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.
When I first heard of the Meet Your Maker ride series earlier this year I did everything I could to try to find an excuse to get to Northern California to participate in any of the rides. I was a good deal less successful than I would like to have been, that is, until this weekend. On Sunday the fourth edition of the ride took place in Marin County. Upon rolling up to the start in Railroad Square in Mill Valley, I spotted Jeremy SyCip of SyCip and Mark Norstadt or Paragon Machine Works.
The guy who deserves the credit for starting the series and making sure everyone who shows up feels welcome is Sean Walling of Soulcraft bikes, based in nearby Petaluma.
At some point I should probably ask Sean and the other builders how often they actually meet one of their bike’s owners. I had the sense that the incidence rate was low, that most riders there on a handmade frame had already met their maker, so to speak. So even though the ride’s most obvious appeal is to meet the guy who built your bicycle, the greater truth of the ride is that you get a chance to go for a ride with him, talk bikes, meet other customers of his and then meet other builders who probably haven’t made a bicycle for you.
Santa Cruz builder John Caletti is known for his immaculate TIG-welding. The ti bike above featured TRP’s cable-actuated hydraulic discs with 160mm (front) and 140mm (rear) discs and Kenda Small Block tires (35mm front and 32mm rear) tires.
The quality of the welds is high enough to make his work look like that of a veteran of Seven or Moots.
Sacramento builder Steve Rex turned out with this disc-equipped rig sporting 43mm-wide Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n’ Road tires.
As is typical of most of Rex’ work, this bike featured his Ultimate Fillet work, but also showed some very tasteful internal cable routing.
Left to right: Curtis Inglis of Retrotec, Steve Rex, John Caletti and Sean Walling.
Sean, thanking everyone for showing up, and by everyone I mean a 40-plus-strong group, the biggest for the Meet Your Maker rides so far. He also informed those assembled that there is some interest in holding even more of the rides next year.
Paul of Paul Components made the trek from Chico to join the ride. He made a point to fuel up before we rolled out.
It was nice to begin a ride without having to hit the afterburners. I honestly can’t recall the last time I did a ride where people were more excited to get into the ride and yet didn’t completely kill the pace. I could get used to this.
We regrouped. A lot.
Eric Richter, marketing director for Giro, joined us for the ride. Based on what I know of Eric, dude doesn’t own a non-ferrous bicycle.
The ride took in both fire roads and singletrack on Mount Tam, and eventually dropped us down to Muir Beach. Once there, a number of riders decided that the proper course of action included hoppy beverages. They were right, of course, but there were those of us who needed to stick to a timeline. The rider in the Santa Cruz Spokesman kit is Sean Morrissey, part of my ad sales team. He and I joined a group making a more direct effort to reach Mill Valley.
The day was not without its hitches. There were flats by the bushel, dropped tools, lost keys and at least a few near bonks. I’d do rides like this once a week if given the chance.
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.
NAHBS is ON. I tell ya, these days, I get more excited for NAHBS than I do Interbike. The trouble is, it’s gotten so big that it really is hard to make it around to everyone. Above is a fillet-brazed BB on a bike by Dave Kirk. This is going to be a short post because my allegedly fast Internet connection is not. And it’s making me crazy. Also, show organizer Don Walker tapped me to join his crew of judges for the awards panel. It’s taking more time than I expected but it has made reviewing the bikes a bit easier because we stand in one spot and the bikes under consideration come to us.
This seat lug is from a randonnee bike by Steve Rex. I’m really not into the randonnee thing, but the craftsmanship on this bike, as exemplified by this half-lug was outstanding.
This Cherubim was one of the more amazing bikes I’ve seen so far. But now I have to get to the judging.Trust me, once I’m back home with a better Interweb connection, there will be a much longer post.
On the evening before Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo the folks at SyCip Cycles hosted a little get-together they called the Gran La Fonda. It was one-quarter handbuilt bicycle show, one-quarter party, 3/16 mad inventor parade and 9/8 fun. The device above is a tricycle of sorts that is designed to traverse old railroad tracks, though it seemed to handle asphalt tolerably.
Here’s a look at its inner workings; it was utterly confusing and wonderful to my eye.
Noci is a gelato and sorbetto place in Mill Valley around the corner from Above Category. They were serving up some tasty creations scooped from their bakfiets.
The Whiskey Drome is modeled on the ramps motorcycle stunt riders used to ride. Roughly 20 feet in diameter watching riders negotiate its banking was large-scale fun.
At right is Scot “Chuck Ibis” Nicol of local fame and Ibis Cycles, though not necessarily in that order. At right is Eldon “Fatty” Nelson of Fat Cyclist fame. Incredibly low-key and gracious, I could have spent the evening hanging out with him and his wife, “The Runner.”
Sean Walling of Soulcraft was but one of a long list of builders in attendance. Also present with bikes were SyCip (duh), Inglis/Retrotec, Rebolledo, Steve Rex, Rick Hunter, Cielo, DeSalvo, Black Cat, Caletti, Bruce Gordon and Ira Ryan.
It’s not every day you see a high-end carbon fiber road bike locked to a metal pole. I really dug seeing a road bike being used for basic transportation. Passing the lock through the helmet straps was a nice touch.
Builders in consultation: At left, Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster, a man without whom the Santa Cruz ‘cross scene would die and at right, Ira Ryan of the Portland Bike Mafia, and a man with a soft spot for touring.
That cute little button of a girl is Zoie, the daughter of Carlos Perez, the publisher of Bike Monkey, and the driving force behind Levi’s Gran Fondo. She’s hugging RKP’s pint-sized climber, Philip, who is squealing in delight at the attention from yet another adoring woman. We think we heard wedding bells that night.