There was a surprise in this year’s awards at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show: a mountain bike won. It’s the first time that has happened in the 14 years of the show. I’m going to do this a little bit backwards and rather than work my way up to Best in Show, I’m going to start there, in part because this is the most head-turning outcome of the entire set of awards.
Once again I served as chief judge for the awards at NAHBS. Nick Legan was unable to make it to the show this year (he’s in Hawaii having a vacation with his wife Kristin), which left me needing not one, but two judges. I needed experience and knowledge and was able to recruit Tom Kellogg of Spectrum Cycles and Merlyn Townley, as veteran a mechanic as possible. And yes, I was besieged by people who wanted to be a judge, because they thought, “It would be a lot of fun.” It is, in fact, an enormous amount of work, which is why only now am I getting my first post up.
To give attendees a better awards ceremony, that is, something actually worth watching, I decided we would nominate several finalists and then bring them all up to the stage to show which were the bikes that really made the conversation. It also saved us from walking around the show and tapping people as they were talking to customers.
Our finalists for Best in Show were a randonneur bike from Peter Weigle. The bike had already won the award for Best Lugs as well as Best Road Bike. It was arguably the most interesting return of the drillium concept I’ve seen, and the most serviceable iteration of the drillium concept ever. Weigle went to extraordinary lengths to lighten the bike, drilling out not just chainrings, but lightening the fork crown, the head tube lugs, the cantilever bosses, the rims—in short, he went to lengths to lighten the bike while staying true to his vision of a rando bike with racks that would make any other sane person go, “I dunno, maybe we just take the racks off if you want a light bike?”
Our second bike was the bike that won the Artisan Award was a 36-inch wheel mountain bike from James Bleakley at Black Sheep Bikes. Black Sheep won the Artisan Award last year and he came back with another mountain bike with weeks’ worth of work in it. This time he even fabricated titanium baskets for it so that it could be used as a grocery-getter around town. Never mind that the bike is more expensive ($16k) than many of the cars in the parking lot of my local Trader Joes. It’s an exquisite bike.
Our third bike won the award for Best Mountain Bike. It is a long-travel 29er from Gabriel Lang at Altruiste Bikes. If you’ve never heard of Altruiste, there might be a good reason why. This is Lang’s first time displaying at NAHBS; his shop is in Notre Dame, New Brunswick, Canada. This is the first time the show has been close enough to him to make the drive in a single day.
The Altruiste is a 160mm front/150mm rear travel mountain bike … made from steel. This is a flat-pedal rig rolling on 29x 2.6-inch tires and running Hope’s dual-piston disc brakes. Seriously enduro. The entire frameset weighs less than 8 lbs., which just doesn’t happen with full suspension bikes made from steel. Normally, they are boat anchors. What makes the Altruiste so unusual is the bending Lang did on the seat tube to get it around the shock as well as the reinforcing Land did on the down tube to make sure the bike would be strong enough (I’ll go into that in more depth in my post about Best Mountain Bike).
The question I outlined to the other judges is to ask ourselves what it means for a bike to be the best at the show. What is best? Is it just the prettiest bike? Or is it the one with the most hours in it? Is it the one that best balances cost against the number of hours in the bike? Is it the bike with the shortest lead time? Is it the bike with the lowest cost as compared to the number of years of experience on the part of the builder?
I can slice “best” a dozen different ways.
In terms of the most number of hours in the bike, the Weigle and the Black Sheep were probably in something of a drag race best summed up by asking, Don’t you have anything else to do?
But excellence really isn’t bound by deadlines, is it?
I made the case that availability is a worthy consideration. It’s unlikely that even if you have the sort of dosh possessed by the Sultan of Brunei that Weigle would build you the bike he submitted for Best Road Bike. It accomplished its goals more thoroughly than any other road bike present, but you almost certainly can’t get it.
The Black Sheep is a bike you can possibly order, but it will cost as much as a pretty nice motorcycle. Not everyone who has the money to spend on a bike like that is willing to spend it. So there’s that. There’s also some question about practicality with the 36-inch tires, but the rolling resistance, I imagine, is asymptotic.
But the Altruiste? The frameset goes for $3850 (that price might be higher by the end of the week, so act now). The queue isn’t terribly long, either. Lang would love to build more of these.
What about creativity? One of the things Lang said to me was that the show was full of guys smarter than him, more experienced than him, better builders than him. While I champion humility for myself and my boys, I really detest it in builders. (Not entirely true.) I had to point out to him the obvious. He was the guy who brought this bike. “Other guys could do this bike better than I did.” Nope, or at best, maybe. But he dreamt it up, right down to using a three-piece BMX crank so he could install bearings for the pivot to turn concentrically around the bottom bracket. No one else present came up with a lightweight, steel, full-suspension, long-travel 29er that appears to be strong enough for enduro riding.
Altruiste won because the bike was creative, because it was a bike contemporary to the market, because it was affordable and because it was a kind of bike that the show has not traditionally championed to this degree. The closest the show has come to recognizing a mountain bike was the Black Cat’s bikepacking bike that won in 2016.
The Weigle is a thoroughly decorated bike; it has won awards elsewhere, so the two NAHBS nods he received were nothing but icing. Peter doesn’t really need the accolades. He’s Peter flippin’ Weigle. The Black Sheep would also have been a thoroughly deserving winner. It’s more stunning than a Taser.
Gabriel Lang and Altruiste won because the bike is affordable, responsive to the market, creative and practical. That bike is going to get pounded on for three months every year (oh, I should mention that his customer is also in New Brunswick). Moreover, a nod like this is, I hope, an encouragement to other builders to be creative, to go their own way and not lose sight that this craft is fundamentally about giving a client a great bike to do the riding they want to do.