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..........................................................................................................................................................................................................