Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Mysterious Death of Ottavio Bottecchia

Note: This was originally posted on the Velo Orange blog.

Ottavio Bottecchia was the first rider to lead the Tour de France from start to finish, winning in 1924 and 25. He was known as "Le Macon de Frioul" (the Mason from Frioul) and was a hero to all of Italy.

But this post is not about Bottecchia's racing career, but about his death. In 1927 Ottavio died under mysterious circumstances. He had gone on a training ride and was found bloody and beaten by the side of the road near a vineyard. He soon died of his injuries.

Some in the Italian press claimed, based on the official police report, that he had crashed. But Bottecchia's bike was propped up neatly at the side of the road undamaged.

Others said he had stopped at the vineyard to eat a few grapes and was beaten up by a furious farmer, but the grapes had not yet ripened. Though some say a farmer confessed to hitting him in the head with a stone.

It is far more likely that Bottecchia was murdered for political reasons. Italy was in the midst of a Fascist take-over. As so often happens in difficult times, some people were willing to trade freedom for a sense of security. And, predictably, the right wing had stepped in to take advantage. Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party badly wanted the support of Italy's great sports hero. They had already been using him as a role model for their vision of a fascist Italy.

But it seems that Ottavio Bottecchia was no facsist. Some said he was a socialist and was willing to speak out about his beliefs. And for this the fascist thugs had good reason to murder him. His injuries included a fracture at the base of the skull, a broken clavicle, and many bruises. Yet no one dared call his death a murder.

And so the Fascists came to power and launched a senseless war in Ethiopia; it is easier to consolidate power during a war. Soon Mussolini joined Hitler in an attempt to conquer all of Europe. And he eventually was excecuted and hung from a street lamp in Milan along with others of his ilk.

Some time later, in New York city, an Italian immigrant, on his death bed after being stabbed, confessed to being hired to murder Bottecchia. The priest who administered last rites to Bottechia confirmed this story from his own death bed in 1973.

Framemaker Teodoro Carnielli, a longtime friend of Ottavio's, created bicycle frames bearing Bottechia's name. These frames, later produced by Carnielli S.P.A., have been ridden by five Italian champions and four world champions. Greg Lemond rode a Bottecchia bike when he won the 1989 Tour de France.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


One of my favorite photos. My son, Alec, on his first bike and already racing. Alec loves watching bike races and even at this age knew the names of the top pros. The following year we took him to France where he watched a couple of stages of the Tour de France in person. We'd go for rides with him behind me on a trailer-bike and he'd whisper, "Hammer Dad, let's drop Mom."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Thoughts and Books On Starting a Business

Being a serial entrepreneur, I'm occasionally asked for advice about starting a business. The first thing I tell folks is that more than half of starting a business is just showing up. I firmly believe that 98% of folks won't start a company even if they think they want to; several successful entrepreneurs I've spoken with have the same belief. Most people simply don't want the insecurity that comes with a start-up, and I can't blame them.You have to be realistic about that.

But suppose you do decide to show up after all, what should you do first? Raise capital? Hone your business plan? I would, and did, read a few books. I still read half a dozen business books a year, but most are not aimed at the sort of small start-ups I'm interested in. Here are three that helped me:
  • Growing a Business by Paul Hawken is the book that helped me more than any other. If you want to start a company just read this book. Read it twice.
  • Rework by Jason Fried and David Hansson is not so much about what you need to start a company, but about what you don't need. That knowledge can be even more valuable.
  • Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Part memoir, part environmental screed, and part philosophy, this is probably not a good example of a business how-to book. Yet every time I read it I feel inspired to make my company better.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Books About Place

A recent visit to San Louis Obispo, the happiest place in America, rekindled my interest in the study of "place". That is, why is one place better than another, and what makes for a great place to live and work and play. So I searched my bookcase for a few titles on the subject that are worth rereading.

James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere is a classic that explores the ideas of American place and on the history of development. Don't be put off by Kuntsler's current reputation as an alarmist and world-class pessimist, he was much more reasonable in 1994.

Terry Pindell's A Good Place to Live is now out of print. It was the first book that really got me thinking about the elements that must come together to make a good place. Pindell visits his list of noteworthy small cities and describes why they work well. It gets marginal Amazon reviews, but I thought it was brilliant.

Suburban Nation, by Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck, deals with the failure of car-based sprawl and promotes "new urbanism". And it's written by the folks that really popularized the idea.

Finally, and really more about lifestyle than place, is A Reasonable Life, by Ferenc Mate. This book has essentially been rewritten as A Real Life, but I prefer the original. Mate is always an immensely entertaining writer. Here he examines what we have lost in modern America and urges us to reconsider what is important. It will make you laugh and, more importantly, think.

There has been a lot more written recently about place, particularly "new urbanism', smart-growth, etc. But I think the titles above are classics and worth reading more than once. They'll make good company on upcoming flights to Asia and back.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fish In Taiwan

I just ran across this photo of fish on offer at a restaurant in Taiwan. I ate here a couple of years ago. There must have been 50 types of fresh fish to choose form. There was also a wall of live fish and crabs in aquariums. Fortunately my Taiwanese companions ordered for us. They just wandered among the buckets and coolers pointing to the fish they wanted and telling the server how they'd like them cooked, or not.

I hope the fisheries are somewhat sustainable? We have pretty good seafood market in Annapolis, but nowhere near this selection.

The NYT, Apple, and Outsourcing

The New York Times has a very very good article about Apple and outsourcing. I've sometimes gotten grief for moving the manufacturing of many of VO's products to Taiwan and Japan. The point that the NYT piece makes, and one I've been trying to explain, is that it's not just about wages or even cost. We can and do have simple thing made domestically and at competitive prices, but complex products are another matter. Offshoring today is more often about being able to have stuff made where the inter-dependent factories, the industrial ecosystems, are located.

Working in a city like Tiachung, where many VO products are made, with dozens of factories making bike related products means that there are fastener factories, and CNC shops, and forging plants all within a few kilometers of each other. There are also plenty of engineers to help us design  products. And that's where we have access to the very expensive testing machinery to make sure our handlebars, cranks, and other parts don't break even after a million fatigue cycles.

Our fender factory may not have the machinery to make the special screws and bolts and brackets that we need, but their friends down the street do. These industrial ecosystems, or manufacturing clusters, are what companies as diverse as Apple and Velo Orange require to be competitive. They are also what needs to be nurtured in the USA if we want to bring manufacturing jobs back.

Paul Krugman makes the point that bailing out the auto industry here saved just these sort of industrial ecosystems, as well as a lot of jobs.

Friday, January 20, 2012

On the Beach

Just got back from a trip to Big Sur with my 12-year old son Alec. It's nice to hang out on the beach with your kid. Hundreds of elephant seals were doing just that. They're at Piedras Blancas. We also did a lot of walking, exploring, and searching of tidal pools.