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Building a better bicycle

Portland contest brings out best in bike innovation
by: L.E. BASKOW, Portland bicycle builder Joseph Ahearne (above) adjusts the brakes on his current project from within the workshop he shares with Mitch Prior. Both builders will participate in Oregon Manifest’s “Constructors' Design Challenge.”

It's the perfect event for a bicycle-crazed city. The Oregon Manifest's 'Constructor's Design Challenge' will certainly produce some unique two-wheelers, especially with 32 of the country's top builders creating them. They have been charged with making their version of the 'ultimate transportation bike' - a flexible and durable portage bicycle that anybody could see themselves riding to work, the grocery store or the library.

Thirteen of the 32 featured builders call Portland home, an example of the burgeoning business of bicycles in the Rose City.

Mitch Prior, owner of Map Bicycles, can hardly wait to see what people unveil. The bikes will be judged on Oct. 2 and taken for a ride on Oct. 3 - 77 miles from Vernonia to Portland. The top 12 will be on display at the Oregon Manifest office at Northwest 10th Avenue and Hoyt Street in the Pearl District for the remaining five weeks of the 'Oregon Manifest '09' celebration.

'It's just going to hopefully show what different flavors of bikes there are to choose from,' Prior says. 'Hopefully, personalities come out in these challenge bikes. A lot of people looking for a custom bike will look at Portland, because there are so many builders. And, it's got such a good reputation for being a good town to ride your bike in.

'It's going to be neat to see all these builders, how over the top people take it, or how straightforward they are. Mine's going to be straightforward. It's for a customer. Can't be too crazy.'

Prior, 30, has built his own bikes for about three years. He shares a shop on North Page Street with another top builder, Joseph Ahearne of Ahearne Bicycles, who has been in the business for seven years and has a three-and-a-half-year customer waiting list.

Prior describes his challenge bicycle, which hasn't gone much past the frame phase, as 'a city bike that's going to have a rack and a flat handlebar, and it's going to be a little more upright for around town riding. To some degree, it's going to be a little 'racy,' and it's going to be unpainted for the race; thought it'd be neat to do a (Map) graphic on the frame and leave it unpainted, so judges can look at the handiwork.'

Ahearne says he doesn't care whether he wins or not. The joy will be in displaying his work alongside the other great bike builders.

'It's absolutely and totally unracelike,' says Ahearne, 38, of his bicycle, which recently went to the painting stage. 'It's very much a commuter, and it's going to be a pretty brownish-orange, not quite brick red.

'I'm also building it for somebody, and it's actually a surprise for that person.'

Other Portland builders in the event: Cielo by Chris King (not being judged); Courage Bicycle Mfg. Co.; Hufnagel Cycles; Ira Ryan Cycles; Metrofiets; Pereira Cycles; Quixote Cycles; Signal Cycles; Sprout Cycles; Ti Cycles; Tsunehiro Cycles; Vertigo Cycles.

'It's all about transportation bikes right now,' says Jocelyn SyCip, director of Oregon Manifest, which promotes cycling and cycling lifestyle. 'There's such a movement to bicycles as part of our daily lifestyle and transportation.'

So, it makes sense that a city that encourages bicycle riding has attracted a plethora of builders, about 30, Oregon Manifest says.

'There are definitely more here, per capita, than anywhere else,' Ahearne says.

Adds Prior: 'It seems like every few months I'm noticing a new bike builder in town.'

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW • Portland bicycle builder Mitch Pryor has found a strong market for high-end bikes.

Personal touch

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Prior worked as a mechanic and then learned his craft from a builder in Michigan. He set up shop in Portland, helped Ahearne with a bike and then started developing a company himself.

'You can only take (being a mechanic) so far before you get the bug to build one from scratch,' says Prior, who adds that he has a two-year customer waiting list.

Prior focuses on traditional styles, using lugs to join tubing - the lugging process involves using a joint sleeve with a miter inside, and then adding silver to the tubes and lugs and brazing them. Everything fuses. 'You can make an ornamental look, or carve it into where it's aesthetically pleasing,' he says.

Prior designs racks for his bikes, often attached to the front wheel for panniers (bags), with carrying loads being a consideration in design. Wheels, handlebars, seat, brakes and gearing are all custom-ordered - the major expense on bikes that he builds for $4,000 to $6,000.

Prior produces about two bikes per month, and Ahearne says he builds anywhere from 20 to 40 per year. He got his start after taking a class from noted builder Tim Paterek, who lives in Southwest Washington; Paterek then offered to sell Ahearne his equipment.

'A very fortuitous meeting,' says Ahearne, who's originally from Kansas City, Mo.

Ahearne describes his bikes, which generally start at around $5,500 with much of the cost being custom parts, as fairly unique because of their tubing and lug-free brazing. He fuses tubes together by melting steel together and using brass.

'There's a lot of people who want high-end brazed bikes,' he says. 'You can go to a bike shop for that, but a person who wants specific needs or maybe somebody who doesn't happen to be proportionally average in body type or somebody who just wants something super nice, those are the people I build for.'

Prior and Ahearne have a different relationship in that they share a shop.

'We have a good relationship,' Prior says. 'We've not found it to be competition. It's a real niche business.'

Aheare says while he welcomes other builders in Portland. 'I wish them luck, it's not easy,' he says. 'It's really competitive and difficult to get started. You gotta pay your dues for about three years.'