True North Bikes: Framing The Good Life
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
Like any fallen creature, I’ve got a few vices. Craving Arabella’s glee-inducing B-b-burger, for instance. Or Elora Brewing’s tasty Elora Borealis Pale Ale. Lusting after super expensive camera gear. Binge-watching YouTube. Some others I’d never mention outside of therapy. And coveting bikes.
To be sure, I’ve owned a few. From a Dekerf ‘cross bike to a couple of Yeti ARC hardtails; from a Schwinn-badged Serotta to a Seven Axiom; from a Yeti gravel grinder to a couple of Chromag 29ers; from a Cervelo R3 to a Lemond Fillmore singlespeed – I’m a sucker for a sweet rig. Carbon. Steel. Titanium. It doesn’t really matter – so long as it’s got meaningful provenance. A killer brand. Respected builder. Race heritage. Whatever.
And while I’d never complain about the bikes I’ve accrued over time, there’s one that’s eluded me all these years. A True North – preferably titanium. Hand crafted right here in our region by legendary frame builder Hugh Black. My holy grail.
Like some rare bird, Hugh’s bikes are difficult to spot, though you can catch a glimpse of one or more if you look hard enough – usually congregated in small groups of twos or threes. Propped up against the wall of some boutique coffee shop. Laden with touring bags. Brightly painted or gloriously nude. And the bikes’ owners – professional, affluent, toned – are never too far away from their prized rides. Dressed head to toe in spandex. Sipping espressos on the café patio. Relaxing – basking, even – in the sun moments after their latest ninety-kilometre morning ride. Utterly content.
‘I want to be you,’ I mutter to myself as I pass by these folks. ‘Or at least get a closer look at your bikes.’ Which brings me to now. Navigating up a long gravel drive toward my own version of paradise. Hugh’s shop. True North Bicycles.
As I pull the swagger wagon up beside the large stand-alone workshop, Hugh’s old shop dog, Jagger, greets me with a flurry of barks and accompanies me to the door. When I enter, what I see is as astounding as I’d ever imagined. No – better. Here. In this dusty, cluttered shop. Nestled away on a nondescript rural acreage near Belwood Lake.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ Hugh says, nodding into the space. ‘We don’t usually host visitors, and we certainly don’t have much time away from the machines to keep things clean.’ I take a step inside. And don’t know what to do. Or where to begin. And so I stand there, mouth agape, and simply take it all in.
The first thing I notice are the tools and machinery. They’re everywhere. Directly in front of me drills, grinders, vices, wrenches and a seemingly endless array of other handheld devices lie scattered across work tables. A bit further afield I note at least a couple welding stations, larger cutting machines and, tucked into the furthest corner of the shop, what seems to be a massive CNC lathe. Towers of metal tool boxes divide the shop into informal work areas, while at least two frame jigs hold prime positions in the expansive space.
And then I spot them. What I’ve come to see. The bikes. Or, more specifically, bike frames. Handcrafted from steel, carbon and (if you’re keen to spend some serious money) titanium too. Sprinkled around the shop in varying degrees of completion. A handful of steel frames hang from custom wall mounts near the back. A near-completed titanium gravel grinder – replete with custom carbon fork and electronic Ultegra drivetrain – is mounted to a bike stand in front of me. Nearby, a matte red steel singlespeed ‘cross bike – done up with a smattering of Thomson and Paul components and well-worn Brooks saddle – grabs my attention. ‘My personal rig,’ notes Hugh, nodding at the sweet ride.
I want all of this.
‘We build about fifty frames by hand each year,’ Hugh tells me as he begins setting up his welder. ‘Each one is unique – created specifically for its owner’s needs, wants and desires. Some can take as little as just over a day to complete once the client has settled on sizing and the tube set is in, while others take much longer.’ He reaches for a titanium frame that looks close to completion, and adds with a chuckle: ‘Like this one. The client for this project has had me tweak this frame since 2013. Which is highly unusual. I’m sure he’ll settle on final numbers some day. Although,’ he adds with a grin, ‘I’m not holding my breath.’
Hugh fires up the welder and gets to work on the dropout section of a titanium 29er. The light emitted from the welding process is incredibly intense. ‘Just don’t look directly at it,’ He commands, as if reading my mind. I train my lens on the penetrating light and compose my shots by staring into my camera’s rear LCD.
The next couple hours are a whirlwind of shooting, talking bikes, and trying to figure out how I’ll ever be able to afford one of Hugh’s custom creations. Because, I think to myself, I need one. I am drawn to a pile of titanium tubing – seatstays, bottom bracket assembly, and larger tubes set aside on a work table – and imagine what Hugh could build with these. In my size.
And I marvel: at the bikes, of course. But also at the fact that Hugh’s remained relevant as a globally-respected frame builder for the past quarter century. And so I ask what keeps him going. ‘It’s all about remaining passionate,’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘About continuing to push my own limits – as well as the technological limits involved in frame building. Incorporating new materials. And new methods. And building new types of bikes.’ Hugh puts down his torch and stares at a batch of frames hanging overhead ‘What can I say?’ he sighs, finally. ‘Bikes are my life.’
I guess I’m not the only one with vices.