I’ve seen a great many shots of frame builders in my time. The shots have ranged from contemplative portrait in order to portray the builder as a thoughtful artisan to military-bent badass to convey the attitude that metal will submit. Most action shots of a builder end up seeming of a piece: shots that no matter how carefully framed, no matter how perfectly exposed, end up draining the life and dynamism from a device that is anything but static.
The shot above of Mark DiNucci is the shot that leads on his web site. It’s also my favorite portrait of a builder I’ve ever seen. The guy is in motion, and because he’s reaching for one of the torch’s tanks to make an adjustment, it serves as a reminder that there’s more to brazing steel than just heating a joint and pushing in silver or brass. And as he reaches—one foot off the bare shop floor—his balance makes the move look practiced, routine, even elegant. Yet all the while that torch is burning, with the business end carefully aimed between bench and body.
Then there’s the fact that he’s got long, unkempt hair and a wool sweater straight from Scandinavia. The dude is counterculture, a—gasp—hippie. With the frame clamped in the bench vise mounted at the end of his flat table and a universal bevel protractor in the foreground, we are reminded that frame building isn’t sexy. It doesn’t require a bunch of fancy tools. It’s metal, heat and geometry. End of story.
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.
For the last week I’ve been trying to put together a massive image dump of a goodly portion of my 200 or so images I shot at the San Diego Custom Bicycle Show. As it turns out, there can be too much of a good thing. I crashed WordPress on three occasions by uploading too many images; I was too impatient to try to do another three or four posts.
What follows is a further edited group of favorite shots/bikes/cool stuff.
Builder Greg Townsend shows a lug with a piece of cut tubing that he will braze in place so that he can cut a new point for this lug. It’s time consuming work, but offers a great opportunity to make a fresh statement with a lug.
Santana Cycles has been perfecting a foam cutout packing system for tandems for some 10 years now. They seem to have it down. The system not only packs the tandem safely, it makes the process nearly foolproof.
The San Diego Custom Bicycle Show took place this past weekend, still in San Diego (might explain the name) but in a new location, historic Golden Hall, which has been played by the likes of The Who, The Rolling Stones and even The Clash. Nearly 40 different builders attended, joined by another 26 industry exhibitors. With the new location the extra space created an impression that the show was a bit smaller than years past, even though the overall number of exhibitors was up.
I attended Friday and Saturday and while I expected overall attendance to be thin on Friday, I was shocked that foot traffic didn’t increase a lot on Saturday. I like this show a lot. It has a loose, relaxed feel to it, compared to the frenetic pace of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, which is really just due to the increased number of exhibitors and attendees—nothing wrong with that. The thing about the San Diego show is that it’s possible to have a half-hour conversation with a personal frame building hero. Of course, if more people attended, those conversation would be shorter, but if that’s what’s necessary to keep the thing going, I’m okay with that.
Greg Townsend of Townsend Cycles is a Los Angeles-based builder who is doing some terrific work. I loved these half lugs on this track bike. He’s got a great sense of the history and tradition of frame building.
NAHBS is expensive enough now that some builders told me they flat-out can’t afford to attend, which is a shame. The upshot is that there were builders, many very fine ones, in fact, who exhibited at SDCBS who didn’t go to NAHBS, which took care of the one criticism I heard from friends who had decided not to go—they were afraid they’d see stuff they had already seen in Austin. The overlap in bikes was tiny.
The SDCBS gave me an opportunity to spend some quality time talking with builders not only about building, but family, where cycling fits in their world and what they do when they aren’t either building or riding bikes.
Jeff Tiedeken of Monkey Likes Shiny was the most original thinker present and knows how to start a party. Jeff doesn’t work with bikes too often; most of his work is for outfits like NASA, that like to keep him quiet about his contributions.
Eric Estlund of Winter Bicycles is fond of bi-laminate work. This head-tube cutout was gorgeous. The bi-laminate approach gives him the opportunity to show off his fillet brazing as well as his ability to cut lugs.
Last year Bruce Gordon showed off a carbon bike with ti lugs he built with Mike Lopez. This is #2 of 2. I dare anyone to try to find prettier work that has been performed in titanium. The tapered point kills me.
I shot hundreds of images. I’ll add a photo gallery soon.
It’s late. I got a late start and scrambled to see everything and nothing at once. I’ll fill in more in the coming days. The above seat cluster is by Mark DiNucci. It was some of the best lug work I saw today, performed by an absolute master.