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From the dirt roads of Iowa to Portland, Oregon: Ira Ryan’s origin story

Words: Tim Schamber | Images: Courtesy, Ira Ryan & Breadwinner Cycles

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Inside a Portland, Oregon industrial space sits Breadwinner Cycles who makes some of the finest steel bikes you’ll ever see, and Sugar Wheel Works that build heirloom-level wheels that will last forever. Together they cohabitate in a creatively rich environment with end results of pure joy. From start to finish it’s all about custom-made and fabrication that’s next level. I sat down with Ira Ryan, who, along with Tony Pereira, founded Breadwinner Cycles, for a casual conversation that evolved into Ryan’s origin story.

The early years. Skinned knees, big collars, and exploring by bike. Courtesy, Ira Ryan.

Ira, let’s start from the beginning. Give us your background. I started riding bikes to get away, not to escape, but just as a form of transportation. I lived in the country, so it just started off as a vehicle for exploration and that was the launch point. As a young kid and preteen, when you discover that you have this vehicle that can take you away, it just builds from there and feeds your desire for exploration, a sense of movement and athleticism, and a sense of competition to push yourself.

I started working in bike shops when I was in high school. Steel frames were still a thing; you could buy a Tomassini out of the back of a catalog from 10-Speed Drive Imports. It was the era of fixing old stuff where you had to put your hands into it and take something apart and fix it rather than just order a fresh part or call the company and have it warrantied. I have a lot of gratitude about being in the bike industry during that era, of being able to manifest something with your hands, and an appreciation for cycling. If it involved the bicycle, I was into it.

I raced a bunch and did RAGBRAI a bunch of times as a teenager living in Iowa. Adventure riding at that point was just riding! Gravel certainly wasn’t a thing, as it too was just riding and that’s all there was in the Midwest. You either rode the same three paved roads or you explored the infinite amount of gravel roads in every direction. That kind of exploration of pushing yourself to beat the school bus home after school is kind of the basis for my appreciation for cycling.

Ryan out in front on a custom Tom Teesdale (RIP) made from Columbus SL tubing. “Teesdale built that frame and fork for me in 1995 as a team race bike. I used my high school graduation money to buy it,” he says.

During this brief period between 1997 and 2000, I wasn’t racing that much. I had gotten away from cycling a little bit. From there I moved to Oregon in 2000 and immediately got a job as a bike messenger. Moving to Portland and getting a job in “bike city USA” rekindled my appreciation for it. I got a couple of jobs with some bike shops to make ends meet, and it was as a messenger when it all clicked: maybe I could build frames! At this point, it brought together the fascination I had for mechanics and how things work on the bicycle and fixing things. It was also the art and design aspect at that point, too. I already had these aesthetic preferences and opinions about what I liked and what I didn’t like, what bikes looked cool, and what bikes didn’t. I thought, “I can just like create what I think is cool…this is amazing.” That was my start or launchpad to becoming a frame builder.

I’m mechanical myself, but I wouldn’t have any idea how to start building frames! Were you a tinkerer as a kid? Yeah, I was a tinkerer. As a kid who was obsessed with Legos and taking stuff apart. I would get something like a new toy and immediately take it apart to try to figure out how it worked and then put it back together. I think it comes from growing up on a farm, too. If you want to make something happen you literally had to make it or fix it. I think that having an agency with the materials and the kind of found environment I was in and what was available to me set the stage for being able to be comfortable with picking something up like a tube and cutting it in half and trying to make it stick to another one.

Were you just curious about frame building or were you just trying to solve a problem? I was driven by practicality. The first time I ever picked up the torch and put fire to steel to make something was when I put water-bottle bosses on the fork of a Surly Crosscheck that I was riding, just so that I could carry low rider mounts and bags on this ride I did that was a messenger competition from San Francisco to Portland. It was simply just to make it work to mount bags…nothing more. I think being a bike racer was also about the notion of how I can make it more efficient, how can I make it lighter and handle better, how can I make it more practical? It was also a mechanical desire to make things lighter, faster, more efficient, and innovative.

I think welding is an art and a science and a whole broad spectrum of things. Were you learning to build and weld from someone or were you just borrowing gear? How did that come about? I don’t know; maybe it’s like any teenage boy where I was dabbling in pyrotechnics, tapping into my pyro tendencies. As a bike messenger, I ended up meeting Sasha White, who built Vanillas (now Speedvagen) at the time (he no longer builds in the shop, but still owns the company.). He was getting out of being a messenger as I was coming into it. We became friends. I got this idea to build a frame, just to see what it was like. I pitched it to Sasha and said, “Hey, what’s your take on this?” Because at that point, he was the only person I knew who had built frames. He said, “Well, I don’t know, you could pay me some money and I’ll teach you how to use the equipment and we can build a frame together.”

That was the first real serious time I picked up the torch. It was the first time I’d realized that this is my path. I had no expectation that it would lead to what I do today! It was just “okay, let’s just try this and see how it goes.” The first bike I made with Sasha in 2005 is on the wall. It’s made with Columbus tubing, too. I built it up and raced it in the very first Trans Iowa in 2005 without any paint on it. It’s essentially a road frame with cantilever brakes, a lower bottom bracket, and slightly longer chainstays, but still aggressive. It’s like a ’cross bike, but with a lower bottom bracket, which makes the handling a little bit more predictable on road and gravel. In a sense, it’s the precursor to the Breadwinner B-Road model and a precursor to a lot of gravel bikes.

The second frame I built by myself. I had gotten some parts and some lugs and built it in my basement with super-rudimentary shit. I remember being a teenager and reading a book about hobby frame building. It was essentially: “This is how to build a jig out of plywood and how to set it all up so that it holds all the tubes in the right place. And this is how to build it so that the wood is far enough away from the lugs so that you don’t burn them with the torch.” Looking back now, it’s just so near and dear to my heart because it was just like farm practicality. I have a blowtorch, and I have these pipes, and I have this plywood and how can I make this all work?

Where’d you get the product like the lugs and the tubes and torch and welding supplies? I bought a few things from Sasha he wasn’t using to get started. Once you get into that world, it opens a lot of other doors. You’re connected to a bigger and bigger network of tools. Tony [Tony Pereira started Pereira Cycles and joined forces with Ira to form Breadwinner] taught himself how to be a frame builder from the internet…he’s incredibly mechanical. His mechanical aptitude is off the charts. There are many ways to do it. For me, I found Brian Kelly, who was based outside of Cincinnati. And Joe Brigheli was my frame building source in Parma, Ohio, who also supplied a lot of my early tubes. There are enough people like Bruce Gordon and Richard Sachs and JP Weigel. It’s a vast builder community with a network of suppliers and vendors for lugs and tubing.

The company called Henry James was also big, especially down in California. The California frame-building scene has its own ecosystem. You see that with Curtis Inglis and Jeremy Sycip, Todd from Black Cat, and Paul Components, among others. There’s a great West Coast community of frame builders, including Andy Newlands from Strawberry Bicycle. He is the grandfather of the frame-building world in Portland. A cool, old guy who just started building as a hobby. And then of course Sasha White, who really was the first person in that new wave of builders.

You make one frame and then another. At some point did you think you could do this for a living? Listen, I had low standards for myself and my standard of living. However, I have learned that it is okay to want more and it’s important to raise the bar for my craft. I just put my head down and worked! It’s taken me 45 years to even start to be able to work smarter and not harder. The first five years of my building career were purely based on passion, stoke, and enthusiasm. A lot of that came from the competition in the huge world of cyclocross, road, and mountain bike racing in the Pacific Northwest. That fueled the fire to keep going and pushing. It was also fascinating to me that every bike I would build would get a little bit better. I’m still deeply fascinated by the process, you know, that every bike I build should be a little smoother and a little faster. It’s also the notion of evolution and the artistic process that keeps me fired up.

The Continental. Courtesy, Ira Ryan.

How does a steel bike continue to evolve, get better, faster, more efficient? Looking at these two bikes up on the wall—Tony’s second bike and my first bike—I could honestly say that the skill level and the frame-building process are so much better now. Having built more than 1,000 bikes at this point, I am so much better, much more evolved, more well thought out—and the level of craftsmanship is faster and better. I think it just comes from more fabrication and production. There’s also the magic of industrial design and the repetition of doing makes you better. I also think metallurgy has come a long way.

What I love about building custom bikes for people is we don’t build production bikes like the mainstream brands– none of these bikes are the same. Each one of them matches a human body that is different than the next person. You could have two different people that have the same exact physical dimensions, inseam and arm length, overall height and weight, and shoe size, but they have dramatically different backgrounds and histories and ideas of how they want to ride this bike. I really love the relational aspect of creating something that fits a specific person with their own specific intention for it. Often, I think it’s bigger than just the frame build, it’s more about how you match a machine to the person and the synergy of the two together. That fascinates me.

At what point did people start noticing you as a custom frame builder? Initially, it was just bike messenger friends of mine or friends from the local cycling and racing community who took notice and expressed interest in my frames. I said, “I’ll build you a bike for the cost of materials.” I knew that the first 10 bikes I designed and fabricated weren’t going to make me any money. It was more about getting practice, learning the rhythm and figuring out how to put the pieces together, initiating the process, and building some muscle memory. I don’t think Breadwinner would be here today if it weren’t for process and that wave of custom frame builders that took hold in Portland. I think it was about “the right place at the right time.” Think about it in a surfing analogy: it’s a matter of chance where the swell and conditions were just right.

Sasha was the first one to catch that wave in Portland. For about five years after Sasha, there was a consistency with somewhere around 35 builders in Portland alone! It was interesting because some were just coming from a designer standpoint and others approached it from the industrial engineering standpoint. Everyone was just trying something different and there was a cool community that was wrapped up in it. Then time goes by and suddenly waitlists started to get long, and builders started disappearing because they couldn’t keep up. I think I just stuck it out long enough—and probably not charging enough! I just wanted to support the community and the competition side of things. The racing community was a big part of it for me, so I sponsored myself and one of my best friends. We raced cyclocross for close to a decade on bikes that I built.

Ira and Tony join forces to create Breadwinner. Courtesy, Ira Ryan.

So, you are Ira Ryan cycles and plugging along. How did you and Tony combine forces? I was in Portland building and Tony moved here in 2005, 2006 from Utah with his partner. She was attending Portland State University. At the time I think he built a couple of frames and immediately plugged himself into the cycling and racing community here. We both had similar trajectories that were parallel to each other but never collaborated. Everyone knew everyone else and we were just part of this cycling community, but there wasn’t any overlap.

Then comes 2008, 2009 and the Rapha Continental began. It was a cool project that both Tony and I were involved with as builders and riders, and we were the only two people that built the bikes we rode. It was just a cool project and experience to be involved with, from the riding, builder, and branding standpoint. After that, Tony and I continued to build our own brands, but at a certain point, we were stuck only able to build 25 frames a year. It was at that point when I think it was the high watermark for frame building in Portland and every builder was a year-and-a-half out on orders. People just believed: “I’m going to be a frame builder!”

Then Rapha approached us [Ira and Tony] about doing a collaborative project. That was the first time that we had ever really thought about working together. We dabbled in a couple of projects together here and there but this project with Rapha and the Continental project was the real deal. We built about 25 frames, and they all sold…it was a hit. In that process of working together, we found out that our shop processes were similar, and I learned things from Tony, and Tony learned things from me. We discovered we had complementary styles in the shop and similar personalities. We both believed it made sense to continue it, or at least not rule it out as an option.

Not long after that, we worked together on six prototypes for Shinola. That was the moment we thought that could be a company and when we set up Breadwinner as a business. It’s interesting though; we didn’t have the intention of turning into a brand or a company, it was just this entity that existed so that we could work together and keep the business side of it separate from our own brands. In 2012, after the projects with Rapha and Shinola, we ultimately saw this as an opportunity for us to start over, rebrand ourselves, make it more efficient, build a brand and a company that has a lot more capacity for scale, that at that point our own individual brands had maxed out. On our own, we couldn’t build more than 25 frames per year. It was also an opportunity to learn from a lot of the mistakes we made from our own companies.

“Bread” stands for the working person. “Winner” is for racing.

So, you come together and create Breadwinner. What’s the origin of the name? We knew that we wanted to have this company, but we didn’t have any names. I had a few and Tony had like a list of names, too, but nothing stood out. Then one night, I just woke up in the middle of the night, probably due to anxiety, thinking “how am I going to pay my rent and bills?” Typical small business stressors. And the name Breadwinner appeared. I thought it was an interesting name, and at that time, and still, to this day, I think of it as a positive affirmation in the bicycle industry. But we got a lot of push-back from it as people thought with a name like Breadwinner that we were just in it for the money.

People can have their opinion, but we just saw this as an opportunity for Tony and me to build a company and a brand that now employs eight people who all make a living. It’s been successful and all those people that were talking shit about it basically shot themselves in the foot. So, the name Breadwinner as an affirmation is a good thing and was the driving force for what we wanted to build and for the future.

“Bread” to Tony and I both represents the working person that is approachable and common. In our original lineup, we had a city bike, a touring bike, and a mountain bike. We had six models: three were performance-oriented (road, cyclocross, and mountain bike race) and three more that were more commuter/daily rider style (commuter, touring, etc.). The intention was that everybody rides and people ride these bikes every day, and they can ride them into the ground. We equated that working-class element to it as the “Bread” side. The “winner” is related to the racing element. Whether it was road, cyclocross, or mountain bike racing. The bikes were light and fast, innovative and performance-driven machines that were modern and contemporary and not old, heavy steel bikes people tend to associate steel with. The “W” in the logo/name brings it all together in the graphic. From a design perspective, the “Bread” is like the font I used in Ira Ryan Cycles. The “inner” part of the word “winner” is Tony’s old font for Tony Pereira Cycles. The story is strong with the coming together of two brands.

The “go anywhere” G-Road. Courtesy, Ira Ryan.

With the popularity of mixed-surface riding, has Breadwinner pivoted a bit to appeal to mixed-surface riding? Yeah, it’s about more clearance and versatility. People still want a bike that’s going to be light, agile, and handle well, but our goal is to build bikes that are going to last for decades. So, we design and build with the intention of the bike fitting a wide range of tire sizes and overall uses. It’s funny to see the resurgence of old mountain bikes with people putting drop bars on the bikes. John Tomac was doing that way back. It’s fun to see the cyclical nature of the world of cycling.

RANDOM TIDBIT

Suspension on gravel bikes? This is where I’m, “Wow, I’m really the old, grouchy guy.” From an advocacy standpoint, I think it’s great. You put someone who has less experience on a bike on a 150mm-travel Santa Cruz and pushes them down the hill, they’re going to have a great time and love the ride. The suspension, in most cases, will save their ass. For me, personally, I still love a hardtail. I get the suspension aspect of it on a gravel bike but at this point, I am conditioned to riding how I ride, so it seems silly to me.

No, there will not be Breadwinner Motorcycles. Courtesy, Ira Ryan.

FUN FACTS

Both Tony and Ira are avid motorcycle riders. Tony slants toward street while Ira leans toward adventure-type bikes. Often, Ira and his girlfriend take to gravel roads up and around Mount Hood. Ira sees motorcycles (compared to bicycles) as similarly applicable for manipulation—unlike a car where you can’t see what happens with it because it’s shielded by this mass of bodywork that you can’t really do anything with. Motorcycles, especially older ones, always require some tinkering, like the 1994 BMW Ira bought that he refers to as a “mutt” GS. Technically it’s an R100R with a GS front end that has a longer suspension. He bought it knowing it needed a bunch of work; a project bike if you will. First, Ira swapped out the rear suspension to match the GS front. When you mount the longer suspension, the center stand no longer works, so naturally, Ira extended the center stand. In addition, he made a bunch of brackets for it including some pannier loops to hold some touring bags. There’s enough of a crossover between motorcycles and bikes to warrant this interest, but Ira assures us that both he and Tony are adamant about not turning a passionate hobby into a career choice.

breadwinnercycles.com