Builder Spotlight: Ira Ryan, Ira Ryan Cycles

What inspired you to enter the Constructor’s Design Challenge competition?

Honestly? Marketing. But it’s a great challenge. I really appreci

ate the fresh perspective on challenging small hand-builders. It’s marketing, but it’s a fresh approach. There are lots of arenas for competition for designing racing bikes, with lots of technology and innovation to make bikes lighter, faster, sleeker and more aerodynamic – but opportunities are few and far between to find the same focus, technology push and innovation for small frame builders. And more cyclists can utilize our innovations on a daily basis.

How far along are you in the design process?

Not very. I tend to start with a conceptual idea – what it is, a rough idea of how to approach it. I look at Oregon Manifest as a customer, with the challenge based on a customer need. I approach my projects that way, and it works out well. I also put things off to the last minute – my business clipboard has a lot on it right now. I have a lot of other obligations, so I haven’t busted out this project yet.

The design criteria are aimed at inspiring new solutions and flexibility – how is this influencing your thinking? Are you taking it back to square one?

I think my personality is firmly rooted in a retro-grouch perspective. There’s nothing new that hasn’t been done before; the big jumps stem a little bit from materials like titanium and carbon-fiber, and also from technology, with the ability to shape and manipulate pre-existing materials. Someone could have built the same bike 150 years ago, but it would have cost a million dollars. Lots of builders want to do crazy innovative designs – sometimes just for the sake of doing it.

The competition stresses fresh and modern – how will that affect aesthetic decisions?

My view – mechanically, aesthetically and functionally – is that I really hesitate to try something radically new in design. I’m leery of things that haven’t gone through the litmus test. All these new designs, on cars and bikes and other products, they’re announced one year and recalled the next. I go for the lowest common denominator in terms of functionality. One thing I strive for and appreciate is striking the balance between aesthetics and functional beauty. There’s a sweet spot in the middle: a simple, elegant, classic aesthetic, but with modern features. I integrate modern components – cranks, wheels, headsets; they can be integrated in a way that balances classic aesthetics with modern usage and applicability. I build the heart of the bicycle – the frame and the forks – and I want them to have the Ira Ryan aesthetic.

At its heart this is a competition – how do you feel about the competitive aspect? Will it drive innovation?

From a builder’s perspective, I’m gonna build what I’m gonna build. I’ll push it in a direction, but in the end I hesitate to change what I have, which works really well, just for a competition. I have a history of 18 years of racing, hundreds of races, so I can stand on my own there, but I’m trying not to have competition be the focus; that would be short-sighted for the long-term goal of standing by what I do.

With bikes, innovation seems to be incremental – shaving weight, finessing shifting – but this competition is asking for BIG innovation – do you think that’s possible?

Part of me really feels like a curmudgeonly old man here. I think the goal of Oregon Manifest in a way is a victim of the marketing circus: “We want new! We want fresh!” I have to balance my old grouchy perspective here. Over history we’ve seen the flawless evolution of the bicycle – how it’s designed and how it fits a variety of riding needs and environments. If I can add my stylish difference and a sense of function and design to the broad spectrum of that evolution, I’m perfectly happy to do that. I like what I do; I like the shapes and design of a relatively standard bike design. The devil is in the details – subtle touches and design touches show the inherent craft of it.

Why do you think innovation is important for the everyday citizen cyclist? How can it change why and how people ride bikes?

The bikes we build for Oregon Manifest can improve the daily riding habits of people. They’re purpose-built for a specific style and reasons for riding, and that’s something only a small builder can do. My ideal is that a bike is a separate entity only until you get on it; then you become one with it, like it’s not really there. You’re not really obsessed with the details of the bike; it just has a flow to it.

What about this design challenge is inspiring you the most?

It’s a good example of what our community is capable of. Builders in Portland and Oregon are a tight, cohesive group… even beyond Oregon. It’s a cottage industry. It’s exciting to see what others come up with. My approach is in ways completely different than others’ – I love seeing how others approach the same problem from dramatically different perspectives. There’s a lot of inspiration that we glean from each other in the industry. It’s like a rising tide lifts all boats – there’s a common appreciation for our overall ingenuity.

Where is your workshop? Describe it in one short phrase.

A work in progress.

What do like best about building custom bikes?

The human interaction. Witnessing firsthand and being a part of the human experience as the bike is used – for touring, or racing, or exploration. Someone who’s interested in a hand-built bike is not interested as much in the product as the experience. To see how different people utilize it, building it with my own two hands and knowing it’s being used maybe halfway around the globe. The whole time I’m building it, I’m thinking about how they’re going to use it, where it’ll go, what kinds of roads it’ll be on, what mountaintops it’ll see.

Photos © mike davis /