Strange but true. The North American Handmade Bicycle Show will celebrate its tenth anniversary with next week’s gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina. Has it really been ten years? How cool is that? Though I haven’t attended each edition (I missed last year’s because of the birth of His Tininess the Deuce), I’ve managed to visit about half of them and I’ve never failed to be wowed by the artistry and skill on display.
In the late 1990s tubing supplier Reynolds and tubing distributor Nova Cycle Supply used to host the work of builders in their Interbike booths. It was a pretty genius idea. After all, looking at a completed frame is way more interesting than looking at a bunch of uncut tubes. It’s been long enough that I can now confess to showing up late for more than a few appointments because I spent too much time gawking at all the amazing frames in those booths. A similar thing happened at the LA Bike show circa 2003 when Hank Folson of Henry James Bicycles took out a large-ish space and gave builders who were purchasing tubing, lugs and jigs from him an opportunity to display their work.
NAHBS far exceeds what these fora were, but I mention them because it helps to frame just how impressive NAHBS is. If a dozen, maybe two, frames of variable workmanship could carbonate the pea-sized gray matter locked between my ears, I hope you’ll understand when I say that NAHBS has every right to claim that it is the bike industry’s closest event to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The funny thing is, I don’t think Don has ever made that claim. He ought to.
One detail I think that escapes many NAHBS attendees is the way the combination of the event and digital media has elevated the quality of framebuilding. Even in the late ’90s, I routinely saw frames that, to be polite, had issues. I saw it all: paint drips, accidentally asymetric lugs, windows overflowing with brass, alignment issues obvious to the naked eye and work that was so rudimentary and without creativity you’d think they were using the metalworkers’ equivalent to a paint-by-numbers set.
While not all work at NAHBS is created equal, I’ve yet to see a frame or bike there as questionable as the stuff I was seeing a mere 15 years ago. The combination of peer interaction thanks to the show and the ability to look closely at detail shots of the very best work on display has lifted the quality of framebuilding, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. Show organizer Don Walker deserves a
beer Mexican Coke (he stopped drinking) from each of us.
For those of you who follow Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (or the NAHBS newsletter), you may have caught that I was recently named chief judge for the awards. I was really honored by Don’s decision to do this and I hope the awards will carry the full weight of recognition the work deserves. I am by no means the most qualified for this mission. As it turns out, one of the more important qualifications is simply being able to spare the time to do the work. And you can’t spare the time if you didn’t make the trip, so there’s that, too.
NAHBS is an event that has had more than a reasonable share of controversy blow through its halls. Don is a man of strong convictions; that much no one will argue. But he’s also the guy who put his entire career on the line to give framebuilders an annual shindig. My personal belief is that when the definitive history of the craft of framebuilding is written, Don will be remembered less as a framebuilder than for his work in bringing framebuilders together, for helping to elevate the quality of the work done, in part, by giving awards to the best work out there.
While it’s true that NAHBS has endured some dissention within the ranks, and more than a few bridges have been burned, the irony here is that prior to NAHBS, framebuilders were not known for socializing with each other. Framebuilding, because it is such a personal expression, results in some deeply held ideologies. NAHBS can be credited for bringing lots of these artists together and fostering a degree of brotherhood, through shared techniques and mutual admiration, that didn’t really exist before the event.
If you make your way to Charlotte, I’m confident you’ll see plenty to drool on. While you won’t see me on the floor Friday (I’ll be in another room doing judging with fellow judges Nic Legan and Jeff Archer), I’ll be cruising the show floor taking photos and talking metal filings with builders on Saturday and Sunday. And if I can find a place to have it, there will be a small gathering for RKP-types on Saturday night. Otherwise, I might just be in the nearest BBQ joint. Additionally, provided the forecast holds, I’ll be going for rides Saturday and Sunday morning. I hope to see/meet you there.
There’s something about visiting the workshop of a craftsman who began honing his skills before Greg LeMond headed to Europe. If you cut Joe Bell (and I don’t mean shiv him), his blood runs with lithium grease. His shop is less a time capsule than a place where time is suspended It’s not frozen in the past but rather a place where the past and present come together in a mashup of ages, Jimi Hendrix with a techno backup. In Joe’s shop 1978 is just as valid as today and the photos, posters and stickers are a testament to that.
There was a time back in the ’90s where I think we went more than a year at Bicycle Guide where Joe had sprayed every single bike we ran in Hot Tubes. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say he is arguably the most important bicycle frame painter the U.S. has seen. Every other painter I know has cited him as an influence. The funny thing is just how modest Joe is about his own abilities. He’s far quicker to praise the work of other guys than he is to recall any of his own work.
Talking to him in person is probably the wrong thing to do if you’re not already convinced he’s the right guy to paint your bike. He’s sooner huff thinner than give you a sales pitch. But the fact that guys like Richard Sachs and Dave Kirk use him exclusively to paint all their frames is, perhaps, all the resume the guy needs.
The reason I was in San Diego was arguably business, but I made sure to carve out a couple of hours to drop by his shop to see the frame above. That’s my Bishop. And surprisingly, I’ve struggled with what this bike will look like. The only thing of which I was certain was that it would be painted by JB.
This was my first opportunity to see the frame in person. To say I was blown away doesn’t begin to convey the way I marveled at Bishop’s work. Chris Bishop, if I may be so bold, is one of a rare set of builders. His skill is truly exceptional.
The unfortunate truth about Joe Bell is that he knows enough about building that he has the ability to clean up sloppy work by a mediocre builder. He could easily have make a career in an auto body shop fixing dings and crunches in classic cars. He’s made okay bikes look amazing, but will never betray a lesser builder. That discretion is one of his more charming features. But it also means that when something exceptional comes through his shop he has no problem given full points to the builder.
I won’t repeat what he first said to me as a measure of his praise for this frame because the terminology wasn’t what we’d call politically correct, but it made me smile. It’s what my buddies into classic cars would have said. I knew what he mean and it was praise of the highest order.
I’ve learned a lot from Joe, often just from talking to him on the phone, about the subtle cues to just how good a guy is with a torch. He’s taught me how to look for signs that a builder fed more silver or brass into a joint than was necessary and what they did to try to clean that up, or signs that a joint was heated for too long.
He also taught me a few extra tricks for finding sight lines to confirm the symmetry of a frame, particularly for fillet-brazed work. So when he kept up the effusive praise not just for the cleanliness of Bishop’s brazing but the symmetry to his fillets in the lug transitions and point thinning, it came as a nice confirmation that I’d ordered my frame from the right guy.
I could probably have done all I needed to with Joe by phone and email, but there’s nothing quite like being in the room with a person you dig. Similarly, I could probably have been in and out in a half hour, but I enjoyed the phone calls and other interruptions that gave me a chance to poke around a bit and get a look at a sticker collection I hadn’t seen in 10 years.
Someday, I’m going to have a garage workshop that looks every bit as cool and lived-in (or worked-in) as this one. Forget the backyard garden, I want a workshop where I can get lost. A place like this.
And this shot kids, the frame with the man who will make it unspeakably gorgeous, this is one I’ll take to the grave. It meant a lot to have a frame—my frame—get Joe excited about the work that lay ahead. Oh hell yes.
Last year, as I was wrapping up my coverage of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show I went to some length in describing my newfound love for the builder Chris Bishop. He runs a classic one-man shop, Bishop Bikes. Simple, straightforward, right? Not at all. Other than the fact that his business model is simple, nothing else he does is simple. Every bike he brought to the 2012 show wowed me on multiple levels. His eye for the line of a point was exquisite. His tendency to fill in the hard transitions of some lugs with brass fillets is an old-school California thing favored by guys like Brian Baylis, Tom Ritchey and Peter Johnson. And then there’s the fact that he never takes the easy way out. I’ve seen a number of builders do what was essentially a paint-by-numbers thing where they simply played plumber with a box of lugs and a bunch of tubes. What they did seemed an insult to the term “craft.” They certainly didn’t merit the title “frame builder,” not the way Bishop does.
I was scarecely back home before I’d sent him a deposit. I can’t tell you the last time I fell that hard for a builder. Good thing he’s not as cute as my wife.
And, no, Virginia, this doesn’t mean he has an 18-month wait. It means that we waited until I’d recovered from my crash and had a thorough fitting (that session with Steven Carre at Bike Effect), and then gotten through the crisis that was my second son’s birth before we even began talking about the bike and what size frame would be the appropriate response to the fitting I’d had. From first drawing to now, scarcely a month has passed. And we went from final drawing to the shots contained here in about a week.
We talked a fair amount about the bike I desired. The big thing for me, aside from being stiff enough to stand up to hard, out-of-the-saddle efforts, was that I wanted lug work that was gorgeous but didn’t call attention to itself. That meant no fancy windows, but points thinned enough to draw blood and brass fillets to make them curve to the gentle contours of an industrial designer’s eye. I wanted a bike that would be pretty to anyone, but would contain an extra layer of special for those who knew a thing or two about frame building.
I also wanted this to be a signature build for Chris, something that would stand as a calling card even without paint. That he cut the Bishop icon into the bottom bracket shell is too cool for words, says the word guy.
That he’s taken the time to not just show completed work but also place it alongside untreated pieces really helps show just how remarkable and subtle his work can be.
I told him, flat-out, “Go crazy.” I’ve sold off a few bikes that no longer fit, so to get one frame that should fit me for at least the next 10 to 15 years … well, I can make an investment in his time.
I don’t really want to imagine the amount of effort it took to remove the seat binder from that seat lug. But it sure looks cool.
An internally routed brake cable? Hell yes!
I really wish he didn’t have to paint the bike.
Those fillets at the dropouts are more than just beautiful; they’re harder to do than a quadratic equation.
Hiding the seat binder in the fastback seatstays is full-on ninja design.
When I saw this shot, all I could think was, “I’m going to get to ride that?”
An Anvil jig.
I’ve seen a lot of bikes over the years. I’ve seen a lot of great work. I’ve met plenty of builders who were capable of doing work of this quality. I’ve met maybe a half dozen who had the confidence/chutzpah/balls to do something like this. And until now, I was reasonably sure that all but one of them were California cats.
Learn more about Chris Bishop here. Do it! Click on that link. Srsly.
There was a time when a head tube badge was a company’s calling card. That time coincided with the United States’ rise as a capital ‘S’ Superpower. We’re talking first-half of the 20th century stuff. Those were the days of a stunningly efficient mail service that could be reasonably be expected to deliver an envelope sent to a business with no more address information than city and state.
Somehow that tradition died off. I’ve talked to builders about the why and accounts vary. Some think it’s because the one-man frame shops were too undercapitalized to pay for the tooling necessary to have them made. Others have suggested that such an ornate touch was out of touch with the frame building aesthetic present when some of the craft’s earliest American practitioners began in the 1970s. There’s another theory backed up by a few conversations that makes more sense, though. Frame badges were part and parcel of big companies. Schwinn, Columbia and others were, to the small builders, giant factories turning out exactly the opposite kind of work the one-man shows sought to produce. Sure, head tube badges were expensive to produce, but if it was going to make you appear more like one of these big factory operations, well that just wouldn’t do.
So head tube badges died off as the giant companies went bankrupt and the sort of cost slashing MBAs are known for brought those operations out of Chapter 11.
While it may seem common to see a head-tube badge on a high-end frame these days, it was unheard-of in through the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. It wasn’t until the arrival of Rivendell in 1994 and its still unparalleled cloisonné head-tube badge that I began to take note of head tube badges once again. The Rivendell badge is more than just a thing of beauty, it’s a flourish that makes an implicit statement of pride because it’s so gratuitous, so unreasonably expensive a touch to a frame that to insist on mounting one on every frame suggests that to do anything less would be an insult.
Then Seven Cycles arrived on the scene in ’97 and its laser-cut head-tube badge (in an unusual painted iteration above) showed that even a TIG-welded frame could swing some bling. In the late ’90s, Rivendell and Seven were by no means the only companies doing head-tube badges, but what’s important to note is they were the ones being talked about most commonly.
So why even talk about a head-tube badge? What’s the need? What could it serve? Well, I think it’s a fun chance to look at the length builders will go to verify the pride they have for their work. Take the badge above for Ahearne Cycles. It’s a sort of position statement. There’s the obvious, black enamel ‘A’, but the badge includes a great many other clues to what Ahearne is about. The scroll that sits at the bottom, just above “Portland Oregon” includes Ahearne’s tag line, “Handbuilt with love and fury.” Nice. Sitting atop the ‘A’ is a vice, which speaks to the builder’s work. Behind it is a bicycle wheel with wings, which doesn’t requires any explaining to a dedicated cyclist. The Coho Salmon on the left recalls the builder’s Pacific Northwest home while the viewer is left to tease out the meaning of the monkey and the lotus blossom. It packs a lot into a tiny package. More badges should aspire to do so much.
As I and the other judges were evaluating the many NAHBS entries in the various (numerous) categories, there were times when we all took a moment to note a head tube badge. This Demon Frameworks bike was one that gave us all pause. Ron Sutphin of UBI noted that the badge was not only symmetrically placed but the ornate art nouveau-style head lug left a very proportional window into which the badge could be mounted. It was pretty trick that Allen bolts were used to mount the badge, rather than screws and the casting of the badge allowed the bolts to be countersunk. Just delicious.
Bishop Bikes‘ Chris Bishop uses a head-tube badge with a laser etching of the Maryland state flag as the backdrop for the Baltimore-based builder’s mark. Into that is cut the profile of a bishop chess piece. Erudite, subtle, and stylish.
Like a great many builders who have labored at the craft for a couple of decades, Sacramento’s Steve Rex of Rex Cycles used a decal on his head tubes. In fact, he did it for a solid 25 years. And it was this silver anniversary for his craft that he chose to commemorate with this polished (not actually silver) head tube badge. The design echos the decal that has long graced his frames. Added to that now, at the top is 1987, the year he started and at the bottom are the Roman numberals XXV. It’s been a long time coming and is a great addition to his beautiful but understated work.
Mauricio Rebolledo of Rebolledo Cycles is a Sonoma County builder who was awarded “Best Track Bike” this year. His head-tube badge is a simple R-emblazoned shield with wings. It’s remarkable how often a pair of wings can be found somewhere within a builder’s logo, how universal that metaphor is for the bike.
One of my favorite city bike entries this year was from the Danish builder Cykelmageren. It was a take on the classic city 3-speed. Very industrial. All business. That said, he did add some stylish flourishes to the bike, such as this badge to commemorate this year’s NAHBS show.
This Steve Potts mountain bike dates from the 1980s, hence the WTB front roller-cam brake. Last time I saw one of those photographed, Zap was still the editor at Mountain Bike Action. So it’s no small surprise to a badge depicting Mount Tam gracing the front of his bikes. The fact that Mount Tam is cast in the badge isn’t the surprise, of course, it’s that he was doing a badge when virtually no one else was.
Paul Brodie made a replica of an 1888 Linley and Biggs (L & B) Whippet from drawings. It was an innovative approach to suspension in that it suspended the rider from the bicycle. It turned the head of all who saw it. No less an authority on creative suspension than Chuck Ibis gave it his nod as a genius piece of work. To say he was impressed is an understatement. There’s a nice entry about the bike here. The interesting aspect of the bike that causes it to be here is that the bike featured two head tubes and Brodie took the time to create badges for both tubes stamped in brass for a period-correct touch. I was relieved and gratified when it received the People’s Choice Award.
This collection is by no means complete or even a survey of all of my favorites. Excepting the first two I included for contextual purposes, they caught my eye for their diversity in expression, each of them stylish takes on what a head tube badge can be.
This is my favorite shot from the show. This is Mark DiNucci, a true god of frame building giving a pat to his heir-apparent, Chris Bishop. The thrill on Bishop’s face is more than apparent and the esteem which DiNucci offered was truly sincere. Bishop didn’t just get a nod from DiNucci, Peter Johnson, the greatest frame builder you’ve never heard of, said he plans to mentor the upstart.
When I think of the many consumer events that have been organized for cyclists, I mostly think of events that failed after, at most, three years. It’s not that they weren’t good events, that they didn’t bring together interesting people. It’s that they didn’t bring together the dedicated cyclists who will make or break an event. Don Walker, I’m here to tell you, is an unheralded genius. The seventh edition of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show hosted more than 8000 attendees, a record for NAHBS and, I suspect, any U.S.-based consumer bike show. Had you seen the line out the door of people waiting to buy tickets on Saturday you could be forgiven for thinking Don Walker was selling kisses with Taylor Swift.
Okay, that said, I’m going to keep this real. Very real. Don gets criticized for a great many things. He has a very specific view of what the show ought to be. Some folks think he needs to loosen up, take a chill pill. What people need to keep in mind is that NAHBS is what it is because it wasn’t designed by committee. It’s the brainchild of one very particular guy. That’s how entrepreneurs work. They dream stuff up and make them happen. Inventions are not the products of focus groups. So Don needs to be credited with making happen a bunch of people just talked about for years.
Let’s say that again: Don actually made this happen.
Yep, there are people who want the event to be different than it is. They want it to be friendlier, have more drinking, have more riding, have clearer criteria for the awards judging, have more volunteers so the builders don’t have to leave their booths to deliver a bike to judges, and have other, non-Don-organized events be a part of the official, sanctioned buffet of events that are part of the weekend. The dissonance is because well-meaning folks want Don’s brainchild to be even better, but their suggestions sound to Don like bashing. Constructive criticism is hard to deliver. And when the intended listener isn’t accustomed to hearing it from ham-fisted delivery boys, the experience isn’t much fun. Don is like a great many sensitive artistic types, and a bit thin-skinned—not that I’ve ever rented from that suite. I’m aware that people have trashed the event from time to time, including one popular blogger. How anyone can dislike the event is beyond my ken. If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s easy to see that the event brings together many of the best frame builders practicing the craft. To collect that many passionate craftsmen in a single location is no small achievement and the opportunity for cycling enthusiasts to speak with some of the best out there is an opportunity rarer than a blue moon.
Following two years at less-than-exciting venues (Indiana and Virginia), Don has hit two consecutive home runs with Austin and Sacremento. It may be that his awareness of the need to draw cyclists from nearby metro areas may be contributing to the show’s increased success. Next year’s venue—Denver—would seem to reinforce that view.
The only criticism I could possibly level at the show is that he has suffered some erosion of previous top-tier exhibitors. While I did see a Vanilla, Sacha White wasn’t there, nor were Peter Weigle or Hampsten. What’s significant in this is that Sacha was one of the “original six.” Don may need to hire a salesman trained in customer retention.
Everyone’s favorite question of the show was, “Are you having a good time?” It’s a bit like asking the president of the United States if he feels powerful. He better. I had a terrific time and didn’t hesitate to tell people there was no place I’d rather be. To put my enthusiasm in perspective, I used my experience at Interbike in the mid-1990s as an example. Back then, tubing suppliers Reynolds and Nova Cycle Supply bought significantly large booths; if memory servers, they were on the order of 10×30. And beyond displays of their tubing, they would have racks displaying the work of their frame builder customers.
I spent way too much time in their booths. I mean, I was sometimes late to appointments because I spent so much time hanging out there geeking out over the frames shown by acknowledged masters like Weigle and Carl Strong.
But here’s the thing: The quality of the worst work at this year’s NAHBS was better than most of the work I saw in those displays. The overall quality of work by frame builders displaying at NAHBS is extraordinary. Don’s enduring legacy in the bike industry will not be as a frame builder; it will be for his work in uniting the community of frame builders with an event that helped to elevate their craft and make these guys rock stars, even if only for a weekend. His work to help promote the work of these guys has resulted in countless orders that would otherwise have been sales to Trek, Specialized or Giant. Those guys will be fine, but an extra 10 sales per year for one of these news guys can make or break a year. A career.
The seat cluster from a fillet-brazed frame by Dave Kirk.
I was asked to be a judge for the awards this year. It was a request I accepted with some honor and an acute sense of responsibility. The experience was challenging while ultimately leaving me feeling rewarded. That said, there were frustrations when there were simply more bikes than could be recognized. The naked, fillet-brazed frame submitted by Dave Kirk was one of those bikes that deserved even greater recognition than it received. A “naked” bike, such as this really gives you the opportunity to see just how symmetrical the brazing is; there’s no hiding bad or even mediocre work. I felt badly that this bike escaped without a nod. Similarly, there was a gorgeous mountain bike submitted by Independent Fabrication that would have been an instant winner in most other circumstances but when pitted against the hand-pinstripped work on a Vendetta track bike, it went home empty-handed. Ouch.
If you’ve never attended NAHBS and have any sort of affinity for hand made frames, you owe it to yourself to go, even if just once, and see the quality of this work. And, if you have a significant other who doesn’t get your love of bicycles, take them. Really. I caught a great many scraps of conversations between bike geeks and their wives and girlfriends who appreciated the artistry of the bikes on display. Witnessing non-bikies digging bikes gave me a huge smile.
Okay, today I’m going to show just one bike. Partly because I’m that in love with it and partly because of this insanely slow Interweb connection I have. I could spend the day trying to upload photos. Ugh. Sorry for the excuse; I’ll do a serious image dump once I’m back home.
The bike in question is by Chris Bishop and it’s some of the most significant work I’ve ever seen at NAHBS. I can think of maybe a half dozen guys who have ever done work like this. It’s not that there aren’t more guys who can do it; there just aren’t many who choose to do it. The why is simple: It’s more work than trying to negotiate a nuclear treaty with North Korea.
This bi-laminate head tube is precisely what’s so great about this bike. The half-lugs of the top and down tubes flow into the head tube with the workmanship I’ve come to expect from a guy like Dave Kirk or Peter Weigle.
What I see going on in this randonnee bike from Bishop are all the values I hold highest in frame building, and all in one bike. The fillet brazing is exceptional. He thins the points of the lugs, which I can say from experience takes more filing than you’ll do in a year of fingernails. And he adds small brass fillets to the lugs to smooth the transitions from one tube to the other. Forget for a moment the incredible paint—including the exceptional pinstriping—Bishop didn’t do that.
I should also mention that the fact this is a rando bike has absolutely nothing to do with why this bike is so great. These fork dropouts with the polished stainless steel accents don’t look half as good in this photo as they do in person. I didn’t see a thing on this bike that needed more refinement.
Stunning, I tell you. Stunning.