Given that we’re normally separated by 5,000 miles of real estate and a rather large pond I couldn’t miss the chance to visit with Brian Palmer of the washingmachinepost during his week long pilgrimage to Portland (and he’d be the first to call it that). A 6:00 am flight Tuesday got me to Stumptown in plenty of time for breakfast and a chat before we set out for a full day of cultural exploration and cycling excess. Brian may be a slender thistle blowing in the breezes of Islay (I-la) but he got stuck into a bowl of oatmeal and a full stack of banana pancakes like Jens Voigt on a solo breakaway.
He didn't manage all the pancakes but I can report that Brian is as engaging and cheery in person as he seems in pixels, maybe more so. He freely admits that if talking were an Olympic event he’d be in medal contention, but that stood us in good stead throughout a day filled with builders and bike shops. The boxing fans among you would appreciate our compubox numbers (total words not punches thrown mind you)
Before we left the hotel Brian showed me the fetching Chris King Cielo he's riding this week. This is the Portland equivalent of having a car and driver at your disposal during your stay. Nicely appointed with Campy levers, FSA cranks and the requisite CK finery we left it idling in the room while we went off to rendevous with Sacha White at Vanilla Bicycles.
To a Portland native the network of one-way streets in their town is probably as natural as a Danny MacAskill trackstand on a lampost. We found it just a wee bit harder to find our way around. As it turned out Sacha's shop was the easiest reconnaissance of the day. We arrived mid morning, slid back the blue and vanilla bean painted door and stepped into Mr. White's world. Though Brian had emailed Sacha to say we'd be coming through, somehow Sacha thought we'd be coming the day the email had been sent. Our unexpected arrival caused barely a ripple and though both he and Scott were involved in "real work" they graciously spent 90 minutes with us talking about framebuilding, family, balance, photography, and business in no particular order.
While Brian chatted with Scott, I photographed Sacha as he lit a surgically-thin torch and began brazing the joints of the latest Vanilla. Purposefully, delicately he kept the torch in constant motion as we talked, heating the surfaces to be mated, exciting the steel to the point where it was receptive to the solder he chased into the precisely cut joints.
Forty or fifty hours later one very happy customer will congratulate himself for having had the foresight and patience to take a number and get in line for a one-of-a-kind cross bike. Even at this early stage the frame looked fast. The scale was perfect, this looked to be in the 52"-54" neighborhood (just my size) and to my eye smaller frames always look more proportional. The tube shapes were dynamic, the underside of the top tube subtley curving and flattening in its final approach to the seat tube; the better to accomodate a racer's shoulder. Up front, the downtube ovalized on it's way to the bottom bracket, while the muscle-back chain stays wishboned to their appointment with the rear dropouts. "Where do I sign up"
With a wild tossle of hair swept off his face, Sacha looks like a cross between a young Russell Crowe and Eddie Vedder, with a Matthew McConoughey twinkle in his eyes when an idea resonates. Ten years in he's still focused on the horizon, testing his creative boundaries. This stands in contrast to another master like Richard Sachs who's progressed, it seems based on what I've read, to an inner quest to refine and perfect "a bike" which he's taken half a lifetime to find. Both ends of the creative spectrum are fascinating and valid.
As a visual designer/photographer I recognize there are different paths to artistry, and while there is a middle ground it seems the truly gifted pursue a dream at the extremes. It will be interesting to see where Vanilla ultimately takes White.
For now it's a delicate balance. Sacha has three women in his life; a wife and two young daughters. There's still the odd late night but he seems to have found a pace that's sustainable, and livable. Faced with a choice between "his girls" and his art, he wouldn't like it, but his family would come first. This wisdom is hard won and so many artists never find it. His bikes will be better for that balance.
With a snap, the flame went out – whereupon he inspected the frame and seemed pleased with the progress. He moved on to the tubes that will become the seatstays and set about bending them against a shaping form.
Five years from now the curves may be different and customers have to respect that. The best Vanilla will always be the next one and clients sign up knowing they're along for the ride. If it were me, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Brian joined in the conversation, with thoughtful questions about Portland builder culture, competition and cooperation. There's a level of insight there that isn't for publication, simply because twmp celebrates the positive side of cycling. He knows much more than he lets on (and that's frightening considering how much ground he covers).
Brian took over with Sacha all the while shooting with his Flip video cam. You can see the great results on twmp, it will be up by the time this piece hits the streets. I took the opportunity to watch Scott finessing a signature Vanilla stem and we talked cameras and lenses. Clearly they make a good team. Scott explained his obsession with the tiniest of pits in the metal would pay dividends later in their paint shop. There are no shortcuts here.
A friend arrived and Scott broke away to retape his bars so Brian and I watched Sacha carefully mark up the seatstay ends with marker, then handcut the slots quickly and cleanly with a hacksaw. That was skilled but the filing that followed was magic. The tool was sharp and every two or three strokes with the file, he rhythmically tapped his vise to keep it cutting clean. When he test slotted his signature V dropouts into the stay and the seam between the pieces melted away we smiled and figured we should say our goodbyes before we dropped to our knees and embarassed the man. Sweet Chocolate Christ (or in this case make it Vanilla)
We tumbled out on to the street like two schoolboys who'd just seen a girl's bum. "Did you see that"
The original plan was to head over to Showers Pass in the afternoon but Brian hadn't heard back from them. Pity. We spotted some of the expanded SP line later at River City and were particularly impressed with the stylish Portland jacket. Instead we decided to see a bit more of the city, find lunch and make alternate plans on the way.
Before long we'd parked and set off on foot for a look see. Within a block we spotted the Bike Gallery on 10th and in we went. Nice shop and a very friendly staff struck up conversations with us. Before long we were swapping stories and asking questions of half the staff – Store Manager Joan Martocello joined in. With our stomachs protesting the delay in feeding we got food suggestions and a dead reckoning to Molly Cameron's Veloshop on 9th. We left feeling great about the Bike Gallery.
Well in the course of the next hour we couldn't find the restaurants they'd recommended or Molly Cameron's shop, even when I stopped someone on the street who'd just seen Molly riding by. We settled on a healthy salad at Whole Foods and kept up our record pace for talking. Sated we took one more crack at Veloshop before wandering back up the hill to the car and a run over to River City Bicycles. It took Carey at Rapha to get us turned around after we went the wrong way on MLK. She turned us around just shy of bike shops in Seattle.
This was my first visit to River City Bicycles and Brian's second. Slate had taken Brian straight there after he flew in Saturday to have his Portland Cycling visa stamped and to get a bicycle porn booster shot followed by a welcoming BBQ at Slate's house which resulted in a three alarm fire. The lengths we go to to entertain visitors.
Suffice to say all the build up was entirely justified. What a shop. Everywhere you looked something special caught your eye. Colnagos (mentioned first for Brian), Cervelos, Specializeds, Cannondales, Serottas and Calfees, Sevens and Surly's. Edge Composites Wheels, Di2, Rapha, Shower's Pass, Campagnolo clothing... and that was just the first floor.
Upstairs, besides the working mechanics, a kid's section, a short test-ride loop complete with speed bump and trail chatter, the largest collection of stems I've ever seen anywhere... it would legitimately qualify as a climbing wall... and another two hundred bicycles. Seeing so many Cervelos in one place sporting their vastly improved 09 paint and graphics was almost too much.
Co-owner Mark Ontiveros spent time with us and had a very helpful associate Nathan walk us over to a secret underground cavern a block away where a warehouse of fully assembled bikes was lined up in row after row of 50' racks. There had to have been more than 500 hundred bikes on those racks, and two workstands were manned by mechanics hard at work assembling two more. Remember the scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones film where they wheel the Arc of the Covenant into the warehouse... apparently that scene was filmed at River City.
If I'd had a cigarette I'd have smoked it, the sex was that good. Bravo River City.
You'd think after all that Brian and I would have sat down, looked at each other and nodded off, but no, we easily managed another two hours of bike talk before I had to hop back in the car and head for the airport and home.
Super day. Special thanks to all we met in Portland, especially Sacha and Scott at Vanilla, Mark and Nathan at River City and Carey at Rapha for bringing us back before we made an episode of Ice Road Truckers. I was friendly with Brian before the trip but now I know I have a real friend on Isla. I'll turn up on his doorstep next time.