November 19, 2022 Comments Off on Yulogy

I was thinking about Joe on my way home from my second AA meeting this morning, a place I refer to as “Church for Drunks.” AA might have helped him; dog knows he had a drinking problem. I was also thinking about the multitude of ways he had inspired me and wish that I’d been able to connect with and inspire him. That’s the thing about death, it makes you think about life. And I suppose vice versa.

In that vein, I wondered about Joe’s life and how to represent it?

The general method is to put together as many kind phrases as you can, omit the bad truths, and speak to your own hopes and fears about the future. I’m not sure that does the dead justice. I’m sure it doesn’t do justice to Joe Yule. If you can’t talk boldly about how someone died, how can you talk at all about how they lived?

When Joe headed out the exit door, he left a one-word note, economical with words to the very last: “Sorry.”

The easy conclusion, and the narrative that got pushed, was that Joe was clinically depressed, and somehow this darkness brought about his demise. It may be true, but I never saw it. In fact, I never saw anyone more typically in good spirits than Joe. I saw some very hard drinking, maybe there were other things as well. Whether it was alcoholism, drugs, clinical depression, or some combination, or something else entirely, makes little difference. In the end, he succumbed to a disease of the mind. In the end, no one could help him. And in the end, he left a lot of sadness and a lot of loss.

This is hardly how he should be remembered. The demons should be acknowledged, but Joe deserves to be remembered for his success. It’s not just a matter of the tired old trope “that’s what he would have wanted,” it’s a matter of how he actually lived. His successes, great though they were, are less important than the fact that he lived life successfully. He decided what mattered, hewed to it with little or no compromise, and called it quits when, in his mind, it was quittin’ time. Success isn’t monuments or bank accounts or lines in Wikipedia. Success isn’t a point in time. Success is a process.

From my vantage point, Joe was always succeeding, no matter the setbacks. He claimed his life as his, delegated it to no one else, lived and died accordingly.

When I met Joe in 2006, I didn’t even know that I’d met him. It was a remote introduction, so to speak. I had just moved to California, and the lawyer I was working for had just purchased the building in San Pedro that Joe had sold as part of his divorce. It may not mean anything to you, but the interior of the building was so unique, so beautiful, so elegant, so tasteful, so open, so relaxing, and so quiet that the new owner changed absolutely nothing aside from hanging a couple of new pictures. Even the posters in the bathroom were left as-is.

This was one of at least two offices Joe put together that I had the pleasure of being in. The other was on Catalina, when, at the height of his design business, he had rented office space. This small office too was exceptional beyond words. It was as if a design fairy had flown in the window, waved her magic wand, and left the interior so cozy and welcoming that you never wanted to leave. It’s easy to say that things ooze taste, but his spaces, whether personal or business, did.

Joe had that sensibility, the sensibility of real taste. Not the affected adoption of modes and images in order to impress others, but an innate vision of the external world that screened out the sharp edges, the odd, the awkward, and the ugly, and spit back a refined image of how things should look and, if you followed his fucking advice, would look.

In this attitude resided Joe’s vanity, a vanity born of having had what he always described to me as a rough childhood. His belief that in the design world everyone else was off the back, and in Joe’s case, having the sensibility to back up his own talent, was always an integral part of his outlook when it came to his field of graphic design. As he liked to say, “My goal in kit designs is to beautify the roadways.” He succeeded, wildly.

Joe was a first-rate bike rider, despite his legendary falls. I actually nicknamed him “Junkyard” because he had so much metal in him, the result of so many surgeries. His worst recent crash, about ten years ago, occurred as he rode to Telo along Lomita. There is a short section overhung by trees, and the sudden darkness makes it hard to see the road, which had a brick up against the curb. Everyone saw it but Joe, who fell and horribly broke his elbow.

He recovered of course, but the fall wasn’t an accident. For years Joe had refused to wear prescription glasses in public, and had refused to buy the thick prescription sunglasses that would have prevented this and other falls. He fell that particular day, as he later admitted to me, because though he might have terrible vision, but he couldn’t bring himself (yet) to wear glasses. Joe cared how things looked, and Joe cared how Joe looked, but he didn’t ever blame that fall or any other misfortune on anyone but himself. He had a kind of total responsibility for his life in that way. Who doesn’t want that success?

Joe worked incredibly hard to succeed, just as he worked hard to be perceived as successful, yet he never talked about money or even seemed to be impressed by, or in search of it. Joe always drove a nice car, dressed impeccably, and rode the nicest bike. If there was ever any desperation in Joe’s life, you had to know him intimately to see it. Few of us did; he owned a hip cottage just a stone’s throw from the beach and exuded confidence in what he had done and where he was going.

The worst medical issues, the direst financial problems, the toughest break-ups, he bore them all stoically and with good cheer. If you were looking for a depressed shut-in or for someone who took life on the chin, it wasn’t Joe, though he had every right to be. The son of a firefighter who Joe told me had beaten him throughout his childhood, Joe used to ruefully, though also somewhat proudly, tell of the time that rebellion against his dad began when he started a forest fire. Now that’s the Joe I could relate to.

I could relate because he had the tenacity and fight of an abused kid who somehow made it through the flames of childhood to actuate his dual loves of cycling and art. He graduated from Denver’s most prestigious art school and at a fairly early date moved to California. Joe didn’t become the kit design icon until the early 2010’s, when his designs for Cynergy and Ironfly, and his legendary Donut Ride kit made big waves. From that point on, everyone wanted a Joe Yule kit. Turning down work was just as big a part of his job as accepting new projects.

Before that, however, he was an accomplished bike racer. I’m not sure if he ever won a race, but the reality about cycling is that if you’re racing against your peers, you rarely if ever do. When I met Joe, he was a fixture and a force on the Donut and on the Sunday ride up PCH to climb the canyons. He was never first, but he was always in the front, and what speaks more to his character, he never shirked.

Many a time we’d be drilling it home on PCH with only two or three people willing to take a pull. When Joe’s turn came, he always hit the front hard and gave it his all to keep the pace, even if it meant getting shelled when he couldn’t latch back on. I respected that so much more than the people who were content to sit and let others do the work.

Joe exhibited that same approach on NPR, a ride he did up until the last few years of his life, and a ride he helped start in the early 1980’s when it left from Hermosa Pier and was simply called “The Pier Ride.” Joe was no sprinter but he knew that real bike racers ride their strengths as well as their weaknesses. He took more hard pulls on NPR than anyone that I ever saw, the more impressive due to his climber’s build. When it came to descending, Joe was extraordinarily good. I never, ever came close to following his downhill line or holding his wheel on a descent.

Whether it was his Colorado background or, more likely, his decades spent memorizing every twist of every LA canyon, he went downhill like no one else. He was without fear and couldn’t be beat on the technical descents.

As a bike racer he believed that if you’re going to prance around in race kits and ride a nice bike, you should pin on a fucking number. Into his late 50’s Joe could occasionally be seen, not especially fit, toeing the line at the local CBR crit or at Telo. I respected his commitment to bike racing and his willingness to race even when it was going to hurt like and hell and there was no possibility, none, of a good outcome.

Joe’s ethos meant that he knew what few do, the joy of what it looks like from the front. He reveled in it and gave it up only at the very, very end.

This attitude, his consistency, his ability, his willingness to train, his good looks, and his affable nature all came together with his breakout kit designs to make him a leader. In a few short years Joe began designing for the World Tour through Jonathan Vaughters’s Garmin-Chipotle team, and I’m not sure anyone ever understood what that meant to Joe.

It wasn’t simply the big time, or even the biggest time. Vaughters is obsessed with fashion, looks, and design. His own clothing reminds me of fashion plates like the Duke of Windsor or Tom Wolfe, eccentric, daring, bizarre, sometimes miraculously good, other times not so much. For Joe to have the approval of such a design-sensitive boss at the World Tour level was the ultimate mark of success in his field.

And Joe was ahead of the design times. He pushed the concept of complete design integration, matching everything from helmet, clothes, gloves, socks, frames, even bar tape. The World Tour started looking different after Joe began working with Garmin, and his relationship lasted for years.

Domestically, everyone took notice. People copied his designs and more importantly they copied his simplicity. Slapping ten fonts and twelve sponsors in seven colors on a jersey was out, and has stayed out. Like aping Columbus’s sail to the west, once people saw how kit design could look and should look, it was easily copied. But having the sense to create and innovate, well, that’s why we remember Columbus instead of Vespucci.

It’s easier to understand his gifts when you know how magnificent he was as an artist. His sketching was unparalleled, his drawing magnificent, his typography stunning, and his light touch with colors were all hallmarks of a life dedicated to beauty and interpretation of beauty. He often moved slowly, but his strokes were so deliberate, so well considered, that it was always, always, always worth the wait.

If Joe was an innovator in design, he was a leader of the cycling community as well. Joe was the person who first set up shop at the Manhattan Beach Starbucks, after which it was reverentially called the Center of the Known Universe. People were attracted to Joe because he was funny, ironic, understated, a remnant of the Golden Age of Cycling in the US, wise, unimpressed, always willing to listen to your bullshit, never mean or gratuitously cruel, had a very clear idea of his Old Guy Riding a Bike status, and happy to help make you look good. With Joe around, you felt successful. If anyone invented cycling in the South Bay, it was Joe. Everyone else, me included, simply copied badly. And by the time we started copying, he’d already moved on. He knew what success felt like and preferred new challenges to old laurels.

No one laughed harder at Joe than Joe himself. His last few years in LA he formed “Team Big Banana” with the slogan “Stay moist!” It was a casual ride that went off on various days, and which was usually accompanied by a hilarious e-poster invitation, sometimes with ridiculous people dressed as bananas, always with a quirky phrase or slogan to let you know that he was serious, but please, please, don’t take this too seriously. His kit designs for Big Banana were classic Joe: striking in their understatement. His Friday coffee rides were the highlight of the week for many, and however casual the faux club, there were plenty of 100-mile days up and down PCH to test your legs. To see people happily following him as if he were the Pied Piper, dressed in his designs and looking way better than they deserved, you had to acknowledge his success with people and the energy he got from being around his friends.

Which brings up that other facet of Joe’s personality: he was fascinated with the appearance of success and having money, but cared relatively little about either. Everyone who ever worked with Joe, especially his business partners, eventually threw up their hands in frustration because of his allergic reaction to deadlines and because, more importantly, he was stubborn about letting clients get too involved in the design process. He took your input, never your direction. So many people never got their hands on a Joe Yule design because if he sensed you were too much of a meddler, you never heard from him again.

Joe’s attitude to design was that he knew best and if you interfered too much, you’d simply never get your design, ever. Joe was an artist and had huge issues with selling his work and with letting other people unduly influence it. I always had great working relationships with Joe because I told him generally what I wanted, and he did the rest. And the funny thing was, he rarely sent a bill no matter how often you’d hound him for one. I’d always have to ultimately ask him the price and send him a check, and I think many people knew that about him and took advantage of it. These things, the very characteristics that made him so good, hurt Joe’s business and kept him in a perpetual financial squeeze.

This was part of his spiral: less work, so less money, so less work. By the time he died, he had mostly run out of clients, and, typical Joe, he wasn’t about to ask for help. He took responsibility for his affairs in the most brutal way. He hung himself because he couldn’t scrounge up the $100 he owed for back rent.

Of course, what Joe needed wasn’t more admiration and more money, though he would have survived with both. What he needed was therapy second, and a way to quit drinking first. AA might have helped, and for all I know he tried it. It’s hard, though, to imagine Joe entrusting anything to a “higher power” or submitting himself to a god in whom he didn’t believe. Joe made a living out of what he believed in, and he didn’t see fit to change things up at the end. In a way he reminds me of Christopher Hitchens, dying of cancer, and just as much an atheist facing death as he had been facing life. When the process is a success, the outcome is nothing more than a footnote.

People flocked to Joe because he was lovable, funny, brilliant, a curmudgeon. Known for his design skills, I’ve never heard anyone praise his writing, but some of the funniest things I’ve ever read were in emails from Joe. He was scathing, scalding, witty beyond belief, well read, and surgical with the pen. He carried this wit to so many of his kit designs. The back of his Donut Ride jersey had a pocket that said, “Officer Knox Foundation,” a crack at the jackass deputy who made a career of ticketing cyclists on the hill. Joe was funny, funny, and then funny some more. The harder you looked at anything he did, the more you appreciated his keen sense of humor and his irony.

People loved Joe because he didn’t play the victim. Bad shit happened and he usually chalked it up to his own boneheadedness, like refusing to wear prescription glasses on his bike. And they loved him because he didn’t make a career out of attacking and tearing down others. He might have thought your kit design was ugly and you should have your Photoshop confiscated, but he never said it, certainly not in public.

When things had really gone to shit, Joe shocked everyone by deciding to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, backwards, at the end of summer. It ended predictably, with a friend picking him up and helping coordinate his final removal to Colorado with nothing left except a few possessions, a rental car, and a U-Haul.

Joe dug a deep hole and the only person who could have ever dug him out was Joe. If I’m sure of anything, it’s that Joe’s mother, siblings, and family loved him deeply and did everything that they could to help him deal with his ailments. Though Joe never asked for help, he was the recipient of it from many people. No friend was ever truer, was ever more of a friend in need, than Gus Bayle. And people like Bob, Michelle, and others did what they could, if not to dig him out of the hole, at least to unstintingly give him enough shovels to start a digging museum. As tellingly, Joe’s circle was so large that there were countless others who would have come if called. Waiting for Joe to call, though, was a bit like waiting for him to ask your help designing a logo. You were in for a long, long wait.

This candle had a large dose of self-respect and lived by its own drumbeat. The bright light he shined on us was intense and brief, and now that it’s out, it’s out forever. We can learn from the light that was, and love Joe for what he really did, how he really lived, and for the success he left behind. We must.


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