I’ve travelled out from central London to the southwest end of the Northern Line. Exiting the station, a short walk through the surrounding suburbs leads to an industrial estate and the home of Isen Workshop. Pushing open the door, there’s a sudden movement as a small dog darts out and excitedly runs rings around my legs. Caren Hartley follows and greets me with a smile as she scoops up this new addition to the Isen family. The dog’s name is Frieda and it’s her first day in the workshop—Caren obviously delighted with her new companion as she politely asks if I’d like a cup of tea.
After studying an MA in Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork & Jewellery at the Royal College of Art, Caren received award-winning recognition as a frame builder with her eponymous Hartley Cycles before partnering with Matt McDonough of Talbot Frameworks to found Isen Workshop.
With the pair carving out a well-deserved reputation for beautifully built bikes in steel and titanium, I spent an enjoyable morning touring the workshop and photographing Caren in preparation for an interview subsequently published on the Quoc web journal—a fascinating glimpse into her passion for making and the level of detail demanded by such a bespoke product.
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“I was always making things as a child and I remember my parents being quite creative. Dad was a watchmaker and Mum would make costumes for us out of crêpe paper and cereal boxes.”
“After attending an event where I met a frame builder, I had this sudden realisation that it was a little like jewellery – basically big soldering – and I just needed to start making things that were bike shaped.”
When artist and adventurer Krysten Koehn slammed into the ground on a Hamburg bike path, the immediate consequences of a badly broken hand stretched to postponing a planned bike packing trip through Slovenia. With a move back to Amsterdam in time for the start of a new teaching position already arranged, Krysten decided to return home to Colorado and recover with the help and support of her family. But once reacquainted with the mountain landscapes of her youth, she quickly arrived at the realisation that this emotional reconnection with her homeland was questioning her sense of place.
‘Maybe it takes a stark contrast to unlock your understanding because it soon dawned on me how I’d underestimated the incredible beauty of Colorado. I’d spent so long living in a wet and windy Amsterdam – which at the time I loved – that I’d forgotten what it was like to have the sun shine over 300 days a year and the mountains right on your doorstep.’
With the decision to stay made, Krysten started to search for a temporary teaching job and almost immediately found a suitable position. A brief visit to Europe saw personal belongings packed ready for shipping and her bike boxed for the return flight—Krysten now recrossing the Atlantic as a returning resident rather than temporary visitor.
A few months on from this homecoming and we’re catching up over a video call. It’s just after 5:00am in Colorado but despite the early hour Krysten looks happy and content as she punctuates gaps in our conversation with a spoonful of oatmeal. I comment on the brightly coloured design of her closed curtains and immediately a smile lights up her face.
‘My belongings were sent from the Netherlands to London and 5 months later they’re still sitting in a warehouse waiting to be put into a container. The curtains were given to me by a friend who was moving and she kindly donated a bunch of stuff I could use in my new apartment. She found them in a thrift shop and now it’s my turn to use them.’
Although unsurprisingly frustrated at the shortcomings of transatlantic shipping, having her gravel bike to hand means weekends are now filled with rides as Krysten rediscovers a physical relationship with a landscape that prompts flashes of memory from her childhood.
‘I can remember being on the trail with the sun shining through the branches of pine trees—walking next to a stream with tall grasses parting as my legs pushed forward. And then, as I grew older, those experiences carried more weight and became more salient. My sense of being was formed by this landscape and when I left for Europe, I had this visceral longing for the mountains—like they were a magnet for future experiences. A compass for my life with the mountains at true north.’
Delighting in this process of rediscovery, Krysten nevertheless describes herself as a puzzle piece that once fitted neatly into a bigger picture but now has edges a little roughened from the passage of time.
‘Returning home, there was this sense of reverse culture shock. Even in the wilder parts of Europe, you’re never that far from some form of civilisation. And that’s just not the case in Colorado. Nature is so, so big and it’s taken a while to get my head round this lack of constraints. To ride out and the only thing that references the presence of other people being the tyre tracks left on the gravel trail you’re following.’
This boundless freedom that Krysten documents so beautifully in her Instagram posts and stories has now prompted a new chapter in her cycling journey. Taken aback by the overwhelmingly positive reactions to her social media snippets, Krysten has distilled her love of these landscapes and passion for community into Portage Cycling—a company offering custom cycling adventures that benefit from her unique insights into the best riding experiences Colorado has to offer.
‘I came to the conclusion that I want to be working towards something rather than simply standing still. So why not be really intentional about how I live my life and spend my time. And what really brings me joy – where the air comes from – is creating things, experiencing nature, riding my bicycle and making meaningful connections with people. Combining these four pillars is where Portage was born.’
With the dream of one day opening a cycling guesthouse that focuses all the elements of Portage into a physical space, Krysten is busy launching her new venture as a point of departure for this ultimate goal. A process that required her to name the initial concept and cause for another broad smile.
‘I deliberated for months—scrolling through endless lists of cycling terms to spark ideas. And then I landed on the name Portage. French in origin and meaning to carry but also a colloquial term for carrying your bike. And because gravel riding in Colorado can be pretty gnarly, on occasion you do find yourself hike-a-biking. But, to me, that means you’re truly on an adventure.’
Not limited to a literal translation, another connotation applies to Krysten’s desire to carry people through an experience so all that remains is for guests to relax and truly enjoy the riding.
‘I want the trips I organise to be highly customisable. Maybe you want to eat sandwiches on the trail before heading back to Boulder for dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant. Maybe you only have a weekend and want some sample routes to follow. However you want to ride, whatever you want to experience, I can accommodate that.’
With the process starting over a conversation that enables Krysten to drill down what her guests really want from the experience, with oatmeal now finished and a cup of coffee to hand, I ask her to describe a typical Portage day.
‘It would involve all of the things that you want and none of the things you don’t—highly specific to your individual ideas. A day that starts with a cup or two of really good locally-roasted coffee. And then picture a bowl of homemade granola or a giant plate of Eggs Benedict with bacon and homemade biscuit. We’d then head out on a ride together and discover magical views over endless mountains with red-dirt roads stretching off to the horizon. Lunchtime would see us stopping at a little general store before the ride continuing into the afternoon. Arriving back at base, after showering we’d enjoy a lovely farm-to-table dinner that’s made with locally-sourced, in-season ingredients.’
With a boundless energy and joie de vivre – undiminished even by the pre-dawn challenges of our transatlantic call – as a practising artist, Krysten’s desire to make artworks is inseparable from how she consciously chooses to live her life—a bike ride drawing imaginary lines on the landscape and the act of building Portage from the ground up, both outlets for her irrepressibly creative spirit.
‘To me, bringing an idea into existence and creating something from nothing is an artistic act. And my intention is to show people this awe inspiring land in the hope that, faced with its beauty, they have the same ache in their hearts that I do.’