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.
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.
I shot more than 200 images
today yesterday and there’s no way to both upload all of them now AND sleep tonight. So I’ve selected a group of portraits I shot. They were fun and the subjects delightful. Or maybe they are delightful and the subjects were fun. Regardless, as tired as I was when the show ended today, I didn’t really want to walk out.
Leading off the set is Sacha White of Vanilla, who I caught while he was making a small adjustment to my favorite booth of the show.
Jay SyCip, who manages Chris King’s Cielo program.
Jeremy SyCip, these days the one-man show behind Santa Rosa’s SyCip Cycles.Mike DeSalvo of DeSalvo Cycles relaxing during a calm moment.The ever practical Carl Strong; Carl’s aesthetic looks for function long before it seeks beauty. As a result, his frames are austere, but warm to the business end of the peloton.
Even if we never remembered Don Walker’s famous fillet-brazed frames, as the organizer of NAHBS, his place in the frame building world would be assured. If he wasn’t doing NAHBS, he’d be doing more frames.
David Wages of Ellis (it’s a family name) hangs out and talks to fans.
Frame building’s favorite iconoclast, Richard Sachs.Nick Crumpton gets excited.
Ti S&S travel bike by Carl Strong
Bicycle frame builders are an enigmatic lot. They are as different as peanut butter and jelly, but to the average cyclist they are as fascinating as the unfolding of Paris-Roubaix. Most of us, when given the opportunity to visit a frame builder in his shop will spend the first hour just standing around mouth agape staring at tools, works in progress, more tools, tubing, whatever’s on the walls, and then maybe talk to the craftsman.
Getting some of them to actually talk about their craft can be a challenge, but it is when they reveal their insight into the process that they tend to become most interesting. I can say this with something approaching authority, having interviewed builders who knew what they were doing and why as well as guys who didn’t see what all the fuss was.
A work in progress by Mike Zanconato
Our friends over at Velocipede Salon began a series back in 2008 called “Smoked Out.” Each installment is a builder-written profile aimed at the cyclist who has never visited the builder’s site or even seen one of their bikes. Think of it as a one-page autobiography/mission statement/resume.
The seat cluster from a frame by Dave Kirk
Richard “Atmo” Sachs is to be largely credited with getting this going. It’s unlikely that any other builder can better attest to the power of speaking up, not just about the sport, but about oneself. He has mentored more builders than he’s willing to name and “Smoked Out” reads like a kick in the pants to get each of these builders out there in the public eye a bit more.
That some of these profiles have been viewed upwards of 5000 times is a testament to the interest in the handmade frame, not to mention the hard work of the builders to let people know the profile is up; not all threads are read equally.
Frame builders are like chocolate chip cookies. They vary endlessly, but I’ve yet to meet one I didn’t like.
Check it out: http://www.velocipedesalon.com/forum/f22/