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In the soft early morning light streaming through the window of his Bernal Heights studio, Erik Nohlin snapped a few photographs of his new Specialized Aethos.
The day was one he’d been anticipating. It would be the first ride on a bike that he’d spent days painting, and months planning for. The frame was a 1-of-300 Founders Edition, but it was barely recognisable. It had been stripped back, then painstakingly dotted with gold to create a striking, holistic and one-of-a-kind effect.
Before his daily lunch ride, Nohlin uploaded the pictures to Instagram, wrote a caption – “Don’t want to jinx [it] but if there is anything like a forever bike, this is it” – and set off into the San Francisco sunshine.
Minutes later, as Nohlin sailed down a descent, a Honda Civic pulled out of a carpark in front of him. The rider skidded over toward the centre line to avoid a collision, but the driver tightened it into an illegal U-turn and Nohlin slammed into the side of the car, over the bonnet and onto the tarmac at more than 35 km/h.
Nohlin escaped reasonably intact. His bike, on its maiden voyage, wasn’t so lucky. One of the most expensive bikes on the market, heavily customised and valued at somewhere between US$20,000 and US$30,000, was a complete write-off within its first few minutes of use.
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When your Man-of-War Founders Edition founders after sailing about 1,300 meters on the maiden voyage. Frame, fork, wheels, handlebar, drivetrain is fucked, stoked the bike took most of the impact. I believe this bike saved me. Could have been so much worse. Thank You all for all the support this last week, it’s been a rough one ????When I say it’s been rough, I really mean it. Not sure I learned much from this one more than that inertia + Honda Civic fucks you up! Lots of rest and sleep since last Thursday has helped me heal. Will be back on a bike soon. #vasaskeppet
Nohlin – a lean, likeable Swede – is Equipment Design Leader for Specialized, with a professional CV that includes work on the newest Roubaix, leading design on the various Peter Sagan special editions, and the ground-up re-invention of the beloved and versatile Specialized Sequoia. As such, he’s got access to some nice bikes, but he concedes that this Aethos was something special.
The genesis of its design was the Chris King Open House – an annual event where (usually small, custom) builders are invited to put together a one-off showcase for seasonal Chris King colourways. For 2020, for obvious reasons, the Open House was more of a closed house, with the showbikes photographed and exhibited online. Specialized had been invited to curate a pair of Specialized Aethos bikes to match the gold and black parts to be unveiled by Chris King for 2021.
Nohlin and his colleague Kayla Clarot each worked on a design for the showcase – Clarot’s featuring an intricate design of more than 300 handwritten promises to improve representation of women and people of colour in the industry, and Nohlin’s featuring an elaborate gold design.
Clarot’s survived. Nohlin’s did not.
“I spent 30 hours painting it,” Nohlin tells me from his studio, the wrecked Aethos sitting against the bookshelf behind him, its right shifter bent inward. “It’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. You know, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’m so proud of it.”
The project was surprisingly humble in its execution. On the soft round canvas of the Aethos, Nohlin’s tools were just a sheet of cellophane and a few grams of gold paint – but there was significant planning and contemplation before getting to that point.
“It’s the world’s lightest production frame, but if you add a solid coat of paint, obviously it’s got to weigh more,” Nohlin explains. “And I wanted to keep this really light – I wanted the maximum effect with the least amount of weight, with a marbling effect.”
Nohlin took an A3-sized piece of clear cellophane, scrunched it into a ball and dabbed gold paint onto the frame with it – thousands of tiny movements, layered over the frame to create a spectral gossamer.
“It’s an ultralight paint job with a huge effect visually – it weighs maybe six to seven grams. It’s almost like a spider web of gold on top of the carbon. But then when you do that, it gives a really awesome depth – it’s not a shallow effect. There’s an enormous depth to it on the frame, through to the carbon weave,” Nohlin continues.
In addition to the frameset, Nohlin applied the same treatment to the seatpost, handlebar, stem and saddle. The build was completed with a careful curation of parts from around the cycling industry: a Spurcycle bell with a brass hammer that perfectly matched the gold; Chris King’s new gold and black hubs built to a custom drilled rim; even a pair of 32 mm Specialized Roubaix Pro tyres that had been “aged” in UV light for six months to give the right nuance to the sidewall colour to better match the gold. The all-in weight including accessories for a 56 cm bike was 6.66 kg – a neat bit of synergy with Nohlin’s devout love of black metal.
As an artistic expression, the result is one that Nohlin had – still has – great pride in. “In terms of coming up with a concept and executing it, I think it was some of the best I’ve done,” Nohlin says. “I really think it’s spot on.”
As a bike that he’s got a more tangible bond with, however, it’s a little more complicated. Nohlin isn’t into aesthetics for the sake of it – he rides his bikes hard and far – so once the showcase was over and the photos for the exhibition were taken, the golden Aethos was always intended to have a long life in ultra-endurance races and super-randonneurs.
“The memories are what make my bikes magical, not how much they’re worth,” Nohlin says, ruminatively, namechecking his beloved 15-year-old $600 Surly Crosscheck as an example of a bike that would truly have been irreplaceable. The Aethos – as flamboyant and unique and extravagant as it was – represents a relationship in its infancy, which helps the loss of it sting a little less.
“A bike without a good story or memories from epic rides in its palmarés, they’re just objects … but my Aethos would have become one of those magical bikes to me. Some 1,000 kilometre solo rides were in line for this bike and I … but it died before it got a chance to make itself immortal,” Nohlin muses.
When Nohlin went flying into the side of a car two Thursdays ago, he could easily have come out of it far worse than he did. CCTV footage of the incident shows he was seconds from getting run over by another vehicle, and even if no bones were broken, he likens it to being beaten up with a phone book. “It’s that kind of blunt violence that has messed me up,” he tells me. “I’ve been sleeping half the day, I’ve had fevers – it’s been a really rough journey. I got away pretty easily from that crash, but I’m still fucked up 11 days later.”
The loss of a ridiculously expensive bike on its debut ride is an added wrinkle to the road trauma, but one that Nohlin’s inclined to look at through the lens of “very very black comedy” rather than tragedy. “I totally jinxed it that morning when I did that post calling it my forever bike. Don’t ever do that! It’s so fucked up that it just exploded into a dust of carbon fibre just like two hours later,” he says, smiling wistfully.
“It’s not really about the bike,” he continues. “It’s always painful to spend that amount of time being passionate and executing something – and then you expect for all that hard labor to pay off in your life bike – your lifer … And then it just gets smashed on the first ride. There’s something funny about that.” Nohlin chuckles, before asking if I’ve ever visited Stockholm.
I haven’t, I tell him.
“OK,” he answers with a glint in his eye, before launching into a perfect anecdote about Stockholm’s most famous shipwreck.
“In 1503 King Gustav Vasa became king of Sweden, and he decided to build a ship,” Nohlin says. “In 1628, his namesake ship was finished. It was the most spectacular fucking ship ever built, and it sank on its maiden voyage. It sailed less than a mile, after, like, three years getting built and so much work and so much pride in it, and the whole world was watching.
“When this happened to me, I just thought, ‘wow, it’s just the same.’ So much anticipation, and so much pride and joy, and you think you’re just going to conquer the world on this ship – this bike – and then it fucking sinks. That’s been my analogy for this. Just like the Vasa Ship … it’s almost too good to be true.”