Strange but true. The North American Handmade Bicycle Show will celebrate its tenth anniversary with next week’s gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina. Has it really been ten years? How cool is that? Though I haven’t attended each edition (I missed last year’s because of the birth of His Tininess the Deuce), I’ve managed to visit about half of them and I’ve never failed to be wowed by the artistry and skill on display.
In the late 1990s tubing supplier Reynolds and tubing distributor Nova Cycle Supply used to host the work of builders in their Interbike booths. It was a pretty genius idea. After all, looking at a completed frame is way more interesting than looking at a bunch of uncut tubes. It’s been long enough that I can now confess to showing up late for more than a few appointments because I spent too much time gawking at all the amazing frames in those booths. A similar thing happened at the LA Bike show circa 2003 when Hank Folson of Henry James Bicycles took out a large-ish space and gave builders who were purchasing tubing, lugs and jigs from him an opportunity to display their work.
NAHBS far exceeds what these fora were, but I mention them because it helps to frame just how impressive NAHBS is. If a dozen, maybe two, frames of variable workmanship could carbonate the pea-sized gray matter locked between my ears, I hope you’ll understand when I say that NAHBS has every right to claim that it is the bike industry’s closest event to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The funny thing is, I don’t think Don has ever made that claim. He ought to.
One detail I think that escapes many NAHBS attendees is the way the combination of the event and digital media has elevated the quality of framebuilding. Even in the late ’90s, I routinely saw frames that, to be polite, had issues. I saw it all: paint drips, accidentally asymetric lugs, windows overflowing with brass, alignment issues obvious to the naked eye and work that was so rudimentary and without creativity you’d think they were using the metalworkers’ equivalent to a paint-by-numbers set.
While not all work at NAHBS is created equal, I’ve yet to see a frame or bike there as questionable as the stuff I was seeing a mere 15 years ago. The combination of peer interaction thanks to the show and the ability to look closely at detail shots of the very best work on display has lifted the quality of framebuilding, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. Show organizer Don Walker deserves a
beer Mexican Coke (he stopped drinking) from each of us.
For those of you who follow Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (or the NAHBS newsletter), you may have caught that I was recently named chief judge for the awards. I was really honored by Don’s decision to do this and I hope the awards will carry the full weight of recognition the work deserves. I am by no means the most qualified for this mission. As it turns out, one of the more important qualifications is simply being able to spare the time to do the work. And you can’t spare the time if you didn’t make the trip, so there’s that, too.
NAHBS is an event that has had more than a reasonable share of controversy blow through its halls. Don is a man of strong convictions; that much no one will argue. But he’s also the guy who put his entire career on the line to give framebuilders an annual shindig. My personal belief is that when the definitive history of the craft of framebuilding is written, Don will be remembered less as a framebuilder than for his work in bringing framebuilders together, for helping to elevate the quality of the work done, in part, by giving awards to the best work out there.
While it’s true that NAHBS has endured some dissention within the ranks, and more than a few bridges have been burned, the irony here is that prior to NAHBS, framebuilders were not known for socializing with each other. Framebuilding, because it is such a personal expression, results in some deeply held ideologies. NAHBS can be credited for bringing lots of these artists together and fostering a degree of brotherhood, through shared techniques and mutual admiration, that didn’t really exist before the event.
If you make your way to Charlotte, I’m confident you’ll see plenty to drool on. While you won’t see me on the floor Friday (I’ll be in another room doing judging with fellow judges Nic Legan and Jeff Archer), I’ll be cruising the show floor taking photos and talking metal filings with builders on Saturday and Sunday. And if I can find a place to have it, there will be a small gathering for RKP-types on Saturday night. Otherwise, I might just be in the nearest BBQ joint. Additionally, provided the forecast holds, I’ll be going for rides Saturday and Sunday morning. I hope to see/meet you there.