The North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) is upon us once again. Men and women with dirty fingernails, weld burns and ornately carved lug work will descend upon Sacramento with all manner of lovingly crafted bicycle objects.
Sachs, Sycip, Cyfac. Indy Fab, Eriksen, Ira Ryan. Hunter, Ellis, Cielo.
Many of the names are familiar, and this is their showcase event, the day all the shiniest bits and pieces exit the workshop and glimmer in the hot sun of mass spectacle. It’s called a show, but it’s more like an exhibition. No, an exhibit. When museums display art, they call it an exhibit.
And the builders at NAHBS are showing art, the fine point at the tip of bike building craft. An industry awash in production bikes, built in massive factories in big batches, still has room for the builders of NAHBS, some of them one-man bands, others mid-size companies, all simply taking a one-at-a-time approach.
This week’s Group Ride asks a couple of questions with NAHBS as backdrop. First, is there a future for handmade bikes? What was once the standard business model has been shoved aside in favor of mass production. That’s not a lament. It’s a statement. Time stands still for no one. The question is, can the craftspeople of the industry continue holding back the tide? It’s not a matter of building beautiful bicycles. It’s a matter of being able to build them, make a living, and grow a business.
And for those of you (us) who watch this segment closely. Whose bikes are you most looking forward to seeing? Who are the all-stars? Who are the up-and-comers? Despite the massive marketing disadvantage hand builders have against the big bike companies, it is now possible to go to frame-building school and learn this craft in a school setting, not just at the heel of a master craftsperson. As a result, the craft brands are actually multiplying. Who is pushing the state of the art?
The headset pictured above was manufactured the year Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States. The year the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial. The year Frampton Comes Alive! was released. The year Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men and Rocky hit the theaters.
I was riding a kid’s bike. Because I was still a kid.
I didn’t know who Chris King was or even what a sealed-bearing headset was until I moved to Massachusetts shortly after Greg LeMond’s second Tour victory. It was while working in one of the bike shops that served the huge college population that the shop manager educated me about the wonder of Chris King headsets. He showed me how well they were made, convinced me how little service they needed, demonstrated how they were impervious to nearly everything—including ham-fisted wrenches inclined to over-tighten a headset.
I’d long-since learned how a headset adjusted too tight would pit. The technical term is brinell. Whatever, we all called a headset ruined by over-tightening “indexed.” It was one of my favorite shop jokes.
King headsets were the most unlikely of devices. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that some little company in Santa Barbara, Calif., had come up with an answer to the headset that had no flaws, at least, none that I could find. Sure it was expensive, but if you never had to replace it and knew it would survive almost any event, then wasn’t it easily worth the price? Sure, the Campagnolo headsets were wonderful, but I’d had the fear of God instilled in me by another mechanic who taught me that if you over-tighten a headset—no matter how briefly—you’ve already started the brinelling. It’s bearing cancer. The headset is dead, but no one knows just yet. To this day, I’ve never run across an indexed King headset. I’m sure it has happened, but not often enough for me to encounter it.
So I began purchasing Chris King headsets. Every time I overhauled a bike I owned, I’d replace the headset in it with a King unit. I even figured out how to overhaul the headset that was in my Merlin mountain bike. I had some dental tools that would allow me to remove the C-clips so I could clean out the bearings and races and then squirt fresh grease back in. When I sold that bike 11 years after first building it up the headset was as smooth as it was the day I installed it, and that was no small feat given that the first five years I had that mountain bike I rode it with a Ritchey fork. Put another way, it was rigid, and that means that headset took a beating.
Ultimately I sold each of those bikes and I suspect that no matter how many parts have been replaced on them, the headsets are still going.
King came on as an advertiser last week. Enthusiast media and advertisers have a curious, symbiotic and sometimes grossly incestuous relationship. Readers often wonder (understandably, if we’re honest) just how much of that love was earned rather than purchased. I count Chris King himself an acquaintance. Two of his employees are friends. We’ve been circling around one another, professing our attraction, flirting a bit, but never heading out for the date.
So last week, they finally asked me out. It means a lot to me both personally and professionally. I always wanted our advertisers to be a collection of companies that I believed it, that in aggregate it would be an implicit statement about not just who believes in RKP‘s content, but also an indication of what we respect.
I plain, flat-out, like these guys and this company. At this point it would be easy to request a Cielo bike, a set of wheels, just a set of hubs, or yet another headset. I’ll probably review something of theirs in the not-too-distant future. Why? Like I said, I like the stuff and it would be fun to try something of theirs I haven’t had the chance to ride much, if at all.
That said, I’ve wanted this blog to be transparent in how it works, what the relationships are, and it occurred to me when I received the new ad from King that what I really wanted to talk about were those headsets I no longer own. It’s funny, but once a company starts advertising, getting product to review usually becomes exponentially easier. It’s an odd phenomenon.
Because RKP started so small, we weren’t on everyone’s radar. And despite amazing readership growth, there are still companies that don’t return my phone calls. This, despite my 20+ years in the industry. So there are times when the publication of content about a company and the arrival of a company’s ad can seem oddly coincidental. In our case, it’s just taken some time to get some of these relationships going. Because what we are doing isn’t published by one of the traditional, mainstream publishers, there are loads of companies who have taken a wait-and-see attitude.
We’re talking to a bunch of companies about advertising with us. We’ve also got a fun announcement looming. These changes, these additions are part of a larger plan. I want to offer more of the kinds of content that RKP provides. I’d like to bring in a few new voices, people I think would fit with what you’ve come to enjoy here. Advertising is the engine that will drive that. And to the degree that we end up writing about those advertisers, it’s because we liked what they were doing long before they requested our media kit.
On the evening before Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo the folks at SyCip Cycles hosted a little get-together they called the Gran La Fonda. It was one-quarter handbuilt bicycle show, one-quarter party, 3/16 mad inventor parade and 9/8 fun. The device above is a tricycle of sorts that is designed to traverse old railroad tracks, though it seemed to handle asphalt tolerably.
Here’s a look at its inner workings; it was utterly confusing and wonderful to my eye.
Noci is a gelato and sorbetto place in Mill Valley around the corner from Above Category. They were serving up some tasty creations scooped from their bakfiets.
The Whiskey Drome is modeled on the ramps motorcycle stunt riders used to ride. Roughly 20 feet in diameter watching riders negotiate its banking was large-scale fun.
At right is Scot “Chuck Ibis” Nicol of local fame and Ibis Cycles, though not necessarily in that order. At right is Eldon “Fatty” Nelson of Fat Cyclist fame. Incredibly low-key and gracious, I could have spent the evening hanging out with him and his wife, “The Runner.”
Sean Walling of Soulcraft was but one of a long list of builders in attendance. Also present with bikes were SyCip (duh), Inglis/Retrotec, Rebolledo, Steve Rex, Rick Hunter, Cielo, DeSalvo, Black Cat, Caletti, Bruce Gordon and Ira Ryan.
It’s not every day you see a high-end carbon fiber road bike locked to a metal pole. I really dug seeing a road bike being used for basic transportation. Passing the lock through the helmet straps was a nice touch.
Builders in consultation: At left, Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster, a man without whom the Santa Cruz ‘cross scene would die and at right, Ira Ryan of the Portland Bike Mafia, and a man with a soft spot for touring.
That cute little button of a girl is Zoie, the daughter of Carlos Perez, the publisher of Bike Monkey, and the driving force behind Levi’s Gran Fondo. She’s hugging RKP’s pint-sized climber, Philip, who is squealing in delight at the attention from yet another adoring woman. We think we heard wedding bells that night.