“Portland is coffee, beer and bikes.” Jordan Hufnagel
And rain. Jordan forgot to mention the rain. We have been in Portland for three days now and it has not stopped, day or night. Several people commented that, coming from London, we should be used to this. London doesn’t come close. They have watched too many Sherlock Holmes movies, I reply. Pea-souper fogs, Jack The Ripper and persistent drizzle are a thing of the past.
An average 950mm of Pacific precipitation dumps on this city per year, most of it, seemingly, while we are there. “You do realise this is unusual even for Portland, right?” photographer and local resident Daniel Sharp tells me. This I am struggling to believe, but when you are soaked from head to toe for the third day in a row, it can cloud your judgement somewhat.
Portlandians seem immune to it. Water beads on their Teflon-coated outer layers and descends in rivulets to the ground. If there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, then the locals have heeded the maxim and kitted up appropriately. Their commuting bikes have mudguards because to be without would be misery. They are stoic because the alternative mindset would lead to becoming a depressing drip. And depressing drips are not good company.
So photographer Andy and I, struggling to keep our spirits up, push the inclement weather to the back of our moist minds and head for the shop of Jordan Hufnagel, just across from the east bank of the Willamette River that bisects the city.
Here’s the thing: to an Englishman – a nation of shopkeepers, according to Napoleon – the word ‘shop’ conjures up visions of double-fronted retail premises, produce proudly displayed in the bay windows, hand-painted sign above, a gently tinkling bell alerting the owner to the presence of customers. It’s a largely outdated scene but not uncommon outside the cities.
In the States, however, ‘shop’ is a shortening of workshop. So it is as we mistakenly scour a largely residential street for a commercial outlet that we happen upon a nondescript entrance to the generously proportioned space Hufnagel shares with his pal James Crowe, who is busy renovating and adapting a variety of old motorbikes.
It is hard not to draw comparisons with London, I tell Hufnagel, where such a spacious workshop in the centre of town would be beyond the means of all but the most commercially successful –and certainly way out of the reach of the humble bike builder. In Portland, rents are so reasonable it makes being creative almost obligatory. “It’s not an expensive city, so you can work a part-time job and spend the rest of the time doing whatever it is you want to be doing,” says Hufnagel. “That’s what I did for a long time. I think a lot of people do that.”
Hailing from Indianapolis (“a hell of a place…”), he was immersed in BMX and was managing a bike shop by the age of 17. He then took to the road before pitching up in Austin, Texas, in the late ‘90s, again employed in a bike shop where he could take a wide range of demo models home to test – useful research work for his next profession. “I will work insanely hard for a few years and then lose my mind and hit the road,” he explains.
The road led Hufnagel to Oregon and a framebuilding course at the United Bicycle Institute (UBI). Friends ordered his frames, then friends of friends, and before you know it, he was a fully-fledged builder with an order book and a waiting list.
“I have definitely gone through all the phases over the last five years. In the beginning, I was a convert to Portland, so I was into track bikes, and then all road bikes for a while, then it was cyclo-cross.”
Hufnagel has seven frames on the go at the moment, including a fine-looking stainless steel Columbus XCr for lugs, a rare beast. Four sturdy porteur-style machines are in production for the Ace Hotel downtown, which their fortunate clientele will be able to use to cruise the town. Hufnagel enjoys designing brake levers, stems and racks himself and also uses a healthy smattering of components from Californian manufacturer Paul, including some beautifully polished centre-pull brakes strongly reminiscent of the Mafacs so popular in the ‘60s.
“Paul does things like seatposts, cranks, hubs, a few other bits, and it is all nice American-made stuff. The American-made is as important to me as knowing it is made by someone who cares. I use a lot of products from White Industries as well – they are also down there in California.”
Irio Tommasini made an interesting point in Rouleur 31, suggesting the modern generation of American framebuilders are largely cantinari – basement workers; hobbyists rather than genuine artisans. Hufnagel is an obvious target for such a statement: tinkering away in his reasonable rent workshop, designing bits and pieces to adorn his one-off frames. There certainly appear to be plenty of Portland-based builders happy to stay small. Many seem in no rush to take on the likes of Tommasini and the medium-sized producers of Italy, nor the many homegrown (and predominantly East Coast) companies turning out custom framesets in ever-increasing numbers.
“There’s a lot of guys here that are inspired by mid-century French builders,” says Hufnagel. “They’re not content to just churn out the same thing over and over. Once you have built a couple of hundred frames, it’s pretty monotonous.
“There are so many talented builders here and we are all in good communication. We all see each other, and hang out. We all post whatever we do on Flickr and get excited about what the other guys are doing.”
I pick up an appalling pair of double-strut chromed forks languishing in the corner of the workshop. They are truly revolting, seriously heavy and, I suspect, offer little in the way of suspension. How far is Hufnagel prepared to go in meeting the requests of prospective clients? “A few years ago a customer sent me those forks and wanted me to build a bike around them. I said: ‘No ficking way, man!’ I ended up building a bike that wasn’t a springer but had some truss forks on it. He got the aesthetic he was wanting but in a nicer, functional package. I like things to be simple and functional and utilitarian. My thought process doesn’t lend itself to crazy machines. I like the classical look.”
Should you be considering placing an order for something with a classical look from Hufnagel, there could be a long wait. Jordan and his workshop partner James are off on a year long motorbike camping tour of South America, aiming to build a business around that. Framebuilding will go on the backburner. “Eventually I will have a shop again, but it won’t be frame production like I have been doing. I have so much fun in here building stuff that isn’t for particular customers. I want to build a complete bike, every single piece of it, and if it’s something I am interesting in doing, I will take orders on them, but I will never have a waiting list again. It’s the worse thing I can imagine. When you first start off and hear all these stories about long waiting lists, and think that would be so cool, and then you get it, and it is actually a nightmare. I never let it get over two years, but knowing what you are going to be doing for the next two years… That’s not how I am wired.”
One of Tommasini’s hobbyists? Maybe. But I can’t help but admire a man who refuses to get bogged down by the business side to the detriment of what he actually enjoys doing – building bikes. Expansion is the last thing on his mind.
We leave Jordan staring wistfully at his map of the world, South America-bound once the current crop of orders are cleared, while James prepares his enduro machine for the trip. Andy and I are inspired by Portland, we tell Hufnagel in the doorway, and can’t decide whether to start a microbrewery or framebuilding business once back home.
“Not framebuilding!” he fires back without hesitation.
We sample some of Oregon’s fine ales that evening and decide Hufnagel is right. Two year waiting lists are, indeed, a scary prospect. A few barrels of hoppy Rouleur IPA, however, could be knocked up before our limited attention spans start to wander. Watch this space…