Friday Group Ride #107

The North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) is upon us once again. Men and women with dirty fingernails, weld burns and ornately carved lug work will descend upon Sacramento with all manner of lovingly crafted bicycle objects.

Sachs, Sycip, Cyfac. Indy Fab, Eriksen, Ira Ryan. Hunter, Ellis, Cielo.

Many of the names are familiar, and this is their showcase event, the day all the shiniest bits and pieces exit the workshop and glimmer in the hot sun of mass spectacle. It’s called a show, but it’s more like an exhibition. No, an exhibit. When museums display art, they call it an exhibit.

And the builders at NAHBS are showing art, the fine point at the tip of bike building craft. An industry awash in production bikes, built in massive factories in big batches, still has room for the builders of NAHBS, some of them one-man bands, others mid-size companies, all simply taking a one-at-a-time approach.

This week’s Group Ride asks a couple of questions with NAHBS as backdrop. First, is there a future for handmade bikes? What was once the standard business model has been shoved aside in favor of mass production. That’s not a lament. It’s a statement. Time stands still for no one. The question is, can the craftspeople of the industry continue holding back the tide? It’s not a matter of building beautiful bicycles. It’s a matter of being able to build them, make a living, and grow a business.

And for those of you (us) who watch this segment closely. Whose bikes are you most looking forward to seeing? Who are the all-stars? Who are the up-and-comers? Despite the massive marketing disadvantage hand builders have against the big bike companies, it is now possible to go to frame-building school and learn this craft in a school setting, not just at the heel of a master craftsperson. As a result, the craft brands are actually multiplying. Who is pushing the state of the art?

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46 comments

  1. Tom

    Note what happened to the American Beer industry in the ’90s. Thanks to Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and a few others, we went from fizzy yellow choices to so many choices we can’t possibly get to them all – though I do try.

    For cycling, the product is less immediately consumed, much longer lasting. I think, the market will find itself. There will always be a demand for something that is so uniquely a reflection of a builder AND a customer. Costs and price will dictate the size of the market but, make no mistake, the market is NOT going away!

  2. rick

    Yes, there will always be enough of us who appreciate the classic lines and attention to detail that a hand made bike offers. As for up-and-comers, keep your eye out for Aaron Stinner from Santa Barbara (you heard it here first).

  3. smallworld

    The fact that this show, or exhibit, keeps growing each year amidst the height of mass-production is a statement about its present and future. There will always be a place for one-of-a-kind, beautiful, functional, artistic creations (whether it’s a suit, gown, gun, or bicycle). Whether it’s of the purpose-built, function/form simplicity of a Gaulzetti or an Erikson, or the more “out-of-the-box”, form/function complexity of a Cherubim or a Retrotec, there’s someone, somewhere, that is building something with their own hands that pulls at the heartstrings of some passionate cyclist who’s not content with open molds and having a pro-tour name on their down tube. I hope the best for this crowd and their craft. My list of must-see builders includes Alchemy, Gaulzetti, Crumpton, Ellis, Vanilla/Speedvagen, Yipsan and Zullo. I’m also interested in offering from the builders using non-traditional materials like wood and bamboo. I’m glad it’s NAHBS time!

  4. grolby

    There absolutely is, and it has every much to do with the advantages of custom sizing as it does with art. Most people are just fine on production bikes, but some just don’t fit on most standard geometries, or at least can be fit much better on a custom geometry. I bought a custom road bike this past fall, from Cysco Cycles (cyscocycles.com, or facebook.com/CyscoCycles) just outside of Chattanooga, TN, and it was nothing short of a revelatory experience. It handles better than any bicycle I’ve ever ridden, not because the production bicycles I was riding were poorly designed, but because being correctly balanced on a bike that fits perfectly makes a big difference in how sure-footed a bike feels in fast corners, and achieving that balance was pretty much impossible for me on production geometries (I need about a 46-50cm frame, standover and saddle position-wise, but a much shorter top tube than those bikes usually have). As things currently stand, mass-produced bikes really aren’t built for people shorter than about 5’6″. Sure, they make them that small, but it’s always a compromise, in my experience. Custom bikes fill a gap for the enthusiast who doesn’t feel adequately served by what’s available from mass-producers.

    There are other great reasons to go hand built as well – a more personal connection with the person building your bike, supporting local industry and artisans if you’re into that, aesthetic reasons, etc. There’s a place for all of that, and I especially appreciate the first item on that list. I’m really glad that I’ve chatted with and made a personal connection with the guy who built my bike. It’s a pretty cool feeling. Aesthetics matter, but the really fancy arty stuff doesn’t really resonate with me. Yeah, it’s beautiful and interesting, but those aren’t bikes I want to own. What works for me is a really cleanly-welded, nice-looking frame with a great, simple paint job. That’s what I’ve got, and it’s great. There are others, though, who really want to own and ride a work of art à la Vanilla or builders like that, and that’s great – there’s a builder for you.

    So, the uses of handbuilt bikes might be a lot more limited and niche than mass-producers, and probably don’t add much value for a lot of people, but there’s definitely a place and a future for them in a strong bicycling culture. Things look pretty good for hand built bikes in the U.S. right now, I think they’re likely only to get better from here.

    I’m not sure if Cysco will be at NAHBS, but if so, stop and say hello to Richie.

  5. Robert

    I had the pleasure of picking up a new handmade/hand-painted custom steel(!) Cyfac in January. You could argue that I paid way too much for it and waited way too long, etc., when I could have easily, and much more quickly, gotten a decent bike from one of the various industry behemoths. But that, to me, is just the point.

    Where I live, riders on frames from Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, Giant, and even more than a few Cervelos, are ubiquitous…and there’s nothing wrong with this, per se. Yet when deciding on a new frame, I couldn’t just go there too. In fact, none of my bikes are from one of the majors, quite the opposite…and the Cyfac is clearly the best bike I’ve ever owned (and justifies the maxim that good things are often worth waiting for).

    One more comment: I am now, via Facebook (at least until I get to meet her in person, either here or in France), friends with (and regularly communicate with) the woman who actually painted my frame. How many riders get to say that about their bikes?

  6. Nick

    The size of the market will continually adjust to what’s happening in the world, but I imagine it’s similar in some ways to the Gucci/Ferrari/D&G markets. Even in bad economic times these companies thrive. As much as we justify it by talking about ride quality, the importance of custom fit (fantasizing that our fit will stay the same forever), etc., handmade bikes are as much about the art, beauty, craftsmanship, lore, and personal story of the bike as anything else. There will always be a 1%, and there will always be a market for these stunning steeds.

  7. Johan

    Thanks to the Industrial Revolution almost everything that used to be exclusively made by hand is now mass-produced. This has not meant the end of the bespoke tailor, cabinet maker, jeweler and shoe maker, to name just a few.

    There will always be a segment of the market that wants and is willing to pay for “hand-built.”

    I wish I were in Sacramento now. I’m looking forward to as many column inches and photographs that you and other commentators can produce about this year’s NAHBS.

  8. Wayne

    “There will always be a segment of the market that wants and is willing to pay for “hand-built.”..”

    This is a nice sentiment but when was the last time anyone paid for a hand built watch, radio, or toaster? For some items that fall into lovable categories like bikes, boots and other a small hand made market may survive. For utility items we all move to the much cheaper mass market. Even in the markets that hold on must fight a constant economic battle. Hand made golf clubs are still made but at a very low level of activity.

  9. Ransom

    Wayne, I’ll grant you the toaster (though once upon a time I used to airbrush flames on them and give them as gifts), but I suggest you google “handmade watches”, and “audiophile” for examples of the others. Actually, I hesitate on the audiophile bit; while they certainly exist, I’m reticent to paint the model of the handcrafted buyer with such a mental brush…

    Of course, unless you’re frothing at the mouth in obsession or swimming in money a la Scrooge McDuck, many things are hard to justify the cost of handmade items for.

    You are correct that it is heirlooms, fetishes, and obsessions which are likely to carve out a handmade niche, but that covers a lot of ground.

  10. Tad Springer

    If your true soul is into cycling it’s very difficult to ride off the shelf. like
    wine, two buck chuck or a best in class Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, age not only creates wisdom, but great art, wine and the recognition of value.

  11. Nick

    @Tad – the wine metaphor is perfect. There’s a big difference between 2 Buck Chuck (aka Walmart bikes) and Dom Perignon (independent craftsmen/women), but within that broad spectrum experts time and time again haven’t been able to distinguish in blind tests between what’s marketed as the “good” vs. the “truly great”. Our experience of things is so subjective and dependent on our associations, wishes, history, etc. I wonder if we actually did blind tests of bikes if we’d come up with the same results as wine tasters: there’s a big difference between bad and great, but good (which may be mass produced) is difficult to tell from great when you can’t see the bottle.

  12. CAT4Fodder

    Predictions are always a crapshoot. I tend to side with Richard Sach’s opinion of the industry, which is that it is becoming a little bloated with too many inexperienced builders, who confuse intricate paint jobs with building a truly masterful frame. But then again, Sachs may have an incentive to try to dissuade competition…who knows.

    I think there is some evidence that the market my be bloated…but that will ebb and flow. I also think that outside the dedicated racer, more and more recreational riders want something more from their bikes. I mean, a few extra grams of weight saved from a mass produced carbon, mid-range frame does nothing for the 40 year-old attorney looking for something special from his / her bike.

    Add to this, that except for the dedicated racer, most people already have a pretty decent high-end race bike in their stable. The idea of a beautiful, lugged steel bike, built with their input on the entire design has an appeal that a mass-produced frame will never provide. Additionally, as sportif’s and long-distance cycling gain in appeal to the boomers and GEN-X crowd, Rondo/Touring bikes are a segment where the mass produced frames just do not compete. (I will second Yipsan and MAP bikes as two builders focusing more on these style of bikes).

    So I always think there will be a market…the question is whether this market currently is saturated with too many novices or people expecting to make a ton of money or become famous (a/k/a: Sacha White at Vanilla). I do worry that this industry is getting close to the “Baseball Card” bloat (recall how popular baseball cards were in the late 80′s/early 90′s, and how quickly that industry collapsed.

    The difference is bikes are a tool, not merely a speculative activity.

  13. CAT4Fodder

    Actually…and this is ironic…but due to the prevalence of cheap labor in China, many, many items are actually handmade nowadays. In fact, most electronics are all assembled by hand…not machine.

    Carbon…the reason it was outsourced is cabon layup is highly labor intensive, and therefore, labor costs are a significant cost component. Not saying it is the same thing as a bespoke bike…but handbuilt is really not an accurate bifurcation of the two parts to this industry.

  14. Champs

    Strange that people are seeing them as art and/or luxury items. Sometimes you’ve just got an idea that nobody’s executing, so you have to do it yourself.

    Road bikes with disc brakes were almost nowhere a few years ago, now Specialized is afraid of a little company that bothered to make one.

    I’m reading that “mini” longtail bikes are big at NAHBS this year. Granted, Kona already stepped into this territory not long after the thought crossed my mind that you don’t need a car-sized bike to haul a passenger and maybe some groceries, but other builders are taking the idea in new directions.

    Cargo bikes of varying finish levels are all over Portland, from rough hacks of 26″ mountain bikes up to the elegant Metrofiets dual-keg beer bike.

    Most of these ideas weren’t conceived in a cube farm, scrutinized by focus groups, emailed to Taiwan as a CAD file, shipped back preassembled in a cardboard box, then plopped on the Performance Bike show floor with the pedals turned outward.

  15. Cptcrnch

    Wayne – The primary sponsor of the Richard Sachs CX team is the company I work for – RGM Watches. Many of our customers are the same as buy Richard’s bikes. They are connoisseurs of fine made products and from a variety of backgrounds.

    For many people a Timex is more then adequate. For others they want something unique – like a custom American made Tourbillion. That’s what so great about the bike industry. There’s enough room for the big manufacturers to the one-man operation like Richard Sachs. Regarding up and comers look out for Engin cycles out of Philly PA.

  16. armybikerider

    For reasons that go far beyond objective performance and stray deep into the subjective I prefer “handmade” metal frames. I’ve seen some gorgeous frames from Kish, Strong (who also does custom carbon), Pegoretti but my favorite handbuilt has to be the Ti frames coming from Darren Baum.

    I’m also looking forward to reports from NAHBS.

  17. Dan Harkins

    Sometimes the best bargain is the bespoke item that fits the need, fits the use, fits the user and gives the user pleasure in its mere existence. Putting on a suit that was custom tailored is a better experience than putting on a suit off the rack tailored to fit. Strapping on a watch from Kobold or RGM, or even Damasko, costs less (generally) than an Omega or Rolex and is cool because it is rare and doesn’t have $100s of dollars of marketing embedded in the price. Swinging your leg over a Moots or Eriksen or Strong that was built to fit you and not some mythical typical rider is a pleasure in itself. A bike that fits is very different than a bike tweaked to fit by pushing the saddle back and using a longer stem. All of these experiences are personal and the more personal the equipment, in my view, the more personal the experience. Being thrilled by the bike under me makes riding more fun.

  18. Lachlan

    Based on no data other than personal observation, I have a the strong impression that hand made bikes are more in vogue, and more able to command much higher prices than at anytime since at least the late 1980s… the market and the quality of craft and creativity seems pretty high and always inspiring.

  19. Neil

    If I’m going 50 mph down a slick mountain, I want to ride on a bike that is backed by engineers, quality control standards and a company with enough money that I can sue for if it breaks and I suffer injuries.

    If you think Dom Perignon is a hands on producer, take a look again. They make a couple of million bottles a year and use mechanized methods.


    1. Author
      Robot

      @Neil – These folks building bikes by hand all have product liability insurance, so you should be all set to sue when you fall off.

  20. CaptainH

    I keep looking at the pictures of all these beautiful bikes and wonder….. do people really ride these things in the rain? (like here in Portland), in the snow? (like here in Portland), through the muck? (you get the idea). In an odd way I am wondering if the hand-built craze is leading to a genre of bicycles for cruising past the coffee shop and not about hammering in the rain with the club on Saturday morning? Maybe I’m just having a Rapha Continental moment.

    I have a hard enough time figuring out if I want to ride my Campy equipped, hand-made Ti bike (or the “rain bike”) on the soggy club ride. I would be tied in knots with one of the exquisite bikes from NAHBS.

    Just one man’s opinion.

  21. Paul I.

    To me, it’s not about the bike, it’s about the road. It’s about the miles, and the hills, and the suffering. I happen to have a Fuji SL-1 as my main bike, but that’s because I got a great deal on a bike that fit me perfectly. I’m sure I could be just has comfortable on a Specialized Tarmac or a Wilier Izoard or any number of other bikes. I don’t think that riding a custom bike would make me any happier, just *riding* is what makes me happy.

  22. Dennis

    @Neil: On the other hand, if you do enough volume there’s such a thing as an acceptable failure rate. For a smaller builder (and I recognize that not everyone at NAHBS can still be considered ‘small’) even one failure and the resulting bad publicity can be a career-ender. I imagine this gives a small framebuilder a certain amount of incentive to do a good job…

  23. Rich

    I just returned from the show and I have to disagree with offroaded. In Kirk Lee’
    s booth I definitively saw art. The frames were out standing and the paint was definitely art.

  24. scaredskinnydog

    I think this is a topic best discussed over pints, so…assuming everyones got one to tip back right now, here goes. Most definately Art! The same passion and feeling are involved in creating a painting or sculpture as making a custom handbuilt bike. I guess the only difference would be that a painting doesn’t usually have an annoying rich person attached.

  25. Bfeltovi

    Clearly the answer is that these are bikes for cognoscenti. And clearly we all need more than one or two bikes, so I’m happy if one of my bikes is a work of art.

  26. paul

    @Dennis: I’d argue that these small builders have little idea of what their failure rate really is. If you build only a few hundred frames a year, your statistical universe is too small. And as mentioned, these frames are labors of love- how many of them are destructively tested by the manufacturer? The fact that they’re made from a time tesed frame material goes a long way to allay concerns, but I’m not sure that I’d want to buy a carbon frame from such a small builder.


    1. Author
      Robot

      @Paul – I think if you build 100 bikes a year, and you’ve worked closely with the customer, and charged a lot of money, there’s a pretty high likelihood that any time one of your bikes breaks you get to hear about it. A small statistical universe, yes, but not an opaque one.

  27. Fat Monte

    Re: Photo. I’m sure it’s a cool bike, but at first glance, I thought the top tube was being utilized as storage space for a, ahem, “marital aid.”

  28. Mark

    Since a move to rural Utah and its poorly-maintained roads coincided with pushing deeper into my late-thirties, I’m idly looking around for a bike that blends some measures of comfort with performance. Cheapskate that I am, I’d love to be able to find a bike “off the rack” with a little bit longer chainstays, a little bit more flex in the seatstays, room for the wonderful-sounding 33mm tires from Rivendell, a compact frame with a long carbon seatpost, and a relatively low bottom bracket. The last is perhaps the most difficult to find; since I ride a 60-62cm frame, all the major manufacturers seem scared of the idea of pedal strike and make the bottom bracket drop shallower on large frames than on small frames. NAHBS bikes are solidly outside my price range, but if I had the spare cash, I’d start calling the titanium builders and talking with them…

  29. Dennis

    @Paul: I definitely see your point about the difference between steel–where ‘destructive testing’ meant riding the frame you made until it broke, with the results aggregated and passed on over many lifetimes of builders–and carbon fiber–where the techniques are much younger.

    Does anyone know if small builders who work with carbon tend to use more time-tested methods instead of cutting-edge experimental ones? What about someone like Craig Calfee, who has been working with carbon for a long time and has presumably done some experimenting of his own?


    1. Author
      Robot

      @Dennis – There are a number of methods for constructing a carbon fiber frame. Most custom carbon builders will employ molded lugs and tubes which they cut, wrap and bond themselves, traditional lugs and tubes to be cut, wrapped and bonded by hand, or in one case I can think of a fully modular method that doesn’t depend on lugs for structure. It’s really a mix of traditional methods and some newer thinking. Instead of metal wire being welded into joints, you get epoxy, which in many cases is as strong, or stronger. The builders doing this work domestically use fatigue testers to test the strength and longevity of different construction techniques and bonding methods. In many (but not all) cases, you will see that the warranty on a carbon frame is significantly shorter than that on a metal bike. That’s data at work. In short, I don’t think anyone gets into custom carbon without doing a LOT of research.

  30. hidayanra

    CaptainH – I’m saving my pennies for the day I get to order a custom bike or two for myself. Given that my custom bikes will cost less than my team-issue carbon bike, I’d absolutely ride it in a team ride here in Seattle (water/muck/etc)

    If you are getting a bike that you are afraid to ride for the majority of the year… I sure hope you have other bikes that you are excited about riding.

    The most common custom bikes around here at the moment are Baron & 333fab steel-road-disc-braked bikes that racers use all winter long. Race geometry, designed around the knowledge that they’ll be wearing fenders for 8 months of the year, designed to stop in wet weather w/ disc brakes… they are fantastic group-ride bikes.

    For my part, I’m planning an order of a Tsunami that looks something like this: http://forums.roadbikereview.com/bikes-frames-forks/custom-aluminum-road-bike-made-u-s-201365-post2605685.html#poststop

    It’ll be designed with stable, stage-race sorts of geometry for racing – and designed to take full fenders for wet parts of the year.

    Someday in the hopefully not too distant future, I’ll be ordering a Tiemeyer – another custom geo bike that I’ll have no problems riding & racing. I won’t have an object of fashion & coffee-shop-envy-status, but I’ll have a custom, competent frame that more than meets my needs.


    1. Author
      Robot

      @Craig – First, thanks for joining. Nice to have you here. Second, as a fellow struggler on the handmade side (day job), I think we just have to content ourselves with fighting the good fight, putting our middle finger in the eye of the opponent and basking in the glory of our own hard work. Damn, that went awfully dramatic, awfully quick.

  31. NorCalEddy

    My wife and I went to NAHBS, and she got to meet; the guy who built her frame, the guy who is painting it, and the lady who is going to pack it up and ship it from Italy. I told her in 38 years of riding I have NEVER met anyone involved in constructing one of my bikes. I think it’s very cool, and I’m a little jealous! Agree that it was an art exhibition!

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