The Trail Gods Made Me Do It: A Prelude to Shred Camp

Over the last three years or so of adventuring in the wilds of the Northwest, India and I have developed a persistent habit of getting ourselves in over our heads when we head for the woods on two wheels.  Through a combination of overconfidence, under-planning, audacity and plain ignorance we have set out on and somehow survived some truly absurd but occasionally revelatory bike rides.  

This April, we set out to ride the East Fork Hood River Trail.  We were itching for a mountain bike ride and the trail looked to be at a low enough elevation that it wouldn't be covered by snow.  Foolishly, we did no further research.  As we quickly discovered, the trail had been completely washed off the riverside by a massive flood that came through several years ago and dragged an entire campground away with the trail attached.  

We portaged our bikes upstream over under and through scattered trees in the flood zone hoping to find a clear section of singletrack on the other side of the disaster area.  We passed by the remains of trail bridges, campground picnic tables and other chunks of man's feeble infrastructure that the swollen river had tossed aside like so many Lego bricks.

Eventually, the fact that the trail truly did not exist anymore became clear.  By the time we stubbornly conceded this reality we had gone too far to warrant turning back, so we looked at the map and decided to make for a gravel road that paralleled the trail on the eastern side.  After a cross-country hike-a-bike through the trackless woods, we found the road that appeared to offer an easy exit.  Not half a mile up the road, we hit snow.  Then it got deeper.  

We postholed and pushed our bikes through the crusty slush and the boggy roadside ditches for at least four miles until we emerged to the highway.  

We have plenty of other tales of ill-concieved death marches that I won't bore you with today, but I relate this one little story to illustrate the fact that anybody who blindly follows India and I on a bike ride is a damn fool and had better have a taste for prolonged periods of suffering and discomfort.  Most of the poor souls who have had the misfortune to ride with us can attest to the fact that rides we strike out on tend to be longer, harder and more painful than anticipated, advertised or necessary.  Despite repeated adventures of similar style, we haven't learned to plan more carefully or do extra research but have adapted by carrying more food and water and increasing our threshold for misery.  It's a fact of our lives that we've grown to accept and have learned to compensate for.  

Unfortunately, Chris and Laura - our old friends from down south - haven't ridden with us in recent times and were at least mostly unaware of the terror they would soon face when they packed bikes and boarded flights to Oregon for several days of mountain bike rides this August.  India and I were left to plan the itinerary, placing our poor friends at the mercy of the cruel-hearted trail gods who drag our fingers in Ouija board fashion across dotted lines on maps.  What will soon follow is the story of those four days: Cascade Shred Camp 2012.  Don't forget your compass and space blanket, we might to be out a while.


Rapha NW Gentlemen's Race 2012

Last weekend, India and I joined a band of miscreants connected to the shadowy organization known as VeloDirt for a little bike ride up around Mount Hood.  This little bike ride happened to be the 2012 Rapha NW Gentlemen's Race and would take our team of six over a 121 mile course and up 12,000 feet of climbing.  The story of our day's adventure can be found on the VeloDirt website, penned and photographed by yours truly.  It was a great day and a resounding success on all accounts.  

More photos from the ride are up on the Flickr page.  Check out Jason's flickr as well as John Prolly's gallery for some other views of the day.

Tomorrow we head to Bend for a mountain bike vacation with some old friends from down south.  Look for stories and photos from our fat-tired adventures very soon.


Alchemy, Bicycle Construction and the Personal Legend

Preface:  Ira recently put up a blog post about my work at Ira Ryan Cycles that got me thinking about the path I've travelled to get to where I am now.  What follows is a brief account of my search and discovery of my personal legend. 

The first handmade, custom bicycle I ever saw and recognized as such belonged to Robbie Burton, a longtime Sunshine Cycles customer, passionate rider and all-around great guy.  It was a red and white Retrotec road machine that Robbie commissioned in honor of a good friend and riding partner who had passed away in a tragic cycling accident several years before.  Along with the weighty significance of the dedication, I was taken with the swooping lines, clean workmanship and smooth ride of the steel frame, even though test-riding the bike required me to use some serious contortionist skills.  Robbie himself said it best when he told me, "I'm just a weird-shaped dude, Ryan."  As my mechanical abilities and understanding broadened, I grew ever more fascinated with the concepts and process of bicycle construction and felt that learning to build frames would be a natural evolution of my skill set.   

When most people talk about "building" a bike or a new "custom build", what they're really talking about is "assembling" a bike.  Even if every component on the bike has been carefully considered, purposefully chosen and precisely installed all you're doing is bolting components onto a frame, securing fasteners and making adjustments.  I wanted to learn to really build a bike, to join metal with fire, to take a box of thin-walled steel tubes and fashion them into a one-of-a-kind bicycle using my hands, eyes and simple tools.  Despite my desire I was faced with a daunting problem: how to get my hands on this carefully guarded knowledge?  The glamourous world of custom bicycle construction seemed so far away from my humble workbench in the heart of Dixie.  All the builders whose work I saw in glossy pictorial volumes and on the internet were on the West coast, in New England or Colorado.  In addition to the geographic barriers, the skills of the framebuilding trade seemed to be jealously kept secrets, known only to a privileged few master builders and not available to people like me.  Many years would elapse before I got the chance to realize my dream. 

When asked why we moved to Portland from our old home in Georgia, the answer India and I deliver always contains two key elements: graduate school for her and handmade bicycles for me.  We had been living in Athens, Georgia for several years, fallen in love, moved in together, and gotten married.  Now the time had come for us to pack up and head out to start making a life for ourselves.  We had been reading The Alchemist and were all hopped up on the idea of "following our personal legend," so the wild lands of Cascadia seemed to be the perfect destination for the next phase of our lives.  What better place to find yourself than the woods of Oregon, under the towering pines immortalized by Kerouac and criss-crossed by a lifetime's worth of world-class singletrack?  On top of all that, Portland is a world-renowned hotbed of custom bicycle construction.  It wouldn't be hard to believe that sweet steel bikes really do grow on trees out here.  In classic all-the-eggs-in-one-basket style, India sent her one and only application for graduate schooling to Pacific University, was accepted, and the rest is history.  We loaded the car with mountain bikes and camping gear, aimed the headlights West and began our trek across the continent.  [More on that story can be found in the archives.]

My plan (if I actually had a plan) was to get a job at a bike shop wherever I could, save some money and take a framebuilding course at the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon.  UBI is one of a small handful of trade schools for bike mechanics and offers classes in maintenance and repair, suspension service and professional shop operation in addition to framebuilding.  I started dreaming up grandiose scenarios in which I would attend a framebuilding course at UBI, build myself a beautiful touring bike, ride it across the country, return home to glorious fanfare having mastered the craft of bicycle construction and attained enlightenment on the open road, start up shop and quickly become the preeminent bike builder in the southeastern United States.  Sometimes I miss that kind of foolish idealism.  It wasn't long before I realized that the forks in the trail of my personal legend would only rarely be marked.  

Fairly early in the time of my tenure at Weir's Cyclery, my coworker Andy got a call on the shop phone from Ira Ryan.  I knew of Ira from photos of his bikes - mostly traditionally-styled road, 'cross and touring bikes - and always admired his clean, classic work and the fact that his bikes were built to be ridden hard, not pampered and babied like so many handmade bikes.  His classy headbadge and the fact that we shared a name didn't hurt either.  Right up until a few weeks before I was hired at Weir's, Ira was building bikes in a rented corner of the bike shop's basement.  He and Andy had become friends during that time, and Ira had called to invite Andy over to see the new shop in the garage of his recently-purchased home.  Andy said he'd come by with some beers after work and asked if he could bring the new guy along.  

After shutting the bike shop down at 7:00, we rolled across the street for a six-pack of some tasty Belgian ale, pedaled South into the Arbor Lodge neighborhood and skidded around a gravel corner into the alley where Ira let us in through the back gate.  We shook hands, exchanged introductions and cracked the caps off our beers while we took the grand tour of the shop.  It was at this moment that many of my misconceptions about the glamorous world of bicycle building were dispelled.  This was the workshop of a hardworking craftsman with callused hands, a keen eye, a sharp file and a tight budget.  Chips, flakes and filings of metal littered the floor, stacks of tubing bristled from shelves, bikes and frames in various stages of completion hung from the rafters and walls of the repurposed two-car garage.  Battered race numbers, images of high mountain passes, rugged roads and the great heros of bicycle racing covered the walls.  There was a sense of ordered chaos about the place.  Ira himself was genial, humble and friendly with no hint of the air of superiority I would have expected from someone in his position showing the greenhorned new kid in town around his shop.  We drank our beers and shot the shit around the kerosene heater as the clouded darkness of the Portland winter night settled in outside.  Before long I had drank my share and my belly was starting to rumble for some dinner.  Andy and I packed our bags, pulled on our rain shells and got ready to head out.  As I zipped my jacket and pulled on gloves, I offered my services to Ira should he ever need some help around the shop.  He thanked me politely as Andy and I pushed our bikes out the door and into the street, parted ways and headed for home.  

I didn't expect to hear back from Ira about work.  I was certain that he was doing just fine on his own and had turned down plenty of mechanics or assistants who had more to offer than I did.  A few weeks passed and I had just about forgotten that I had even made the offer until Ira called the bike shop and asked for me.  He had a couple of frames coming back from paint that needed to get built up and sent out on a short timeline and asked me to come in and help with the assembly.  I was a little dumbfounded, but agreed to come in that week on my day off.  Somehow I managed to rein in my nerves well enough to avoid scratching the fresh paint or cutting a steerer tube too short.  Ira and I got along well and he continued to call me in when he needed help with wheel builds, assembly, and miscellaneous other jobs.

The summer after I started working fairly regularly with Ira, my beat-to-shit rig of a cyclocross bike developed a crack.  With the fall racing season rapidly approaching, I started scanning the catalogs to find my new 'cross racer.  Most of the mass-produced offerings I could get my hands on cut too many corners, were bland and unappealing, over-the-top flashy, way too expensive or all of the above.  I didn't like my options.  I related my dilemma to Ira one day and he responded rather flippantly, "well let's build you a bike, then!"  I didn't need to think twice to agree.  With Ira's help and guidance, I built my first bicycle: a super-sick lugged cyclocross bike.  As I was still holding down a full-time bike shop job in addition to work with Ira and trying to find time to ride, the process moved along at a slow pace.  Still, the glassy sheen of hot flux and the feeling of using the torch to pull molten silver from one side of a lug to the other has stuck with me.  I also vividly remember the first lap of my first race on my yet-unnamed bike at the Cross Crusade in Sherwood.  On the back section of the course was a fast, double-track descent that was pockmarked with hoofprints from heavy horse traffic.  I heard the rapid-fire, metal-on-metal clatter of my chain lashing the chainstay, taking off chips of paint as I smashed over the hoofprints tight on the wheel in front of me.  I had a sinking feeling when I realized what I was doing to my bicycle's pristine orange powdercoat, cursed myself for forgetting to install a chainstay protector and apologized to the bike, let her know that things weren't going to be easy for her, that this was just a taste of the tough times yet to come.  After we came to that understanding, Fiamma and I floated around the dusty, bumpy race course with a kind of grace I never knew a bicycle could deliver.  She was smooth, sure-footed and inspired more confidence than I had ever had in a race.  Three laps in and I was pushing harder into corners than I ever had before, taking more aggressive lines, making bold passes and feeling like a champion.  I don't remember what position I finished in that day but I know that I crossed the line grinning like a fool, knowing that I had created something special with this bike. 

Since then, Fiamma and I have had some great adventures together, from moving into the Category A ranks of the Cross Crusade to the 127 miles of punishment of the Oregon Stampede to long rides in the cold wet of the seemingly endless Portland winter to the test of endurance and suffering known as the Rapha Gentlemen's Race.  I've also continued working with Ira and doing my best to make a strong contribution to Ira Ryan Cycles.  I like the idea of his customers riding their bikes over mountains and rivers, city streets and singletrack without having to worry about their wheels needing to be trued or mechanical problems caused by slipshod assembly work.  I strive to put my very best work into every bike and hope that the customers can feel the difference when they ride their bikes.  Also, I am currently in the process of building my second bike; a fillet-brazed cyclocross bike for India.  Despite all this, I'm easily caught up in small, daily struggles and lose sight of the big picture.  All too often, I fall into the stress trap laid out for me by a world whose workings I fail to understand and where I still struggle to find my place.  In times when I lose perspective, I have to remind myself to think back, consider where I started, how far I've come and remember that I am living my personal legend here and now.  Recapturing that youthful joy and idealism is not always easy in a grown-up world that seems tilted to make every day an uphill battle, but one good bike ride is all that's needed to remind me.  


Summertime and the Quarter-Life Crisis

So, due to an odd combination of circumstances I have found myself in a position that I haven't been in since high school.  After six years of battle in the trenches of bicycle retail and summers spent slaving in steaming southern kitchens before that, I've found myself unemployed.  

Since moving to Portland almost exactly three years ago, I devoted the vast majority of my time and energy to the sometimes impossible task of moving an old neighborhood bike shop into the future against the will of a jaded, middle-aged owner who seemed bent on the shop's destruction.  At first, I wasn't thinking about it that much.  I was hired in November of 2009 to head the service department, so that's what I did.  I buried myself in the monumental task of organizing the scattered mess of shelves, bins and drawers full of parts and tools, sorting the useful from the useless and assembling the shambles I inherited into something resembling a professional bicycle service department.  Arriving as I did on the end of a string of good mechanics that didn't stick around and bad mechanics who only seemed capable of botching repairs, I was immediately forced into damage-control mode, assuring customers that I wasn't like those who had come before and could be counted on to deliver their bicycle on time, on budget and in the best condition possible.  Slowly, the shop began to regain a reputation for honest, quality repair work.  

I was happy working at the repair stand and keeping an eye on other mechanics to be sure every job was done right, but as older employees moved on I was steadily saddled with greater amounts of responsibility.  Eventually I found myself managing the shop, tasked with completing or delegating every task necessary for daily operation except paying the bills and managing finances, still the responsibility of ownership.  I worked hard and came home exhausted after nine to ten-hour days swimming upstream, trying to make the most of the situation for the good of our current and would-be customers.  I was able to make a lot of positive changes and bring the shop many steps closer to actually meeting their needs, but was only able to do so much.  I could see huge possibilities and ways to define a niche, become a true destination shop in the Portland area and even for the entire Northwest, but kept running into the roadblocks put up by an owner determined to maintain the status quo of mediocrity without a thought for the shop's long-term health or potential for growth.  His only objective was to pay down the shop's debts and get out of the bike business.  Fair enough.  

I did all the spin-doctoring I could, answered customers questions about why the floor was so empty, explained to sales reps why we couldn't bring in any new product, smoothed over neglected credit reps  and tried to make up for the shop's shortcomings with my hard work, personality and that of my coworkers.  After enduring the beatdown and making excuses for several months, I was nearly at my wits end.  Business was picking up as the springtime sun began to show itself, and we were on track for a disastrous summer for the shop and my sanity if things didn't change, and soon.  At the end of the previous summer, after three months of constant toil at the expense of my mental well-being, I had told myself that I wouldn't endure another summer of work like that one but my overinflated sense of responsibility to our customers had kept me on the job and I found myself staring down the barrel of another selling season.  Something had to give.  

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I either needed to buy the shop or put in my notice.  Again, my sense of responsibility to the customers and the neighborhood was a huge factor in my thinking.  If I couldn't make the changes as a manager, maybe I could as an owner.  I had always seen myself owning a bike shop at some point in my life and despite the strain my decision would put on my marriage and the truly massive amount of work I would be burdened with for the foreseeable future, it felt like the right thing to do.  So, I started down the path toward buying the shop.  Early in the mornings and on my days off, I sat hunched over business plans, financial records, market research, and loan applications.  I strategized, planned and struggled to make sense of the realities of small business ownership.  I've never had a head for business but was convinced that I could make the bike shop profitable through passion, hard work and common sense if I could only get the old owner out of the way.  Unfortunately, the only way I could effect that change was with a big, fat check.  Even in the shop's depleted state, the amount of money necessary to buy the place outright was a daunting figure and banks aren't exactly thrilled to hand out business loans to starry-eyed kids whose only collateral is a stable of bicycles.  I had reached what felt like an impasse and would either have to redouble my efforts and find the money to hire an accountant who could help me over the wall or walk away from the deal altogether.  I had done as much as I could on my own.  

The decision and its consequences weighed me down heavily.  Days at work seemed impossibly long and draining but I had convinced myself that I was working for my own future as owner-to-be and managed to disguise my exhaustion.  So much of my sense of self-worth was now wrapped up in the shop but I still wasn't in control of its destiny.  Beer after work and mountain bike rides on the weekend kept me going but only barely.  I knew that I was at a crux.  To get the shop moving in the right direction for 2013 I needed to take over the captain's chair by the fall of 2012 when new dealer agreements are inked with bicycle manufacturers and other vendors.  Time was running short.  

At the end of June, my family came to Oregon for a visit and India and I joined them for a long weekend in Bend.  I was so preoccupied with indecision and internal struggle over buying the bike shop that I was barely able to interact and be present with my family.  I was in another place altogether.  Finally, India and I got a chance to get away for a mountain bike ride and things started to make sense again.  All I needed was to go out and lose myself on the trail for a few solid hours before the lost sense of clarity began to return and I realized that buying the shop was not the right thing for me to do, that it would be a wrong-headed, selfish decision.  My ego was so wrapped up with the shop that I could see no other way to justify my existence and prove myself than to take it on.  I had convinced myself that I was doing it for the customers, which was part of the truth.  Below that level of altruism I was doing it to prove something to myself and to the world, to prove that I could do it better, that I was smart enough, had the skills and passion to make the shop profitable and successful; a shop I could be proud of.  In the process I had lost myself completely, lost the sense of humor, adventure and excitement that used to permeate my life and make every day worth living.  The time had come for me to leave the bike shop and recenter myself, to recapture the abiding sense of joy and peace that used to move me through the world.

These thoughts bore themselves out over the next couple of days and one more long ride on the amazing trails outside of Bend and I returned to Portland ready to put in my notice.  The day after Independence Day, I made my announcement to the boss.  He responded with ambivalence initially but reacted with anger and aggression three days later when I reminded him that I would soon be leaving for a week of vacation with India's family.  This vacation had been planned, approved and on the calendar since February when we booked our flights and even though I had already made all the preparations for my absence he informed me that that day - Monday, July 9th - would be my last.  So, depending on your perspective I either quit or was fired after two years and nine months of hard work.  I packed my things and unceremoniously headed out the back door after closing that night.  It was the end of an era, both for me and the shop.  My only regret is not being able to say goodbye to the handful of regular customers who made the job worth doing and reminded me why I had started working in bike shops in the first place.  I hope they don't wind up thinking less of me and have to imagine that they will somehow understand what brought us to this point.  

So, here I am.  Between careers in the middle of the Northwestern summer with long, sunny days to fill with bike rides, exploration and self-discovery.  Even though the situation has all the makings of a classic quarter-life crisis, I couldn't be more excited about the possibilities. 

This won't be like those carefree teenage summers when gas was a dollar a gallon and my biggest concern was how to round up $20 to fill the tank of Alex's boat so we could spend the day dragging each other around Lake Lanier, catching air on wakeboards.  There are bills to pay, rent to make, food to buy.  No job equals no money, and even though I'll be working for some framebuilder friends and doing the best that I can to build my writing abilities into a business, it will likely be some time before that work starts to pay off.  Severe austerity measures have been imposed and the value of little luxuries like a pint of beer at the pub or a food cart lunch just got much greater.  Though this could be seen as a setback, I'm excited about the opportunity to simplify my life and take the time to truly appreciate those little things that I may have taken for granted before.  Fortunately, we're good at living cheaply, bike rides are free and I have a highly supportive wife who is more invested in my mental and emotional well-being than the paycheck I bring home.  It's going to be a great summer, so crack open a cold one any way you like and raise a toast to today and the future!