I entered gravel biking by way of art – perhaps not the most traditional point of entry. I’m a muralist who lives in Austin, a bike haven and a city fond of its artists. My love of biking started as a commuter in hilly, urban San Francisco, yet it wasn’t until I moved to Austin that I began to merge my creative pursuits with cycling.
Specialized Austin, a team deeply invested in its community and in social initiatives, reached out to me with an extraordinary opportunity to design a frame art commission on an auction bike in support of Black History Bike Ride this February. To realize the vision, we immediately rang Jonny Pucci, a San Diego-based professional bike painter (and cyclist and fellow muralist) who’s learned the trade from none other than Joe Bell(JB). JB’s shop is a cyclist’s dream.
It’s filled to the brim with vintage frames, parts, tools, and paint. It’s simultaneously world-class and unassuming. And it’s an absolute timewarp. There’s paint in the cabinets from his early days of running the shop, dating back to the 70s after apprenticing under Bill Holland, and frames from all decades and corners of the world.
As part of the collaboration with Specialized, I custom-designed artwork for two frames – one for the auction winner and one for myself. Prior to concepting the art for my bike, I needed to choose my “canvas.” The Specialized Crux Pro was ideal for its versatility. As an avid hiker and adventurer, I relish exploring untraditional paths and sought a bike that could join me on both gravel trails and the road. The Crux Pro lived up to the hype on my first (ever) gravel ride this summer in Santa Fe. While in town, I met up with John Watson.
The Bike in Santa Fe
While very new to adventure cycling, I’m just stoked enough (and stubborn enough, apparently) to sign up for a grueling but stunning ride that led us from town center to Pacheco Canyon – a 35 mile, 3500’ gravel climb up a rocky forest service road. Learning that it might, in fact, be challenging for me, John graciously tried to give me an out, suggesting a more chill ride perhaps. I promptly declined, saying “Let’s rock Pacheco,” followed by a sly smile and a “Feel free to remind me of my decision when it gets tough out there.” I’m happy to report that I made it up the mountain, and with energy to spare. It was breathtaking, in more ways than one. The ride led us through beautiful, diverse terrain and multiple microclimates – from the desert speckled with junipers to the Aspen-filled alpine forest. Even with a steep, bumpy climb I was captivated by the scenery, picking out several future camping spots along the fresh mountain spring creek.
Believing that everything is a canvas, I’ve painted many surfaces – from muralled walls to wallpaper to book covers to race cars – but had yet to design a bike. No canvas is quite like it. The creative envisioning was more involved and exhilarating than I anticipated. Artwork on a bike frame is dimensional, wrapping around all portions of the bike and experienced in 360 degrees. What makes viewing it enjoyable from a discovery standpoint is the same thing that makes designing it somewhat complicated.
The Process and the People Involved
I arrived at the shop the morning of painting having sketched one side of the bike in a flat, 2D drawing, with the plan to draw the rest of the design while on site using artistic instinct. Jonny, given his experience as a visual artist and bike painter (he’s painted over 1000 bikes over the last decade), was invaluable here, offering insights around application of my design. His words rang through my mind like a mantra each step of the design: “How does it carry through to 3D?” Unless the artwork is mirrored – which mine was not – each side of the frame is a unique, unrepeated portion of the design. I couldn’t draw “flat” in the same way I do with my pencil sketches or canvas paintings where there’s only one visual plane to consider.
Instead, I had to be thoughtful about how my shapes would live three dimensionally, and where each element of the motif would fall. Most shapes curve around the tube or fork, disappearing from sight. I had to consider how the motif would travel around the frame. While the artwork completely encompasses the frame, you can’t experience it in just one look – you must walk around it to see the entirety of the piece. Viewing it from any given angle uncovers new elements of the design, and there is a thrilling discoverability to it.
I had a sun as part of my nature-inspired composition. In order for a shape to appear as a circle, we would need to render it closer to an oval due to the visual skewing that happens on a curved tube. Tape was the sketching material of choice here because of its malleability and forgiving nature. We essentially “drew” in tape, building out the motif by sticking pieces of tape down and shifting them as needed, stepping back and circling the frame every so often to experience the artwork from multiple angles, making sure it appeared in the desired fashion.
My creative process is a mixture of strategic planning and spontaneity – I’m calculated in my design, but always leave room for serendipitous, site-specific work. I held the vision of the motif in my mind, yet wasn’t so constrained that I couldn’t spontaneously incorporate new elements, including the three yellow dashes on the tube, made from cut tape as Jonny and I chatted away about how the design would come to life. Another serendipitous moment came from the paint we used. We desired the creative constraint of using whatever existing paint we came across in the shop. Being at the delightful whim of what paint was available – including the “antique” paint cans that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades – led to some slightly speckle-y white paint (even after sifting). To my delight, these subtle white paint flecks resembled a speckled bird’s egg, the color akin to the blue of a Robin’s egg. As an artist inspired by nature, and an avid birder, this felt apropos.
There are many ways one can paint a bike. Most commonly, painters have the bike held in a fixed position inside the spray booth. Static, the bike is circled by the painter who leans and bends around it, accommodating the frame. Yet JB’s (and his predecessor Bill Holland’s) innovative technique was to fasten a seat post in the bike with a hook and suspend it from a chain using a carabiner – the bike free floating. It’s held secure, yet is mobile and can spin, able to be studied from all angles.
Jonny described his time in the spray booth as “a dance…a choreography of moves” with the frame that he studied under JB. It’s a technique that he’s done over and over again. “Once you do it 1000 times it becomes muscle memory. I toss [the frame] and catch it in the moment.” That week in the shop, I watched Jonny paint three bikes. It was like clockwork. He put on his headphones, turned on some tunes, and danced with those bikes.
This summer, as John and I rolled back into town, he turned to me and said “next time, we’ll ride up Pacheco and down Winsor on mountain bikes.” It got me thinking of the many rides (and bikes) that await me, the new friends to be made, and the wild adventures to be had. I have to pinch myself at times, having re-entered the sport with the experience of designing, painting, and riding alongside some of the cycling world’s most well-known names.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that all of them are up for an adventure – whether it’s taking you on your first gravel ride, inviting you into their shop, showing you the ropes in the spray booth, or granting you the opportunity to transform a frame into a piece of art. I eagerly await the adventures ahead.