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It’s all about the materials

The bond between Columbus & Breadwinner Cycles

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Columbus and Breadwinner

For Portland, Oregon’s Breadwinner Cycles, founders Ira Ryan and Tony Pereira and their team believe that it’s all about the incredible depth, range, and quality of the Columbus catalog for their complete lineup of custom bikes. Custom bikes are complex, full of details specific to the customer, and precision and variety is a must. No two customers are the same, and since there are no stock sizes in the Breadwinner lineup, they often find themselves building in a single week for someone who is either 5 feet, 2 inches or 6 feet, 3 inches tall and every height, size and shape in between.

The floor of Breadwinner and Sugar Wheel Works.

This diversity requires a range of steel tubing and carbon fork choices, and for Breadwinner there is no compromising. It builds a variety of bikes, from mountain to road and gravel to touring, and every tube choice from front to back affects the way the bike rides and handles; it is also affected by geometry, design and fit. If you don’t have the base of the right tubing with the design and rider in mind, it just becomes wasted time and energy.

Days of yore

When Ryan looks back to when he first started building frames, he doesn’t see any significant difference in quality with the tubing from then to now. He attributes it to the rich Columbus history, which dates from 1919. The metallurgy is constantly evolving over the decades and thanks to the new modern high-performance alloys, tube’s specs are changing too. The butts have gotten shorter, the walls thicker and the sections have grown. When he started (and obviously before then), builders would use lugs because that’s what was the norm.

TIG welding came into production around the early to mid 1990s on a large scale, mostly in mountain bike construction. No longer did you need the super-long butt in the top and down tube to disperse the stress or thicker walls on the end to withstand the intense heat of a welding process. It’s the right balance between being workable regarding being able to file it and machine it. Overall, Columbus tubing is great to manufacture, unlike some other tubing manufacturers where it’s like “working on a rock,” according to Ryan. “You would put it into a mill, and it chews your tooling apart, going through one cutter per frame, making it not repeatable, economical or viable.”

The 1990s were also about heat treating, largely because of the mountain bike boom. Tube manufacturers were trying to develop tubing that was light and strong; but out of that desire for strength comes the potential for being too brittle. Striking this balance between processing the tubing and how the alloys work is complex—a complicated formula to get right. Ryan maintains that the Columbus quality has maintained consistency, adding “When I started 20 years ago, their tubes were dialed and always consistent. I have used other brands…but it was inconsistent. It seemed like every 10 tubes was a bit off, a bit deformed.”

The early stages of a custom Breadwinner.

The Columbus Difference

Ryan claims if he held a certain tube next to a Columbus one, he could see the difference in the metallurgy as well as the consistency of the butt lengths. It’s important to have a high standard in a production setting because Breadwinner can’t question or guess where the butts are. In the past Ryan would measure every tube and figure out where the butts would go on the frame. He still does a little bit of that for quality control, but if he grabs a down tube, he knows that the butts are going to be in a certain area and that the tube will be consistent from one to the next. Even so, every tube is inspected, washed and prepped—but having the tube consistency saves Breadwinner from potential headaches.

Overall, the tubing selection is straightforward. The frame builders’ hand-dimple and manipulate every chain- and seatstay in house and custom bend the seatstays to get the right shape and proper tire clearance. The chainstays are worked in a special tool Breadwinner fabricated that increases the bend, so it has the desired tire, chainring and crank arm clearance.

Ira’s go-to cyclocross rig. He loves the cantilever brakes!

Ira’s Daily Drivers

Both of Ira Ryan’s main bikes (a geared cyclocross and single-speed ’cross) use the Columbus Life tubing for the front end. It’s superlight and thin with a 0.4mm wall thickness in the middle of the tube. The 31.8mm down tube and 28.6mm top tube are a bit bigger—but not like your grandpa’s bike, which likely had a 25.4mm top tube and 28.6mm down tube. It was important to make a bike that was light and stiff, to strike a perfect balance for a ’cross bike. The Life tubing on the front end allows you to “push” it into the corners and “springs” back on exit.

What Breadwinner Uses

The Lolo model uses the same Life tubing but in a bigger diameter with a 31.8mm top- and seat tube and a 35mm down tube. With larger diameter tubing you increase the torsional rigidity exponentially, making the Lolo stiffer and snappy, which is ideal for a road bike. The cyclocross (Holeshot) and gravel (G-Road) frames use Life on the front end with Zona on the rear in the S-bend variety that are dimpled in house to get the much-needed tire clearance. It’s slightly heavier than the Life tubing but yields a great ride performance. For ’cross and gravel the mix of the two tubing models gives the ride quality Breadwinner is looking for. On the mountain bike side of Breadwinner, the Goodwater, Bad Otis and JB Racer all utilize Zona Mountain tubes throughout, the same that’s used on the Komorebi bikepacking frame.

“Consistency” is the most common word Ryan uses to describe the tubing they use.

The Racing Element

The Breadwinner Cycles team is Ryan’s baby as he’s the one who is the most passionate about racing and competition. He says he could tie this consistent thread all the way through to when he started building frames and sponsored his friend Matt Hall (along with himself). At the time it was the Ira Ryan Cycles Cyclocross Team, with its peak coming in 2010–11 when it consisted of around eight riders. When he sees photos from that time it always makes Ryan smile, because they were definitely “punk rock” as he fondly remembers. It was completely tooth-and-nail for the team and with the incredible rise of cyclocross in the Pacific Northwest, the team made so much sense.

Then he and Pereira started Breadwinner but continued the momentum that they had with the first iteration of the team and continued to support cyclocross and the community through what Ryan calls “this weird sport.” Though his personal relationship with racing has changed over the past 20-plus years, he’s still very comfortable with it as a dad, a business owner and a racer. “It’s been great to see the team and the sport evolve and change over time, and there’s still an intense focus on cyclocross in the fall and winter for us and the team since Portland is such a great spot for it,” he says.

Fork envy! The new fork all dialed in and fresh from paint. Can’t argue with that color combination. The paint on Breadwinner bikes is off the charts! Image: Ira Ryan.

More Than Just Racing

Of course, outside of cyclocross there’s a huge push with gravel racing, and for Ryan, who has done a lot of gravel racing and riding, it’s an opportunity to broaden the team’s calendar. For Breadwinner, with a longer schedule, it means more ways to push the designs to make the bikes lighter, handle better and enhance performance. The partnership with Columbus extends to the fork, with team riders beginning to use the brand-new Columbus Futura Cross+ fork. Its DNA comes from gravel racing and features a multi-rake interchangeable offset system (to adjust dropout rake) and is perfectly suitable for bike packing bags and dynamo-hub internal routing.

At the same time, in the last year, Ryan really wanted to broaden the spectrum of riding even more because he kept thinking “Why does the team have to be all about competition and cyclocross? I thought let’s just have it be the Breadwinner team!” He believes that if team riders want to go out and do an incredible, non-competitive ride that takes them across three mountains over the course of four days, then that’s amazing and they should go for it. It’s essentially providing fodder for strong storytelling about the team and the brand. Look for the Breadwinner team to show up to gravel races and rides all along the West Coast (and perhaps beyond) in the coming years.

Words: Tim Schamber
Images: Tim Schamber & Ira Ryan.

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