NAHBS: Beginning the Debrief

This is my favorite shot from the show. This is Mark DiNucci, a true god of frame building giving a pat to his heir-apparent, Chris Bishop. The thrill on Bishop’s face is more than apparent and the esteem which DiNucci offered was truly sincere. Bishop didn’t just get a nod from DiNucci, Peter Johnson, the greatest frame builder you’ve never heard of, said he plans to mentor the upstart.

When I think of the many consumer events that have been organized for cyclists, I mostly think of events that failed after, at most, three years. It’s not that they weren’t good events, that they didn’t bring together interesting people. It’s that they didn’t bring together the dedicated cyclists who will make or break an event. Don Walker, I’m here to tell you, is an unheralded genius. The seventh edition of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show hosted more than 8000 attendees, a record for NAHBS and, I suspect, any U.S.-based consumer bike show. Had you seen the line out the door of people waiting to buy tickets on Saturday you could be forgiven for thinking Don Walker was selling kisses with Taylor Swift.

Okay, that said, I’m going to keep this real. Very real. Don gets criticized for a great many things. He has a very specific view of what the show ought to be. Some folks think he needs to loosen up, take a chill pill. What people need to keep in mind is that NAHBS is what it is because it wasn’t designed by committee. It’s the brainchild of one very particular guy. That’s how entrepreneurs work. They dream stuff up and make them happen. Inventions are not the products of focus groups. So Don needs to be credited with making happen a bunch of people just talked about for years.

Let’s say that again: Don actually made this happen.

 This Cherubim was given Best in Show. For obvious reasons.

Yep, there are people who want the event to be different than it is. They want it to be friendlier, have more drinking, have more riding, have clearer criteria for the awards judging, have more volunteers so the builders don’t have to leave their booths to deliver a bike to judges, and have other, non-Don-organized events be a part of the official, sanctioned buffet of events that are part of the weekend. The dissonance is because well-meaning folks want Don’s brainchild to be even better, but their suggestions sound to Don like bashing. Constructive criticism is hard to deliver. And when the intended listener isn’t accustomed to hearing it from ham-fisted delivery boys, the experience isn’t much fun. Don is like a great many sensitive artistic types, and a bit thin-skinned—not that I’ve ever rented from that suite. I’m aware that people have trashed the event from time to time, including one popular blogger. How anyone can dislike the event is beyond my ken. If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s easy to see that the event brings together many of the best frame builders practicing the craft. To collect that many passionate craftsmen in a single location is no small achievement and the opportunity for cycling enthusiasts to speak with some of the best out there is an opportunity rarer than a blue moon.

Following two years at less-than-exciting venues (Indiana and Virginia), Don has hit two consecutive home runs with Austin and Sacremento. It may be that his awareness of the need to draw cyclists from nearby metro areas may be contributing to the show’s increased success. Next year’s venue—Denver—would seem to reinforce that view.

The junction of head tube, stem, top tube and … well, that other bit that isn’t quite top tube made for a truly exceptional-looking bike. 

The only criticism I could possibly level at the show is that he has suffered some erosion of previous top-tier exhibitors. While I did see a Vanilla, Sacha White wasn’t there, nor were Peter Weigle or Hampsten. What’s significant in this is that Sacha was one of the “original six.” Don may need to hire a salesman trained in customer retention.

Everyone’s favorite question of the show was, “Are you having a good time?” It’s a bit like asking the president of the United States if he feels powerful. He better. I had a terrific time and didn’t hesitate to tell people there was no place I’d rather be. To put my enthusiasm in perspective, I used my experience at Interbike in the mid-1990s as an example. Back then, tubing suppliers Reynolds and Nova Cycle Supply bought significantly large booths; if memory servers, they were on the order of 10×30. And beyond displays of their tubing, they would have racks displaying the work of their frame builder customers.

The seat mast design of this bike left little room from saddle adjustment. The builder had to have a high level of confidence for the fit.

I spent way too much time in their booths. I mean, I was sometimes late to appointments because I spent so much time hanging out there geeking out over the frames shown by acknowledged masters like Weigle and Carl Strong.

But here’s the thing: The quality of the worst work at this year’s NAHBS was better than most of the work I saw in those displays. The overall quality of work by frame builders displaying at NAHBS is extraordinary. Don’s enduring legacy in the bike industry will not be as a frame builder; it will be for his work in uniting the community of frame builders with an event that helped to elevate their craft and make these guys rock stars, even if only for a weekend. His work to help promote the work of these guys has resulted in countless orders that would otherwise have been sales to Trek, Specialized or Giant. Those guys will be fine, but an extra 10 sales per year for one of these news guys can make or break a year. A career.

The seat cluster from a fillet-brazed frame by Dave Kirk.

I was asked to be a judge for the awards this year. It was a request I accepted with some honor and an acute sense of responsibility. The experience was challenging while ultimately leaving me feeling rewarded. That said, there were frustrations when there were simply more bikes than could be recognized. The naked, fillet-brazed frame submitted by Dave Kirk was one of those bikes that deserved even greater recognition than it received. A “naked” bike, such as this really gives you the opportunity to see just how symmetrical the brazing is; there’s no hiding bad or even mediocre work. I felt badly that this bike escaped without a nod. Similarly, there was a gorgeous mountain bike submitted by Independent Fabrication that would have been an instant winner in most other circumstances but when pitted against the hand-pinstripped work on a Vendetta track bike, it went home empty-handed. Ouch.

Fewer than 1 in 10 frames I see with hand-painted details measure up; this Vendetta was truly memorable.

If you’ve never attended NAHBS and have any sort of affinity for hand made frames, you owe it to yourself to go, even if just once, and see the quality of this work. And, if you have a significant other who doesn’t get your love of bicycles, take them. Really. I caught a great many scraps of conversations between bike geeks and their wives and girlfriends who appreciated the artistry of the bikes on display. Witnessing non-bikies digging bikes gave me a huge smile.

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  1. SWells

    “Following two years at less-than-exciting venues (Indiana and Virginia),” => aaand there it is – West Coast snobbery.
    I was not only AT the Richmond show, I took some vacation time and volunteered for 2 days (set up crew & “greeter”)…and I live 90 minutes from Richmond. I made it a point to personally thank Don Walker for bringing NAHBS to our area. Sure the venue may have been less-than-exciting, but the atmosphere and the show sure wasn’t. Visiting various cities with this thing is part of attraction.

  2. SteveP

    To be fair, David Kirk has already won best fillet at NAHBS twice. It goes without saying that he is still the gold standard at that.

    IMO, the more interesting thing he is doing these days is building race quality road and cross bikes with disc brakes.

  3. Don

    My first NAHBS was Indy. I wasn’t at all disappointed. In fact, it whetted my appetite for more. Didn’t get to Richmond, but did get to Austin and Sac.

    While it doesn’t surprise me that my fav Indy Fab didn’t win an award this year, that doesn’t mean I think any less of their bikes. Had a nice chat with Jesse Fox and took some time to admire their work.

  4. Touriste-Routier

    OK, I am going to say it, since I haven’t seen or heard anyone else say it:

    The Cherubim certainly is visually striking, but is one of the least functional designs I’ve ever seen. The functional deficiencies are numerous. Gorgeous, but almost worthless, except to stare at.

    It is is the bicycle equivalent of shocking designs you see super-models wear on runways during fashion shows, but that never make it to production, nor where they ever intended to; all flash, no form.

    1. Author

      I’m vaguely amazed at all the pushback against the Cherubim that I’ve seen around the Interwebs. For all the criticism of the bike, its geometry was very traditional. Indeed it was roughly a 57cm frame. Yes, standover would be an issue, but the touchpoints of that bike made for a fairly normal (custom) fit. Further, the builder was willing to repeat it for other customers. As far as the other Cherubim goes, it was pretty, but also pretty ordinary. The lugs received no special treatment—no point thinning, no point reshaping; the best thing about that bike was its paint. Given the other work that was truly remarkable, it didn’t stand a chance.

  5. natalia

    I loved this writeup, but I have to quibble: all the exhibitors were guys, and all non-bike-geeks are all wives and girlfriends? Really? Sigh.

  6. Pingback: NAHBS: Best of the best - Page 2

  7. randomactsofcycling

    Padraig, I admire your attempt to play mediator. I wish you some luck as it is a thankless role!
    I have yet to travel to one of these shows but as an aspiring frame builder I pore over the images for weeks and weeks. The exhibitions are inspiring. Thank you for also bringing your commentary and insider knowledge.
    Having not looked at any of the imagery, other than the headline grabbing Cherubim, I am salivating…and gee, I wonder how much pushback there was against those crazy Giants with their sloping top tubes a few years ago…….

  8. Touriste-Routier

    My comment about the Cherubim is based upon a few factors, none of it against the art of the project, nor of the craftsmanship. This is after all a craftsman show. However, the bike is a track bike (not a fixed gear bike), which typically are the purest form of function. Thus I see the design as lacking due to:

    – Probability of added weight from the longer tubes.
    – Probability of added flex due to the design, and long unsupported sections of tubes
    – Potentially poor aerodynamics due to the design and taller profile
    – Probability that the design would fail UCI rules as the seat tube could be declared a fairing (and track bikes are for racing, even if they are used by messengers & hipsters). This might seem to contradict my statement above, but they are 2 different matters.
    – Reduction of stand over height
    – Potential of hitting ones chest or stomach on the top tube while on the drops.
    – Limited ability to change saddle height or saddle selection due to the seat mast

    This all said, it is absolutely striking, and as a custom bike these factors might not concern or affect the person that orders one.

    @Randomacts I recall Giant getting push back for their compact geometry, and maintain the objections. These designs may or may not affect one’s fit on a particular bike, but they came about to serve the bike industry (primarily via reduction in the number of molds to produce and to reduce the number of sizes to inventory), not the user. If you are in between sizes, chances are you are compromising with a compact frame; changing stem length is not a cure-all for a poorly fitting frame.

  9. Champs

    To mildly exaggerate, if Vanilla has a 17 year waiting list, I see no reason for half the show floor taken over by pink hand grenades and free espresso all over again.

    I don’t see why Cherubim is held to a different standard than the vast majority of other bikes at NAHBS. The fine details may or may not be flashy, but it’s a bit like criticizing a Seurat because it’s “just a bunch of dots”. In practice, it’s probably not a good track bike, but if you just want a practical, functional machine, your LBS already has one boxed up and ready for assembly so you can take it home TODAY.

    As a “west coast snob” in Minneapolis, I had zero interest in traveling to Richmond or Indy. Sorry, but I don’t have any independent interest in those cities, much less friends to visit there. Austin was a completely different story. I moved to Portland and missed the Sacramento show, but I’d love to see it back in the PDX. Barring that, I’d love to go back for the show in host cities like Seattle, Eugene, Bend, Salt Lake, Tucson, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Asheville, and Burlington. That’s off the top of my head, and Denver is already taken.

    1. Author

      Natalia: There were a few women exhibitors there this year, but none of them that I recall seeing were framebuilders themselves. For better or worse, cycling is a male-dominated sport both in terms of athletes and the individuals who work for bike companies as builders. That said, there were definitely some enthusiastic women attendees, but they were distinctly in the minority. For my part, I’d welcome more women in the sport. It makes the pursuit more interesting.

      RandomActs: There was a lot of pushback against Giant years ago. It didn’t stop making the compact frame a pretty good idea.

      Touriste-Routier: I can’t quibble with your criticisms, so I’ll have to invite you to try to see the Cherubim through the judges’ eyes. The bike took the conventions of a track bike and met them in broad strokes: 700c wheels, relatively normal fit and traditional track geometry. And then it riffed on the rest. Is it a bike I wish to own and ride? Nope. Was it the most creative take on a 100+ year-old design? Absolutely. The bike is custom and it fits the intended rider, who doesn’t have a gut to contend with. It’s by no means unrideable. What I’m trying to convey is that what the criteria we judged by aren’t the criteria you are using to criticize this bike. It’s a bit like criticizing a ’55 Chevy for bad gas mileage; the car wasn’t built for it. So, we’re not wrong; our standards were simply different than those you espouse.

  10. ben

    Padraig- Thanks for covering the NAHBS. It’s all so very cool to me that there are craftsmen (there’s gotta be a female framebuilder some place!) out there making such beautiful bikes. I wish I could have 1! Cool to look at though. I’m not a huge fan of the whacky cherubim creation, but I can appreciate the fact that it’s handbuilt w/ a lot of design/artistry in mind…if lacking function. History is littered w/ form vs. function debates and which should trump the other. And it makes sense in the bike world for function to win-out…even though we love forms too. But NAHBS being what it is…beauty and artistry has a big role there and so I’m glad the creativity and skill get rewarded. I’m also glad there are a handful of people out there making a living building handbuilt bikes and getting recognized for it.

  11. Troutdreams

    I found your coverage interesting and hope ti see more photos with thoughts on the builds. My appreciation for their craft seems to be growing as I get older.

    Now I’m going to take you to task for the reference to Indy and Richmond. I grew up in Indy and just about had my fill of the national press corp “less than exciting venue” references during this years Super De Duper Bowl coverage. Now living in Louisville I detect the same sentiments when the 2013 CX Worlds is brought up. (From domestic writers- the Belgiums don’t count)

    I’ve traveled enough domestically to say the central US has it’s own unique urban, geographic and cultural attractions and here in Louisville it’s the friendly people with a strong cycling community that can make the city a compelling location.

    1. Author

      Troutdreams: The knock against Indy and Richmond isn’t a dislike on my part (I think downtown Indy is a beautiful example of the Midwest at its best), but their inability to draw cycling fans from around the world in the way that Portland, Austin and Sacramento have done. What I believe Don still doesn’t understand is that people want more to draw them to the show than just the show itself. A cold winter weekend inhospitable to riding runs counter to what people want, his ideas notwithstanding. Attendance numbers were the reason for the assessment, not any personal dislike on my part.

  12. Dale

    Good job Patrick. Don is truly a super entrepreneur with all the positive points and the occasional less-pleasant unintended consequences. The bottom line is that NAHBS would not exist without his vision and drive so we must accept the slight imperfections and enjoy the event for what it is. The judging gig is a tough one and I am glad you stepped up with your 4 co-judges and did the work. It’s about taste and insight, qualities many do not share. You folks did well.

  13. thomas

    If Peter Johnson thinks you build nice frames, you build nice frames. Full Stop. Too bad Peter makes way too much money fab’ing swing arms for 50’s era fiat arbaths and the like or he would dominate “best of show”. He and Paul Brodie of the whippet ’88/ flashback fabrications fame are two of a kind.

  14. Marc

    I am aware of a few female framebuilders: Sweet Pea Bicycles (Natalie Ramsland), Moth Attack (Megan Dean), and Luna Cycles which is Margo Conover but I don’t think she is in the business now, though she exhibited at NAHBS in the past.

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