The first thing I have to say about this category is that the intersection point between custom bikes and a daily driver is not entirely comfortable. In evaluating the bikes we—the judges—struggled to reconcile the cool bikes we saw with the notion of utility. The challenge isn’t that the bikes weren’t cool or didn’t fulfill their mission. Nope. We didn’t struggle with that. What gave us pause, what made us uncomfortable was the idea of a bike for around town use that cost more than the average bike raced on the road or off of it.
What do you put on a Russian girl’s bike to decorate it? Matryoshka dolls, of course.
In a way, our worry was one of self-interest. We were concerned about the message sent by giving an award to a bike meant for errand running that might run northward of $5000. I think we have some reason to be concerned that in presenting an award to an $8k grocery getter that we might be out of touch, and if our judgment is question, that brings into question the entire set of awards. It’s terribly important to me that the awards have a certain common sense obviousness to them.
So yeah, we appreciate that when you have avid cyclists who are unable to contemplate the purchase of a $2500 custom frameset, a bike meant to be secured to a pole with a U-lock that runs twice that (for the whole bike) is, maybe, unthinkable.
But part of what NAHBS does is celebrate the ridiculous, to laud the preposterous. We give awards to bikes that very often aren’t commercially viable, but then Vincent Van Gogh died having sold very little of his art. In our mission we seek to recognize great efforts; some are reasonably affordable by custom bike standards, while others are Cecil B. DeMille outlandish.
So we have this award. And builders submit bikes for it. What we absolutely can’t do is insult the bikes the builders have been commissioned to create. That flies in the face of the show itself. If there are people with the disposable income to order these bikes, then bully for them as well as the builder.
Some perspective: A couple of years ago Ira Ryan and Tony Pereira of Breadwinner displayed matching his and hers city bikes. The couple lives in Portland and they sunk serious money in their city bikes rather than have a car. We didn’t learn that until after we’d judged the category, but it’s that sort of back story that we love to know and it just goes to show that judging a bike by its appearance (or price) alone can miss the point.
Our first finalist came from the Russians. Triton built a titanium mixte bike for an 11-year-old girl who lives in Moscow. We elected not to ask any more questions, because we figure that if you are willing to spend $5k on a titanium bike for your daughter to get to school, you’re probably very well connected. Ahem. Tom had some concerns about the gearing and if it was too low to be practical for daily riding, so I did the only reasonable thing: I hopped on it and rode it around the judging paddock, weaving in and out of two dozen other bikes. It handled with the relaxed confidence of those old English 3-speeds, and had enough gear to get somewhere.
Northern Bikes submitted a townie with a front porteur rack, a frame pump, a modified moustache bar, an XT Di2 drivetrain and disc brakes. And fenders, duh. It was gloss black is to townies what the Fisker Karma is to the Toyota Prius. It’s as blinged out a ride as you could do. Holy cow. Who wouldn’t want this bike? I tremble to mention what it cost, but it couldn’t not be a finalist.
Our winner came from SaltAir Bikes in Salt Lake City, last year’s best new builder. This rig was built around a Pinion C1.12 gearbox. What’s more, the bike was ginormous, with a frame north of 60cm. It’s no wonder the bike was custom; production bikes would never fit the owner, so he had a real-world need.
What we found intriguing about the bike was the way non-Pinion shifters had been used. I don’t want to rabbit hole this, but my understanding of how the Pinion’s shifters work is that two STI shifters shouldn’t work with it. And yet….
The Pinion gearbox made it low-maintenance and clean. Combined with a Gates belt drive to eliminate squeaky chain noise and a front rack to carry clothes or groceries, full fenders, plus a headlight, the bike was very practical. This is a bike you could ride home from work in the rain, park it in the garage and not have to worry about post-ride cleanup. Not only did it win best city/utility, NAHBS honch Don Walker gave the bike his President’s Award, which was amazing if you have any idea how he geeks out on track bikes.
Is the SaltAir expensive? Yep. But it fulfills a real need that can’t be easily met by other means. And with a bike like this on the road, maybe it will encourage other people to get out of their cars as well.