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.
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.