High wheels keep on turning
Rust overcomes family grief to create latest ‘Penny Farthing’
Despite family tragedies - the most recent this spring - Paul Rust is still riding high. With a high-wheeling bicycle, that is.
And soon, after close to five years of planning, designing and building, the long-time Westside machinist expects to be marketing a new version of the Rocky Mountain High Wheels (RMHW) bike which he'd first brought forward in 1989, he said in an interview this week.
“This is a major upgrade,” he said - the application of computerized technology and modern materials to one of the earliest cycle types ever invented - the “Penny Farthing, in 1872. “I wanted to make the old bike as modern as I could.”
For example, he said, the strong, light frame is constructed of the same blend of chromium and molybedenum (called “chromo” or “chro-moly” for short), which is used for aircraft. And a swirl-curved connection for the rear and front wheel frame shafts is his own invention, just to make the bike lines “sexier.”
Rust is pleased and proud of his work, in which he and fellow machinist John Unick teamed up to make each of the bike's 50-some parts (with the exception of the hollow aluminum rim wheels, manufactured by an Australian firm to specifications Rust gave them).
“We've gone from the 20th to the 21st century,” Unick remarked with a grin.
The product of their efforts stands beside a workbench in Rust's shop on Ore Mill Road - a prototype high-wheeler serial-numbered “48.” It follows logically, though spread apart in time, number 47, which he made 10 years ago before putting the business on hold. The reasons for that gap, along with the “head badges” on the bikes and why he started making high-wheelers to begin with, stem from Rust's close ties to three of his younger brothers, Chris, Joe and Mike.
It was Chris who decided he wanted to buy a high-wheeler back in 1985. To do so, he had to send away to a company in California. The product that came back was a disappointment, in terms of quality. “I decided, 'we can do better than this,' ” Paul said. With that, helped by Chris and Mike, he started on a four-year effort to develop the first Rocky Mountain High Wheels bike.
To provide a little background, the Rust family grew up in Colorado Springs. A military veteran, Paul studied to be a machinist at El Paso Community College in the 1970s, when it had classrooms in the former Safeway south of Highway 24. Mary Jane Rust, known as an author, singer, photographer and former City Parks executive, was the mother of Paul, his five brothers and one sister.
Mike Rust, who made a name for himself building and racing mountain bikes, provided technical assistance to RMHW in those days while brother Chris was the master salesman, Paul recalled.
A high point was in 1991, when all six Rust brothers, joined by Debra Rose (nowadays a Manitou glass artist), trekked to Dublin, Ireland, and rode Rocky Mountain High Wheelers in a big parade.
The RMHW bikes were popular with those who bought them (Paul still keeps track of all his former buyers and honors their lifetime guarantees), but he still had to continue as a commercial machinist, even as he does today. It's not as if there's a huge, pent-up demand for high-wheelers… although Chris, living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, sold 30 of them down there. “He was my biggest fan,” Paul smiled.
But in 1999. Chris came down with cancer. Paul shut down his operations and moved to Dallas, taking care of his brother until he died three years later. Afterward, not yet ready to return to his career, Paul “bummed around” with brother Joe in Arkansas. Joe, who ran a minting museum, had earlier worked with an engraver to produce the small, somewhat ornate, thin-metal nameplates that were and are attached to the front of each RMHW bicycle. Called a head badge, the engraving displays an old-style high wheeler, the business name and the specific bike's serial number.
By 2004, Paul decided it was time to return to his business. “I had a plan: to do machine work while I developed the next-generation high-wheeler,” he said. He went to the Ore Mill Road shop and began studying design improvements. Along the way, as much for his commercial machining as for making high-wheeler parts, he invested in a large, digitalized unit that simplifies precision metal-cutting.
Then, in 2005, tragedy struck the family again. Joe died… suddenly, in his case.
But the most gut-wrenching was yet to come. On the night of March 31, this year, Mike Rust disappeared. Investigators believe he took off on his motorcycle in pursuit of two or more men who had just burglarized his house in the San Luis Valley. He has not been seen since. Paul and his family have offered a reward for information in the case, but nothing has turned up yet.
In the meantime, Paul Rust has stayed on course with the new RMHW bike. Two more units, numbers 49 and 50, will be built next (after that they'll build to suit their customers' orders), and the business' website is being updated to announce the new machine. That is one advantage he didn't have in the old days, Rust said - a widely used Internet to let him market his high-wheelers around the world.
At least two other high-wheel manufacturers currently exist, but they focus on making them true to the old design and materials, Rust said. RMHW, he believes, is the only company that's tried to upgrade them. “Twenty-some years of refining and research has led us to the bicycles we produce today,” he states on his current website. “The most modern antique bicycle ever. I believe the saying is true: 'The bicycle has a great past ahead of it.'”
Westside Pioneer article