There was a time when a head tube badge was a company’s calling card. That time coincided with the United States’ rise as a capital ‘S’ Superpower. We’re talking first-half of the 20th century stuff. Those were the days of a stunningly efficient mail service that could be reasonably be expected to deliver an envelope sent to a business with no more address information than city and state.
Somehow that tradition died off. I’ve talked to builders about the why and accounts vary. Some think it’s because the one-man frame shops were too undercapitalized to pay for the tooling necessary to have them made. Others have suggested that such an ornate touch was out of touch with the frame building aesthetic present when some of the craft’s earliest American practitioners began in the 1970s. There’s another theory backed up by a few conversations that makes more sense, though. Frame badges were part and parcel of big companies. Schwinn, Columbia and others were, to the small builders, giant factories turning out exactly the opposite kind of work the one-man shows sought to produce. Sure, head tube badges were expensive to produce, but if it was going to make you appear more like one of these big factory operations, well that just wouldn’t do.
So head tube badges died off as the giant companies went bankrupt and the sort of cost slashing MBAs are known for brought those operations out of Chapter 11.
While it may seem common to see a head-tube badge on a high-end frame these days, it was unheard-of in through the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. It wasn’t until the arrival of Rivendell in 1994 and its still unparalleled cloisonné head-tube badge that I began to take note of head tube badges once again. The Rivendell badge is more than just a thing of beauty, it’s a flourish that makes an implicit statement of pride because it’s so gratuitous, so unreasonably expensive a touch to a frame that to insist on mounting one on every frame suggests that to do anything less would be an insult.
Then Seven Cycles arrived on the scene in ’97 and its laser-cut head-tube badge (in an unusual painted iteration above) showed that even a TIG-welded frame could swing some bling. In the late ’90s, Rivendell and Seven were by no means the only companies doing head-tube badges, but what’s important to note is they were the ones being talked about most commonly.
So why even talk about a head-tube badge? What’s the need? What could it serve? Well, I think it’s a fun chance to look at the length builders will go to verify the pride they have for their work. Take the badge above for Ahearne Cycles. It’s a sort of position statement. There’s the obvious, black enamel ‘A’, but the badge includes a great many other clues to what Ahearne is about. The scroll that sits at the bottom, just above “Portland Oregon” includes Ahearne’s tag line, “Handbuilt with love and fury.” Nice. Sitting atop the ‘A’ is a vice, which speaks to the builder’s work. Behind it is a bicycle wheel with wings, which doesn’t requires any explaining to a dedicated cyclist. The Coho Salmon on the left recalls the builder’s Pacific Northwest home while the viewer is left to tease out the meaning of the monkey and the lotus blossom. It packs a lot into a tiny package. More badges should aspire to do so much.
As I and the other judges were evaluating the many NAHBS entries in the various (numerous) categories, there were times when we all took a moment to note a head tube badge. This Demon Frameworks bike was one that gave us all pause. Ron Sutphin of UBI noted that the badge was not only symmetrically placed but the ornate art nouveau-style head lug left a very proportional window into which the badge could be mounted. It was pretty trick that Allen bolts were used to mount the badge, rather than screws and the casting of the badge allowed the bolts to be countersunk. Just delicious.
Bishop Bikes‘ Chris Bishop uses a head-tube badge with a laser etching of the Maryland state flag as the backdrop for the Baltimore-based builder’s mark. Into that is cut the profile of a bishop chess piece. Erudite, subtle, and stylish.
Like a great many builders who have labored at the craft for a couple of decades, Sacramento’s Steve Rex of Rex Cycles used a decal on his head tubes. In fact, he did it for a solid 25 years. And it was this silver anniversary for his craft that he chose to commemorate with this polished (not actually silver) head tube badge. The design echos the decal that has long graced his frames. Added to that now, at the top is 1987, the year he started and at the bottom are the Roman numberals XXV. It’s been a long time coming and is a great addition to his beautiful but understated work.
Mauricio Rebolledo of Rebolledo Cycles is a Sonoma County builder who was awarded “Best Track Bike” this year. His head-tube badge is a simple R-emblazoned shield with wings. It’s remarkable how often a pair of wings can be found somewhere within a builder’s logo, how universal that metaphor is for the bike.
One of my favorite city bike entries this year was from the Danish builder Cykelmageren. It was a take on the classic city 3-speed. Very industrial. All business. That said, he did add some stylish flourishes to the bike, such as this badge to commemorate this year’s NAHBS show.
This Steve Potts mountain bike dates from the 1980s, hence the WTB front roller-cam brake. Last time I saw one of those photographed, Zap was still the editor at Mountain Bike Action. So it’s no small surprise to a badge depicting Mount Tam gracing the front of his bikes. The fact that Mount Tam is cast in the badge isn’t the surprise, of course, it’s that he was doing a badge when virtually no one else was.
Paul Brodie made a replica of an 1888 Linley and Biggs (L & B) Whippet from drawings. It was an innovative approach to suspension in that it suspended the rider from the bicycle. It turned the head of all who saw it. No less an authority on creative suspension than Chuck Ibis gave it his nod as a genius piece of work. To say he was impressed is an understatement. There’s a nice entry about the bike here. The interesting aspect of the bike that causes it to be here is that the bike featured two head tubes and Brodie took the time to create badges for both tubes stamped in brass for a period-correct touch. I was relieved and gratified when it received the People’s Choice Award.
This collection is by no means complete or even a survey of all of my favorites. Excepting the first two I included for contextual purposes, they caught my eye for their diversity in expression, each of them stylish takes on what a head tube badge can be.
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.