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From bicycles to “pedal steel” guitars: One maker’s quirky frontiers

Ross Shafer made his mark creating a popular brand of mountain bikes, called Salsa, and a line of small but crucial bicycle parts that no one had brought to the market before. Now he’s making what might be the world’s most beautiful “pedal steel guitar.” Could Shafer’s relentless eclecticism offer a model for a second Renaissance?

By OWEN EDWARDS
Primary photography by MIKKEL AALAND

The Arts of Summer: Bicycling, Fishing, and Gelato | Craftsmanship Magazine, Summer 2016

Basing his workshop on a small farm in Petaluma, Calif., Ross Shafer built a highly successful bicycle brand by combining three signature qualities: determination, attention to detail, and flat-out goofiness. Photo courtesy of Duvateen Sound

When I first visited Ross Shafer, the founder of Salsa Bicycles, on his small farm in Petaluma, California, I knew I would be seeing the home and workplace of someone with a cult following. What I discovered is a man who is remarkably expert at a wide range of physical tasks–including raising hogs–a prime example of what the late art critic Robert Hughes called “the spectacle of skill.”

While growing up, what Shafer couldn’t do led to what he can do. “I couldn’t read manuals very well, and still can’t,” he admits. “So I just figured stuff out by taking things apart.”

This discovery began with a guided tour of the premises. First stop was the garage, where a KTM motorcycle stands, partly disassembled while Shafer makes some changes to improve the bike’s performance. Next to the bike is a tractor mower that Shafer bought for his wife, who likes to keep things civilized around the farm. On each side of the mower’s engine cowl he has put Ducati stickers, adding some Italian motorcyling glamour to a utilitarian machine. Attached to the garage is a room with a straw-covered floor, home to an energetic brown piglet named Sally (short for Salami). Just through a gate beyond the garage is a pen where the senior house sow, Arva, lucky receiver of a permanent pardon, grunts contentedly in a mud puddle. Shafer tells me that he named Arva after his fondly-remembered Cub Scout den mother.

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