These days, Portland's first bike builder doesn't even ride a bike.
Mark DiNucci, whose sturdy, graceful hand-built bikes from the '70 and '80s inspired a current generation of hip up-and-coming Portland builders, lives outside Sisters, Oregon, on a plot of land at the end of a four-mile gravel road. He's ridden a bike maybe three times in the past six years, he says, and hasn't built a real bike in two decades.
Until now, that is. Mark DiNucci has been successfully harassed out of retirement.
In a matter of days, DiNucci's new bicycle will be raced 77 miles, right alongside freshly built bikes crafted by the crop of upstart builders who have blossomed in Portland during this past decade. That is, if the bike ever gets finished. Because his tools have resided for years in a California storage space, DiNucci built the bike very slowly and with almost no mechanical help.
"I've got some bits left to do," says 56-year-old DiNucci, admitting in his deep, very laidback voice that he doesn't actually even know when the race is. "Parts I have to put on. But I'll be there—without paint."
The 31-person bike-builders race kicks off the month-long Oregon Manifest festival—a showcase for the astounding work of local handmade-bike builders. When DiNucci quit building in 1985, he and friends say he was the only person in Portland who built bikes one at a time by hand. Now there are at least 30 Portlanders crafting bikes like DiNucci did, almost all of them opening up shop in the last decade. In the past 10 years, Oregon's bike-building school, United Bicycle Institute, has roughly doubled its student population. The institute plans to open the first professional bike-building school in Portland during Oregon Manifest.
"When I was building, it was totally fringe," says DiNucci, who, back in 1972 in his friend's mom's backyard, dove into cutting the tubes for his first bike without even drawing it out first. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the bicycle was completely off (the pedals would have touched the ground), but DiNucci's second bike turned out all right. He built Strawberry brand bikes for years and remembers drinking champagne when gasoline hit a dollar a gallon, but eventually quit the solo business.
DiNucci recently received a shock after Googling his name and discovering that not only do Portland's new young frame builders remember him—he's their inspiration.
"Now all of a sudden, it's blossomed and the kids are getting it. I don't know why it's taken most of my life for this to happen, but it's just beautiful," he says.
ALL WORK AND LOW PAY
Most aspiring bike builders discover the hard way how difficult it is to build the simple machine. Even among those who scrounge together the $10,000 to $30,000 it takes to open a shop, many do not survive three years in a profession that consumes their time, passion, and patience.
Jordan Hufnagel, 28, has managed to keep his unique frame-building business rolling in Southeast Portland for two and a half years. When he pulls up to his shop 30 minutes late for our interview, he comes off as the coolest human being in existence. He's not riding a bike, but a Yamaha motorcycle. He shares his shop space with a screenprinter, tattoo machinist, and vegan ice cream seller, and just inside the building is an '80s arcade machine for the videogame Rampage. Hufnagel's not too worried about the bike builders' race, though the bike he's entering is currently a disconnected skeleton lying in pieces around the shop.
"I'm confident in what I make," he says, shrugging off the pressure of his bike's performance against DiNucci's, one of his heroes. Hufnagel worked 70 hours a week at bars and odd jobs to save up enough money to open his shop. From the get-go, Portlanders gobbled up his fast, sexy bikes with their sleek frames and bright colors. For the last two years, Hufnagel has built three or four bikes a month. Currently his waitlist is one year long.
"There's an interest there and a real romance to it. It's like a unicorn. A one-of-a-kind custom bike, you know?" says Hufnagel, in a drawl similar to DiNucci's. "But people don't realize how much work it is for very little pay."
Hufnagel puts his head down and files away at a joint on the bike he's building for Manifest. Stroke after stroke, Hufnagel runs a round file along the newly brazed joint until the lumpy weld become a ribbon of bright bronze on the steel frame. The elbow grease poured into each bike is enormous. Though it's a glamorous career, a bike builder must have a serious love of mundane, repetitive tasks. Hufnagel finds pleasure in the obsessive filing.
"I just like making things. And anytime you're going to be making something, it's going to be a lot of work. But I like that part of it, I like having dirty hands and I like having something rad to show for it."
Hufnagel's final bikes, made to perfectly fit their buyer, run between $3,500 and $5,000. He is currently considering scaling back his business so that he has more time for camping and swimming.
"I'm working around the clock and I don't really need that much money," he says.
Things look different at Aaron Hayes' shop in Northeast Portland. He's also only two years into the bike-building business, but there are no vegan ice cream vendors or videogames in sight. Thirty-five-year-old Hayes builds his bikes slowly—only 25 a year—in a former garage now lined with meticulously organized tools. His bikes are all about the details, specifically the tiny ones, and if Hayes has his way, they do not come in bright colors. Small pieces of metal brazed onto the dropouts (where wheels hook into the bike frame) are etched with the name of his one-person brand: Courage.
"There's a lot of builders out there and, you know, competition drives down prices. You have to work that much harder," says Hayes.
In his first six months as a bike builder, Hayes built five frames, ruined one (it still hangs on the shop wall where two small dents are barely visible) and entered the other four in the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. His meticulous attitude won him the prestigious Best New Builder Award.
"That first six months was really a lot of work. I fucked a lot of things up—including the relationship I was in. I was single-focused until 11 o'clock every night," says Hayes.
Hayes jokes that he's "scared shitless" of the Oregon Manifest race. He can't remember the last time he rode a bike more than 70 miles, as the builders are encouraged to ride their own bikes over the racecourse. Spending so much time building bikes, Hayes hasn't actually had any time to ride one just for fun.
But even if he collapses at the 40-mile mark, Hayes is giddy about the innovative bike he's crafting for the competition.
"I have a secret weapon," he says, lifting up a shiny stainless steel tube. The secret: The special metal will not rust, so the frame does not need to be painted. That easily saves Hayes $500 and four weeks of waiting for the paint job to be completed.
DiNucci is nonchalant about pioneering the art that now consumes the lives of Hufnagel, Hayes, and increasing numbers of Portlanders. How does the veteran outsider explain getting involved with the month-long celebration of his craft?
"Well, I thought there was going to be booze," DiNucci explains. "Everybody's been bugging me for a couple years saying, 'Hey you should build bikes again.' And I'd say, 'Do you know how much work that is?'"
Joking out of the way, DiNucci, briefly, gets sincere. In the midst of building his bike, it's clear DiNucci has been bit by the building bug. He's even talking about opening up the shop again.
"This is so much fun and so gratifying," he says. "It's kind of funny going full circle."Read the full interview with Mark DiNucci here!