˜Magilla’ Reiss. Tag got an apprenticeship as a metal worker and Crandall all but signed up for the Army reserves, but before either of them got too far down those more traditional routes they were caught by the, ‘call of the wild’. Through their bikes they started to travel and meet new people. They took influence from an assortment of metal, punk rock and hardcore music, reading Go Magazine, looking up to Chris Moeller and going to shows. It was while devouring all this fresh information like a pack of ravenous dogs a seed began to take root. Doodles in economics lessons in the early 90’s started to hone in on the letters FBM, a parody of how all the big BMX companies at the time were owned by corporate dudes in suits: Fat Bald Men.

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They started to print their own shirts and stickers and FBM started to become more than fun sketches. It was at a gig one night that the movement was really cemented. A chance post-show encounter with The Minutemen bass player Mike Watt would spawn some- thing so powerful that 20 years down the line kids are still throwing toilets out of windows and setting their dicks on fire. What Mike said to a young and impressionable Crandall was, ‘Just start a band’. And ever since then FBM has been on a journey that’s seen it influence kids across continents, celebrate the bike rider spirit and fly in the face of the corporate world.

‘There was more in those four words than you can ever say. Mike Watt didn’t necessarily mean we should get together and make music. What he was saying was ‘˜don’t be a passenger, don’t just sit there and fade away, get out there and do it and share it, participate, get involved, don’t just sit there in the crowd and watch it all go by.’’

The more we talk about musicians and making a living out of doing something you love, the more the depth of influence from those early bands becomes apparent, ‘The bands we liked didn’t make music for commercial success. You couldn’t tell those guys to stop making music if it wasn’t working out. They’d be playing whether there was money or not. The parallels between those bands and what we were trying to do with FBM weren’t obvious at the time, but looking back now I know exactly what he was saying. I just hope we can pass our message on to as many people as possible, even if it’s just so some back- woods kid in Alabama can grow up to be awesome.’

We go back for a minute and talk more about Crandall’s personal history within BMX, through following BMX media for a long time I was aware of his rich heritage but hearing that in his early years he’d spend time around, and often worked for, many of the most credible scenes and companies of there day. I ask him to give a whirlwind recap of his BMX history, ‘Well we moved out to Indiana when I was about 17, we didn’t know what we were doing, we’d just met Stew Johnson at a race we’d travelled to. We became friends with those guys ‘“ there was no internet back then so we’d write letters to each other and send zines we’d made. After a while Stew was just like ‘you guys should come here and live’ so we did. When we first moved there we stayed at this indoor skatepark that Jody Donnelly was trying to start up. He was like ‘Yeah, come live here.You can set up your screen printing stuff and do whatever.’ It was pretty much a derelict building on an industrial estate with no power, no running water and there was no skatepark either. I remember one time washing off under rainwater coming down from a gutter. A little while after that we moved into the Fat House.

‘We lived there for a good while with no money. I headed out to Dayton, Ohio to stay with Colin Winklemann and worked at DK, I did that for a while. Then I stayed in Bethlehem, PA for a bit. Then I went to California late in 96 and stayed at the HB House, I didn’t have any money so Moeller threw me a bone and I helped out stickering forks with Freddie Chulo at S&M.Then I spent an extended stay out in Iowa helping out Rick Moliterno with some artwork at Standard.Then I moved back to Ithaca and met back up with Tag, that’s when we edited Live Fast Die. I have no idea how we crammed footage from all that into 18 mins. Before that we made Ring Of Fire, that was the first video, we made it with one single camera we owned, that was back in ’93, before that we’d film on these big things we’d borrow from Public-Access Television.We edited that at Chris Rye’s place in Wisconsin.We’d met those Props dudes while we were out in Indiana.’

The list of names and places mentioned in just a few short minutes astounds me: Stew Johnson, Colin Winklemann, DK, Chris Moeller, Bethlehem, Rick Moliterno, Standard Bykes, Props Video Magazine… It’s a reminder of how small BMX was back then, how tied in all the early companies were and how deep Crandall’s roots run.

Before the rise of the internet, magazines and videos we the main vehicles for transmitting BMX information, and with the magazines still enjoying an air of exclusive privilege, it was only right that the FBM dudes pick up a camera and make their own videos. After Ring Of Fire, Live Fast Die and then Albert St, FBM had cemented their reputation as hell raisers ‘“ the videos were fast paced with punk rock sound tracks and packed full of Fire, Beer and Mayhem. I ask Crandall how they ended up so wild, ‘We just recorded what was going on. When we weren’t riding we’d just film what we got up to.You can’t go riding all the time, you can’t always ride when it’s wet out or in the winter. We just tapped into that energy and how it was let out. When you have 20 dudes all sat in a garage waiting for the weather to clear… you’re not all just going to read books. We just kept ourselves amused with what we had going on.That energy is there no matter what.’

In-between conversations I think back to all the names that have been associated with FBM over the years, it’s a long list of some of the rawest dudes to have ever picked up BMXs. In Crandall’s own words ‘None of them were pussies.’ Just to satisfy a scenario that was playing out in my head, I ask who would win if all team members, past and present, had a Royal Rumble style wrestling match, ‘Kelly Baker’ he answers in a heartbeat, ‘he’s a different kind of beast! Dudes don’t want to tangle with him. I’ve known trained fighters who wouldn’t mess with Kelly.’

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Throughout the 2000s FBM were responsible for some of the most creative and exciting projects that will ever be held in the name of BMX: Ghetto Jams, Brawlin’ At The Belmar, Limousine roadtrips, Gypsy Caravan Tours, Summer tours in a matte black school bus, Lords Of Fun motorcycle trips, Ghetto High Air Comps, 4/20 Bowl Jams, HCS Pizza Apocolympics and countless of other trips and projects ‘“ all promoting what they do, all encouraging participation and all fun as hell.

FBM is known around the world for doing things their own way. They make their own bikes in their own machine shop in upstate New York. Their tight knit team are unpaid and all perfectly aligned with the FBM cause. Together they travel relentlessly, spending large spans of time with each other: riding, building, cooking, camping and experiencing life first hand. They document and disseminate their antics to promote their products and ideas on a global scale.

Despite FBM’s influence stretching far and wide, it’s no secret that the company isn’t making millions of dollars. We talk about how it’s a struggle to go against the grain and how that struggle brings rewards of its own. The Dictaphone keeps running and Crandall keeps talking, ‘We know how to make money as a company, but we’d prefer to be broke and proud of what we do than making a bunch of money doing something we don’t believe in. For us the reward is in the process not the paycheck. We spend our money in our community. If we need to get shirts printed or someone to distro our stuff, then I’m going to hire my friends. If we’re going to spend the money anyway then we might as well give it to someone we care about and believe in.Yeah we might not be rich off it in a financial sense, but we enjoy what we do.

‘The way I see it, the day you got a BMX, you won the lottery. You could get a flat tire or your trails plowed or crash and get hurt, but even the shittiest day in BMX is better than the best day in the real world. It’s not about the tricks man.The real trick is to see how long you can ride a bike for without turning into a typical asshole.

‘FBM is a reaction to all the bullshit out there. The whole fundamentals of the punk rock we grew up listening to was, ‘˜here’s the establishment, we’re going to go in the opposite direction to it ‘“ who’s coming with us?’ That was our early inspiration. And we were like ‘˜Yeah man, we’re with you’. And that’s what we do. We grew up watching Moeller do the same thing to GT. He was like ‘˜fuck these guys, they don’t give a fuck about BMX.’ There’s a whole new establishment going on now and we’ve been around so long that some people today don’t even know we’re rebelling against it. These days there are all these people wearing store bought outlaw tattoos going around, but if you just live your store bought lifestyle straight out of the catalogue then you’re just another part of the system. And so-and-so pro rider is just the marketing tool for another nameless faceless corporation ‘“ and we’re not that. And if kids don’t appreciate that then it’s too bad for them.

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‘You could sell 100,000 BMX bikes to kids that are going to quit in two years, or you could span that out over a longer period of time and actually do something meaningful with people who care about BMX and want to be part of what you’re doing, people that understand and appreciate it. That’s money in my bank, man. That’s currency for people in my world. The money doesn’t have any value if there’s no meaning behind it. The real currency is with doing cool shit and helping it be a healthier community, the more you share with people and do for people the more you learn about yourself, and if at the end of the day you learn that you’re a good person, then that’s valuable. You can’t sell enough Rocker Bikes to buy that.’

‘I just want to share with the next generation of kids that you can make a good life for yourself through BMX. If you just get off your computer and get off your phone and live it for real for a little while.That’s pretty fucking valuable. More valuable than how many Nora cups you win or how many views you get on Youtube.You have friends for life and can take it wherever you want. BMX is too awesome to squander.’

The words caught by my Dictaphone during that drive are among the most profound and sincere its ear has ever heard. Hell, if it had a mind of its own the thing would send its own electronic message through its circuitry and amplify it out through its own little speaker. It would say, ‘Fuck yeah Crandall, you rule man. Never go on strike!’ [The Dictaphone caught 100,000 more words that there’s no room for here, but if you ask around you’ll find a more complete history of FBM easy enough.

We pull up the car outside FBM. From the exterior the dilapidated old giant of a building looks more likely to house a meth den than a machine shop, but once inside it’s obvious that despite all the drinking and setting each other on fire ‘“ these guys run a tight ship. The shop floor is swept clean, the machinery is all dialed and there’s a well-rehearsed production loop for the frames: from the cutting, notching and bending of the tubes at one end, down through to be tacked in a jig and on to the final welds. There is a hell of a lot more goes into making high end BMX frames but that’s the short of it right there. Uncut tubes of the finest chromoly come in one door and perfectly handcrafted frames of the finest quality go out the other.

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Watching the whole process first had gives me a greater appreciation of bikes. It’s a painstaking undertaking that takes years of refinement and improvement to arrive at a final product. It’s no surprise these guys make awesome bikes though, the staff at FBM are all of the calibre you’d come to expect from a brand with such steadfast morals, Crandall’s partner in the company Mike Erb, John Lee, Johnny Corts, Dylan Cole ‘“ all rock solid dudes who not only understand the cause, they live and breath it every day of their lives.

With their frames being built there, the machine shop is the most obvious symbol of what FBM make, but that’s really just where it all begins. The same principals are rolled out across everything they do: hard work and creativity to build something awesome ‘“ whether that be bikes, ghetto jams, tour buses, motorcycles or any of the other countless projects FBM have seen through.

We stay the night at John Lee’s and in the morning Crandall has some business to discuss with his co-workers. After that we head out on the drive back to Richmond. We talk the whole way, in fact we talk the whole time I’m out there. The stories he has and the life that both him and FBM have lived could fill a whole volume of this magazine. FBM is bigger than one article, it’s bigger than one guy. FBM is an idea ‘“ and ideas are boundless.

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We wind down my visit back in the woods, the pureness of a quiet session at the trails makes a fitting end. Sat at the top of the roll in with Crandall waiting to catch our breath for another run, I can’t help but smile. It’s not just the fact that I’m doing what I enjoy that’s brought on this sensation; it’s much more than that. In fact my euphoria could well be the result of the most important realization anyone has ever had. In a moment of all-seeing enlightenment, attained by merely sharing this mans company, I am bathed in the knowledge that everything will be alright: that so long as people like him exist, humanity will be just fine.

Whether it’s riding bikes in the woods, standing at a crowded bar, or riding shotgun in an otherwise empty car, the energy that surrounds Steve Crandall is nothing short of magical.The passion for bike riding, the devotion to his cause, the belief in what he does, the constant positivity… When all that is combined with a relentless quest for fun and betterment the product is one truly unique human being ‘“ a human being with the capacity to change the world.
His energy and optimism are so infectious that they make people sick all over the world. He fills them with so many ideas and opportunities, that their heads grow so fat and swollen with inspiration they’ve got no option but to just spew it all out ‘“ to cover the woods, the ramps, the streets ‘“ to spray everything with their own individual blend of puke. He spurs riders on ‘“ old and new ‘“ to keep pushing, to keep questioning, to keep thinking for themselves … to keep imagining a better world and to keep trying to make that world a reality. And that is not only the most believable message in BMX right now ‘“ that is the most believable message on the whole fucking planet.
If this world were to ever loose the values that FBM embody, then may God help us all.

Steve Crandall

Coffee sipping pilot of a red FBM frame and a Nikon camera.