Words and photo by Kevin Murphy
Through the 1980s and ‘90s, Ross Shafer and Salsa Cycles were a force to be reckoned with. Salsa became one of the most sought-after boutique brands, which made stems, handlebars, quick releases, production and custom frames. But it wasn’t all just great product.
Shafer and his Petaluma, Calif. crew instilled a joyful soul into the brand and everything it touched. Annual festivals, fun apparel, and an ethos they lived and breathed. It was full-on fun, and moto. The incredible popularity and cult status among Salsa bicycle owners would be reason enough to tell the story of Shafer and Salsa. But there’s a hidden track on this LP.
Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in Issue #29. Order a subscription today and you’ll never miss an issue.
In the late ‘90s, after Shafer sold Salsa to Quality Bicycle Products, they shuttered the Petaluma operation and shifted production overseas. Born out of necessity and good timing, longtime Salsa framebuilder Sean Walling founded Soulcraft Cycles with a Salsa co-worker. Fast forward 15 years and Walling is making some of the finest custom and small-run production frames available. And he makes them in a barn on Shafer’s farm just outside Petaluma.
The shared shop, full of decades of ephemera, has a heady aura when you enter. And it’s not just the old risqué bike ads either. If you’re into mountain bikes, visiting the barn on Shafer’s farm is probably like entering an Egyptian tomb for those old Victorian era explorers, but with way cooler shit on the walls.
Shafer isn’t involved with bicycles as much but has other projects that keep him busy. Whether regularly gigging out with his country music bar band or building his own guitars and amplifiers, Shafer is immersed in music. He’s also mastered his CNC mill, works on his KTM Enduro, and raises sheep and pigs on his farm.
Ross, tell us about your time at the Bicycle Trip in Santa Cruz. Peter (El Jefe at Swobo) used to work there.
My time at the Bike Trip was very formative in many ways. We definitely had lots of fun back in those days! Mix tapes, dance breaks, the whole crew getting naked and streaking the Bagelry.
Who came up with the term moto?
While moto was used in many ways…it was commonly used as a rating of whether something mechanical was worthy. Hence the famous saying coined by one of the nicest guys on the planet Rat Otis (Bob Landry actually): “If it ain’t moto it’s worthless”; thanks for those words to live by RO!
One of my favorite questions to share with people from other interviews is what music moves you? What are a handful of recent discoveries or old favorites still in the rotation?
“Prog Rock” bands will never die. I can still get lost listening to old Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and bands of that ilk. But country music has always held a special place in my soul, even before it was cool. The Mavericks and an absolutely stunning album by Vince Gill and Paul Franklin called “Bakersfield” are both honest no bullshit country music at its finest.
Salsa was the original party and joyful lifestyle cycling brand. Care to comment against such allegations?
Hearing that as a description of the company I founded is so very gratifying; I guess I did something right. We had lots of fun at Salsa, primarily due to the incredibly fine crew of people I was lucky to have on board. All that “lifestyle” stuff was so easy for us. All we did was be ourselves and promote the fun we had.
How closely do custom builders today resemble the production building you guys were doing in the 1980s? Is there room for small builders to scale up their operations?
It’s definitely possible to eek out a living building bikes, if one is able to find a comfortable niche to work in. Sadly though, there’s less and less opportunity for multi-employee companies, like the original Salsa, Ibis, and Fat City, doing small-scale production here in the U.S. anymore. The “made at home” ethos is alive and well, but it’s trumped for the most part by the industry’s focus on fashion and the margins available from off-shore manufacturing.
And of course there’s always the American consumer’s penchant for instant gratification. It’s tough to fight that.
You have some great guitars. What are a few of your favorites?
Right near the top of the list is the ‘51 Fender Telecaster Paul Sadoff (of Rock Lobster) sold to me at a bro-buddy deal when he decided to buy a house back in ’97. But my absolute favorite is the electric I built for myself, mainly due to the memories of my apprenticeship with the late master builder Taku Sakashta.
How is the bike industry like the music industry?
The two industries are pretty similar in that they more or less count on people’s passion and discretionary spending to survive. But the custom guitar and custom bike building worlds are extremely similar in that there are more fine builders than ever before and only a tiny handful of them can actually make a real living doing it.
Broken is just the precursor to fixed, not landing in the garbage. Would you elaborate or comment on this idea?
Built-in obsolescence is a sin and making products with no intention of reparability is a crime. My wife is a 4th grade teacher. I got her a toolkit for her classroom and she and her kids have great productive fun fixing things like pencil sharpeners, broken tables and such. She has a slogan in her classroom “don’t panic, be a mechanic!” Gotta love that.