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Oregon Trail part one: Chris King

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Photographs: Andy Waterman

This city has its own comedy TV show devoted to gently ribbing its inhabitants and their alternative lifestyles. Portlandia, a nationwide hit broadcast by cable channel IFC, is a sketch show featuring a host of characters drawn – like most good comedy – from a slight exaggeration of reality. It is neither groundbreaking nor hilarious, but it does hit the nail on the head. Spend a few days in Portland and it becomes Portlandia before your eyes.
One skit depicts Wilson Lightbulbs: hand crafted, individually-blown bulbs that cost $68 a piece and burn out after a few days. Customers still await delivery 14 months after placing an order. Sure enough, a lightbulb shop – stacked so high with stock the owner needs tall customers to help locate their own requests – is pointed out to us in the streets of Portland.
Another sketch involves what has seemingly become Portland’s catchphrase: ‘Put a bird on it’. A collection of artisan crafted goods of plain design are brought to life with a liberal sprinkling of bird motifs. It is a painfully accurate depiction of craft nick-nack shops the world over, made all the more surreal when we step into just such an emporium the following day in search of a birthday present to take home, to be faced with an array of handmade items: bags, belts, knickers. A good half of them have ‘put a bird on it’.
But the funniest – and correspondingly, most unsettling – skit in Portlandia involves the Sanitation Twins, whose role it is to explain the recycling system to the city’s residents. What starts with the standard glass, paper or composting delineation is followed by a wider range of plastic bins, each with their own colour and sorted contents. Eventually, a long line of miniature plastic containers in a dazzling array of hues fill the screen. “And cerise,” one of the Twins explains, “is for toenail clippings.”
Portland, hip on tap
Having grown up on the M4 corridor, I found The Office uncomfortable viewing while seemingly the rest of the nation laughed itself silly. David Brent and his collection of depressing misfits were all too real to me, yet the American version is excellent. All it takes is to be one step removed.
The residents of Portland I have spoken to all enjoy Portlandia to some degree and certainly recognise and like chuckling at the depiction of their home, but none of them actually came from the city in the first place. To find a born and bred Portlandian is a thankless task. American culture makes moving a considerable distance to find employment commonplace and this city is populated by a young and vibrant workforce, in direct contrast to the rapid downturn in Detroit’s fortunes, losing a quarter of its residents in the last decade and seemingly faced with terminal decline.
What is clear is that these swathes of newcomers to Portland take great pride in their adopted hometown, and rightly so. It is a buzzing place, awash with independent businesses of every description, from restaurants to breweries to, of course, framebuilders.
I had been told beforehand that the appeal of Portland lay primarily in its cheap rent; the city evolving into this cool metropolis as Californian hippies drifted north in search of affordable accommodation. Nobody I meet seems entirely happy with that analysis, yet when you look at the story of Chris King Precision Components – founded in Santa Barbara in 1976, moved north to Redding in ’99, then again to Portland in ’03 – it kind of adds up. The enigmatic Mr King may not classify as a hippie, as such, but there is something undeniably laid back and alternative about his outlook, so I’m sticking with the theory.
“He moved from Santa Barbara, which became something like the second highest real estate market in the world – you just can’t afford to live there,” says Chris DiStefano, our host for the day at King’s impressive converted coffee roasting plant on the edge of town. “So he moved to Redding, which is about seven hours south of here. He built a dream building but reached the conclusion it was still northern California, so he was still subject to the same laws and taxes. There is no sales tax here in Portland, so if you have come from California, you have saved ten per cent already. Chris had to make the decision that, if he was going to move the company and take all the people with him, it needed to be relatively close to the families they were leaving behind.”
They are not alone in finding Portland an attractive place to do business. “It was intended to be the Pittsburgh of the West, a big steel town,” says DiStefano. “That didn’t happen. Timber was a big product, but even today, 30 per cent of our exports are metals related – a lot of knife companies, metal parts for train carriages. It is good to be in an environment where you have that expertise. And then recently we have got Nike, Adidas, Columbia, Icebreaker, Dr. Martens: this cluster of big names.”
Portland’s reputation as a cycling-friendly city culminated in The League of American Bicyclist’s platinum award in 2008, a high accolade indeed. It must be the perfect place for two-wheel junkies like us, surely? Not so, says DiStefano: “People read about it in magazines and come here but then do nothing to make it better. That’s my appeal to you guys: dig deeper than the mythology of Portland. We still have to go shopping and wash our clothes. It’s not a rainbow-coloured pathway with a permanent tailwind.
“I was really disappointed when we got the platinum award for being a bicycle friendly city. That is the highest award you can get, but ever since then there has been a kind of decline because people think that we are done, particularly political opponents. They say: ‘Why should we give you any more money? You are already the best bike city in America’. There is still a lot of work to be done.
“We kind of got hoodwinked. Because the mayor rode a bike and wore a cool Nutcase helmet, we thought he was one of us, but when the chips were down, maybe not. So shame on us for forgetting that the political process is about accountability. We have it clear this time around that the responsibility is to have a job interview with the candidates, not to be friends. We can be friends later.
Chris King, early starter
“It is our responsibility to make sure the education department has workforce development. Chris was very gifted and was machining in seventh grade at school. He was in a position where he could start this company when he was 20 years old. We don’t have that now. There are no machine shops in the schools any more – there are wood shops. We love to talk about ‘Made in America’, but who is doing it? You can’t just pluck someone off the street and say ‘Go make a Chris King hub.’”
It is a familiar story to British ears, the notion that manual labour and learning trades was no longer necessary beginning in the Thatcher era and evolving with consecutive governments. Market forces and labour costs made it uneconomical to produce at home, so now the Far East manufactures while our children all go to university and (hopefully) find gainful employment in service industries. It is, of course, utterly nonsensical, and makes suitably skilled engineering staff not so easy to find.
The advantage Chris King has, and the reason Portland now has around 40 individual framebuilders making a living there, is that cheap rents and being a cool city draws people in. “Now when we post a job vacancy, we get people who want to live in Portland and work for a great company. It has definitely worked out,” says DiStefano. “But many of those small builders are doing fewer than 20 bikes a year. The Boston region has Parlee, Indy Fab, Seven: they’re making thousands of bikes. The perception is big here but the reality is smaller.”
“We sell globally, we live in Portland, we enjoy all those aspects of Portland, but we don’t live off of Portland,” explains Chris King. “If Portland dried up and blew away, our business wouldn’t. There were a few builders here when we arrived; there was a cycling scene. It didn’t have a whole lot to do with why we moved here – it wasn’t a compelling reason to move – but it was convenient, it was cool.”
‘Cool’ is a word that crops up repeatedly in conversation with King. It may be a catch-all expression but it encapsulates what his company has produced since the very first King headset in 1976 (which sits on the desk as we speak, and is, remarkably, still in the range today). To take those parts of the bike we historically tended to ignore and abuse and improve their performance immeasurably was a groundbreaking shift in attitude. To then produce a wide range of anodised colours that drew attention to the humble headset and the oft-neglected hub was a marketing masterstroke. King is right. His products are cool.
And engineering and design are cool, despite what our politicians would have us believe. While in conversation with King, I was reminded of our own James Dyson and his approach to everyday products that fail to deliver. For decades we have wafted our hands under so-called dryers that are not fit for purpose, resignedly wiping hands on jeans as we leave. It took Dyson and his inquisitive mind to find a solution. He approaches everyday appliances and makes them work more efficiently while packaging them in an appealingly offbeat, modern design.
The humble headset, where it all started
King takes the same approach. An analytical brain – coupled with a propensity for taking things apart, modifying and rebuilding – led to the unspectacular-looking component on the table before us that became the starting point for a company now employing nearly 100 people in Portland. Earning a crust in 1976 off the back of one small bicycle part seems a hard route to have taken. Why the headset?
“I was playing with modifying other people’s components and there really wasn’t much out there at that time with sealed bearings – I think Phil Wood had started up by then – so I was hanging with the guys who worked at the one pro bike shop in town,” says King. “And this one guy said to me if I really wanted to do something useful or cool, I should make a headset. And I’m asking him what a headset was, so he takes me over to a bike and points one out. At that time, the best you could get was a Campy road steel, and he says they are pretty lucky to get a season out of them. I had a look at it and those things didn’t have any seals on them, so there was a problem for me to solve right there. So I made one and it worked and it was really cool, but would be expensive to manufacture – the sort of bearings it needed were not cheap. When I came up with a price, it was consistent with what a Campy headset would cost: I think $40 or $45. Of course, that was a lot of money. To think about making a living out of headsets at that time was a fantasy. There were a lot of other things to do: Cielo frames was one of the other things I worked on back then, but you couldn’t make any money building bike frames either. So that got boxed away…
“So I was a contractor: you came in with a drawing, wanted a thousand, I’d make ‘em for you. Santa Barbara was an area for weapons development and counter-measure technology. So most of the contract work that floated out to the shops was this kind of thing. Having done some of that stuff, and not felt good about making pieces for weapon systems, making bike parts seemed like a step in the right direction. The bike industry was weak here in those days, though. But it started to grow, and there were a lot of customers who, having bought one headset, became a cult of believers.”
That cult of believers grew steadily, taking the ‘fit and forget’ message on board. “In the ‘80s, if you were putting in the miles you needed to, firstly you were cash poor, and secondly, who is going to work on your bike?” King asks. “You are. And you had to work on it a lot. Anything that would reduce time in the workshop was a godsend. We appealed to those people who understood that part of it – that the headset would outlast the bike and transfer to the next bike and the next bike, because that’s typically what happened in those days.
“We knew the headsets would last a long time, so I set the bar at what they should be able to perform at. When you first make something, you don’t know how long it’s going to last, but you can take a shot at it. The original warranty was five years, and easily made that, so we moved it up to ten. That wasn’t difficult to achieve either. How much further do you need to go?”
Fit and forget
It took the mountain bike boom of the late ‘80s to really put Chris King on the map as a viable concern, as the cheap steel pressed headsets fitted to the majority of machines in those early years buckled under the strain of off-road usage. “When people went out and wanted to use them for real mountain biking, in a lot of cases they would last one ride and be damaged. Those early believers in the road bike headsets we made, when they ran into that problem having crossed over to mountain bikes, they just transferred their Chris King road headsets and they worked. Word got around and that’s when the demand started to happen.
“The strain that mountain biking put on components was more extreme than anybody had anticipated. They all started with: ‘Well, we can just modify these road parts a little bit’ – Campy learned that the hard way, right? Stuff just wouldn’t work with simple modifications. In a way, you had to think about it from the ground up. Having the facility to develop in that way was an advantage that I had at the time. We just tackled those things as they came. I was pretty much a maverick – not going along with the conventional designs. We didn’t recognise those limitations.”
King pressed on into the ‘90s, expanding the range to include hubs and bottom brackets, using the same philosophy that saw the company take off: design from the ground up. “There is always something to be learned from everything,” says King, “so of course I would take components apart and figure out what was cool about them and what wasn’t. Was there anything out there at that time worth copying? No, not really.”
Chris DiStefano is now communications director at Rapha North America
Oregon Trail part two to follow
“Team Beer”

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