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Routes, Roads & Reinvention: In Conversation With Breadwinner Cycles

Words by @peteskilebowski Photos by @peteskilebowski

For the first week, it was amusing. After two weeks, unnerving. By the end of the third week, I was actively looking for the hidden cameras: it was simply not possible for a town to be this friendly.

Midway through a freshly-brewed 8oz Americano, the cent finally dropped that there would be no jump from the bushes, no slow reveal to a guffawing audience back home. John, chef & barista at the freshly-minted Cafe Breadwinner had just called me sir, and at that moment it was settled: Portland, Oregon was the friendliest place in the entire world. 

Tony, one-half of Breadwinner Cycles bustles in from the adjoining workshop, taking a proffered espresso as he sits down to chat. “Damn good coffee, damn good”, he concedes, as John confirms, over the whoosh of piped steam and the gentle rattle of cups, how recently it was roasted.

Unlike me, affability isn’t a new arrival in Portland, as Tony recalls of his move to the Rose City back in 2005. “Yeah, it's always been laid back and friendly. Going back 12, 13 years now to when I first arrived here, it was a lot quieter.” The bike scene though, not so much. “There were a lot of people building bikes here, even then. Vanilla was pretty established at that point. He'd been in it for six years, although he’s now entirely Speedvagen if I understand it. But he was the most established one. There was also a Strawberry Bicycles - Andy Newlands has been building bikes since the 70's. He still builds a handful of bikes, but he had always been on the scene. Then once I got here I heard about Ira, and Natalie Ramsland; she's Sweetpea bikes. Not forgetting, of course, Chris Igleheart and Joseph Ahearne, now of Page Street Cycles, who are just over the road.”

Inside the cafe at Breadwinner Cycles

But back in 2005, it was the newly formed NAHBS (North American Handmade Bike Show) that gave Tony, in the shape of pre-Breadwinner Pereira Cycles, his big break. “I guess the very first one was 2005, in Houston. But then the next year it was San Jose, where I got on the map, and which led to a few orders. The next year, same exact spot, I won Best Road Bike, Best Mountain Bike, and Best Fillet-Brazed Bike.” Perhaps the ultimate accolade though was being serenaded by Dario Pegoretti at the show in Richmond, Virginia. “I’d met him a year or two earlier or previous to that. He came up to me and said, ‘Little Tony!’ and started singing this song, Little Tony, it's a famous Italian pop song from the 30's. He just started singing; it was so funny. Ira was there, too. We were just laughing about it the other day, like, ‘Wow, he knows who we are! That is cool!’”

Around 2001, in between skiing and mountain biking in Salt Lake City - “I love the place and how close it is to the mountains” - Tony began making bikes for friends; experiments that he credits to some early parental advice. “My dad was always really handy. He gave me the idea that I could always make things. I thought it was just, what you did.”

Building bikes soon turned to racing them, where Tony quickly found himself surrounded by his own creations. “I had about 20 friends who were all saying: ‘Hey, build me a bike!’ I have a real tight group of friends, and we all rode together, so that was a lot of fun.”

Happy in Salt Lake, it took a girlfriend wanting to attend grad school in Portland to get Tony to move. “I said, ‘Uh, yeah, I'll do that for a couple of years.’ I was very hesitant to move, but we were here for maybe six months and thought ‘This place is cool, we're staying here.’”

Soon after the early success of NAHM and the worldwide cycling boom that would transform the bike industry, another stratospheric event, this time in the form of the 2008 crisis, reshaped the Portland bike scene. “A lot of people got weeded out of it over a couple of years. I was established just enough to be okay”, Tony recalls.

View from the cafe at Breadwinner Cycles, into the workshop

Looking around the well-stocked cafe and bustling workshop, it seems fortuitous that Breadwinner Cycles had not yet formed given the calamitous events of that time. “Yeah, I was still building up Pereira Cycles,” notes Tony. “I didn't have kids, although I got married somewhere in there, so I just focused and dived in. With low overheads, it was pretty inexpensive to live here.” Even with the economy in the doldrums, “I only had to sell 25 bikes a year”, he remembers.

Just about the time Rapha got started over in the UK, Tony met Ira, acclaimed Portland bike builder and now the second half of Breadwinner. “He started building bikes about the same time as me”, recalls Tony. “We both worked and rode on the Rapha Continental project, which was the brainchild of Daniel Wakefield Pasley, a creative marketing guy who pitched the idea to Rapha back around 2004.”

As Tony explains, it was an independent, locally-sourced affair from the start. “It was just a group of people who Daniel knew. It was me and Ira and six other guys. We did those trips, starting up in Oregon and Washington. And then the next year, we all headed down to California.”

What started with the Continental project soon developed into a bike partnership with Rapha. “Ira and I built a number of bikes and I rode one that I made; he rode one that he made. And then we each made some for a couple of the other people. Two years into that Rapha came to us and asked us to collaborate on a bike that they would help us sell to further the Continental idea.”

Perhaps the ultimate accolade though was being serenaded by Dario Pegoretti at NAHBS in Richmond, Virginia. “I’d met him a year or two earlier or previous to that. He came up to me and said, ‘Little Tony!’ and he singing this song, Little Tony, it's a famous Italian pop song from the 30's..."

It was to be the start of a partnership that would eventually become Breadwinner Cycles. “That's what sparked it for us. We enjoyed working together; we made a nice amount of money on it. So we thought, ‘Wow, maybe we can do something different than what we're doing.’ And we were both ready. I had just gotten married. Actually, Ira just got married; we needed something else.”

Like many craftspeople that forge their own career, Tony well remembers his early, free-spirited attitude to bike building. “When I first started, all starry-eyed building bicycles. I was like, ‘I don't need to make much money, I'm happy.’ I remember saying that and now I think back and yeah that was great. It was a fun time, but that's not reality when you’ve got a family.”

Between tossing around business ideas, the guys got a call from Shinola of Detroit who were looking for some help getting their bike line up and running.”Yeah, we designed the bikes, and we built some prototypes. We made some money, and that's what we used to launch Breadwinner.”

Finishing off a frame at Breadwinner Cycles

Frame-building at Breadwinner Cycles

Dropping both the Pereira and Ira Cycles brands to focus on Breadwinner (“you guys are crazy”, noted one investor they consulted early on), Ira and Tony had a strong belief in their new direction. “It needed to be its own thing, explains Tony, "so we identified the parts that were broken in both our brands, which were structural business things. And then we looked at waiting times.” It’s not unusual to wait up to two years for a hand-built bicycle, something which Tony and Ira were all too aware. “It got really cool to have a two-year waiting list,” he notes. “But it was fraught with drama. And at the end of that long wait, people were often let down. There's just lots of opportunities for problems when you stretch out the timing.”

It’s an approach that’s paying off, with wait times for Breadwinner’s road-going Lolo, or adventuresome B-road models as low as eight weeks. “That was one of the main things we had to nail. We said that we had to get rid of the wait list. So, an order comes in; it goes into production.” Custom bicycle production might be a world away from Amazon’s attempts to have a package arrive before you’ve even thought of placing an order, but as Tony rightly notes, “You're expected to get stuff the next day. Or two days later max. People are not going to wait two years!”

What started with the Continental project soon developed into a bike partnership with Rapha. “Ira and I built a number of bikes and I rode one that I made; he rode one that he made. And then two years into that Rapha came to us and asked us to collaborate on a bike that they would help us sell to further the Continental idea.”

Unusually for custom builders, Tony and Ira decided to produce genre-orientated models to shepherd the customer towards a bike that would best suit their requirements; a development that also went a long way in fixing - quite literally - some of the structural issues associated with custom bike manufacturing. “I can't tell you the number of custom bikes I made where I'd go to put the bike together, and there would be something that wasn't quite right. Taking paint off, fixing it, and sending it back to the painter; another delay. Breadwinner bikes are vetted. All we need to do is customise the fit and braze-ons here and there, paint; you still get that custom experience. And you get a bike that fits you extraordinarily well. But it works every time.”

And that name? “When we were working with Rapha, we needed to call the business entity something. One night, Ira woke up thinking about it, and ping, Breadwinner. He came in and told me. I said, ‘Yeah, great!’ We weren't going to brand it or anything. It's just what we called the name on our bank account. But along the way as we refined our direction, developed the product line and turned our shared experiences into something new, it began to resonate with a new meaning; becoming breadwinners.”

Columbus Stickers at Breadwinner Cycles

A pane of thick rectangular glass separates the cafe from the Breadwinner workshop, affording a unique glimpse of the build process for clients and coffee drinkers alike, where neatly-ordered frames, worn benches and stickered machines await paint, use and the deft precision of practised hands.

As Ira sets to work brazing an upended frame, I wonder at how the bike industry is both artisan and automated. Whether a handmade cycling shoe or handbuilt bicycle, perhaps the answer lies with our continuing search for authenticity, a desire for meaning and the good sense to seek something born outside of a pre-programmed product cycle.

Riding away after thanking Tony and Ira for their time, for a bicycle made as an antithesis to mass-produced uniformity, a Breadwinner might just fit the bill.

Tony Pereira and Ira Ryan of breadwinner Cycles