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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Interview: Amazing Oregon Bike Builder Mark DiNucci

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Wed, Sep 30, 2009 at 11:53 AM

Mark Dinucci (long-haired neer-do-well at right) & Andy Newland build their first ridable bike circa 1971.
  • Doris DiNucci
  • Mark Dinucci (long-haired ne'er-do-well at right) & Andy Newland build their first ridable bike circa 1971.
Mark DiNucci was Portland's first modern bike builder—he brazed together his first frame in his mom's backyard all the way back in 1971. He quit the solo bike building business in 1985 to go work for Specialized and these days lives out on a plot of land in Sisters and has ridden a bike maybe three times in the last six years, he estimates. But for the first time in two decades, DiNucci is building and showing a bicycle. This weekend kicks off sure-to-be-awesome bike building festival Oregon Manifest and DiNucci will be among the 30 other mostly-local builders who race and show their handbuilt bikes in Manifest over the next month. An article profiling several Portland builders is in the paper that hits the street this week. I could only squeeze in a few quotes from the 'Nucc, so I'm excited about running his whole (very interesting) interview here online.

People warned me that DiNucci would be gruff and shy, but when I talked to him on the phone, he was just the opposite. He speaks in a laid-back drawl that makes you take time to listen, but I found him to be funny, open and insightful. My interview with him is long, but it includes discussion of prematurely celebrating the death of the car 30 years ago, tips on how to harass a curmudgeon out of retirement and tales of real-life bike race sabotage so I recommend you read it.


Are you still working on the bike for manifest or is it all done?
It’s got some bits left to do and then parts, so I’ll be there with no paint.

How much time have you put into the bike so far?

Hours, weeks, cause I don’t have any tools and I don’t have a shop.

How do you make bikes without any tools?

I know how to make bikes. It’s a lot slower this way, I’m going to get a shop going for sure. Because this is crazy, it’s bordering on insanity. Having some tools to make the job go as fast as you can is actually the builder’s responsibility, I think. They should always endeavor to have the most efficient means.

Read on!

is this your first time going to Manifest?
No, I went by there last year. I thought it was pretty neat. They dug up some of my old stuff because they did some kind of a history thing on builders. The year before that there was some kind of national show in Portland [the North American Handmade Bike Show] and I went to that and I lasted about an hour and 45 minutes I think.

What happened after an hour and 45 minutes?

I got really bored. I talked to a bunch of my old buddies, but the rest of it was just boring. It was pretty much amateur hour, except for Bruce Gordon and Sacha and that MAP guy, he looks like he’s picking it up. And there was a guy from Southern Oregon that had a titanium mountain bike that had no moving parts but had a lot of suspension travel, that was cool, that was thinking outside of the box. But most of the steel bikes, I just couldn’t relate to them. Just not my style, I guess.

How’d you decide to build for this year?

Well, I thought there was going to be booze. Actually, I still don’t really know when it is. I’ll find out, I guess. Everybody’s been bugging me for a couple years saying, ‘Hey you should build bikes again.’ And I’d say, ‘Do you know how much work that is? I need glasses just to look at my computer screen now. I don’t have my shop set up.’ I had every excuse in the world. And then something else came along where somebody wanted a bike frame and it looked like a good enough deal for me, so I did it. Then I took it down to the Sacha and another friend of mine and they went, ‘Okay, you have to keep making these.’ So everybody’s been just super duper about encouraging me and offering help. It’s like some kind of cosmic convergence or something, I dunno, it’s weird, everybody’s been fantastic.

So now it sounds like you want to keep making them?

Yeah.

Even if nobody’s forcing you?
Yeah. I think this is so much fun and this is so gratifying. I think this is what I’m gonna do. It’s kind of funny going full circle. In the meantime, I’ve worked with every material, put bikes into the market with every material and learned a lot about how bikes fail. I literally have millions of bike frames there. At Specialized, I literally put the R&D shop right next to the returns. So I had to walk by there and look at every that came in broken. That kind of thing has really helped me.

It’s got to be interesting coming back in a totally different phase of your life to the same thing again.
I built bikes at strawberry and we had some ones that we wholesaled, and I would make four or five bikes a week, with paint and a decal. And I remember ten years later and going, wow, how did I do that? How did I do it so fast? Testosterone poisoned kid, ya know. And then when I was in my thirties, I look back at that era now and I go, ‘Wow, how did I do that?’ So it’s kinda like looking at somebody else. I’m watching myself work and I’m thinking, I’m not really controlling this process. The process is controlling me because the bike has to be a certain way. And I’m just discovering this thing.


What do you think about the scene these days?
Wonderful, it’s all just wonderful. Any bike’s good. That’s great, the more the better. A lot of em, they’ve got a lot to learn. I mean, I remember I was living in Portland and when gasoline hit a dollar a gallon. We were all broke and we went out and bought champagne, it was like, ‘This is the death of the V8!’ And then gas went to $2 and we had some beers and said, ‘Well, maybe this is the death of the V8.’ We thought, oh good, people will get smaller cars and be less beligerrent and so forth.Then when I went to specialized I thought, oh well, I can apply my skills to these crummy bikes that are out there and within a year we’d raised the quality of bikes a lot and we thought, ‘yeah! This’ll do something.’ I had no idea that they were gonna put em on roof racks and drive up to the mountains on V-8s.They’re probably all hangin’ in someone’s garage now, ya know?

How’d you wind up building bikes?
Some smart-ass punk. I went to a bike race, my first bike race outside of Eugene. Me and this other guy were coming up to the finish line. And the other guy was the junior state road champion and we come around the last corner and you can throw a guy a hook — the track guys aren’t supposed to do it, but they do it.

What’s throwing a hook?
You take your back wheel and you flick it across the guy’s front wheel. It was illegal, but I didn’t know what it was. He kept running me off into the gravel and I said, ‘Hey, these are really good tires!’ But he needed a hearing aid, because he kept running me off and finally I crashed and got a broken collar bone. I think the first three weeks I had a broken collar bone, I drilled out as many parts as I could. And then I still had three weeks of healing, so I was thinking to myself, ‘Okay, what can I do?’ So I started filing the lugs and spiffin’ it up and I thought, ‘Man, I could do better than this!’ And then maybe a year later, I’m working in a bike shop and I ran into Andy Newland and he said he wanted to make frames. One day, I was test riding a bike, it was around 10th and Morrison, and Andy comes back in this Volkswagen van at the same time and he said, ‘Hey! I just got back from customs!’ And he throws open the door and there’s all these boxes in there marked Columbus Tubing. I said to myself, man, I want to make bikes. And he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ First bike I made, I didn’t draw anything out. It came out with a bottom bracket that would have made the pedals scrape the ground.

You didn’t even draw it out?
Nah, I just I cut the tube and kinda held it up to the other one, saying, ‘Huh, how do you do this?’ It came out so bad that I said, ‘I guess I better try drawing this thing out.’

What was it like making frames back then? Did people think you were crazy?
Oh totally, I don’t know that anybody else was making frames in Portland, really, when I quit. It was total fringe, but I always did the best job I could and worked with people to get bike lanes going and stuff. I’ll tell you, what’s going on in Portland is just beautiful and unbelievable. When I left making DiNucci bikes, no one else was really making bikes. And now all of a sudden, these things just blossomed and the kids are getting it. I don’t know why it’s taken most of my life for this to happen, but I’m glad it is. It’s just beautiful.

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