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?
Any time a shop breaks the routine of business as usual, I get curious. It’s easy to put your head down and spend your days concerned with inventory turn, how many bikes were built and how fast those repairs get picked up. So when someone takes the time to bring in a representative from one of the brands they carry, I like to check those events out.
Bike Effect, the studio in Santa Monica, brought in Eric Sakalowsky, one of the owners of the French bike manufacturer Cyfac. I’ve been hearing about Cyfac and reading about them for years, but have never written about them, mostly because until I’ve had a chance to talk with someone at the company, I don’t feel like I have a proper feel for what they do. There’s nothing like getting the story from the horse’s mouth.
Bike Effect has invested in Cyfac in a big way, making them one of their marquee lines, along with Serotta. I spent some time with Eric, learning about how his involvement came about (he had been their North American distributor and dumped his other lines to buy into the company), just how intimate an operation it is (they have 15 production staff) and how they manage to produce custom carbon fiber frames (more on that later).
To woo prospective clients Bike Effect owners Steve and Allison served up fruit, cheese, cracks and wine. It made for a relaxed atmosphere and it wasn’t long before I heard people talking specifics about sizing and colors.
Eric (left) and Steve discuss what makes Cyfac, well, Cyfac. Eric and I are working on an interview that will run as part of the Artisans series at peloton. Though the company offers a number of different models (I lost count as I studied their web site), the ones I’m most interested in are the top-of-the-line carbon models, the Absolu in particular. Though the tubes are produced in Taiwan, every other aspect of fabrication occurs at Cyfac’s Loire Valley headquarters. The only reason the tubes are produced overseas is because they haven’t been able to source a French producer capable of meeting their needs and they aren’t yet in a position to do it in-house, though from my conversation with Eric, it sounds like they may be headed that direction.
Each customer who purchases an Absolu gets a book documenting the creation of their frame, from the mitering of the tubes, to the masking for the paint job—Cyfac uses no decals. Honestly, I was stunned to learn that they often have more hours invested in a paint job than many manufacturers put into the building of a frame. And while you’d think such devotion would make such a bike unaffordable, they are competitive with other top shelf brands.
Cyfac’s custom work offers incredible flexibility to the client. Not only can they vary the sizing, they can vary the geometry, so that if you want something that fits like your beloved Seven, but descends like your old Moser, you can have that in custom carbon. And say you want it as stiff as your old Merckx built from Columbus Max tubes, you can have that as well as they can vary just how stiff the tubes are. It’s a level of customization some companies said we would never see.
I look forward to learning more and reporting more. I’ll try to present some reviews as well.
One of the great tragedies of the bicycle industry is that most of the best work being done in bicycles is presented to readers on crap paper. So, when I heard that someone was finally going to publish a coffee-table book on handbuilt bicycles I couldn’t wait to see a copy. The book is published by images Publishing, which is known for its books on design and architecture and written by Australian cyclists Christine Elliott and David Jablonka.
Amazingly, Elliott and Jablonka uncovered builders I’ve never heard of, very fine builders who certainly deserved to be presented alongside the likes of Richard Sachs and Dario Pegroretti. Those discoveries are perhaps the book’s greatest treat. But those discoveries come at a price. The authors profiled 39 builders, a mere fraction of the builders who appear annually at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, but given the realities of paper cost and the amount of time writers are typically afforded to work on a nonfiction title and you are quickly forced to make some hard decisions. The representation is refreshingly international. Represented are builders from the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.
Those choices—whom to include and whom to leave out—seem almost random. Many of the builders included are must haves: Richard Sachs, Dario Pegoretti, Bruce Gordon and Alex Singer. No book on handmade frames would be complete without them. Pleasantly, there are some lesser known veterans who could have been easily overlooked but no less deserving of the attention; I’m thinking specifically of Andy Newlands of Strawberry and Dave Bohm of Bohemian. However, there are some glaring omissions. No Brian Baylis, no Peter Weigle. Independent Fabrication is included but no Seven or Serotta.
At 240 pages, the profiles range between four and eight pages depending on the number of photos used. And the text, though brief, does a serviceable job of giving an overview of the operation while leaving the majority of the space devoted to a builder for photography.
The photography is, unfortunately the most hit-or-miss aspect of the book, which I find utterly baffling. Hard bound coffee table books are about nothing such much as gorgeous photography. For a book like this, the author isn’t so much the writer as it is the photographer. However, most of the photography is supplied by the builders, sometimes shot by the builders themselves, sometimes shot by a pro hired by the builder. That lack of continuity is frustrating and ultimately it gives some builders a much better presentation than others. In some cases—such as the lifestyle shots provided by Signal Cycles—the builder-supplied shots add a dimension to the portrait giving depth that might otherwise have taken, well, another 1000 words. Some builders included lots of shop shots, some none. The result is a quirky patchwork, but it does give each portrait a surprising individuality as a result.
That I find points to criticize in this book shouldn’t lead you to think I don’t like it. I love this book. I’m critical because this is a topic to which I’ve devoted great thought. And because some of the work contained within is very good, it’s reasonable to hope for the same level of work throughout.
Simply put, for the fanatics, this is a must-have. Because it is hard bound the press-run was likely fairly short; if you want it, don’t wait around to pick it up. And if this one sells well, maybe the publisher will decide to do a second volume and hit another 40 builders; lord knows there are plenty just as deserving.
The builders included:
Anderson Custom Bicycles
Bilenky Cycle Works
Black Sheep Bikes
Bob Brown Cycles
Bruce Gordon Cycles
Columbine Cycle Works
Cycles Alex Singer
Davidson Handbuilt Bicycles
Don Walker cycles
Ira Ryan Cycles
Jeff Jones Custom Bicycles
Keith Anderson Cycles
Llewellyn Custom Bicycles
Naked Bicycles and Design
Richard Sachs Cycles
Roark Custom Titanium Bicycles
Steve Potts Bicycles