“I think independent framebuilding has picked up, but I think independent businesses across the board have picked up. Portland is popular for bike makers, but it is also popular for single-operator bag makers, or dressmakers, or bakers. Places that have that local, craft-y, young-ish population – where that is popular, frame building is popular.” Eric Estlund, Winter Bicycles
We were warned it would be wet in Oregon – mostly by the people living in the drier climes of Kentucky and North Carolina we just left – but they had a point: all day rain and plenty more to come, apparently. This place makes Manchester look like Abu Dhabi.
What we had no warning of was the quality produce we have found on every step of this road trip. After a lifetime of somehow sidestepping the USA, I had built up a warped perspective of what constitutes America: McDonalds, KFC, Budweiser, Britney Spears – you get the picture.
We Brits get the very worst of what this huge, diverse country has to offer, and assume that is it. How very wrong. It transpires they have been keeping all the good stuff for themselves. Turn off the gaudy neon highways and dig around a little and every stop throws up a fine eatery with a selection of local beers to rival anything Belgium has to offer. It is foodie (and drinkie) heaven that, for an American virgin like me, has been a wonderful surprise and an attitude changer. Y’all come back soon, y’hear? You bet!
But we are not here to sample the local produce, as fine as it is. We have come to Oregon to talk to producers of bicycles, of which there are many, starting with Eric Estlund, who makes beautiful steel frames under the name of Winter Bicycles in a big old draughty building in Eugene, a couple of hours’ drive south of Portland.
Eric is vice president of the Oregon Bicycle Constructors Association and an eloquent spokesperson for the art of framebuilding – if it is an art. His past life as an artist working in metal, followed by a spell learning his chops with local folding bike manufacturer Bike Friday, suggests it is. And seeing his handiwork at close quarters confirms it. This is quality craftsmanship.
What Eric says at the top of this page regarding the growth of independent and single-operator businesses in Oregon, and many other pockets of the USA, hits the nail on the head. As framebuilding in the UK clings on by its fingernails and the remaining dozen or so guys, with the knowhow to take a pile of tubes and construct a beautiful and individually tailored machine, appear in danger of being the final generation, Portland is awash with people making spectacularly wonderful bicycles.
What Eric says, I think, is there is a sea change here in the States that we could learn from in the UK. The shop local, source local – pay just a bit more for quality produce instead of constantly seeking the bottom line – movement is strong here.
If framebuilding is to survive at home, it needs those other small businesses to grow alongside it. And for that to happen, it needs you, the consumer, to look anew at your choices. Worth thinking about the next time you step inside yet another Starbucks…
In the meantime, Andy and I are sampling the Wassail winter ale from Oregon’s Full Sail, an independent, employee-owned brewery, and mighty fine it is, too.
You have a choice, people. Do the right thing.