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.
In what counts for spare time I’ve got two book proposals I’ve been working on. One of them concerns frame builders. My online column for peloton, called Artisans, is meant to be background research for many of the builders I believe will be the subjects of the book. If you’ve never checked it out, you should drop by and read a few here.
Recently, I was on the phone with one of the legends of frame building. We got to talking about the dream that leads one to want to become a frame builder. I’ve always enjoyed talking to frame builders. They have that feel of brother-of-a-different-mother to me. The work is solitary, creative, essentially commercial in nature and requires simple acts to be repeated thousands of times to hone one’s craft. After a while, they find they begin exploring arcane ideas about heat, silver, steel. At a certain level, writing is no different. I find myself thinking about verbs and the relative evil of sentimentality.
The builder I was speaking to told me how he had dreamt that being a frame builder was like being a shop keeper, such as a tailor. You show up in the morning, open up, work a full day, then close up and head home. But the idea was that working alone was meant to foster craft and remove the need to crank out production-style work. He believed that working alone was the key to being able to perform artisanal work. But that’s not all: When he was starting out, he had a belief that most of the builders who weren’t employed by the big companies like Colnago worked in exactly that manner.
By the time he found out that wasn’t the case, he’d already been building on his own for a few years. What I’ve learned of most of the European shops is that their priorities were shifted toward maximizing efficiency to increase output. Most of the builders I’ve spoken to working in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s favored limited output so they could focus on quality. Indeed contract builders were common in Italy. There were some who kept a stock of their clients’ decals around for when they came calling.
What American builders—and consumers—seem to struggle to appreciate is that to most of the builders working in Europe up through the ’80s and ’90s is that the bicycle frame was a commodity rarely separated by more than paint and decals. Branding and identity were the province of paint, decals and sponsorship. That is, you could put Colnago paint and decals on any bike and—ergo—it was a Colnago. There wasn’t a belief that anything beneath the paint could be terribly special.
When you consider those early builders here in the U.S., that is the group that really helped put frame building on the map here in the 1970s, guys like Albert Eisentraut, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Ben Serotta and Brian Baylis, they each epitomized that ideal of the solitary craftsman, at least early on. Nevermind the fact that Eisentraut and Serotta never really made a career of working alone, that romanticized notion of the shopkeeper craftsman that inspired many of them—and most of today’s builders as well—is largely a fiction.
This idealized vision held by a handful of American builders of just what the life and purpose of a one-man frame shop is is largely responsible for the state of frame building in the U.S. and even around the world. The example set by Sachs, Weigle and other one-man shops is directly responsible for the influx of guys like Sacha White of Vanilla and David Wages of Ellis. The irony is that Sachs and Weigle weren’t really responding to a tradition; they were inventing one.
Relationship counselors are in the business of reminding us that when we enter a relationship we rarely see the object of affection as they are. We see them as we want them to be. Think about that a second. Is there a better demonstration of a love of craft than setting out to be an artisan as part of a grand tradition that exists only in your mind?
Some years back during an excruciating romantic entanglement the object of my endurance railed against coworkers who she sniped performed only the work they found easy. When I mentioned the nature of competency is to veer toward those acts we do well I suffered for it.
But that’s the nature of a career, in a nutshell. We find work that we do with competence, maybe later, mastery. Becoming good at something causes the brain to release reward chemicals so that our proficiency becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We do it over and over because it feels good to be good at something. And frankly, employers may sometimes want more, but they never want less.
The dream of the average frame builder is to be the torch set’s version of a one-man band. The fantasy most hold is one of days spent with the trade’s tools in hand. If not a torch, then a file. The reality is that what’s in hand is as often a phone, a pen or a mouse.
The pressure of being a sole proprietorship forces questions of profit and loss, fixed costs and production rate—details as unromantic as toilet paper, yet no less necessary. But even a mastery of the tasks necessary to run a successful business won’t it make.
Brand. For all the passion, technical wizardry and expert work I saw at NAHBS, the detail that united most of the builders there was a lack of branding.
Some years back a builder I was interviewing complained that his bikes didn’t get the same air time as those of Richard Sachs. My reply was less than sympathetic. I said, “Yeah.”
“Well how come.”
“I called you.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Richard calls me. Any time he calls me, he has something to show me.”
While I thought the message was clear, the builder’s profile rose not one stitch. I’ve never seen a T-shirt with his logo. His low output is at times the butt of jokes by other builders.
Sacha White has paid attention. He anted Sachs and then raised. Branding isn’t a cool logo. It’s not just your logo on T-shirts and tchotchkes. It’s more than a good graphic designer.
There’s no way to deconstruct how a pink grenade conveys speed, style and lust, but it does all of those things, and more. Further, my sense of what his brand stands for is just that: my sense. Because it’s my emotional connection to what he does, it doesn’t even matter if my perception is different from yours if both are favorable. Done well, most folks will get the same impression, even if not everyone ends up liking it. After all, no one gets loved by everyone.
I kept wandering by the Vanilla booth at NAHBS, partly because I just liked the booth, partly because it was near other stuff I liked (though the same could be said of every booth at NAHBS) and partly because it had a lively atmosphere with an ever-revolving cast of characters. In short, it was a good place to be. And though I’m not a coffee drinker, I know they were serving good stuff. I know this because of the coffee snobs who stopped by for a fix.
That Sachs and White both have waits that are measured not in months, but in years, has generated both gasps of respect and amazement as well as eye-rolling dismissal. As if all those customers were schmucks for their willingness to wait, when they could buy … well what would they be buying?
And that’s the thing. There were a great many beautiful bikes there. Strip the paint off all of them and the number of truly stellar bikes might surprise you. One of my very favorite builders there, a guy whose impact on road bikes can be felt in lug design and geometry—to this day—showed bikes of such ordinary appearance I don’t think I could buy one.
A bike should be stylish in my eyes. It should be something that unavoidably short-circuits my brain to associate its lines, its graphics with my sense of fun on the road. A glimpse of the fork should make me dream of descending some mountain. If, instead, I find myself thinking, “I should have sent it to someone else for paint,” then the joke is on me.
Say what you will, but a wait list is a bold-face confirmation of connection with admirers, admirers who became clients.
At the very least, most builders would benefit from the creation of an internal style guide. Any time I see a powder blue so light it looks like a faded duck egg, I know it’s a Speedvagen. And that hot pink? Well, since I stopped seeing Serottas in that color, Sacha has cornered the market. Even without a full-blown style guide, builders would do well to develop a signature color palette. The point isn’t to be hard-nosed about the appearance of their bikes; rather most would benefit from having a few colors that could announce the presence of their bike even when it’s moving too fast to read the decal.
Builders: Give us more to look at than just your bikes. Give us a window into your passions, your quirks, your whimsy. Give us a way to connect with you beyond just the frame. Be personal. Take a stand. Embrace risk.
Be yourself and we’ll love you even more.
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.