Blumenauer urges Portland bike makers to forge new industry alliance

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, top left, with local bike
makers at the United Bicycle Institute Wednesday.
(Photo by M. Andersen/BikePortland)

(Jonathan Maus contributed to this story.)

Portland is nationally known as the city with the highest number of bike riders. But when it comes to making bikes, our reputation is about quality, not quantity. We’re known for custom, handcrafted bikes, but not for producing them in large numbers. The city’s mature cluster of bike makers could change that if they teamed up, representatives of the local industry’s small businesses agreed at a roundtable discussion led by U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer on Wednesday.

The event was convened by Rep. Blumenauer, who said he’d “dedicated my life” to making biking a big part of the city and would happily look for ways to help the industry itself become “the next part of the Oregon identity” if they can offer a clear list of ideas within the next few months. The event was a more focused follow-up to a visit to the same location by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce in September.

“A lot of folks at this table are at the point where we’ve scraped and saved and built this from the ground and now we’re getting to the point where we need to scale up.”
— Ira Ryan, Breadwinner Cycles

“A lot of folks at this table are at the point where we’ve scraped and saved and built this from the ground and now we’re getting to the point where we need to scale up,” said Ira Ryan of Breadwinner Cycles, who earlier this year teamed up with competitor Tony Periera with a goal to create “Portland’s flagship bicycle company.”

Using an anlogy he said he’d heard from Natalie Ramsland of Sweetpea Bicycles, which builds custom-fit bike frames, Phillip Ross of cargo bike maker Metrofiets said Portland has the opportunity to be just as identified with quality bike manufacturing as Maine is with quality lobsters.

“The milk industry had something like that,” said Jude Kirstein of Sugar Wheel Works, which hand-builds custom wheels. “The beef industry had something like that. Where’s our ‘Got Bike?’ [campaign]”

“The analogy I would draw is to the Oregon wine industry,” Blumenauer said. “They realized they could build a brand, and there are now 470 wineries. I’m going to a big event with them Saturday night.”

Blumenauer, a former city commissioner, suggested that the group should make a pitch to the Portland Development Commission (PDC) to get a part-time administrator who could support and coordinate the industry collaboration.

“I do believe that this [industry cluster] is every bit as promising, if not more, than the others we have here.”
— Rep. Earl Blumenauer

“I do believe that this [industry cluster] is every bit as promising, if not more, than the others we have here,” Blumenauer said. “The footwear industry: people talk about Nike and Adidas. Let’s talk about Keen, which is little and growing. Let’s talk about Danner boots.”

Dave Woronets of Zen Bicycle Fabrication, which makes frames and forks for other brands at their production facility in north Portland, said many people in the bike industry had been impressed recently by the Fort Collins Bicycle Industry Alliance in Colorado.

“They’re really getting some big attention in the bike industry just by being a coalition,” he said.

Blumenauer urged the group present Wednesday to move quickly on the decision and agree on a plan by early spring at the latest.

If you’re sensing a bit of déjà vu, that’s because this idea has been floating around Portland since 2006 when Portland City Council passed a resolution that officially recognized the local bicycle industry. That resolution (spearheaded by then Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams) sparked action from the PDC, who designated a staffer to put some teeth into the effort. There was a big meeting in City Hall, a plan to host a major bike industry trade show in Portland, and even the formation of the “Oregon Bicycle Business Association”.

Unfortunately, the pieces to the puzzle failed to come together and none of those efforts bore much fruit. There’s reason to hope things could be different this time around. The city of Detroit has sparked excitement for trying to bring back high-volume bicycle making to U.S. shores. And locally, Chris King has laid a hopeful foundation with their Cielo brand while companies like Breadwinner and Zen Bicycle Fabrication show there’s a market and a willingness for a more production-oriented, high-volume approach.

If the effort this time around is to be successful, it will take a commitment from both Blumenauer and members of the local bike industry. As we’ve seen with Oregon Craft Beer, there is huge upside to organize collectively for the greater good of the industry.

“This is going to happen,” Blumenauer said. “We’re going to be the bike capital. … Whether this happens in six to eight months or in another six to eight years.”

— For more background on this topic, browse our bike industry archives and read our in-depth story, Could Portland become a bike industry hub?

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