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.  


  1. That's a rad story. Where did you get the name "Fiamma"?

  2. Awesome story Ryan. With a little editing this would make a great article in Peloton or other bike mag like that. Speaking of Peloton have you read Heidi Swift's account of her Tour de France Reve ride that is published on the Peleton web site. Also check out the "lessons learned" about craftsmanship at the end of this article: http://www.passagemaker.com/subscriptions/channels-e-newsletter/item/1583-building-jervis-bay