Good lord. When I decided that I’d give everyone the deepest, most in-depth look behind the scenes at how we judge the awards, my desire was just to illustrate the thinking that goes into each award, not write a Tolstoy novel. That said, I’m hoping that the builders who actually display at NAHBS will read these posts rather than ask me for a bunch of rules. I honestly want as few rules as possible.
I mean, the awards shouldn’t be about who follows a bunch of rules anyway. Some of the rules will always seem arbitrary, no matter how hard you work to make them objective. So I try to be flexible and understanding. Case in point: We’ve had bikes show up hours after we’ve finished judging a category. In any other competition, that person would be turned away. You missed your window. But because communication at the show can be sketchy, I don’t fault the builder for showing up late. Their lateness could easily be due to a failing on the part of the show.
I get that if you show up for a bike race two hours after the race started, you are SOL. And you should be. Your entire purpose for being at the race was … to do a bike race. When a builder chooses to show at NAHBS, they are there as an exhibitor; I don’t think anyone’s primary purpose at NAHBS is to win awards, so it is, in all likelihood a tertiary or quarternary priority. The upshot is I don’t see how anyone is well-served by turning away a late bike. And judging a late bike is no harder than if it had been there on time. We know what bikes were finalists. The question is simple: Is it good enough to fit alongside the other finalists? And if so, is it better than our current winner? And we’ve had a bike come in late and dethrone the winner. Our duty is to recognize the best work at the show. I am enervated at the prospect of doing backflips to keep that as my top priority for the awards.
When Don told me he wanted to institute a new award a couple of years ago—even as I was working to cut awards—I made the mistake of listening to his justification. He wanted to create an award that was recognize a builder who did an exceptional amount of in-house fabrication. Someone who went above and beyond crafting details of the bike that were, in all likelihood, available from a distributor’s catalog. It was, damn him, a terrific idea.
Looking back over the award winners—Rasmus, the crazy Dane behind Cyklemargeren who actually built his own shifters among other details; Dekerf, whose titanium bike featured swooping, ovalized titanium tubes that all started round and straight; James Bleakley’s Black Sheep Bikes townie bike with in-house crafted bars, racks and other details—I can say that while we may not get a lot of entrants for the category, the award is more than justified. An award ought to help to remind us of a bike that deserve to be unforgettable.
Bleakley stole the show again this year (he has won in some category going back at least six years) in the Artisan category. This time it was a 36-inch wheel mountain bike with many of the usual touches you see crafted by Bleakley such as a bar, stem and racks. But this bike went way beyond that. He crafted baskets and a chain guard and even did full titanium finders. I’d love to see some video of those strips of titanium getting worked in an English wheel.
In watching people geek out on this bike, I noticed people flipping out over the (gorgeous) chain guard. People dug the ti fenders, but they really loved the design of the chain guard. This is part of why I think the awards serve a real purpose to the audience: shaping those fenders with an English wheel was arguably the most stupidly difficult exercise in making that bike. Even more mind-blowing is the fact that the fenders can’t be adjusted. He had to cut everything perfectly before welding the pieces in place.
Our other finalist for the Artisan award was a very cool city bike from a Brazillian builder named Ascari. While I loved the look of the bike, I really didn’t know anything about what I was looking at. I mean, at first, I thought I was looking at a bike wrapped in palm stems, as in rattan. This would be where Merlyn’s particular expertise as a mechanic who has travelled the world came in ultra handy. Turns out the bike is wrapped in leather.
In southeast Asia this is, as we like to say, a thing. Especially in Malaysia. Merlyn had a chance to get a look at the king of Malaysia’s bike (possibly made by Rudge) and it was similarly wrapped in leather cord. The effect is at once decorative and protective. It keeps the bike from getting scratched up in bike racks. The leather cord is secured to the tubes by brushing on lacquer over that. To say the process is time consuming is to say Warren Buffet has adequate capital resources, or that kittens are cute.
In addition to the leather wrapping, the builder, Helios Ascari, adds filigree to his frames. His motto is “looking back to move forward.”
We’re aware that adding such decorative touches to a bicycle’s frame will cause the tubes to distort. Issues of this sort can affect a bike’s handling. It’s important when you’re talking about a racing bike where precise handling is critical, but on a city bike, I don’t see handling as presenting as critical a dimension. So we were willing to let that slide.
Ascari is Brazillian and talking to him at the show was fascinating as his interest and approach to frame building is so different from the bulk of builders with whom I speak. He strikes me as someone destined for the pages of Men’s Journal or Cigar Aficianado.