there are a couple of zen sayings to the effect where does your lap go when you stand up? and what happens to your fist when you open your hand?, statements of value that can just as easily be applied to bicycle wheels. at point of origin, a bicycle wheel, as we will come to call it, consists of a hub, a bunch of spokes and a hoop of aluminium with holes in it. we can all enter cycle shops of note and droll over the latest sculpture in carbon fibre, believing that by owning one of these, speed, style and victory can all be ours. many arrive with boutique wheels of the ksyrium, fuclrum ilk, and it is rare that a bicycle is chosen for the wheels that it will be wearing when it comes out of the box.
yet none of these carbon creations or, since we're in portland, steel handbuilts would be travelling too far along highway 30 were it not for the two circular hoops fitted front and rear. and it is my firm belief (because i'm a wheelaholic) that wheels maketh the man - or woman and that it should definitely not be the sort of decision left to chance.
it says much for the bicycling community in portland that it is possible for a young lady of considerable fortitude, intelligence, and that over-used word, passion, to constitute herself into a one woman business building bicycle wheels. rarely have i had the pleasure of meeting someone who is so incredibly focussed on the task at hand, or the way forward not only for her business, but the way that she can promote the art of wheelbuilding and assist others in their understanding an appreciation of the art and the end product. there will always be those who simply survive on whatever wheels happen to be fitted at the time of purchase, and no doubt much of what is on offer today will do the job of rolling forward more than adequately. but as with many of the finer things in life, there is so much more to be had.
jude kirstein opened epic wheelworks on april 1st this year in a small office at 833 se main street, portland which, if i'm being perfectly honest, was little larger than the elevator in which we reached the appropriate floor. but building wheels, unlike building bicycles, doesn't need a whole lot of space, and epic could be described as compact and bijou. jude has done her homework: while i have a reasonable knack of building wheels, the end result is generally more by luck than specific design. jude has travelled around the country enquiring of the old guys how things might be done the way they used to be, or even they way they still are. she has spoken to the folks at wheelsmith and utilises their spoke calculator system, and frightened me to death by showing the contents of a loaned book entitled the spoking word by leonard goldberg, which held pages and pages of mathematical formulae that would kill my wheelbuilding career stone dead.
this young woman knows what's what with bicycle wheels and will almost definitely go far in the world she has chosen - we're not just talking portland, or even the united states at this point; if you're in some far flung part of the world, or even in edinburgh, strategies can be implemented that would see your favourite steed shod with a pair of epic wheelworks hoops.
perhaps, if i'm allowed, i can make the comparison with another company based in portland: when you buy rapha, you're not just getting the jersey, there's a whole philosophy that tags along behind. epic meets the same criteria.
posted on friday 15 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
i'm now used to the situation whereby portland's bicycle artists either pop up in unexpectedly residential areas, or more frequently in premises that encompass a number of dissimilar but co-existent businesses. far removed from the corporate boardrooms of the industry giants, many are ensconced in almost claustrophobic workshops midst substantial and less than state of the art machinery. such is the economic reality for many even in a bicycle friendly city like portland; not so much that such artistry does not command a living wage, but in order to do so the workplace must be carefully sought out in locations other than downtown.
tony pereira is just one such artist, who works slightly off the beaten track in portland's east side. perhaps less favoured with the mythologised lengthy waiting lists of one or two of his peers, tony builds bicycles that are as individual as he is, even though the commissions arrive from folks with widely differing requirements as to what their new bicycle will be used for and how that should be accomplished. in the case of pereira cycles, the skill does not stop abruptly at the brazing and filleting of the tubes themselves: there is some beautiful lateral thinking going on here, such as a mudguard stay solution in evidence on a beautiful green mixte frame with mechanical disc brakes. and the almost sculptural, and simple mechanically operated front gear mech, actuated by hand via a curved lever behind the seat-tube of a sparkly green tourer. once more proof, if further proof were needed, that art truly lies in the details.
tony taught himself to build bicycle frames, starting with 29er mountain bikes (a relatively recently adopted standard using 700c rims); pereira holds an interest in the sculptural qualities of fabricating bicycle frames; sculpture dropped me like a hot potato at the end of my first year at art college, and i confess that while i can appreciate the artistry of the trade, sadly the parallels had never dawned on me prior to meeting tony pereira.
tony builds around 30 frames of all varieties per year, in a long narrow workshop with hanging space on the far wall for finished bikes. pereira frames are submitted to sacha white's paint shop in portland, a facility that provides exemplary coverage, if the samples i was privileged to witness are anything to go by.
tony pereira is a quiet, intelligent man with a neat line in sideburns and a disarmingly affable manner, but he's not only someone who builds bicycle frames, but one who goes out and gets his knees dirty by riding them in epic fashion. in less than two weeks he will jet off to the hinterlands to join daniel wakefield pasley, jeremy dunn and others in riding several of the rapha continental rides currently taking place in the midwest; a testament to his physical well-being: the continental are all nice guys, but they'll ride the legs off you and smile while doing so.
with the location of next year's north american handbuilt show now decided as being in virginia, tony is unsure as to his participation: despite feeling the after effects of not attending this year's in indianapolis, taking time out to prepare, ship to, and attend this prestigious annual event, has to be offset against the cost of doing so. and with the internet on his doorstep (well, just inside the door actually) the opportunity to bring his bikes and skills to a worldwide audience have more than one outlet. these are happy times, when many countries, cities and towns are making a real effort to become green and transport friendly, and a solo builder in portland can provide such effective solutions to those who demand, or see the need for, bikes that tick all the practicality boxes at the same time as marking those allied to the needs of the aesthete.
britain and america are oft compared as two countries divided by a common language, and it seems that we may also be leveraging that divide when it comes to bicycles. few of us in the uk, it seems, would approach the need to have a custom bicycle made, other than with bendy bars and skinny wheels, but it is more than possible to ride an alternative to the motor car that also exudes style, ingenuity and practicality in one attractive package. tony periera is the very man who can provide you with just such a combination at a price that merits serious consideration.
go on, drop the guy an e-mail to discuss the possibilities - you know you want to.
tony periera can be contacted via his website at pereiracycles.com and assures me he would be more than happy to accept orders from across the pond. many thanks to chris distefano for brokering the introduction.
posted on thursday 14 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
depending on who you talk to, there are either eighteen framebuilders in portland, or twenty framebuilders in portland; either way, there are a lot of people building bicycle frames in a city of just over half a million people. and as is often the case in any walk of life or endeavour, some rise to the top, and quite plainly, as numerical systems go, some do not. this is not to say that those technically at the bottom are scraping for the crumbs left by those at the heights: this is a relatively specialised industry where quality is not always gauged by popularity (i'm sure we can all think of parallels in other walks of life), and it doesn't always follow that those for whom commerce has smiled favourably, are managing to make ends meet themselves.
however, someone who can be reckoned to have assailed the heights, remained there, and consolidated such ascendency, is sacha white who is, in effect, vanilla bicycles. always the lad with an eye for the superficial, i was initially drawn to these much sought-after frames a few years back, due to the rather superb typography employed in the vanilla legend emblazoned on the downtubes of sacha's offerings. but man cannot live by logos alone; there requires to be some substantial metallurgical wranglings under said logo and immaculate paintwork that will encourage the velocipedinists to contact vanilla in the first place.
the vanilla workplace, in a quaintly anthropomorphic fashion, lives up to its name in almost every aspect. it is no great secret that the notion of attacking steel armed only with a flame on the end of a hose, scares me witless; a perfectly adequate reason, should one be required, as to why you are very unlikely to see a twmp bicycle frame in my lifetime. i had expected rampant heat, scorching noise and flurries of sparks flying in every direction. i had also mentally discussed the likelihood of hoarseness by the end of our visit (i was accompanied by michael robertson of velodramatic) while trying to ask inane questions over the roar of mr white's industriousness.
as has been so often the case during this trip to portland, i was well wide of the mark; there's every chance you could conduct a meditation class while brazing, filing and dealing with scottish intruders was taking place. sacha white is a quiet spoken, quietly mannered man who seems quietly confident in his art, but entirely unfazed by a waiting list rivalling that of the eponymous richard sachs. assistant scott mentioned that the order book was currently closed due to its extended length, but that the clamouring hordes were waiting in the wings with cheque books open for when that book was re-opened in the future.
a vanilla bicycle, however, is not a vanilla bicycle when it is a speedvagen; a frame that also emanates from 717 south east 35th avenue, but is not built by sacha white. so you can reachy the lofty heights of customisation by ordering a vanilla bicycle, receiving a frame that will meet your every need, whim, desire and street cred, but likely give your bank manager a few sleepless nights as the expenditure heads towards that magic $10,000 mark. or you can ride a machine that has been designed and fabricated within the all but anonymous garage, but put together by a contracted builder, where colour choice is limited and the overall ambience is far more off the peg than those bearing the more distinctive rear dropouts.
of course, the appearance of our enquiring minds was handled with aplomb and diplomacy, and not just a little skill in the area of multi-tasking. my mother has long been able to carry on knitting while conversing with her son, and watching television at the same time. but a similar degree of skill has seemingly been honed by sacha white as he brazed, sawed, filed and answered the phone, all the while patiently answering questions that have likely been asked many hundreds of times by those considerably more knowledgeable than i, as well as being seemingly happy to converse freely on several unrelated subjects.
i don't mind saying that i have long been in awe of those who can so skillfully wield a brazing torch in the production of such bicycle artistry, but that level of admiration has been lifted to new altitudes since being in portland, and not just through the technical abilities that are evident at the bench or workstand. how many of us would be happy to have complete strangers intrude upon our working day and proceed to carry-on an unscripted interview, while we went about our daily chores? all i'm doing here is typing words on a computer screen, yet if i were being interviewed while so doing, you would not be reading this in such a timeous fashion.
this is more than just a bicycle industry we're talking about here.
very many thanks to sacha and scott at vanilla cycles for their patience and hospitality during the visit, and appreciative thanks to michael robertson who got me there in the first place. 'country boy in the big city' doesn't begin to describe it.
posted on wednesday 13 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
i've been doing this long enough now for the initial awe and wonder of wandering into a cycle shop to have, if not worn a little thin, certainly to have lost just a little of its lustre. once you get past the fact that there are a lot of very fine offerings out there from the americans, italians and predominantly the taiwanese, in colours that would have been seen as blasphemous only a few years ago, to put not too fine a point on it, a bike shop, is a bike shop, is a bike shop. and i would hold true to that formula, had my current local bike shop not been river city bicycles on martin luther king jr boulevard, portland, oregon. i do not intend to offend any other bicycle store in the large cities of north america, but up until this week, i had never seen anything like this; and most certainly nothing like this in the uk, and that includes london.
it is often the notion amongst those who do not have to take heed of that all important bottom line, that bike shops ought to be cool places to hang-out to use a cross atlantic term. there should, hopefully, be acres of top notch cycles to drool over, track pumps that can be used to just lift the pressure in the rear tyre a smidgeon, espresso to be drunk, books and magazines to leaf through, and scores of other cyclists (including the staff), to stand around with for hours on end discussing the relative merits of horizontal dropouts versus vertical. nirvana is on mlk boulevard.
floorspace statistics don't do it for me, since i have no idea of their relative import, but open the front doors of river city and a good telescope would help you see the back of the shop. there's no sales pressure, plenty of very knowledgeable and helpful information to be garnered should that be required, a range of clothing that extends from wool river city road jerseys, to the kind of apparel that non-cyclist cyclists would be happy to wear to the party or supermarket. consequently it is also possible to acquire a colnago ferrari, a calfee bamboo machine, or a sit up and beg shopper with matching mudguards (fenders) and a white basket.
and unlike a number of uk bike shops i could mention, the staff treat prospective owners of the latter no differently than those eager to identify themselves with the former. britain, please take note.
river city is owned and run by mark and dave, the former being a total contradiction in and of himself: computers are verging on anathema for the man, yet his own colnago c50 replete with shimano di2, sits in a stand towards the back of the shop. (purchase receipts are written by hand, as are all the price tags). dave is a woodworker of some repute, so all the stands are custom made for the purpose, including the handlebar drawers, an ingenious solution to a cluttered problem. in the upstairs storage, there's a rubber matted test track complete with bump in the floor preceded by some logs to try out those kids' bikes and maybe even suspension. the shop offers not only off the peg bicycles, but a complete fitting service from start to finish. and if you thought the store and display stock was enormous, you ought to see the storage and build facility in the basement across the street.
as someobody from out of town with no intention of relieving them of any of their bicycle stock, their hospitality was well above and beyond the call of duty. only my home on islay is more welcoming. thanks to all at river city, and thanks to michael at velodramatic for being a chaperone:-)
posted on wednesday 13 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
preconceptions or even misconceptions seem to increase in inverse proportion to their desirability, or maybe it's just in my line of vision. when last in london, i walked past tour de ville probably around four times before discovering that it's not a shop in the conventional sense, and certainly not in the manner that river city cycles is in portland. so having made contact with super-relax super helper, austin ramsland, i was rather delighted to notice that his e-mail address indicated he was in some way connected with sweetpea bicycles, subsequently discovering he was natalie ramsden's other half. isn't life great?
natalie is one of only two builders in america responsible for making women's only bicycle frames; if women are from venus, and men are from mars, it makes perfect sense for a venusian to be catering for other venusians' velocipedinal needs. the very wonderful mrs slate olson is about to take delivery of an attractively green sweetpea bicycle, which i might suggest is probably a recommendation in itself.
however, i digress, and we must return to my concept of the misconception. those of us who have lived a sheltered existence on the outer edge expect things to be as we have every right to expect them to be, and when this turns out to be not so, horizons must be widened and expectations adjusted. sweetpea bicycles exists at 17 south east third avenue; one block south of burnside, one block to the right. how could anything be simpler? except all that appears at se 3rd is a large, anonymous building with few obvious means of access, and certainly no graphical indication as to that which may be contained within. surely sweetpea bicycles would have a front window displaying a fine range of venusian frames and a delicately painted sign above?
i asked someone unloading a van close by, a venusian by coincidence, but a blank stare was the best that could be achieved. fortunately the power of short range e-mail is a convenient method of communication, being as how i'm one of only two people in the world bereft of a mobile phone. the building at 17 se 3rd turns out to be an agglomoration of myriad businesses, all plying their crafts, art and trade from a series of low rent cubicles, one of which contained mrs ramsland and her barking dog. a friendlier space it would be hard to find: enough space to contain the clutter that accompanies the true artist, with more than enough light, gas bottles against the wall, pink rims hanging from the ceiling, workstand and work in progress just left of centre, and a bench vice that could hold the space shuttle when it too requires some fillet brazing.
answering further enquiry and shooting down another of those ill-informed preconceptions, while portland may be the hub of the universe (pun intended) with regard to the joining of steel tubes and brazing excellence, making them look pretty happens, in the case of sweetpea, much further south down the rocky mountain trail, in colorado. all sweetpea frames are powder coated rather than painted, a perfectly understandable choice when you have the chance to see how immaculate the thick, glossy finish is on the artwork hanging on a hook, and present on the transportation employed by mr and mrs ramsland.
natalie builds bikes only for women, though austin may be the true exception as i had just carried his blue sweetpea bicycle up the first set of stairs while he handled the door-opening duties. business is good, with a wait-list of between two and three years; the bare craftswomanship on display in the workstand testifies to the desire to wait that long. move your misconceptions several thousand kilometres east, and it would be hard to think of such a degree of success should a venusian suggest to do likewise on uk shores. thus, if you are of the fairer sex and have need or desire of amongst the very best handbuilt bicycle frame that can be had for your gender, i'd suggest that you develop a degree of patience, log on to sweetpea bicycles and break out those colour charts. natalie is more than happy to find a way of gracing britain's less than perfect roads with her beautiful bicycles.
the average price for a sweetpea is around $4,000 (£2,600)
posted on tuesday 12 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
it's not that i wish to gain sympathy for my plight, since i really only have myself and perhaps a couple of airlines to blame, but i can see little harm in placing things in their proper perspective. on friday morning (8th may), i took a two hour ferry boat trip from home to scotland, followed by a four hour bus journey to glasgow. with the aeroplane not due to leave until six am, i slept in a hotel room until three am then made it to the terminal building for a four am check-in, boarded a klm flight to schipol airport in amsterdam, and arrived one and a half hours later.
since schipol is a bit larger than islay airport, it took twenty minutes to walk from terminal d, to terminal e, where i boarded a northwest airbus about one and a half hours after arriving, for a ten hour flight to portland. of course, we all know it takes a long time to get from europe to the northwestern united states, but i will admit that i only looked at the flight time a matter of days before travelling. after clearing passport control, baggage reclaim (yes, it did arrive at the same airport at the same time) and customs, i was met at international arrivals by rapha's north american manager, slate olson and his two year-old son beckett with whom i was staying for the weekend (as well as chocolate brown labrador named marley.
after a bite of lunch - yes, having travelled for around twelve hours, i had arrived in portland, oregon, at lunchtime - we took a brief trip down several roads leading to to goodness knows where, to pay a brief visit to one of the most amazing bike-shops i've ever been in (i know, i live a sheltered life) at river city bicycles, of which there will be more words and pictures, eventually. slate had arranged for a few friends to come round for an evening barbecue, preparations for which have now resulted in his being known as slate arson; these guests included the esteemed carey (from the rapha office) and husband miles, as well as mr jeremy dunn erstwhile of embrocation magazine and now rapha's communications guy in portland. however, as proceedings proceeded, my eyelids were wont to point out that i had now been awake for almost 26 hours, and head on pillow would be a smart solution, one which i felt only too happy to succumb.
sunday, my first full day in portland, encompassed at least a part of what i had come here to experience: a bike ride. since a great deal of life comes down to who you know, rather than what you know, i have been loaned a brand new, and still very shiny, chris king cielo on which to travail the wilds of portland, as well as forming the basis of a review of said machine (of which more later). slate had organised the accompaniment of two of his fellow hup united team-mates (adrian and joe), as well as carey, jeremy and himself to show me why portland has such a fine reputation for riders and riding.
i need hardly point out that portland is a city, and even one composed of a myriad of smaller communities such as this, takes a few miles in order to exit the backdrop of concrete and enter the world of the tree-lined escarpment. in this case, we achieved same by traversing what i believe is known as dirty thirty, so called because it involves riding in the gutter of highway thirty until the wilds can not only be seen, but entered on two wheels. the western edge of portland is bordered by trees and hills that stretch for miles, providing some of the finest ascents and descents known to the keen, fit and eager road cyclist. unfortunately, in my case, the middle of these three was notably absent. when we turned off the highway and the road went quite severely upwards, i didn't; of particular embarrassment after my oft repeated dictum that the only skill to which i could lay claim, was that of going uphill with a reasonable degree of rapidity (to which i previously have had several independent witnesses).
i played the jet lag card which may just have been believable, though the fact that even the oldest of the group who disappeared into the leafy distance ahead, was a good twelve to fourteen years younger than yours truly was always an excuse being held in reserve. i did try standing up to increase my gravitational release velocity, but very quickly sat down again when it was all too evident that the legs were running on empty. in addition, this stoic scottish west coast islander found the heat and complete lack of wind in the face a touch too much to overcome, and i made at least a couple of stops on the ascent; though i did not allow the moments to go unheralded, taking a few photos as well as breaths.
fine fellows and a woman that they are/were, all cheerfully waited for me at the peak of each of a few successive climbs as well as at the nadir: my descending skills have never been in question - they are completely crap. however, despite my lack of comparable progress, the climbs, descents and flat rollings were utterly fabulous; it really doesn't take a whole lot to see why portland is such a fabulous place in which to ride, and also why my support team are such a fit group of blighters. after nigh on 100 kilometres we stopped at a roadside cafe for a grapefruit san pellegrino (sorry, mr sachs), a peanut butter bagel and espresso, allowing time for extrapolation and as many excuses as i could muster.
a quick intravenous drip and a lie-down on the floor, and i was ready for bed again.
thanks to slate, adrian, joe, jeremy and carey for looking after me so well. i am forever in your debt. the route we rode encompassed logie trail and old germantown.
posted on monday 11 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................