there are all sorts of places to which, at some time in our lives, we just need to make a pilgrimage to - depending of course, on whichever obsession it is that dictates. in a matter of days, islay will be filled from edge to edge with folks from the four corners, eager to explore every last centimetre of the eight malt whisky distilleries as the islay whisky festival enters its tenth year. and some of those visitors have been making the pilgrimage every single year. if you're a cyclist however, you can take your pick: the champs elysees; cambiago; roubaix velodrome; i'm sure you get the general idea.
while cambiago definitely figures high on my obsession pilgrimage, the opportunity to pay a visit to chris king precision components in nw nela street, portland vies very close to the top of the same list. and perhaps in similar manner to that of the colnago building in cambiago (which i have yet to pay my particular pilgrimage), the exterior masks the jewellery that is made inside. the chris king building is a large, grey anonymous building in amongst similar in portland's northwest industrial district. reached by cycling (how else would you arrive at chris king's?) alongside and across unused railtracks embedded in the tarmac, the only outward sign that you may have reached the correct destination is a truck parked outside, bearing the king logo on the side. this is the truck used to support outside events, containing large internal water tanks to ensure that competitiors served receive cool, clear water no matter where the event is held. you start, at this point, to realise the lengths to which the company goes in its own obsessiveness.
the employee entrance is round the side, but the single door with the company cat sunning itself behind the glass leads to the dealer sales operation, and that's generally as far as any non-employee gets. the reception is a pleasantly open area with several busy folks sat behind their macs (the company uses apple macintoshes exclusively) and facing a display of the complete product range in the myriad of available colours decoratively arranged on the facing wall. and it's possible to pick up a postcard featuring chris king's very first headset, the real thing sitting on the windowsill of chris king's office.
at the time of my visit, chris himself was off on travels, so while i've seen the factory, i haven't, unfortunately, met the man. this was almost of academic importance however, as my host (for virtually all of my last three days in portland) was the affable and brilliant, chris distefano, generally referred to by his friends (and there are many of them) as ceedee. if ever the opportunity presents itself to follow in my footsteps, so to speak, this is definitely the man you want to be guided by. cd is in charge of marketing at chris king. he shares an office with recent recruit, jay sycip who was brought on board to mastermind the cielo project as well as the soon to be released chris king inset semi-integrated headset. at the third mac in the room is rich whitekettle, the man who deals with all the product and website literature as well as all the photography.
their office is on the same floor as chris king's, and overlooks the very clean and remarkably silent production area, with its white milling machines, each linked to a system of pipes that sucks away all the waste for recycling. green accountability is a big part of the production cycle, using only vegetable based oils at every stage and recycling the water used in the anodising process. this concern with the employees and planet's well-being extends to the employees personal facilities. each is supplied with a locker for their cycle gear, fed continuously with air throughout the day to ensure any damp clothing enjoys a freshness not usually associated with locker rooms. there is more than adequate bike parking and showers making it a no brainer to cycle to work and not worry about how comfortable the working day is likely to be.
it was pointed out to me that all the employees on the shop floor were wearing their own clothes (though tellingly, many wore chris king t-shirts) and yet they were all perfectly clean (engineering workers of the world, weep in unison) - a testament to the systems described above. employees also rotate their work positions: if you start on one inch headsets, this doesn't mean you'll stay there. this means that eventually everyone knows how to make virtually everything: demarcation is seemingly not a word in the ck vocabulary.
a new cafe is currently under construction; for the time being employees eat in a diner style cafeteria on the ground floor, and the company employs a chef to ensure a suitable standard and quality of food. with may being america's bike to work month, all chris king employees who commute by bicycle (or even a combination of cycle, bus and/or light railway) every day receive an additional two days paid holiday. it's fairly easy to see why staff turnover is on the low side.
every part of the chris king product range is manufactured in-house, including the medical standard bearings, factors that allow the confident offering of a ten year warranty on the world famous headsets and a five year warranty on their hubs. these latter components have to be the easiest hubs in the world to service: cd pulled apart a cut-away rear hub lying on his desk in a matter of seconds - the only tool required would have been an appropriately sized allen key to release the non-drive side locknut. all products are milled from solid aluminium billet which lies in serious lengths at the back of the plant. even the cogs for their single speed hubs are cnc machined from solid disks of steel.
while world renowned for their headsets, hubs, and bottom brackets, more recently chris king has re-discovered frame building; he will build a very limited number by himself from reynolds 953 stainless steel using tubes and lugs, but there is a production version of the cielo, one of which i was very privileged to have exclusive use of throughout my week in portland (review and road test to follow) which is tig welded in-house using american true temper steel tubes.you learn a great deal at chris kings, but come away knowing less than you really want to know; there isn't a hint of any future products dropped at anytime, though there seemed to be no forbidden areas that i was kept away from while walking around the plant. yet i apparently was given the full tour plus. there was never any 'we can't tell you that' moments: i spent friday afternoon cycling round town with cd and jay sycip, and i'm not aware of anything being placed out of bounds.
for such an anonymous grey building, in less than salubrious surroundings, it's a very inspiring place. great to know that such care and attention accompanies every chris king precision component. i will cycle with pride on my chris king wheels and headset, and i don't even work there.
posted on tuesday 19 may 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................