On a windy afternoon in Sydney, BikeRadar sat down with custom frame builder Joseph Ahearne of Ahearne Cycles. The Portland-based builder has come across the pond to teach a retiring physicist in Western Australia the basics of frame building.
Ahearne is known for his steel touring and utility bikes, as well as making a ‘flask’ cage that can be fitted using water bottle cage mounts.
BikeRadar: What is your background in cycling?
Joseph Ahearne: I am definitely not a racer. I worked in a shop in Portland for a number of years as I was learning to build bikes. I’ve always worked on my own bikes, reconfiguring them in a bunch of ways, but it was always a bit of a let down because I couldn't restructure the things.
There was a man named Tim Paterek who was an old school frame builder — he lives a little north of Portland — and was teaching frame building classes out of his garage. While taking the class he told me he was retiring, and wanted to sell his shop's worth of equipment. I bought him out and moved all the stuff into my garage, and started building — I have been building for almost 15 years now.
I had no idea where it was going, and I was just tinkering at first. Early on I made some custom racks, one which held a couple of six packs and had a bottle opener on the front, and a flask holder that fits in the bottle cage mounts. I took those to Interbike, and the Surly guys put one of my flask holders on their bikes which then blew up from there.
BR: How did you end up in Portland?
JA: I was born in Kansas City, but I have lived all over and moved around and traveled a lot. I moved to Oregon for the first time in the mid-90s but was still traveling and lived in Italy and Ireland for a couple years before I came back to the States. Portland was the one place that I really wanted to come back to – the cycling, the proximity to things and the skiing, the ocean, the forest everything, there’s so many things right around there that I loved.
Ahearne is known for his custom racks
BR:Why is it that you lean toward the utility style bikes rather than their performance oriented counterparts?
JA: Early on in building bikes I also began building custom racks; I have always ridden my bike for transportation and I love touring.
I love getting out of town for overnight trips, taking all the gear and kind of getting lost — that’s one of my favourite things to do with the bike. I’m not a racer nor have I ever raced, so my focus has never been on the performance bikes so much as the bikes that can carry things.
BR: How do you go taking the abstract ideas someone has about a bike they want, and make it into a physical thing?
JA: I assume that people who come to me have actually looked at my website or seen my bikes, and in looking at what I've done they’ve seen something they want, stylistically, practically and functionally. When working with someone to design a bike we always have a conversation and it can be as in depth or as basic as to what somebody wants.
Everybody has their own take on it, somebody will come to me and say, "I saw this bike you made, and I want a touring bike and I want to be able to ride it on gravel roads or on paved roads," or whatever; and they say, "I love what you do and you do, your magic, and I’ll take whatever you make." And there are other people who have much more of a desire to be a part of the process, and talk about the specifics and details. It’s really on an individual basis how we go through the process.
BR: Why do you choose to work in steel rather than titanium, alloy or carbon?
JA: I feel like the ride quality of a steel bike for the types of bikes that I make is top of the world. It’s primo stuff. I am not a fan of carbon or alloy because of the lack of longevity.
If I’m building a bike for somebody for them it’s an investment, and I want them to have this bike and ride it for the rest of their lives. Titanium is a really great material but has it’s limitations in certain regards as far as stiffness, especially for touring bikes. Although there are some people that make Ti touring bikes that I'm sure are great, I feel like steel has a compliance that is desirable on long rides, especially off road or on rough roads.
I don’t know, there is just something about it, it’s a material that I am familiar with and I really enjoy the process of working with steel, the malleability of it, the properties of it, of how it heats how it cools, how it hardens and bends and so on.
Ahearne designed this custom fat bike for the 7 Bikes for Seven Wonders Scavenger Hunt in collaboration with Travel Oregon
BR: A recent project you did in collaboration with a few other Oregon based custom builders is the ‘7 Bikes for 7 Wonders Scavenger Hunt’. Can you tell me a bit about the project and the bike you built?
JA: That was part of a campaign for Travel Oregon to get people interested in the different, natural environmental wonders, ecosystems and terrain Oregon has on offer. This was a way to put it out there for the rest of the world, you know people go to Colorado for the mountains, they go to California for the beaches, but Oregon has so much diversity as far as the natural environment goes, and it was a way to focus on that. So they invited myself and six other builders to build a bike for each of the seven different regions.
They asked me if I wanted to do the bike for the coast. There is a bunch of coast rides and some touring on the coast which is pretty phenomenal, so I decided to build a Fat Bike.
The Fat Bike Market has definitely been growing but I probably built my first Fat Bike maybe three years ago. The first time I got on one it's so unique and fun, you feel like you can go anywhere and do things you can't do on a normal bike, and I really enjoyed that. When you go out there you have no worries about cars, as soon as you get away from the main beaches where there are people you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere.
It was a difficult build because it wasn’t for a particular person, the way I look at a bike I’m planning to build is that it will need a rider, and the coast can't ride a bike. So I built a bike to fit what I wanted, and what I thought the bike ought to be for riding on the coast.
BR: Can you tell me a bit about your trip to Australia?
JA: My trip is kind of in two parts, and the first part is with Travel Oregon and Travel Portland doing bike giveaways and such. Then we are headed down to Auckland where we’ll be doing a similar event and I’ll be there for about a week, and then I’m flying over to Fremantle. There is a man there, Jesse Searls, who is a retiring Physicist wanting to be a bicycle frame builder. One of the things I do in Portland is teach at the United Bicycle Institute; they offer a lot of mechanics classes, but they also offer frame building classes in both steel and titanium for tig (welding) and for brazing, and I am the guest instructor for the some of the brazing classes.
I have a background in teaching frame building, and Jesse has invited me to come. He’s building his workshop out and buying up the equipment he needs to build bikes and he’s invited me to come build a couple of bikes with him to teach him the trade.
He’s got a lot of great ideas about turning this into an ‘artist in residence’, and we’ve discussed the possibility of my making this sort of a yearly or biannual pilgrimage to potentially teach frame building. We’re going to talk about it, but we need to see how we get along first, we haven't actually met in person yet.
Don't you hate it when you forget your eating utensils when you go touring? Ahearne has you covered
BR: If someone wanted to get into bike building what sort of tools and equipment would they need to get started?
JA: You don’t need a lot, and it depends on where you want to go with it. Do you want to do it just as a hobby, or do you want to try and go into business for yourself? It also depends how much money you have up front to invest in the equipment.
I mean to build a frame, an honest and straight frame, you need some sort of jig to hold everything in plane and then make sure you have your angles correct. Then you’ll need some sort of TIG welder or torch, some way to melt the metal and glue the tubes together, and a lot of time and patience.
There are plans online where you can make your own jig out of plywood. Which, it’s okay if you're just going to do it as a hobby or experiment.
There is a big learning curve with, especially if you’ve never handled a torch before, and you need some basic tools, files and some sort of grinder.
If you can afford a mill that’s great because you’ll get your tube mitering more accurate and all of that. You can go as big or as small as you want. But If you’re really on a tight budget and want to give it a try, you can do it with a homemade jig and a welder.
BR: How do you plan to teach Jesse?
JA: The way I have formatted my teaching in the past, basically I build a bike with who I’m teaching. So I’ll take a step and say, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is where we go and how we do it,’ and the person that I’m working with follows along.
I think initially it’s not so much about artistry as about the practical and the manual; how to use to tools correctly, and how to think about the geometry of a bike, so that you build something that is going to be rideable and fun to ride. I think the artistry comes later. You learn the basics first, and then everybody sort of has their own vision of what their idea of a bike is, and that's where they hone their craft.
This custom touring bike is still on display in London's Look Mum No Hands bike shop
BR: What bike are you most proud of?
JA: Oh man that’s a hard one. I always think I have the best bike I’ve ever made, and then I go onto make another one and that one goes to the side.
The bike that is probably the most labour intensive was a stainless steel touring bike I did, which is actually still in London on display at Look Mum No Hands. That was a complete labour of love and totally over the top, and ridiculous but very striking.
Shoot, I don’t know, I love the bike I ride every day, it's a touring bike and it's a culmination of so many years of building and riding them, tweaking the design, and rebuilding and riding, and just refinement after refinement. I tend to build myself a new bike every couple of years and take my ideas form the last bike all the best things and put it into the new bike. I'm probably due for a new one soon.