A few months ago the last UBI frame class was held. Since around 1992 United Bicycle institute in Ashland, Oregon had been holding classes in frame building that were arguably the best anywhere in the country , if not the world. Nobody else had a facility and a system that was so well thought out and so complete - this was a factor of not just the founder Ron Sutphin's input but the experience of the staff and all who came to the school to teach. There were a lot of cooks in this kitchen over the years and the result was a truly all-encompassing approach to teaching people how to build their first bicycle frame.
While I state that many people shaped the style of instruction at UBI, it all started with Ron , the founder. He had an uncanny ability to put together nearly fool-proof systems to make it possible for unexperienced people to grasp the fundamentals of frame construction as quickly as possible- this was very important as the class lasted all of two weeks. In the two weeks a person who had never held a torch in many cases would learn the skills and exit the class with a rideable frame. Considering the amount one has to learn to put a frame together - bicycle design, welding , brazing, alignment , some minor machining, fixturing , it is really remarkable that someone with no prior experience would complete the class and have a frame that they themselves built in just two weeks.
The class starts out pretty low key but in a matter of days turns into a stressful pressure cooker for many of the students. The frustration with what is not a simple or easy process was a lot for your average student at UBI to deal with. The staff-including Ron- also had to deal with stressful situations, constantly trying to keep the students on track and on schedule. I know this as I was a guest instructor at UBI for nine years. I learned quite a bit from the experience and value my time at UBI a great deal. I think that I am better at my craft for having been part of the UBI family in my limited way, only one class per year, usually in August. I deeply regret that there will be no more classes in frame building at UBI.
The whole frame building fever really got going around the late 1990's. UBI already had building classes but the demand for the classes started getting to be too much for the small Ashland school to handle. After a number of years UBI opened a second school in Portland to handle some of the volume. This lasted for around a decade and after awhile the demand for the classes started waning. Around six years ago the Portland campus stopped having the classes. Once Covid hit the writing was on the wall for the frame building program-only half size classes were permitted and the economics to keep the program going were not adding up. I can't say for certain what was the complete reason for the school to end the program but there were many difficulties in keeping it going- probably too many.
Many great people have come through UBI- both as students and instructors or in some cases, both. Some of my students went on to form their own companies building frames. On thing about UBI that I really admired was how they were very upfront with how difficult it would be to go from being a student at UBI and then attempting to make a living building bicycle frames. They didn't tell fairy tales about how after a two week course they would be ready to put up a website and start a successful business. On the last day of the two week class there would always be a Q&A session with the instructor about the business of frame building. Since I am a full time builder , I would be able to tell the students what I went through to get established and become a sustainable business. What I would say would not be very upbeat or positive- I really struggled for years before I considered that I actually could make a living building frames- and I'm one of the few lucky ones. I let each and every student know that building a frame is something almost anyone can do- however, building for a living is something that almost nobody
can do. UBI backed me up on this opinion completely .
Now that these amazing classes are no more , it signals kind of an end to a period marked by huge enthusiasm for the craft of building - both at the school , on the internet and at the bike shows and by the bike riding public. People still order frames and many builders are busier than ever. The difference is that the rabid curiosity about the building process seems to have run its course. It might come back and there might be need for a frame building school again but one thing for certain, it won't be UBI - that ship sadly has sailed. I am glad that I was a minor part of the program as it was truly a rewarding experience for me and it taught me ways to do things that I had not fully thought about, even after building 100's of bicycle frames for several decades. I want to thank Ron, Denise ,Gary ( yeah, even you Gary..), Rich, Nate, Mike, Jeff and all the UBI crew for letting me be part of the whole experiment. It was some of the best times of my frame building misadventure- I could count on every August to be a break from my own shop and a chance to do something to bring the next generation into the craft.