NAHBS has been marked by more controversies than any other event I’ve personally attended. Emotions run high at this thing, and honestly, they run high not just during, but before and after. A number of people questioned my sanity for getting further involved in the judging. For me, it was a way to insulate the other judges from any possible BS (and there was very, very little BS) as well as have a guiding hand in something I think is terrifically fun. I made the decision that I’d have fun before I ever walked in the show, and as it happened, I had fun the entire time.
None of that is to say the task before us was easy. Without a number of compulsory details to compare from one bike to the next, judging NAHBS awards has yet to take on the point tallying of Olympic figure skating or gymnastics. As a result, judging remains a more obviously subjective endeavor, and frankly I like it that way. I’d hate for every builder vying for some crown in lugged construction to have to present a frame with specifically reshaped points, fillets added to specific lugs and at least one bi-laminate joint. That would suck the enthusiasm out of the room faster than having to ride a Huffy.
The bikes you’ll see in this post, beginning with this Ellis built by David Wages, are the bikes that made the judging difficult, the bikes that ultimately received honorable mentions. This Ellis was submitted for best finish. Jason Sanchez is Wages’ painter of choice and the guy is fantastically talented. If you look very closely in the shot above, you’ll see rows of chainrings in the faintest white against the cream of the paint. It’s a crazy detail. Another element of Sanchez’ work that really captures my attention and appreciation is how he paints only the tube a given color and paints all of the lug the other color. It was common with the English builders to paint up the shoulder of the lug, but that never made any sort of logical sense to me. It seems that the lug should be all one color. However, this work is terribly difficult that Sanchez’ crisp shoreline all the way around each lug was remarkable. Even Joe Bell commented on how good it was.
There are plenty of painters out there who lay on coats of paint so thick that the crisp edges of a builder’s lugs dull under the weight of all that enamel.
That Sanchez had already prepped the stainless steel bottle bosses so that no paint could be chipped away by a bottle cage was an attention to detail that is was rare, even in that room. The point behind giving this bike an honorable mention was that we were troubled that it wasn’t going to be better recognized. It was absolutely worthy; we just thought the Independent Fabrication mountain bike that won was more attractive, showed a bit more imagination. This is the bike that made the final decision difficult.
I’m going to go on record saying that I struggle with the idea of wooden bikes. I spent too many years as a drummer, watching drumsticks break—sometimes after only a single hit—along grain lines with the sudden surprise of a drive-by shooting. I will never descend a mountain road on a piece of wood. There’s just no need for that risk. Now, that said, for something as overbuilt as this workman’s bike presented by Calfee, a creation that’s unlikely to top 20 mph, I think I can make an exception.
This rig was a submission for the best theme bike and ultimately lost to Jeremy SyCip’s picnic cargo bike.What made the bike intriguing were the many ways Calfee kept the workman’s theme going through the bike. The fork blades are hewn from axe handles, as are the grips.
The axe handles make pretty good-looking forks, honestly. And the brake disc was fashioned from a circular saw blade.
This thing may have weighed as much as a Labrador Retriever, and would have been just as much fun to carry, so the Bosch e-assist made perfect sense.
The stem and handlebar employed plumbing fixtures. Bar flex wasn’t an issue.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been much of a workman’s bike if you couldn’t have some tools handy. The seat doubled as the lid to the tool box and featured a lock so that the tools couldn’t be stolen while on a job. As much as we loved the bike, it seemed a novelty when compared to the SyCip, which despite its very special-purpose nature still seemed more practical, as if there’s a world in which picnics, cookouts and parties are practical matters. They were when I was 20.
Not all bikes showed up for all categories right on time. As chief judge, it was my call as to whether a bike that showed up late was considered. That it was even a question flabbergasted the other judges and me. The awards are about how good your building is, not how punctual you or your staff are or how well you follow directions. If the bike showed up, it got considered. So as we were busy considering our entrants for the best TIG welding and this tandem was leading the field when Kent Eriksen Cycles’ frame showed up.
It was the welding on this yoke that had us thinking we had our winner. We were stunned to encounter something that topped this. We didn’t actually give this an honorable mention, but the frame was worth acknowledging. I just wish I knew whose frame it was. Volunteers brought it over and returned it without a word. Someone within the NAHBS organization had taken it upon themselves (I still don’t know who) to add a final criteria to the construction categories, stipulating that all entries should be completely anonymous—in order to avoid bias. It was crazy. When Steve Potts asked me about it, I told him not to worry and that he could put as many decals on his bikes as he wanted, so long as we could see the joints.
So this would be where I address judging bias. At one point I received word that a builder had accused me of bias against him. So I went over and introduced myself. Then I informed him it was hard for me to have any bias against him because I didn’t know him. Then we talked for half an hour and figured out we both liked each other pretty well. Of course, negative bias isn’t the only kind of bias there is. At one point Nick Legan asked to recuse himself from voting on the Best New Builder because he’d become friends with Kevin Harvey of Harvey Cycle Works and had gone as far as to order a frame set from him. I wouldn’t allow it for the simple reason that if he’d recused himself from voting on that award, I’d have had to recuse myself from virtually all the judging. I consider a great many people in the forum to be friends. If friendship were grounds for recusing a judge’s vote, I don’t think I’d have been able to be a judge at all. It would be difficult for anyone with the requisite knowledge to be a judge because, generally, friendship precedes knowledge where frame building is concerned.
Those friendships are important to me and I do value them, but for the judges to recognize anything but the very best work would be an insult to the work and the honesty that undergirds all friendships.
This fillet-brazed Lundbeck cyclocross bike gave us fits. Overall, the ‘cross category had a very high level of achievement. It was very difficult to determine a winner. There were at least four bikes that might have won in other years. We selected the Retrotec because to a man the judges all agreed it was the bike that best reflected the sort of riding they were most likely to do, if they owned that bike. Had the panel been made up of a bunch of guys who would race both their traditional category and single speed when at a ‘cross event, then this Lundbeck would have been a shoe-in.
The special genius behind this bike is how the builder used horizontal dropouts to accommodate a single-speed setup plus a quick-connect normally used with an S&S-coupled bike plus a threaded braze-on to hold the cable when in single-speed mode. It was one of the more creative flashes we saw all weekend.
So why didn’t this bike win? Here’s where it’s worthwhile to discuss another of our judging criteria: commercial considerations. There’s little point in displaying a frame at NAHBS if you’re not interested in pursuing frame building in some commercial capacity. The very best thing that can happen at NAHBS isn’t to win an award, but to receive a bunch of orders for new bikes. Imagine if the show were so popular that builders only took orders there because they knew that they’d need the entire rest of the year to build the orders they took.
The real issue is that the smartest, most successful builders keep one eye on the market at all times. That doesn’t mean they necessarily begin chasing carbon fiber, but it means that once they realize that almost no one really orders or rides rando bikes, they stop showing them in their booths. It’s important to show bikes at NAHBS that cause people to connect the dots between them, the bike, and a long ride in beautiful country. A bike should inspire dreams of riding.
Put another way, if you’re a frame builder and decide to display the world’s only carbon-fiber rando bike with racks you made yourself, but the completed bike still weighs 30 pounds (so it can support that bag and the racks without breaking the moment you hit a pothole) and costs $20k, the judges will marvel at the workmanship, but you’ll be dinged for the fact that almost no one wants your completely unaffordable masterpiece.
These dropouts aren’t the most beautiful, but the fact that Lundbeck was able to incorporate a derailleur hanger to make this bike easy to convert was really impressive. If you had a spare wheel, we estimated you could change from single-speed to derailleur, or vice versa, in about five minutes. As the owner of an S&S-couple bike, one of the great things about those quick-connects is that once you screw them together, your derailleur will need no further adjustment; it’s at the correct tension, unless something happened to turn the barrel adjuster.
Fillet-brazing is the least-common form of joinery we see in the judging. It’s fair to say that it’s more time consuming, if not necessarily something that requires greater skill than TIG welding; in my head, I give about the same weight to a fillet-brazed frame that I do to a lugged bike where I can tell the points have been reshaped.
One of the other criteria that figures when judging for the awards is whether the builder is all-in. Our preference is to recognize work by guys who do this full-time. The term “hobbyist” is somewhat insulting to a builder who doesn’t do it full-time, but anyone whose next meal isn’t governed by getting bikes packed up and out the door enjoys a kind of luxury to labor over final details. It’s important to recognize those craftsmen who can do great work on time and at a profit. If we see two bikes of relatively similar merit but one bike has a few extra details (say fillets in the lug transitions) to make the bike extra sexy, and say that bike with the extra touches was built by someone who works full-time as a machinist on the side, we’re likely to recognize the other bike because we recognize that ultimately, awards should have the power to result in more orders. Bottom line: these are supposed to be works of art you can purchase.
The use of color on this bike helped make it unforgettable. Stripes and rings are design elements ripe for poor use. I see them done wrong all the time. This wasn’t one of those occasions. The way the rings in the down tube became stripes in the fork was pretty lovely.
This city bike from A.N.T. was very close to getting the award for best city bike. In some ways it’s a better expression of what a city bike is supposed to be than the Cykelmageren that won because Mike Flanigan can produce these far faster, getting more people out there. It’s eminently practical thanks to the Gates belt drive, rack and fenders.
But there’s nothing to say that practical can’t also be beautiful, right?
I love that even if someone hit this entire bike with flat-black rattle-can, you’d always be able to tell it was one of Flanigan’s creations.
We received some questions here and there about awards. My sense was that on many occasions there was a sense that someone felt a given bike had lost because it hadn’t gotten a nod. I think that’s a perception problem. I saw only a few bikes submitted for awards that weren’t worthy of consideration. Most of the bikes were really special, so in my mind, and I believe this was true for the other judges based on our conversations was that when a bike didn’t get an award was the reality was that another bike simply won. Not winning isn’t a dis, and I certainly encountered people who took it that way.
I know that in the past there was concern that due to a lack of transparency the judging was this mad cabal of guys who started picking names before walking in the hall. I know a few of the guys responsible for the judging in the earlier years and I’m unable to conjure the cynicism necessary to think that they’d recognize anything that isn’t stellar work. But because we often marry our perception to what we believe reality to be, I’ve wanted to give readers a chance to peek under the hood and understand what we look for.
To sum this up, the first thing we hope to see is a bike that grabs our eye. Everyone wants a pretty bike, right? But there needs to be more than just paint. The bike needs to reflect some slice of riding that really happens. Again, rando; I dare you to find 50 people in any community on the planet who are riding that style of bike as their primary rig. A fair question I put to myself is whether it’s a bike that fits with any kind of riding I’ve ever done or I see being done now (I’m not really a dirt jump guy, but I respect what that is and dig it). Does the parts pick fit? It ought to make sense from a usability standpoint. Is the builder able to deliver the bike? I respect that some builders have a long wait list. That’s different from a guy who sometimes builds in his buddy’s garage and has no liability insurance.
In the construction categories, we simply look at the joinery. I don’t care if it’s a track bike or a fat bike, unless something in the bike’s design makes the joinery more difficult.
What was the builder’s intent? It’s easy for me to drool on a frame from David Wages. Actually, it’s hard for me not to. However, his aesthetic is entirely different from Carl Strong’s. Had Strong entered a bike in a category that an Ellis was entered, I’d have had to consider that his aesthetic weights different considerations. Strong’s style runs austere. He’s not into decoration and feels one of his top duties is to get a bike to his client with all due haste. In his case, a lack of decorative elements isn’t a liability, but only because it’s part of his personal philosophy. There are a bunch of guys out there who make reasonably affordable TIG-welded road and mountain bikes that are short on flash and long on practicality. Getting a bike that’s reliable at a good price this year matters and any time I’m faced with one of those bikes, I do all I can to consider that.
Judging doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We don’t hold up a bunch of cards that say 9, 8, 9, 6 (the Russian judge). It’s a conversation, so in many ways the final choice comes down to each of us selling the others on the factors that we see as important. There were occasions that I forgot (or was unaware of) a detail and one of the judges would point it out. With one exception, our votes were unanimous and reaching consensus was important to us because in our minds, if we couldn’t agree, why should anyone attending the show have any faith in us?
I’ve been interviewing frame builders for more than 20 years. I find these craftsmen as fascinating today as I did then. The combination of builder web sites, Flickr accounts, social media and NAHBS has done much to propagate just what great work is. As a result, I’m excited to tell people that I really think we’re in the golden age of frame building.