2018 NAHBS: Best Road

2018 NAHBS: Best Road

In a way, of the various category awards, best road bike is Dickensian. It brings out both the all-stops-pulled efforts and the utterly phoned-in assumptions. Simply put, it’s not enough to put a nice paint job and Campy on a bike and expect to win. Why? Because there are another dozen bikes that did the same thing. The bikes that represent the first round of rejects are bikes that would turn heads on any group ride. You could roll up to any cycling friend of yours on any of these rejects and they would exclaim, “Hey, nice bike!”

To be the best road bike at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, that just won’t cut it.

As I’ve written in the other posts about the categories, what we’re looking for is originality. We’re looking for efforts that will go unnoticed by most cycling aficionados. We want the touch that the owner of the bike may not even fully appreciate, something the builder did not for the client, for themselves. The crazy thing they did out less out of pride, than self respect.

What we’re looking for is a strand of hair in the haystack. Toward the end of Friday’s judging, one of our volunteers said to us that he thought it would be “fun” to be a judge, but after watching the lengths we went to in examining a bike he said he wanted no part of it. “I don’t want your job.”

I had people tell me the same thing when I was a dishwasher. I can say that judging bikes at NAHBS doesn’t pay as well, but it carries a good deal more satisfaction.

After seeing Peter Weigle’s rando bike for best lugs earlier in the day I had one of the volunteers go and pull the bike from his booth, with Peter’s blessing, of course. I knew, based on what I’d seen earlier in the day, that it was already a finalist. I knew our other judges, Tom Kellogg and Merlyn Townley were thinking the same thing.

Despite the multitude of opportunities to do funky and stylish work, I have to admit that randonneuring bikes don’t do it for me. I don’t want to turn racing bikes into touring bikes, or vice-versa. That Peter’s bike was an instant finalist had less to do with the rando angle than it did with the crazy amounts of work he did on the lugs as well as his other efforts to make the bike lighter. It’s a 21st century drillium masterpiece. He removed metal in ways I’ve never seen. He drilled out not just chainrings, but cantilever mounts and shaved metal off of the fork crown, making it both prettier and lighter. He even drilled out the inner wall of the rims he used.

Impress your friends. Entertain people at parties!

Ultimately, Peter failed in his quest. The bike came in not at an impressive 22 lbs. (seriously, that’s good for a rando bike with full racks and fenders), but … 20 lbs. What he failed at was coming in at 19.9 lbs. He wanted to build a bike that was any amount under 20 lbs. But he ended up with 20 lbs. exactly. It’s this kind of inner quest, the quixotic drive for something no one else sees that will win a category.

One of our finalists was a titanium road bike built by Doriano DeRosa. His company, Bixxis, is among an ever-shrinking contingent of builders in Italy. As one very knowledgeable builder said to me, “He is the best of the DeRosas. If you want a DeRosa today, you buy a Bixxis.”

I can’t say if either of those statements are absolutely true, but for those who want the sort of craftsmanship that Ugo DeRosa epitomized for most of his career, that latter statement will resonate.

Two things about the Bixxis stood out immediately. First, the surface finish on too many ti bikes is ignored. Either it’s covered up with paint to mask how dull or inconsistent the surface is, or it is uniformly bead blasted until it has all the luster of a cardboard box. The Bixxis, while different from what Seven Cycles does, possesses a beautiful luster.

The second truly notable feature of the bike is the selection of tubing DeRosa used on the bike. Tom Kellogg, whose Spectrum titanium bikes are welded by Seven Cycles to his specs, confirmed what I suspected: that the tubing choices, size-wise, would result in a bike with a terrific ride. I’m also aware that it’s not always easy to find titanium tubing in some of the diameters he used, meaning he either buys incredible amounts of tubing at a time or he has a very good relationship with his supplier.

When a builder leaves a titanium frame bare, the welding needs to be first rate. It doesn’t have to go full Brad Bingham, but a weld with four telltale starts and stops will attract unwanted looks. Put some paint on a bike and your eye tends to go elsewhere.

The Russians from Triton brought a titanium road bike that we absolutely loved. While these guys are capable of doing nutsy amounts of custom work, this bike was very straightforward. A custom road frame with them starts at $2400, which is less than what most companies were charging 20 years ago. And because this bike was equipped with Shimano Ultegra, it was arguably the least expensive custom titanium bike at the show. Stuff like that matters.

Triton’s welding is operating suite-clean and their tubing choices demonstrate a real appreciation for ride quality. Too often these days I see ti bikes with seat- and chainstays that are so large I know the ride will be harsh. And if there’s one thing people don’t want when they choose a titanium bike, it’s a harsh ride.

One of the interesting aspects of Triton is that they have produced a broad variety of finishes on their ti frames. Sure, they’ve painted some, but I’ve also seen a dull gray indicative of a frame that has been bead blasted, as well as the glowing luster of a satin finish. Amazingly, they’ve done fully polished finishes as well.

Everything about this bike was clean and professional, and they did it without the bike costing $8k.

Enigma, the maker out of England, showed up once again with a whole quiver of bikes destined cause arrhythmias. This was precisely the sort of bike I want to see when we judge. Yes, the paint was gorgeous on this stainless steel Extensor model, but the work they did went way beyond the honeycomb pattern in the paint job.

While this may seem more of a best finish concern, a classic attribute of a great road bike is coordination. A road bike is a vehicle for the most matchy-matchy of whims. While they couldn’t match the reds in the paint perfectly to the Chris King headset, it was close enough not to stand out.

Stainless steel is a particular kind of canvas and it gives you certain opportunities you can’t get with other frame materials. It used to be that chroming the drive-side chainstay was the mark of a great frame. But chroming is an operation with more environmental problems than a flaming river. The alternative? Polish stainless steel. Same effect, but without all the cancer. What I thought was especially trick was polishing a portion of the non-drive-side seat and chainstays equivalent to the length of the quick release lever; the whole point of the chrome was to protect the frame from the damage that paint will suffer in highly abused areas.

I’ll come back to the finish on this bike when we get to best finish, but this level of attention on a bike makes it hard to ignore. And while none of these shots capture it, the Enigma had 28mm tires, which reflects what we see happening in many areas; 28 is the new 25. And yes, tires do matter. Show up with a bike with 23mm tires and not enough clearance to put on a set of 25s (something I did see on at least one bike) and it’s bye, Felicia.

The Enigma did give the Weigle a real run for its money. And while the Bixxis and Triton are just terrific bikes, they never really stood a chance against the Enigma or the Weigle. In the end, the Weigle won because of details like the lengthened points, reshaped points, added fillets, the reshaped fork crown, the drilled out parts and the fact that he went to such great lengths to make the bike lighter without abandoning a classic rando aesthetic. He could have put some carbon on that bike and made it 17 lbs. in the time it takes me to dress my son. A man must have standards.

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  1. scott g.

    The other fun thing about the Weigle, it was built for The Concours de Machines,
    so it weighs a bit extra for the Rinko capability. Look at the rear fender bridge
    you can see where the fender splits and explains the wing nut.

  2. Tom Moore

    One thing bothers me about the bikes at NAHBS, mere mortals would not be able to afford them. They are truly elite bike for the elite.

    1. Author

      I know it can seem that way. Rare is the builder who asks you to write a check all at once. Honestly, if I’d had to do that, I wouldn’t have any of my custom bikes. Many builders (maybe most) will allow you to do installments up to the point of delivery. With Chris Bishop, I sent him a couple hundred bucks as I was able, and eventually he told me I’d covered my bill. Where there is a will, generally, a builder will find a way to work with you.

  3. Fuzz

    This feels slightly off topic, but I loved the comment that 28 is the new 25. I find it amazing that every time I go to bigger rubber, I set new uphill PRs. I was sure that going from 25 to 28 would finally break this trend, but it did not.

    1. Author

      Not off topic at all. Your comment is precisely why we pay attention to these things. Casing and compound technology have improved dramatically, making bigger tires much faster than they used to me. As riders have come to appreciate that, they have moved to different tires. When a builder specs a bike as if it was still 2003, we take notice. It would be the same deal if someone showed up with a 12-23, 9-speed cassette.

  4. Tominalbany

    So my 12×26 on my Serotta runs right where you speak. Of course, I still have to do something about that 53/39 up front…

    I don’t know if my ’98 Serotta will take 28s. The 25s fit ok but…

    1. Sepp Strand

      My ’96 Serotta takes 28s. Makes riding unpaved trails much nicer – not what I ever expected to do with that bike.

      Changing out the gears and brakes is a recurring fantasy (especially when we hit those unexpected 18% bits between valleys), but it’s slowly becoming a classic. Not sure I want to mess with the old-timer, bilaminate (new to me term learned thanks to these articles) lugs and all.

    2. tominalbany

      Maybe I’ll just buy an all-roads bike and not worry about how my 9-speed serotta is geared…

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