I get a lot of questions about how we judge bikes at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. I do what I can to be clear about stuff, but I’m not sure all the builders who enter bikes for the awards see those messages and honestly, there are questions from attendees about why one bike won and another didn’t. In an effort to be transparent on our judging, I’ve undertaken to address how we do things. And honestly, what I’m about to say may be more for exhibitors at NAHBS than the attendees.
The first thing I want to say on the judging is that the process is democratic. This year, barring catastrophe (read: weather), the judges will be Nick Legan, Tom Kellogg and myself. It looks like Merlyn Townley will make it to the show and should something happen, it’ll be nice to know we have an experienced person on hand. The reason there are three judges and not four goes back to my first statement beginning this ‘graph: the process is democratic. Because the votes of each of the judges carries equal weight, having four judges could lead to ties, and that will only confuse matters, not to mention the fact that if there are two winners in a category, one will go home without a ribbon or trophy. Also, my first year of judging we had five judges. That we came to a single conclusion is something of a miracle.
Another common misperception is that I overrule the opinions of other judges. In short, no, I don’t have the power to override the other judges’ votes. I suppose I could have assigned myself that kind of power when I took on this role, but it seemed fundamentally shady to me, so I don’t have it, nor does show director Don Walker have the power to veto an award.
This titanium commuter is for a girl in Russia who rides to school over heavily salted streets.
I don’t value power, I value consensus and I prefer to see the three judges unanimous in our decision, because until we agree, I’m not convinced we’ve selected the right bike. These awards don’t mean much if the three of us don’t agree that the winner is a truly exceptional bike. As we discuss bikes, we will make a case to each other for why one bike deserves further consideration or deserves to be ruled out. We talk the whole way, selling each other on what we find exceptional or disqualifying. The process demands more energy and focus than most people think; people tell that they think being a judge would be fun. That’s the first indication that they don’t know what’s involved in the job. When we walk out of the hall Friday evening we are exhausted.
Now, on to what we look for. Prior to me becoming a judge, there was a decided bias toward lugged bikes, road bikes and pretty paint jobs. Those biases will leave a great many builders ignored. When I became chief judge I vowed to shake things up so that any bike present had a real shot at winning an award. The point of each award is to recognize superlative work, not just give a pat on the bike to my personal favorite. Believe me, there have been bikes that I adored on a personal basis but left the show empty-handed.
The biggest shift in the judging itself was to look at bikes based on their mission. Paul Sadoff doesn’t make the prettiest bikes in the world. But he makes a hell of a lot of custom bikes and he makes them quickly and they are reliable and affordable. That is laudable in my book. We should celebrate any builder who shortens the distance between a rider and a custom bike. Not everyone will ever be able to drop $5k on a frame, but that doesn’t mean their bike isn’t amazing. Last year we gave a nod to a gravel bike from Co-Motion. It wasn’t the prettiest gravel bike we saw. It wasn’t even the best-spec’d gravel bike we saw. But the Klatch was a complete gravel bike with a handbuilt frame for $5000, with a lead time of three to four months. It’s a bike that fulfills its mission admirably. I was proud to name it a finalist for the award.
The Co-Motion Klatch is a $5k gravel bike with a handmade frame.
Some years back Carl Strong stopped entering the awards because he concluded that he didn’t have a shot at winning anything because his ti frames were all business. His ti frames aren’t painted, to help keep his turnaround short and because titanium is pretty on its own. There aren’t any fancy shaped tubes or anything else that’s crazy. But he does great work and creates intelligent bikes for people who ride hard. I can’t think of a reason why a bike of his shouldn’t be in contention for an award.
Let’s try to remember, some folks’ idea of a great bike is one that’s all business, one they won’t be afraid to get dirty. Who am I to tell them that isn’t a fantastic bike?
To help us learn more about a bike relative to its purpose, and how well it meets that mission, I created a builder information sheet. Not everyone bothers to fill them out, but when they don’t, they do so at their peril. Without that sheet, we may not notice that the fork crown was machined from a single piece of steel. The more we know about a bike, such as the sort of riding it is intended for, what the bike cost, what the lead time is and how many people worked on the bike, the better we are able to judge a bike based on its job, not how pretty it is. As a comparison, the People’s Choice Award invariably goes to a bike with a pretty paint job. That paint job could be on a Huffy and it would still win. Our job is to look deeper.
In short, I don’t care what the bike is, as long as we can appreciate that the owner will be over-the-moon satisfied with their new bike. It might be an ultra-trick titanium gravel bike for 650 x 2.0 tires and disc brakes for which the client waited a year and cost $8k built, or it might be a TIG-welded aluminum ‘cross bike with cantilevers for which the client waited 90 days and cost $1800 for frame and fork. Both bikes are worthy of the judges’ utmost consideration. It’s a big cycling world and if all we do is celebrate a fancy-lugged steel frame with a paint job more expensive than the frame itself cost, then all we’ve done is reinforced the idea that cyclists are a bunch of elitist asses who look down their noses at anyone unwilling to spend the cost of a kitchen remodel on a two-wheeled hobby. We are better than that.
If I convey nothing else, I hope you’ll remember this: There’s more than one road to Rome.