In some competitions the criteria are etched in stone and don’t change one iota for decades. They are clearly set forth, objective but may struggle to embrace changing taste or the rise of new skills. At NAHBS, we haven’t devised a points system and a rigorous set of criteria by which to judge technical ability and artistry. I’m actually comfortable with that, partly because I do this for a limited amount of time each year—as a volunteer—and partly because I don’t see how we could have absolute criteria that would allow both Erik Noren’s (Peacock Groove) Prince tribute bike and Todd Ingermanson’s (Black Cat) bike packing rig to win Best in Show. They are two very different bikes with very different stylistic aesthetics and cycling purposes. About all they have in common is that they are bikes with gears, disc brakes and paint.
With this year’s Best Road Bike category, one of the things that my fellow judge Nick Legan and I discussed was how few of the bikes were spec’d 25 or 28mm tires. Yeah, I know plenty of guys in SoCal who are still riding 23mm tires on roads smooth as an FM deejay’s voice, but what I encounter riders from literally everywhere else, they are riding bigger tires.
When I consider the tires I see on custom bikes, almost no one is riding 23mm tires. The upshot is that while we couldn’t dismiss bikes with 23mm tires, we gave road bikes with bigger tires extra weight. Points, if you will.
The bike we found most compelling was the Kirk Frameworks submission. Dave Kirk built a stainless steel road bike that featured a bead-blast finish with accents both painted and in small, polished sections. You could see where he had flowed the silver into the lug, but there wasn’t a single drip or smear of silver.
The cream panel on the head tube and highlights in the windows of the lugs and fork crown were beautiful and added a kind of camouflage; it was easy to conclude that the entire bike was painted gray at first.
How the polished sections can be so perfectly masked so that the edges are just as crisp as painted lines is something that amazes me every time I see it. The Kirk also featured 28mm tires, with clearance enough for at least 30s, if not 32s.
Generally speaking, one of the key criteria we use when looking at a bike is whether or not you’d consider it were you buying a bike of that sort. With the track category, the MKII from Low Bicycles got our attention right away for a few reasons. First, it’s a terrific use of aluminum. It makes for a light and stiff bike and, if the tubing is butted, can even have a pretty terrific road feel.
The MKII features double butted tubing, steel inserts on the horizontal dropouts and a carbon fiber fork from Columbus. It’s made for endurance track events, more stable than what you’d use in a match sprint or Madison.
Aluminum continues to be a prized material for track bikes, but because crashing on the track is a thing, as we like to say, we really appreciated that this frameset is only $2050. Now, it’s not custom for that kind of money, but it’s handmade in San Francisco. Finally, the matte black/orange/raw aluminum finish was pretty trick.
And because workmanship is always a big part of our consideration, they deserve to be recognized for great weld quality and careful finishing to make sure stress doesn’t collect at a join.
The tandem category was a very tough one to judge. There were two bikes we liked a great deal. One was spec’d more to our liking, but the other showed more innovation and engineering. Workmanship was a tossup. Ultimately, the bike that got the nod was from Santana Cycles. What you see above is a travel tandem.
I’m a big fan of S&S Couplers. I’ve got two bikes with them and once had a bike retrofitted for them. Santana calls these the “Z” couplers due to their shape. Honestly, they make S&S couplers look like a joke. The engineering that went into these is shock and awe stuff. The couplers and frame are produced entirely in-house. Even the engineering was in-house, by a Vietnamese gentlemen named Ngoc who has been with Santana since at least the Clinton administration.
The way these things fit together there’s no movement of the joint. And in the sample we had to play with, you could feel the precision in the fit as you slid the two pieces together.
Traveling with a tandem is less fun than applying to college, but for those who like to tandem, there seems to be something about taking it on vacation. Santana owner Bill McCready has a travel business that appears to be larger than his actual tandem business, so the call for a good travel solution was acute.
There were component choices on this tandem that we didn’t entirely agree with, and that happens in bikes from time to time. And we’ve seen prettier welds, but no one has committed more resources to working with titanium in tandems than Santana and no one has done a fraction of the work to make traveling with them easy, or at least easier.
If you value independent media, please lend your support to RKP.
To learn more about our new subscription program, please read this.