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Oregon Trail part two: Chris King, Cielo and the UBI

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Photographs: Andy Waterman

The Cielo framesets that Chris King mentioned in the first part of this story, a project stalled in the ‘80s and resurrected in 2008, are (as usual where the boss is concerned) a story in themselves.
Five years after moving to Portland, King’s old framebuilding jigs and an unpainted steel frame were found sitting in an unpacked trunk in a corner of the factory. The fact that he had once been a builder had somehow never come up in conversation, unlike some of King’s other projects and earlier occupations: photographer, piano player, member of a professional swing dance troupe. (The refectory of the Portland factory features a sprung wooden dance floor. Not every factory boasts one of those.)
At the 2008 North American Handmade Bicycle Show, King created quite a stir by showing an unpainted frame of his own design. Jay Sycip was brought in to oversee production and Cielo was born. Or reborn.
“He does amazing stuff,” says DiStefano of King’s building skills. “We brought Jay out to Chris’ barn and there are all these notes and Jay says he’s never seen anything like this, the way that he produces stuff. It’s a perfect spot for the company, because Ira Ryan, Tony Pereira, all these single operator guys, have two-year waits or more, for a $2,700 frame, or you buy a Trek or Cervélo or whatever. In the middle was this sweetspot. You want a handmade bike, built in Portland, with all these details, in six weeks or less, for $1,800 dollars? We got it.”
Chris King has nailed it with Cielo, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. For some, the relationship with a framebuilder – and knowing that the time and money invested in their pride and joy will be a unique experience that produces a unique machine – is all-important. But for many, myself included, a gorgeous looking, well-fitting steel bike that arrives in a reasonable timeframe and is uncommon enough to draw admiring glances on the road while not requiring the sale of one of the children to finance it is a winning combination.
Cielo, handmade in Portland
Our hosts for the day have done us proud and allowed me and photographer Andy to poke around without many restrictions, a marked contrast to the formerly publicity-shy company that turfed author Robert Penn and his BBC crew off the premises mid-filming a few years back. The firm is understandably protective of new developments, fearful of them leaking out to competitors via the camera’s lens, but have loosened up somewhat.
The many single operator framebuilders we talk to during our visit to Oregon have nothing but good to say about their relationships with the big fish producer. After all, when ordering a frameset made in Portland, what else would a customer want but Portland-made hubs and headset? It cuts both ways. They do not see the Cielo brand as a threat to their livelihoods. It is a different market and there is (currently) room for everyone.
Before leaving the Chris King factory, I mention to DiStefano and Jay Sycip that we are visiting the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) the following day, a mechanics and framebuilding school in town that is successfully pumping yet more builders into the damp Portland air. Surely there has to be a limit to what the city can viably sustain?
“For most, it’s a vocation vacation,” Sycip explains. “They want to take a vacation and make something for themselves. But there will be one or two in each class who will try something and might make it past the growing stage and manage to turn it into business. If you really want to build one frame at a time, you can do that with just a vice, a blowtorch and some files, and some people are like that.”
“It ain’t about colourways and leather handlebar tape,” DiStefano adds. “There is the Portland mythology of ‘I’m going to be an artist’, but you need to be a businessman and you need to produce. I think the customer experience has got so much more refined than it used to be. People want precision hand made now: it’s not just that it is hand made – it needs to be well done. So the hobbyists have been squeezed out.”
Bicycles are business, not a hobby
The same question is put to Jeff Menown, operations manager at UBI, a spacious and splendidly equipped facility on the same street as a wheelbuilding shop and a cycling bar with Chris King-designed beer taps. Cool, as Mr King would say.
“Of the people who go through our framebuilding classes, I would say around ten per cent have aspirations of doing something beyond the class,” says Menown. “Most of them just want to build a frame for themselves. The cost of the equipment is a big thing. And the realisation that you can’t just do it because you think it will be fun, but it has got to be a business if you want to be profitable. The people that do well treat it like that.”
We are set to meet UBI alumni Jordan Hufnagel during our visit, one of the school’s success stories. “Not everybody is as successful as Jordan,” Menown warns. “When Jordan went through class, he had half a dozen friends that wanted him to build bikes for them, and that turned into a couple of dozen, which turned into a brand.”
And what are the likes of Hufnagel being taught? “Patience and attention to detail. It’s like painting: the prep work is the hard part. The process of framebuilding is not that difficult; it’s the preparation. That is what people leaving here take with them – the basic fundamentals of tool use.
“We will get somebody who has worked in a major corporation for 35 years and retired, and they won’t have held a hacksaw or a file in all that time. We get people all the time who have no experience with a torch or a file, or any of that stuff, so their first bike is not going to be the most beautiful thing you ever saw, but it will ride just fine.”
Jeff Menown, teaching the next generation
Menown is a good talker and, no doubt, a great instructor. As a former product developer for both the American Bicycle Group and Giant, his experience came in a period when the bike trade seemed to be constantly pushing one material to the detriment of another: from steel to aluminium to titanium to carbon. They can’t all be the best, can they? Finally, sense seems to have prevailed and most are agreed that every material has its applications. Each to their own.
“I got to see a lot of both metal and carbon fabrication,” says Menown. “A metal bike, I can make three different machines for you that will all ride very different, but you can tell by looking at them, well, that will be the stiffest one – it is visible. You can’t see that with carbon unless you actually watch it being put together. That is unique with carbon. The future of hand-built bikes is probably more of that: messing around with carbon.
“What a small builder can do is that fine tuning – looking at the individual customer and selecting the fork and the tubeset, which is cool. The art comes with selecting the right tubing and geometry, and working with what the customer wants to do with the bike.”
So Menown isn’t pushing his students down one frame material path to the detriment of others? “We try to talk to people in a neutral tone. How a bike rides has more to do with how a manufacturer chooses to use the material than the material itself. Metal bikes are fun; carbon bikes are cool too, but the cost of entry into that game is quite a lot higher than steel. You take a guy like Ben Farver at Argonaut: he is getting ready to launch a range of custom carbon bikes, so he is having to outsource a lot of that work. Then there’s John Slawta [builder of Andy Hampsten’s Giro-winning steed] down at Landshark in Medford. He is actually building his own carbon bikes, buying in some tubes and lugs, but he is doing all the building himself. We are starting to see small builders play around with what we jokingly call plastic bikes.”
Hands-on approach
Menown says the UBI was “a little nervous” about opening a Portland branch, in addition to its original Ashland operation, five hours drive south in Oregon, but it has been a big hit. Portland’s travel connections are good, the ‘vocation vacation’ crowd get to stay in a cool town, and the local framebuilding talents are regularly draughted in to teach.
“We primarily use guest instructors. The brazing class that just finished up today was taken by Joseph Ahearne. He is from just a few blocks up the street. Tony Pereira is another guest instructor. For the TIG welding, Mike DeSalvo or Jim Kish of Kish Fabrication. And sometimes Paul Sadoff from Rock Lobster will come in. That is a good draw, for sure.”
As we leave the UBI, it is pouring with rain, as it has been for three days straight. Mudguards (or fenders in local parlance) are an essential item in Portland, as are good waterproofs and a sense of humour. “It keeps the assholes out of Portland,” says one wag of the local climate. He appears to be correct with that observation.
As DiStefano pointed out, Portland is not a “rainbow-coloured pathway with a permanent tailwind”, but as cycle-friendly cities go, it is certainly up there with the best. Those hippy-dippy elements of the area that Portlandia lampoons so well are precisely what makes it such a decent place to live and work. And none of the framebuilders we visited had ‘put a bird on it’. Yet…
Chris King is right. Portland is cool.

Extract from issue 31. Part 3 coming soon

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