Sunday is the day when we judge both Best in Show and the Best New Builder. As happened last year, this year I got to the line of new builder tables only to discover a builder who had ripped me a new one for not adequately informing him that we were judging one of the categories. This guy had grilled me for 10 minutes on the ways I sucked, and he wasn’t even eligible for the category he missed.
I declined to say anything.
In my first attempt at walking the new builder tables, I got about half way down and recalled how Nick and Jeff had told me they’d found the winner and were ready to vote. I knew exactly who they were talking about, a builder named Claudio Bellon. In many other years Bellon would have been an easy win. The next morning I returned to finish my run and when I got to Cryptic Cycles, I began asking questions, lots of them.
Cryptic Cycles is a typical one-man operation. But builder Kevin Fickling doesn’t work in steel or aluminum or titanium. He works in carbon fiber and is producing sub-700-gram frames. The quality of his work—tube to tube construction—would have rivaled some of the other builders on the main floor. For a new builder, and a guy in his 20s to boot, the quality defied history. I’ve never seen work this good with so little background. After talking with the other judges we all agreed that Cryptic deserved to win Best New Builder, but it hurt to leave Claudio Bellon in the dark. His work was better than some steel builders on the main floor.
Best in Show is the most difficult to judge award we present. For obvious reasons, right? While every other category has a limited number of entrants, Best in Show, while finite, is limited only by the number of bikes on the floor. In theory, every bike displayed (it does have to be a complete bike) is eligible, but practically speaking, only once has a new builder been considered for Best in Show.
In practice, we don’t have much trouble coming up with a short list. Our nominees, as it were, included a travel bike of proprietary design from Rob English that resided in the Enve booth, not his booth. Two bikes from Mosaic, a road bike and a gravel bike also made the short list. There was a bike from Steve Rex that received some discussion as well. The Eriksen gravel bike that won best ‘cross/gravel also made my list. Rounding out our set was Mark DiNucci’s gravel bike and Black Cat’s 27.5 Plus bikepacking bike that secured the bags via brazeons rather than velcro.
We winnowed the field down to the DiNucci, the two Mosaics and the Black Cat. That’s when the conversation got awkward. Because the DiNucci is my personal bike, we had a long conversation about the implications of a DiNucci win. I offered to recuse myself, but we concluded that such a move simply wasn’t transparent enough. No matter how good the bike is, my connection to it would taint a win by it. We struggled with this because the fact that DiNucci had engineered the tube set, doing all the CAD files himself and then engineered the lugs and even insisted that Reynolds redo the heat treating on some of the tubes to increase their strength put him in a unique position. That he put more than 100 hours into the frame—adding brass fillets and filing each lug to paper-thin proportions—was exceptional as well.
Then there was the marvel of the paint from Joe Bell and his assistant Jonny Pucci. People had stopped me on the show floor to tell me how beautiful that bike was, people who didn’t even know it was mine. A SRAM employee insisted to me it was the prettiest frame in the show. And no less than Valentino Campagnolo dropped by DiNucci’s booth, ran his fingers over Pucci’s psychedelic striping, trying to detect a ripple, and when he found none, looked up at DiNucci and pronounced the frame, “Prego!”
But, yeah, for the integrity of the awards and the credibility of the show itself, we concluded that the best we could do was give it an honorable mention in the Best in Show. A first for that designation, and very probably the last. To do anything else would have burned down trust in the awards, though we were all sad that my connection to the bike prevented DiNucci from getting the consideration he deserves. Hopefully, the attention the bike gets will result in plenty of orders.
With the DiNucci sidelined, we went to the Mosaic booth and got founder and head welder Aaron Barcheck to walk us through the gravel bike built up by Bike Effect and the road bike built up by Radio Freddy at Velosmith Bicycle Studio. It didn’t take long before we understood that the 15-ish pound steel road bike built from True Temper S3 was an extraordinary and rare machine.
But what of the Black Cat? The bikes that shine at NAHBS are the ones that have an owner, someone who wanted a particular bike. In their peculiarity, those bikes are the ones that attract the most attention. Todd Ingermanson at Black Cat confided in us that he really wasn’t into doing the brazeons so the bags could be bolted on, but the bike’s owner owns the bag company Bedrock and it was his idea to eliminate the velcro straps. That Ingermanson was able to match the paint to the fabric color made the bike’s presentation all the more impressive, and the fact that he often does the paint himself, as he did on this bike, makes the achievement here even more laudatory.
In a first with this crew, Jeff and Nick split their votes for the Mosaic and the Black Cat, leaving me with the tie-breaking vote. I cast mine for the Black Cat, even though sleeping on the ground is about as attractive to me as a venereal disease. As much as I loved the Mosaic, in part due to the beautiful paint and ultra-lightweight build, the Black Cat got my nod because it’s someone’s wet dream bike. It’s a fantasy brought to life, an answer to the musing, “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” And that’s what Best in Show should recognize.