What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Talk: Ron Sutphin of United Bicycle Institute

Interview: The United Bicycle Institute has been teaching the art of steel & titanium frame building – and complete bicycle mechanics, for almost 35 years. We talked to the founder of UBI, Ron Sutphin about what makes these wheels turn, and a lot more.

– Words & Photos by Sean Coffey –

You know the guy. He’s the one on the group ride whose chain pops disconcertingly with every surge, and chirps desperately for lube with every pedal stroke. He can only get into the big ring half the time. His bike is a beatbox of odd creaks and noises when he’s out of the saddle. When you sit on his wheel, his rim dances side-to-side, bouncing off the brake pads. Actually….you probably shouldn’t sit on this guy’s wheel.


Maybe he does his own wrenching, or maybe his shop mechanic doesn’t know what he’s doing, but without a doubt, this guy needs a good bike mechanic. Stat.

Thankfully, there is a school that specializes in teaching the art of bicycle mechanics – the United Bicycle Institute. Through their two Oregon locations they have taught thousands of students everything they need to know to repair and maintain the modern bicycle to the highest standard. The school covers everything from proper torque wrench use to hydraulic brake systems, and also delves into the very philosophy of mechanics. And if that wasn’t enough, UBI also houses a world class framebuilding school, for those seeking to learn the art of steel or titanium framebuilding.

In a world of DIY Youtube videos and instant internet experts, UBI offers a unique, hands-on resource that’s undoubtedly led to millions of bikes running a lot smoother. We talked to UBI founder Ron Sutphin to hear just how the school got its start, what it’s like, and where it’s headed.

Ron talking Darth Vader through how to braze a frame.

Pez: Who started UBI?
Ron Sutphin:
UBI was started by Wayne Martin, the founder of United Bicycle Tool Supply, in 1978. The school came as a result of all the questions about proper tool use. So Wayne decided to test the waters and put an ad in the Bicycling Magazine classified in 1980 to assess interest and there were enough respondents to start a class. The first UBI class was in the Fall of 1981, but Wayne didn’t enjoy teaching…he preferred the wholesale tool business…so he came to the local bike shop I managed, Ashland Cycle Sport, and shop owner Meryl Hayes and I took over the teaching. After two classes the bike shop took over the school. At the same time, I started framebuilding, and gradually phased out of the bike shop. After a few years of teaching classes, Meryl sold me the school in 1986.

Pez: How many students have gone through?
So far, about 15,000 students. In the first classes it was ten students per class, five times a year. Now we’re up to 16 students in mechanic classes and a full schedule at both locations, with 20 classes a year in the flagship pro mechanic courses.

Pez: Any notable pro mechanics?
So many I’ve lost track. I see them at trade shows and industry events constantly. Ryan Bontrager was the Team Mechanic for Bissell for a few seasons and now works at Ritchey, and there are many, many more.


Pez: How has the school changed?
It’s changed dramatically. First we were teaching basic use of tools and professional procedures. Then after a few years we got a call from the Oregon Department of Education, Private Career School Division, who informed us that as a ‘Career School’, we needed a license and this required a placement success record. This made UBI the first licensed bicycle school. It forced UBI to think like and follow the rules of an educational institution. And after 9/11 we had to register with the Department of Homeland Security since we get foreign students. The rules change constantly and it’s a lot of red tape. It was simple 30 years ago and very complex now. We recently got a visit from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who visited two Oregon companies: Nike and UBI. We’re part of the solution to US jobs! Back in 1982 this would not have happened.

Pez: What’s the one thing that everyone thinks they already know when they get to UBI, but really they don’t?
A few things come to mind. For one, tire removal and installation….something mechanics do day in and day out. With proper technique it’s easy to do with bare hands, but not everyone knows proper technique. Apart from that, most mechanics don’t realize there’s a general approach to what they do. We teach a system that really improves the efficiency and professionalism to the process. It’s not just one skill, it’s a philosophy.

Pez: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen a mechanic do or say?
I should have a notebook full of these…we see a lot. One student disassembled a hub, took the axle out, was “wowed” that there were actually ball bearings in there.

Pez: Who started the UBI framebuilding school? Why?
I was still building frames, and mechanic class students had weekend tours of my frame shop. They were very interested, so we decided to offer some classes.


Pez: Who are the instructors currently?
There have been many. The first three years the classes were taught by Albert Eisentraut, and hosted by me. And through Albert I met Gary Helfrich, who worked for Merlin and worked with Ibis on some titanium consulting. So after Albert it was me teaching the brazing classes and Gary teaching the TIG classes. But since then we have a lot of top-notch guest teachers, including Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster, Mike Desalvo, Jim Kish, Tony Perriera, Joseph Ahearne, and others. Kish came through UBI as a student of one of our first titanium framebuilding classes and he worked in and around Ashland and was a mechanic instructor and then a framebuilding instructor until his own business started to take off. Our full-time framebuilding instructors include Richard Bernoulli who worked for Yeti and Black Sheep in Colorado, and myself.

Pez: How many students are in a framebuilding class?
At first we didn’t have a separate facility and had to convert mechanic classrooms, and we could not schedule as many framebuilding classes so we really had to pack them in – up to 16 students at a time. In 1999 we moved to our current location with separate facilities for framebuilding, and this doubled our offering. We can now offer 18-20 classes between the Portland and Ashland locations, of about 8 students per class. In the past 20 years I estimate we’ve taught some 2,000 students how to build a frame.


Pez: Who are some of the notable students who went on to be framebuilders?
Well, framebuilding is challenging business for the long haul. Mike Desalvo, Steve Garro, Kirk Pacenti, and David Bohm have all been at UBI at one point. Many well-known steel builders have come to UBI for our titanium classes too, including Doug Faddic, Bill Holland, John Cherry, Richard Gangl and others.

Pez: Do all framebuilders build the same way?
That’s the thing. There’s not just one way to do things. There’s a way we teach, based on educational merit and a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ principle, but there’s a philosophy about different approaches too. Some processes don’t fit well in the class, and others do. It’s constantly evolving, and there’s an exchange of ideas since we have such talented guest instructors and also some very smart students…we’ve had rocket scientists and metallurgy PhD’s who bring up new ideas. And UBI’s neutrality in the world of framebuilding encourages people to share with us. We have some remarkable resources.

Pez: What is the ONE THING that every student struggles with?
What they thought was going to be easy is hard, and what they thought would be hard, isn’t quite a challenging as they expected. There’s a tendency to really focus on the joining process, since it’s such an obvious void in most student’s skillsets. It’s not easy, but it’s just one part of the process. Everything else is a surprise to them including the fundamentals of bike design itself. We focus on good outcomes, so details like proper fixturing, centering, fitting, and the logistics of things. Where do you apply heat first, and why? For beginners, they’ll make a new mistake on every frame they make for a while, but we try to give them the best start possible.


Pez: How do you feel that NAHBS has affected the school? The steel frame world overall?
I think that what UBI has done for so long has created a symbiotic relationship between UBI and the NAHBS show. We’ve made framebuilding more accessible, and NAHBS has grown interest in the subject. Attendees can talk to framebuilders who went to UBI at the show, and then sometimes we see things come full circle years down the road when those students themselves display at NAHBS.

Pez: Who is the ‘average’ UBI framebuilding student?
There really isn’t an average student. We get clusters. Sometimes it’s young, enthusiastic hopeful builders who’ve been bitten by the bug, they love bikes, they work in shops, and this is where that path leads. Lots of great shop mechanics have passed through the framebuilding class. We also get a lot of retirees, who are looking for the next cool thing do to, and two months ago they took a guitar building class. We get a lot of vocational rehabilitation students, and veterans thanks to the Montgomery GI Bill and the 9/11 GI Bill. And then there’s the occasional rocket scientist, metallurgist, doctor or lawyer, who want to take a class and built themselves a bike just because they have the time and money.

Pez: In terms of the frame they build, what’s the average outcome for most students?
The frames that come through are straight and they consistently ride well. Our brains have the tendency to judge based heavily on aesthetics, and some frames come out need a little love, while some students spend more time filing and finishing than they did building the frame. There’s quite a range. But we look at every weld or brazed joint, and the frames coming out of the class are sound and durable. Bike messengers have built frames that they go on to batter for 100,000 miles, and they’re still out there.


Pez: What are we in for? Walk me through the first day.
We’ll do introductions and a tour of the shop. We’ll start with learning the joining process, understanding the equipment, using heat, and practicing. Then we’ll break it up with some materials and design concepts. By the end of the first day you’ve got some materials use experience, some design experience, a lot of orientation and a good dose of time behind the torch.

Pez: At what point do students “get it”?
For most people it’s about halfway through. By then we’ve done through design, there’s been a lot of practice, and students are building their own bike. They have an epiphany…like, this is my bike, the real deal! But there’s an ebb and flow. People are pretty visual with the process, and after you’ve worked on the front triangle and it’s coming along nicely, they think they’re in good shape. Then they get to the back end and it’s more complex. The brake bridge is as hard as the top tube was.


Pez: What are your plans for the future of the school? What do you hope to improve?
For the mechanic classes, it’s a constant challenge to keep up with the changes in the bike industry. Just because there’s a new technology like electronic shifting, that doesn’t mean we start teaching it as soon as it’s launched. So gauging when the ‘new’ needs to be incorporated into the curriculum and older items should be phased out…that’s how the classes continue to evolve. We get great support from manufacturers and that helps a lot.

It’s similar for the framebuilding classes. There are new bottom bracket configurations, and now fat bikes are getting popular. We don’t have fixturing for those yet. We want to offer every option, but it’s not always possible. Reluctantly deciding what will be taught now and what will have to wait…that’s the challenge.

Pez: Thanks Ron!

So what’s it REALLY like for a working class bike rider to attend the UBI framebuilding class? We’ll find out. Pez is sending contributing writer Sean Coffey to attend the UBI brazed steel framebuilding class, to build a frame, and document his experience. Stay tuned for the first installment.

• See more info and sign up to build yourself a frame at the UBI website: BikeSchool.com

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