06 August 2018

Oregon Handmade Show Cancelled: Will Portland Remain "Bicycle City?"

In January, I wrote about an Ohio town that was best known for the bicycle company that, from 1925 to 1953, manufactured its wares right in its center.  The Shelby Bicycle Historical Society was recently formed to commemorate the role bicycle-manufacturing played in Shelby, about 150 kilometers southwest of Cleveland.

Other communities have been defined by bicycle manufacturing.  Although Raleigh is associated with Nottingham, the center of the British bicycle industry was Birmingham, where a company bearing its name--Birmingham Small Arms, or BSA--made the most sought-after componentry in the peloton, as well as some fine racing bikes.  

Likewise, for most of the 20th Century, the nexus of France's bicycle industry was St. Etienne, a gritty industrial city about 50 kilometers from Lyon.  Many editions of the Tour de France have included a stage that began, ended or passed through the city, and a French rider winning such a stage is a point of pride for the nation.

For much of the time Birmingham and St. Etienne dominated their respective country's bicycle industries, a certain bike-maker was a major employer on the South Side of Chicago.  I am referring to Schwinn which, as Sheldon Brown pointed out, was the only American brand with even a pretense of quality during the "Dark Ages" of cycling in the US.

Chicago, Birmingham, Saint Etienne and Shelby all had their heydays as centers of bicycle (and, in the cases of Birmingham and Saint Etienne, component) making.  But, like empires, those enterprises fell.  Cheaper imports, mainly from Asia, are often blamed (less so for Shelby than the others).  But the biggest reasons for their demise are their failures to keep up with changes in demand as well as innovations.  Schwinn, like other companies, sponsored racing teams, but limited their efforts almost entirely to the US, until it was too late.  So, the Paramount line, begun in 1938, was, by the 1960s, a dinosaur (its fine craftsmanship notwithstanding) compared to racing bikes from Europe.

More recently, the US city most commonly associated with bike-making has been Portland, Oregon.  One difference, however, is that in the Rosebud City's bike-building scene has more closely paralleled its "craft" beer milieu than it has reflected trends and practices in mass-production bicycles.  During Portland's frame-building heyday, from about 2005 to 2010, it was claimed that over a hundred builders practiced their craft in a city of about 600,000 residents.  

It was during that time that the Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show began as an annual event in 2007.  Builders enthusiastically set up booths to show their creations to ever-appreciative audiences.  How much those exhibits translate into orders is, however, a topic of debate:  Many people go to "ooh" and "aah" at frames they will never be able to afford, or simply don't feel a need to order, their fine artistry not withstanding.  

Framebuilder Joseph Ahearne at the 2017 Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show

The phenomena I've described are being blamed for the cancellation of this year's show.  Some builders said it simply wasn't worth the time and money it took to, not only create and set up an exhibit, but to actually get to the show.  Portland and Oregon are more spread out than, say, San Francisco or any number of East Coast cities one can name. That means it's harder to entice people to attend when an event is scheduled to be  held in an out-of-the-way place, as this year's show was.

But other factors were chipping away at enthusiasm for the show.  One is that more people are buying bikes and equipment online.  Another, though, is the builders themselves:  Some have had to scale down their operations, move or simply leave the business altogether.  While the bicycle industry is trending larger--think bigger conglomerates selling more and more merchandise at lower prices--builders who make their frames by hand work in the opposite direction:  They sell less, and for higher prices.

What that means is that in spite of the high price tags for such frames, most builders don't get rich.  In fact, many barely make a living at all.  All it takes is a major rent increase in their workspace to put them out of business:  Building bikes requires a lot of space, and if builders are forced out of their loft or wherever they're working, they have can have a very difficult time finding a comparable amount of space for a rent they can afford.  

Especially if the city is gentrifying, as Portland is.  The things that made it so appealing--its roots as a blue-collar town, its scenery and its edgy arts and social scene--are attracting trust fund kids and other people with money.  It's more or less what happened to places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is now just as expensive as Manhattan but now manages to be as much a theme park as Las Vegas but with all of the character of Davenport, Iowa.

Now, I've never been to Portland, so I can't say whether it's becoming as dispiriting as Williamsburg is to me now.  (A few years ago, I felt differently.)  But from what I'm reading, the city sorts of folks depicted in "Portlandia" are changing their careers or lifestyles, or moving out.  So are the kinds of unique and unusual businesses--including custom frame building--associated with the city?

Could it be that Portland is ceding its place as the bicycle capital of the United States?  If it is, perhaps the change was inevitable: Small, labor-intensive enterprises with niche audiences generally don't last when the real estate becomes expensive.  How many bike shops, craft beer breweries, fabric weavers or tatoo artists are on 57th Street in Manhattan?


  1. Minor quibble: Schwinn's factory was located first on the near west side of Chicago, and shortly thereafter established its factory on the north side of town, not the south side.

  2. I once had a miserable but reasonably paid job, I saw a way out. During one of my long conversations with my LBS run by one guy I lamented the availability of off road capable bike frames and asked his opinion of the idea of me learning frame making and setting up business in our run down cheap to live in town.

    He hated my idea of the "Mountainbike" concept 'cos he was a racer and said that nobody would buy such a bike and I would end up poor.

    He was right about the poor bit. The city has become far too expensive to run a small business and the richer folk who live there have blocked all the streets with permanently parked cars and few ride bikes. I often wondered if someone else had that off road bike idea...

  3. This is a great post, and it illustrates the often precarious economics of the bike industry. A few years ago, I started acquiring and fixing up old bikes, thinking it would be a fun and profitable Side Hustle. I've built up and sold a few dozen bikes during that time. I've made a small profit on a few, I broke even on a few others, and I've also given bikes as presents, sold them below my cost or done lots of "charity work" by fixing bikes for free. It also seems that the market for vintage bikes has softened considerably. Earlier this year I advertised a nicely restored Raleigh Super Course on ebay and Craigslist for barely what I've put into it, and got exactly zero offers. Fortunately, a friend needed a bike and I helped him out.

  4. The half-city-block long sign in downtown Portland saying "Keep Portland Weird" has been painted over a couple of years ago now. The last time I was there (2016) I sensed a sort of depression in the air, not heavy, but in sharp contrast to the feeling of the city 15 years ago. The golden age is definitely past.

    New residencial buildings are popping up like mushrooms. There is an effort to lure people back into the core area, out from the suburbs. I sometimes cannot figure out where I am in my old home town. But the public transport remains one of the best in North America. And bikes really are ubiquitous: I have seen bike traffic jams. The coffee shops and boutiques are thinning out.

    As for rising costs of housing: my mother's house cost $5000 in 1950. That would be $52,000 in 2018 dollars. The house was sold two years ago for about $600.000. It is situated in what is today regarded as the core area.

    Davenport Iowa? I was stranded there for a day once, half a century ago, while hitch-hiking across the continent. I felt like I was wondering around in a set for an old western movie. Interesting in it's own way. I wonder if it has sky scrappers now.


  5. Mike--I don't know why I always thought the Schwinn plant was on the South Side. Most likely, someone told me and, not being familiar with Chicago, I didn't question it!

    Leo, MT and Coline--I think the show's cancellation tells us more about the economics of the bike industry, gentrification and urban history than any single incident I've heard about in a while.