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.