We head across town to meet Eric Estlund, otherwise known as Winter Bicycles. We will not make the same mistake as in Portland and search for a shopfront. Estlund is found in a big draughty space in the corner of a huge old warehouse space. This is the Winter Bicycles shop.
Had there been time to roam the streets of Eugene to hunt down left wing radicals and activists, Estlund would have been an obvious target; luxuriantly hirsute, plentiful tattoos, multiple piercings. He has that look that customs officers predictably hone in on, pulling its owner aside for questioning and searching while a besuited businessman sails through with a suitcase stuffed with contraband.
Estlund is a model citizen, vice president of the Oregon Bicycle Constructors Association (OBCA), an affiliation of around 40 builders across the state formed to pool resources and ideas. Together they are stronger.
“It’s a bunch of guys who got together to promote what was going on in Portland around that time and I got involved when I started up on my own,” Estlund explains. “If there was an organisation locally, I wanted my fingers in the pie. It is good to stay on top of how what we are doing as independent operators fits in with the bike industry as a whole.
Eric Estlund, craftsman
“There is some romanticism at the single builder level about not being part of the bike industry. It is not really the case. I enjoy that what I do is a unique product, but I also enjoy that I can put it up against production bikes and feel that there are benefits to it. It is a standalone product within a bigger industry. I like that the OBCA, at least at our core, is aware of that. That relationship is important, both for testing and development.”
Estlund’s own background is in metal-based art. That may explain some of the beautiful detailing on his frames, although he is clear that function takes precedence. “It’s a bike first. If somebody wants to build bike-shaped art, I have nothing against it, I just don’t think it should be confused in a builder’s mind, or a customer’s.”
Eugene is home to two big bike producers: Co-Motion and Bike Friday, both practically unknown in the UK but obviously doing well at home. Estlund moved to the city to work at Bike Friday, brazing a mind-boggling 1,500 folding frames per year. Now, as a single operator with bike shows to attend and a business to run, he will produce between 20 and 30 frames in an average year, plus (like Jordan Hufnagel) a variety of small parts that complement his work perfectly. I am particularly taken by one of his stems, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ITM Eclypse that was far and away the best looking component on my old track iron. “Simple, elegant and built for a purpose. Good design is good design,” says Estlund, summing up better than I ever could.
What intrigues me is how framebuilders make their work stand out from the crowd without unnecessary fripperies. Estlund attends a fair few bike shows, mainly those aimed at the handbuilt market, such as the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS), Bespoked in Bristol and OBCA’s own event in Portland. Here the “seeds are sown”: tentative enquiries made, relationships built – an important aspect stressed by all of the builders we have met on this trip. That one-to-one customer care is a big part of the deal for those seeking their dream machine. A curmudgeonly recluse lacking in social skills (and I have met a few back home over the years…) would get nowhere in the States. Interaction is key.
So Estlund’s frames may well be “simple, elegant and built for a purpose”, but how does he pull in the punters at shows? “There are certain things, like the headtube treatments I do, that are fairly unique: the sculptural bit of my headtubes, that is a clear element where even the untrained eye could see from a distance that it is my work; the way I transition drop outs; some of my fillet finish work. I like to think that the general bike as a whole is recognisable as mine.
“I try and layer the details into the design so it is subtle. If you look at it, it is a bike. If you want to enjoy the details, you can, without it being gaudy or overdone.”
There is, indeed, nothing gaudy about Estlund’s bikes but plenty of pleasing detail under close scrutiny. As a spokesman for his trade, he is eloquent and engaging, banging the drum for the builders of Oregon, beavering away in their draughty shops. Where else in the US has a strong handmade bike contingent?
“There is a New England pocket; a West Coast spread; California has a lot of builders, especially northern California. Where bicycle manufacturing happened historically in this country, there is still small-scale building. Certainly in the last ten years or so, I think independent framebuilding has picked up, but I think independent, single operator businesses across the board have picked up. Portland is popular for bike builders, but it is also popular for single operator bag makers, or dressmakers, or bakers. Places that have young, craftey, local businesses: where that is popular, framebuilding seems to be popular. It is a little hard to tell what is cause and what is effect.”
"If you want to enjoy the details, you can, without it being gaudy or overdone"
It was time to head back to Portland to sample more of its independent businesses’ produce. This time it was the very cool Hopworks Bike Bar, with its Chris King-designed beer taps, an array of local builders’ frames above the bar and bottle cages holding beer bottles lining the walls. It could so easily be naff. It isn’t.
We meet up with some of Portland’s finest framebuilders: Ira Ryan, Tony Pereira, Ben Farver of Argonaut, Nate Meschke and Matt Cardinal from Signal. Slate Olson had kindly pulled together the evening under the loose title of a framebuilders’ forum, but we drink beers, nibble chicken wings and shoot the breeze about everything and nothing. And to be frank, it’s a blessed relief after the last few days of talking shop to spend an evening just getting to know a thoroughly decent bunch of guys over a beer or three.
Our Portland stay is over. The morning of our departure is bathed in bright sunshine, only for normal service to be resumed by lunchtime. The clouds roll in from the Pacific yet again and do their worst.
As Chris DiStefano pointed out in issue 31, Portland is not a rainbow-coloured pathway with a permanent tailwind, and it would be wrong to paint it as such. It is a living, breathing, modern city that has taken an alternative route to healthy revival where other industrial centres in the States have failed miserably. There is much to be admired in its outlook and little to criticise. And bikes – and the people who build them – are very much part of the city’s ethos.
I’ll drink to that. Now, where’s that home brewing kit?
Winter Bicycles will be at Bespoked in Bristol, April 17-19