If you ask Natalie Ramsland, Portland is a great place to build bikes. And, considering the number of local custom frame builders has increased nearly fourfold in the past two years, it seems she's not the only one holding that belief.
Ramsland created Sweetpea Bicycles in 2006 after spotting a need for bikes sized specifically for women.
"There were too many bikes that were designed for male, European racers' bodies," says Ramsland, a 31-year-old former bike messenger.
Ramsland completed a frame-building class in Ashland three years ago and started producing steel bike frames in Portland in 2006. A former architecture student, Ramsland is now the only woman building bike frames in Oregon, and one of a handful in the United States.
Her handiwork, as well as the creations by an estimated 110 builders, will be on display at the fourth annual North American Handmade Bike Show this weekend, Feb. 8-10, at the Oregon Convention Center. The selection of Portland for the show reflects the growth of a niche industry since 2006, an expansion that insiders credit to Portland's vibrant bike culture and support of small business.
"Portland probably has more builders than other cities with high concentrations [of cyclists], like Boston and San Francisco, and they have much higher populations," says Don Walker, the bike show's founder and CEO.
Since 2006, the number of local custom frame builders has ballooned from four to 15 (one of the operations—Daedalus—builds with bamboo tubes. Another—Renovo Hardwood Bicycles—uses solid wood).
A city-comissioned study of the industry doesn't break down handmade-bike outfits, but calculates total economic activity for the bike industry, including everything from retail to tours, racing, professional services and manufacturing, at $63 million in 2006.
Ramsland thinks increased competition equals more demand.
"We all have the sense that the more of us there are, the bigger it grows," she says. "It's just become one of the natural choices a cyclist in this area has."
She shares shop space in the Goose Hollow neighborhood with veteran frame-builder Andy Newlands of Strawberry Cyclesport, drawing on his 37 years of experience and large collection of equipment and tools. Newlands' Southwest Portland shop is also his home—a simple building with no sign on the outside but with a cool interior containing copious gadgets, tools, unfinished bike frames and the obligatory playful dogs.
Like Ramsland and Newlands, most frame builders run one- or two-person operations, so they don't represent big employment numbers in the industry. But Newlands thinks their passion has helped make Portland the hub of custom building in the U.S.
"Portland is known as a do-it-yourself city," Walker says. "Who knows where it's going to stop?"
Portland also scored when Chris King Components moved here from California in 2003. The business makes high-end headsets and hubs, and has "between 50 and 100" employees at its Northwest Portland facility.
"We moved here because of the quality of life, the cycling culture and the employment pool," says company spokesman Chris DiStefano. "Why not be where there's a rich culture of racing and builders?"
He's impressed with the builders who've appeared on the scene in the past couple of years. "They're serious about building bikes. They have real skills," DiStefano says. "They've taken classes, created brand identities, and show a maturity about the industry."
The general public can attend the bike show on Saturday (10 am-6:30 pm) and Sunday (9:30 am-5 pm) for $15 with an advance ticket or $18 at the door. A two-day pass is $28 with advance ticket, or $32 at the door. Friday is industry and media day, but the general public can enter at 1 pm with purchase of a three-day pass, $75 with advance purchase or $90 at the door. Admission is reduced with industry credentials. For more info, visit handmadebicycleshow.com/2008 and check out
FACT: So, you want a custom bike? Pursuing one is like any good relationship—it takes time and money to get it right. Complete Sweetpea bikes start at $3,500—and it will take about a year to get your hands on the final product. Sweetpea is currently booked out for a year, and some builders say they have a five-year wait list. However, some are faster. And if you don't have a special bike in mind, they often have frames ready to go and you could be up and pedaling within a few weeks.