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TOP OF THE TRADES

An artist with a torch

By Dorothea Helms
Special to The Toronto Sun


When Hugh Black graduated in 1993 with a degree in mechanical engineering from Queen's University, he knew one thing -- he didn't want to work for someone else.
Hugh Black, above, turned a long-time fascination with the mechanics of bikes into a business called True North Cycles, where he hand-builds and assembles custom bikes.


His dream involved using his engineering skills in his own business. He had been experimenting with building bicycle frames during the summers at his parents' rural farm in Drayton, near Alma, Ont. The mechanics of bicycles fascinated the young entrepreneur, who decided to pursue custom frame building as a career.

"There's hardly anyone from my university graduating class who generates his or her own income," he says. "They're working for large companies. It's not at all what I wanted."

Today, Hugh's company, True North Cycles, is considered one of the finest sources for custom frames in the high-end bicycle world. He made 75 frames during 2002, and he is on target to double this for 2003.

"Most of my business is (generated by) referral," he says, "which is why it's important for people who own their own businesses to do a good job."

In addition to his university and college training, Hugh sought out mentors when he started out. "I took a welding course at Conestoga College, but at that time most bike frames were constructed using brazing or braze welding.

I learned that on my own and with a couple people I consider old masters at this art."

And an art it is. With help from a minimal core staff, Black hand-builds and assembles each bike from the ground up.

"It takes a tremendous focus of time and energy," he says. "Many of my clients own two or more of my bikes, and they expect meticulous attention to detail."

With so much time spent on building the frames, the painting process is handled by Stephan at Custom Coating Service, one of the most skilled painters in the business.

Originally, True North Cycles' focus was on building mountain bike frames, but has evolved to include most types of bicycles. More than 90% of the bikes Hugh creates are custom built to customers' specifications. He also does a few repairs to older bikes he's built.

Unlike Soichiro Honda and Enzo Ferrari, Hugh Black didn't start his company to support a passion for racing.

"I'm definitely a better rider for building bicycles," he says, "but that's not why I chose this career. I have always been fascinated by the technical aspects of bikes. I feel strongly that the use of bicycles is good for the environment because they don't use up energy resources and are good for society because people who ride are healthier. That's why I do it -- that and the fact that I work for myself."

For those who might like to pursue a similar career path, Hugh suggests starting off working in a bicycle store.

"Learn to fit bikes, and learn about the mechanics. Then search for experts to help you learn. When I started, the Internet wasn't what it is today. You can go onto the Web and find all sorts of amazing information.

There's even a frame builders' forum, where craftsmen from around the world discuss issues and share tips.

"Electronically, you have the best experts in the world at your disposal. They share their knowledge because they know that people tend to go to someone local to be measured for a custom-built bike, so they don't feel in direct competition."

Then it's time to start making frames, and apparently you'll build a few before you have a frame you'll be completely happy with.

"Get out there and do it," he advises. "Although I have not focused my business that way, many people also get into bike repairs, repainting or restoration. A lot of folks today want to bring older bikes to life."

You can find out more about what Hugh Black does at www.truenorthcycles.com.

(Dorothea Helms (writer@wsws.ca) is an internationally published freelance writer who co-owns a communications firm with her husband.)



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