NAHBS 2015, Part V

NAHBS 2015, Part V

Before I discuss the final set of award winners at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, I want to address a brewing controversy over one of the bikes that was displayed over the weekend. Abbott Cycles, which displayed at one of the new builder tables, brought a bike with an objectified female form. I’m being polite here.

That the bike didn’t win the Best New Builder award had less to do with its form than the fact that the carbon work was rough enough that it never really had a shot at winning; we didn’t even have to discuss it.

In my more generous moments I’d like to think that if the bike had been all black or white it might have been interpreted as something artful, something interpretive. But it was flesh-colored and builder Allan Abbott’s web site includes a poll regarding reactions to the bike in which two of the possible answers are, “rider her hard and often” and “keep her locked to your bed.” That should clarify why people are upset.

Cycling has enough problems with being insufficiently hospitable to women without the addition of throwback attitudes that treat women as sex objects and objectifies their form. It only serves to make many of the women we do have in the sport feel unwelcome, which is completely unacceptable. The more rich and diverse a community is, the stronger it is.

Clearly, Abbott is a creative guy and shows some promise for working with carbon fiber. It is conceivable that he could create a bicycle frame inspired by the human form that didn’t trade on prurient interest. Someone suggested that he had seen a truly disturbing detail and suggested that I double check. I was embarrassed enough just to be that close to the frame that I chickened out before doing a more thorough inspection.

The natural defense to any backlash to this bike is to suggest that this was all one big joke, that no harm was meant. That sort of defense—minimizing the feelings of others—won’t cut it.

There have been questions in social media about why the bike was allowed to be displayed at NAHBS. I can say on behalf of show organizer Don Walker that unless a builder contacts him ahead of the show to discuss the bikes he’s bringing, Walker has no prior knowledge. But this begs the question of whether he should have acted. Walker has set many rules concerning who can display and how, but he has never set any rules on what a bike’s appearance can be, nor should he.

Fellow judge Jeff Archer suggested, “If they don’t like it, don’t look at it or don’t support the builder.” It’s a painless approach, but may be too laissez faire for some people.

Our other judge, Nick Legan, pointed out the larger problem with additional rules regarding a bike’s appearance. “To restrict what is allowed to enter a handmade show is a step too far in my moderate opinion. Don’s job is to allow builders to express themselves. He must also allow them to fail in that expression. The Signorina did.”

That gets at the deeper issue. Censorship is not the answer. The role of NAHBS is to present builders a forum to show their creative vision, even if it harkens from the Dark Ages. I’m disappointed that such a work was presented and NAHBS, and I completely grok why an overwhelming number of people are offended; it’s understandable. The answer, though, is to actively support the work we respect. Policing creativity is an Orwellian step we should all rebuke.


Image courtesy NAHBS

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  1. Jan

    You’re right about the objectification being offensive. It would never occur to me to make, buy, or ride a bike like that.

    I think human forms are beautiful, but it’s one of those points of argumentation, I suspect. I know I’d lose a lot of respect for someone if they chose to buy/ride one.

  2. souleur

    sometimes art is offensive

    thats not new

    I agree with ‘turn your head’ and walk off…now look at us and the discussion


  3. Josh

    I suspect that some people have too much free time, including the builder of this bike. But just as there is a market for the seemingly useless products sold via infomercials, there may be a market for human shaped bikes. Instead of trying to make everyone fit into a socially acceptable mold, why don’t we let the market sort this one out. Mapplethorpe sold quite a few pictures that some found offensive. This reminds me of the sticker that was affixed to the front of a Dead Kennedy’s album from my youth. To paraphrase, Some people may find the material in the record offensive, life is often that way…”
    Too much free time.

  4. jorgensen

    This fellow is no Luigi Colani.
    I do agree, there should be no taste police.
    It does place an awkward spotlight on Don Walker.

  5. Michael Schlitzer

    I suppose that is a mildly amusing thought – over a beer – but one that is best left as a thought.

    On the other hand, it seems like the right forum to make a one-off.

    I can’t imagine the market response being anything other than crickets. I can’t imagine showing up at a ride on something like that – all my friends (and I) have wives and daughters – I have enough trouble keeping my bikes in my house!

  6. James Thomas

    I received pictures of this bike last year as a design submission for my Bicycle Design blog. I initially viewed the images on my phone, and at first glance it just looked like an oddly proportioned carbon frame with a strange color choice. Once I read the accompanying text from Mr. Abbott though… I was pretty shocked. Whether it was intended as a joke or not, the message was blatantly sexist at worst, and in poor taste at best. Personally, I never considered posting the bike , even though I am sure it would have generated a few clicks. I won’t speak for NAHBS, but that is not exactly the type of traffic I am looking for.

  7. Whit Bazemore

    Holy Cow. Building the frame is one thing, but talking that talk is another. You are right though, PB, we live in a world where too many people, governments, etc., tell us what is right or wrong, and how to live. Censorship is not the answer. The free market is. And your piece on this frame is just the beginning of the free market not working in this guy’s favor.

  8. Shawn

    What a bunch of buckle-hatted Puritans around here. Lighten up. It’s art.

    It’s also not any more misogynistic than Southpark’s “It”* was an exercize in misandry.

    * the ” It” was a play on the silly build-up to Steve Jobs’s Seqway, which was basically derided as yet another stupid Jobs idea at the time because, well, back then before the iPhone and such it was still ok to notice that the emporer had no clothes.

  9. Author

    Everyone: Thanks for your comments. It’s interesting to see just how polarized the opinions are, which is yet another reason we need to tread lightly here. I think it’s terrific that so many people are able to see it as art, if poorly executed and just keep moving. However, I also believe it’s important to acknowledge the feelings of those who are offended by it. There’s room for all these opinions and we shouldn’t look to ban a bike like this or tell those who don’t like it that they need to change their feelings.

  10. Jamal

    I have to say that I actually don’t find that bike offensive at all. The human body is beautiful. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Whether or not this bike is beautiful isn’t all that important anyway.

    The real question is: Is this bike offensive? I don’t think it is. The bike is by definition an object in itself. So to say that this bike objectifies women is already stating the obvious. Of course it does, but is that wrong? I don’t think so. It’s not like this bike encourages male cyclists to rape women. There are tons of other mainstream commercials, TV shows, and women that do a much more damage to the women’s equal rights movement than a bike that is flesh painted with curves of it representative of a woman’s breasts and buttocks.

    The American show, NAHBS, also brings along with it American attitude about sexuality. And the shunning of free-form sexual creativity like this would only happen in America. If this show was held in the Amsterdam, Paris. Milan, or any other European city there would be no such criticism aimed at a framebuilder who clearly has taken the time and work to present this product to the public.

    1. Jsrinvestments

      I agree 100% with Jamal, a bike cannot be offensive. Let alone a handbuilt (vs. mass produced handbuilt) bike. Someone had the creativity and the courage to do this and take all risks that are associated. In speaking with the representatives at the Abbot table, It appeared to me that they were not very knowledgeable about current bicycle technology. However, they were certainly applying their knowledge about form, art, shapes, and aesthetic congruence. To me the spirit of a unique custom handbuilt bicycle is a perfect 50/50 blend of form and function. Here, while controversial, the form nailed it from a stand point of using ALL of that available 50%. I cannot think of too many additional details that could have been incorporated “tastefully”. As a bicycle, if it rolled forward or backward when pedaled and didnt break in half, they also satisfied the function aspect. Therefore, I would say it deserves no less to be represented at the show than anyone elses’s more conventional designs.

  11. Steve

    I wonder if the builder (artist?) has reflected on the response to his work. If so, I’d be interested to hear what he learned. To say that I found it pretty disrespectful would be an understatement. It certainly created an uncomfortable (repulsive) feeling within me (just looking at a few pics), though some would say that art is about creating visceral reactions.

    I appreciate (and tend to agree with) the perspective you shared from Nick Legan. We all have done some things we look back on and think, “What the #%€¥ was I thinking?” Hopefully, we are the better for it and go on to live more informed, respectful and healthier lives. We all have blind spots or areas where our awareness is less than fully attuned to our surroundings. Being publicly made aware of them can be awkward to say the least.

    I’ve said it before, the reason I read RKP is because important issues that face our world and communities are brought to the fore and not ignored. The discussion is usually civil, respectful and quite thoughtful making for a richer experience than simply reading the author’s view. Thanks for your willingness to engage with these topics.

  12. Paul Skilbeck

    Objectification of women is about as much a social issue as objectification of African Americans or Hispanaics: the former as prison fodder, the latter as cheap farm labor. It’s morally wrong. The notion that women are merely possessions that men can use for sex at our leisure is sickening. Not to say that women can’t be sexy, they are, but why does this even need to be said? Sad to say, because Women, like African Americans and Hispanics have been ruthlessly exploited by Anglo white men over the years, and we’ve finally copped to it. So shit like this isn’t OK. Should it be banned? No. But should idiots like Allan Abbott be panned? Absolutely. And NAHBS should NOT have put it up on their FB page. It’s one thing letting it appear in a show that has artistic tentacles, but promote this shit? No effing way. I’d have shot that one down. It’s a no-brainer.

  13. Megan Dean

    Thanks for addressing this tastefully. I made an Instagram post in regards to the bike after hearing from several folks who couldn’t believe it existed and was on the NAHBS floor and it has been a constant stream of comments for four days now. I wouldn’t have expected anyone to pull it from the floor because censorship isn’t the answer, but I think the discussion it pushed is an important one. It would be one thing if classless bikes and surveys from one person was all, but I can’t attend any bike-related show without being treated like I’m a second class citizen by men. At this point I’m usually just relieved it’s never coming from fellow builders.

  14. Jean

    Just curious, since you brought up the intolerances concerning women and biking, were any of the judges for the show female?

  15. MCH

    The exhibitors at many shows are jury selected. The intent being to ensure high quality. This isn’t censorship. Rather, it’s good management. Perhaps, NAHBS is big enough now to begin to assert a bit more control over who participates and who doesn’t.

  16. Author

    Paul: You and I both know that Don feels an obligation to promote everyone who purchases space. He’s neutral in that way. Is it the best plan? It’s not for me to say.

    Jean: None of the judges were women. If I ran across a woman with the requisite knowledge plus the willingness to do the job, I’d welcome her in an instant.

    MCH: That’s a great suggestion. I’d be interested to see how Don would react to it. There were more than 90 frame builders at Austin and roughly 50 builders in Louisville; a shrinking show could make that idea hard to swallow.

  17. Gerb61

    We’ve all seen bikes that we’ve thought were works of art although still practical and functional. Here the line becomes blurred.
    The question I ask myself is, would this be something i would want to ride? While it may be functional the answer to that would be a resounding no. Perhaps this entry would be better suited for display in an art gallery than on the floor of a bicycle show. If the builder was just relying on shock value to get his name mentioned then I guess it was a success in that regard.

  18. CMac

    I don’t label objects like cars, motorcycles or bicycles, “sexy” but would anyone label this bike “sexy?”
    Whatever “it” is, this guy does not get “it.”

    To quote the infamous Michele Ferrari, “it’s a bullshit bike.”

  19. Emily

    What i found most disturbing was the fact that you received a badge when you realized the bike is a naked lady(standing a bit aways, it just looks like an ugly, beige bike with a weird black down tube. I didn’t want to look at it as there were cooler bikes nearby, it was my hubby that pointed it out to me.). Granted, it was a bit late in the day, and the bourbon was beginning to soak into their bloodstreams, but the people in this booth were quite annoying. Old lady pawing at one of my favorite shirts trying to pin a badge on me because I know what boobs are? And then the annoying drunk talk started.

    I tell all this in an effort to highlight how much “art” this bike ISN’T.

    1. Author

      Emily: What? That part completely escaped me. I didn’t know about the badge. Gads.

  20. Tman

    So, will the male version have a downward erect love staff? As in the seat tube? we would all get the joke if he showed both versions. But, I am not offended, this is just an ugly art bike just like art cars and rat rods which serve no real purpose other than shock.

  21. John Kopp

    Interesting concept, but it really belongs at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally! They have an audience that would appreciate it.
    I like your comment about the male version, atman.

  22. gregorio

    Thanks for having the courage and good sense to call something offensive what it is. I see it as an issue of being respectful toward women: not just as athletes in a sport that doesn’t give them enough recognition, but simply as people.

  23. Randall

    I think that the creator of something decides if it is art, and I will assume for argument’s sake that the creator of this piece does feel that way. Any art gallery decides what to show. I believe this is done both based on the quality and type of work that is offered by an artist. When the gallery, or show presenter in this case, allows a piece to be shown, he is accepting that the piece being displayed falls within the scope of the show, the scope of the collection presented. In this case, the piece was perceived by many as an objectification of woman, and that emotion was accepted into the scope of the show when the bike was.

    Here’s where I strongly strongly disagree with your assessment: one’s “better judgement” is not equivalent, at all, to censorship. When I turn on PBS kids for my toddlers, they don’t see naked people, is this censorship? No, it is a curator/organizer/program director taking action to maintain the feel/atmosphere of the thing they created. As an extreme case, tape the face of a female that is important in Don Walker’s life to the stem faceplate, how does it make him feel then? Do those emotions correlate with what he wants out of NAHBS? Now take the picture back off, do those emotions change? What about female spectators, how do they feel, who did he think this made them think of?

  24. Author

    Jamal, JSRinvestments: I’d love to say that an inanimate object can’t be offensive. That would make the world a good deal simpler for us all. However, had you been at the show, what would you have said to the men and women who did find it offensive? Would you have told them that they are either unable to or can’t feel the way they do? That seems pretty problematic. The moment we deny someone else’s feelings, we’re denying them a kind of freedom and dignity. My strongest emotional reaction was one of embarrassment, that I was embarrassed to be studying such a thing in public. Are you suggesting that my reaction isn’t valid or that it didn’t happen?

    Randall: I agree that the creator of a work is entitled to call it whatever he or she wants. And while galleries are curators of art, trying to bring to the public the work of artists they deem worthy of greater attention, it is the public that ultimately decides their greatness. It’s the public that votes with their dollars. The challenge here is that NAHBS is a money-making venture, not a curated show, so if someone wants to show up with a bike covered in swastikas, that’s possible. Would it be offensive? I suspect so.

    The tragedy here is that the Signorina is a point of discussion for all the wrong reasons. What’s really worthy of our time and focus are the frames that Mark DiNucci brought, the carbon work from Alchemy, the Best in Show surf bike from Groovy and the crazy-cool bikes from Peacock Groove. Those are more positive conversations to have.

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  26. Jay

    What a bunch bible banging freaks. I suggest staying away from Italy and art museums…..beware……..naked people in painting and sculptures. For god’s sake, when you walk buy the bike, most people didn’t even noticed the “naked” part of the bike and start feeling the smoothness of the carbon fiber work. You would think he made a rolling porno movie bike after reading this blog and a few others. So the guy combined art and science…..OMG, we better turn this guy into a freak now and send out the police.

    I was at NAHBS and talked with Allan and he was a really nice guy. What really surprise me was that he designed and built and rode his land speed record holding bike (1973 or so and a speed of 140 mph). His wife also told me that he was in Popular Science mag for a hydro-foil/plane boat/bike.

    Looking closely at the bike, he did a really nice job of building the bike. The reason I talked with him further was because I’m hand building carbon fiber bikes too. He did all of his own research and created his own processes……damn good too.

    I may just buy this bike and add it to my naked lady golf tee and pen……..OMG, naked lady products. I hope I didn’t offend any of you prudes.

  27. Janet Lafleur

    “It would be one thing if classless bikes and surveys from one person was all, but I can’t attend any bike-related show without being treated like I’m a second class citizen by men.”
    I’m with Megan. You can stand behind this and say it’s “art” but the net effect is that it’s a reminder that bicycle culture revolves first and foremost around the preferences of [heterosexual] men. Women are objects, not protagonists in this bike culture.

    That’s why I find myself opting out of the whole bike industry experience, whether it’s going to Interbike or NHBS or simply shooting the shit at my local bike shop. I’m tired of having to fit into a culture that not only doesn’t particularly suit me, I have to look past the obvious sexism. It may be 2015 but this crap is right out of Mad Men.

  28. Bale

    Thank you Jay, completely agree. I think this bike is beautiful and tastefully done, and I was raised in conservative Utah! I was genuinely surprised by the negative feedback. Granted, it seems Abbott might have made it worse with his website poll, but aren’t we overreacting a bit? Both sexes would do well to appreciate the female form as a beautiful work of art and stop always getting offended and feeling “objectified”. I realize there can be a fine line between art and porn, but I like this bike, and btw so does my girlfriend.

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  30. Andrew

    Try to picture this…the woman’s torso is the downtube and with one leg extended through the chainstay the other bent (encompassing the seat tube and the other chainstay. …and make it into a male figure. hopefully now it’s not a sexist bunch of worms. As they say when getting comfortable on the bike positioning is everything

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