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Dissecting NAHBS: What it means, and what it doesn’t

  • By Neal Rogers
  • Published Feb. 24, 2013
  • Updated 1 hour ago
Stephen Bilenky, winner of the Best Lugged Frame category, is part of what NAHBS is all about: People who love bikes. Photo: Neal Rogers | VeloNews.com

DENVER (VN) — Disclaimer: It would be impossible to write up a true “scene piece” about the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) without lacing it with disclaimers.

So I’m not even going to try.

NAHBS is the show of the unique and the personal. The only way to approach a discussion of it is to do so as an individual, complete with biases. Any attempt to dig in and extract the core of what NAHBS is, or to box up and neatly bow the diverse motivations, desires, loves, and inspirations of the people there, is going to require the occasional qualification. Accepting the permanent lenses we wake up with each morning, and writing through them — that, I can do.

See Neal Rogers’ full NAHBS gallery >>

The cycling industry is a tightknit, incestuous bunch, and with this year’s NAHBS held in Denver, 30 minutes from the VeloNews office, the overlap between the Velo editorial staff and the wares on display was profound.

Several VeloNews editors own and ride bikes built by the brands on display at the Denver Convention Center. Managing editor Chris Case and photo director Brad Kaminski each own titanium Moots road bikes; reporter Matthew Beaudin rides a custom steel Independent Fabrication road bike; tech editor Caley Fretz just had a custom titanium Mosaic travel bike built, complete with three (three!) couplers; I own and love my pair of custom steel bikes, a road bike and a hardtail mountain bike built a decade ago by Hunter Cycles.

And though he wasn’t in attendance, VeloNews tech writer Lennard Zinn owns a custom frame-building company, Zinn Cycles, with Paketa Cycles providing the finishing work on his designs.

Some might see all this as glaring conflicts of interest. However, given that very few of these companies do business with VeloNews, I’m just going to focus on the interest side of it — interest in handmade bikes. The truth of the matter is, it’s a love for the bicycle that unites every member of our staff; we all have to ride something, and many of us are proud to ride American handmade bikes.

Besides, with 200 exhibitors in the expo area, there was plenty of opportunity to avoid the overlap, and, for me, a first-time visitor to NAHBS, to find out what this show means, and what it doesn’t.

And in a nutshell, NAHBS is the intersection between form and function, where artistry and aesthetics share equal billing with ingenuity, practicality and athletic pursuit.

I imagined a sea of beards, handlebar mustaches, and wool cycling caps. I wasn’t misguided in that assumption. But style (of a sort) does not exclude substance, and I found a room full of men and women passionate about both cycling and technology, obsessive about not just the finished product, but also the process.

Rather than a throwback to another era, NAHBS is very much a testament to the ongoing evolution of what can exist in the space between two wheels.

Every kind of bike imaginable was on display, from road to mountain to cyclocross to track to gravel grinder to fat bike to tandem to commuter to cargo to utility. They were made out steel and titanium and aluminum and magnesium and carbon fiber and wood and other materials I probably have never heard of.

The heavy hitters of North American hand-built bikes were in full force on the showroom floor — Ritchey, Moots, Calfee, Richard Sachs, Independent Fabrication, Cielo, Mosaic, Alchemy — as well as exciting new brands, such as Breadwinner Cycles, a big-buzz collaboration between longtime builders Ira Ryan and Tony Pereira.

Several big component companies were also on the showroom floor, including Shimano, with former VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan now on marketing duties for the component brand, as wheel manufacturer Mavic, with former VeloNews tech editor Zack Vestal now the public face of the French brand, helping promote, among other things, Mavic’s new 650b CrossMax SLR mountain bike wheel. So there you go, even more disclaimers.

(Side note: I was curious why Shimano has invested in such a long-running sponsorship of NAHBS. At first glance, you’ve got “handmade in North America” mated with “robot-made in Japan.” However, as Legan explained, “Every bicycle frame, whether built by hand or in a factory, needs components to transform it into a usable bicycle. Shimano has a long history of designing and manufacturing top quality bicycle parts. NAHBS has a history of showcasing top quality craftsmanship. The two go hand-in-hand. What could be more beautiful than a bespoke frame with the world’s best cycling components adorning it?” There was indeed quite a bit of brand new Dura-Ace 9000 on the floor.)

Trendsetters

Roaming the halls I came across some real beauties. The first that stood out included a Vendetta, made by Garrett Clark in Corvallis, Oregon. The coupled and lugged steel road machine was equipped with Campagnolo Chorus 11-speed, had matching purple and green painted fenders, and a sprocket ornament on its downtube.

“The customer is a mechanical engineer, and wanted something to symbolize that, hence the sprocket,” said Clark, who produces just a half-dozen frames a year, adding that this was a travel bike that would be ridden in stage races and centuries alike.

Cielo, the bike brand belonging to component benchmark Chris King, was both selling framesets and displaying its frames built up as complete bikes. Though not fully custom, Cielo offers its production frames in 17 sizes and 18 colors, and can turn around an order in six weeks, said Cielo’s marketing man Dylan Van Weelden, adding that in 2012, Cielo sold around 300 production frames. Of note were Cielo’s Cross Racer, available for $2500 in either a cantilever or disc-brake model, in two different paint schemes inspired by the Aston Martin DBR1, with matching painted Enve carbon fork.

Over in the back of the hall was the judging area, where VeloNews associate web editor Patrick O’Grady, who also works with Bicycle Retailer and Industry News and is the road test manager at Adventure Cyclist, was one of four judges, along with Legan, who was filling in for Zinn, who was off in Wisconsin competing in the American Birkebeiner (Birkie) cross-country ski race. More disclaimers.

O’Grady and Legan, along with Maurice Tierney from Dirt Rag and Charles Manantan from Pez Cycling News, were scratching their heads that not one brand had submitted an entry in the Best Steel Construction competition; because nothing was presented, there would be no winner for that category. (2014 NAHBS exhibitors, take note.)

The judging team was also scratching its collective heads while examining a beautiful unpainted stainless steel frameset that had been submitted for the Best Lugged Frame category. The lugs were fantastic, with a medieval flair. The fork crown was a true work of art. The frame had horizontal dropouts and a rear brake mount, yet the fork was without brake mounts, and further, there was no head badge, or brand identifier of any kind. “The lugs,” one judge noted, “we’re here to judge the lugs.”

Judging took place Friday across nearly 20 categories, awards coordinator Scott Whitehair explained to me, with most awards handed out Saturday afternoon so that winners could display their awards on Sunday, the show’s final day; a few key awards, including best of show, were to be announced Sunday.

Being a handmade bike show, major brands such as Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale, weren’t in attendance… or were they?

As renowned framebuilder Jay Sycip of Cielo told me, “NAHBS is now the show where you see trends being set. You won’t see brands like Trek with a booth, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them walking around the show.”

And low and behold, an hour later, there was An Le, head of global marketing at Giant Bicycles, fresh off the plane, roaming the halls, checking things out. Le works closely with former VeloNews tech editor Andrew Jusakitis, who is now senior product marketing manager at Giant. Of course.

Functional art

Coming from the racing side of the industry, pro riders past and present in attendance immediately stood out to me. Colorado residents Katie Compton and Georgia Gould were both spotted roaming the halls, as well 1988 Giro d’Italia winner Andy Hampsten, there with his brother Steve, who runs their 75-bikes-a-year custom brand, Hampsten Cycles, which produces everything from track bikes to a coupled traveler to Hampsten’s favorite, the Strada Bianca, designed with long rides on dirt roads in mind.

Hampsten also brought his Giro-winning “Huffy” to the show, which was actually a Land Shark built by John Slawta, then painted and stickered to match the rest of the team’s bikes, which were built by Ben Serotta. Hampsten explained that during the first half of the 1988 season, he raced on a road frame built with superlight tubing originally intended for a time trial frame. It rattled to pieces during the spring classics, and Hampsten panicked, retreating back to Slawta, who had built his frames during Hampsten’s tenure with the Levi’s-Raleigh squad.

“No disrespect at all to Ben Serotta, but after that TT bike mix-up, I just needed something I could rely on, and John Slawta already had all my measurements, so it was just a matter of painting a frame to match,” Hampsten explained.

Roaming the halls, the builder/bike combo that most intrigued me was Stephen Bilenky, a man whose short stature and long beard give him the slight appearance of a character from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, if, say, Gloin or Gimli had worn a pink, studded denim vest and wraparound glasses.

For 30 years, Bilenky has been producing fillet-brazed beauties as the head of Philadelphia’s Bilenky Cycle Works, working in steel and titanium. Among his creations in Denver was a track bike with a Wonder Woman paint scheme, a coupled travel tandem, and a gorgeous steel commuter utilizing a Gates carbon belt drive and internal rear hub, the Metroluxe, which strangely seemed reasonably priced, even at $6000.

As the saying goes, how do you put a price on art? As for that beautiful lugged stainless steel frameset, with its medieval lugs and ornamentation, which also looked like it could have been from a Tolkien novel? That was a Bilenky design, and it was awarded Best Lugged Frame.

Bilenky said his major objective for coming to NAHBS was general brand awareness — to make contacts with customers and suppliers, and to hopefully come away with a bit of media coverage as well. Asked if NAHBS was a forum for ideas to be exchanged, Bilenky said yes, though mostly “under the covers.”

“You do tend to see trends develop,” he added. “One year the trend was utility bikes, one year it was urban track bikes. This year it seems like it might be spiffy racing bikes.”

I later put the same question to Tom Ritchey, a man who has been involved with frame and component design across road, mountain, and cyclocross for the past 35 years.

“I can’t say that I’m not influenced by what I see here, but to me, the way that normal bikes are celebrated here, you see more of that sort of thing happening, en masse, it’s very healthy,” Ritchey said. “Bikes aren’t being celebrated for being 12.5 pounds. This is functional art. I like seeing that. It’s a bit of revamping the roots where I came from. I don’t really care about wind tunnels, or the latest carbon fiber toothbrush, or whatever. I just want to see people enjoying the bike.”

That was a sentiment shared by many, though objectives for attending the show varied.

“I love NAHBS,” Sycip said. “It’s a show that the smaller builders can afford, and it’s a place where like minds can show their skill, with nationwide visibility.”

For Jeff Buchholz of Sputnik Tool, attending the show was less about reaching the public, or seeking media exposure, and more about interacting with the vendors themselves. For a man who builds mitering jigs, the frame builders are his customers.

“For me, the show really starts on Sunday afternoon, when the dealers all have pockets full of cash from selling $20 t-shirts all weekend,” Buccholz said. “That’s when they start buying.”

Asked what percentage of the framebuilders at the show owned some sort of tool that Sputnik had produced, Buccholz smiled. “Most of these guys have something we made,” he said.

Shared inspiration

So, what’s the takeaway here — the takeaway beyond all these disclaimers? Actually, the takeaway is what lies between the disclaimers. The takeaway is that the cycling industry is a community of like-minded folks, sharing that one true passion that bonds us all.

I’m not a religious person, but I can appreciate that moment during mass when complete strangers turn to one another and offer one another blessings. It’s a rare moment in today’s fast-paced modern world when folks gather to celebrate a shared inspiration. I most recently felt that during the world cyclocross championships in Louisville, Kentucky, and it was a thrill to feel it again only three weeks later, at home, at NAHBS.

Perhaps Moots marketing manager Jon Cariveau put it best, when he said, “There’s a lot of respect between the builders at this show. Trade secrets, and insights, are shared, and it makes everyone all the better for it.”

So, regardless of what you might make of headlines regarding the health of the sport — including those found here at VeloNews — this is a fantastic time for American cycling. The state of our union, that which unites us all, is strong, and it was on full display at NAHBS. Go get some.

2013 NAHBS Awards, Part 1

Best Carbon Construction: Alchemy Bicycle Company
Best Steel Construction: No award given
Best Road Bike: Bishop Bikes
Best Lugged Frame: Bilenky Cycles
Best Experimental Design: No award given
Best TIG Frame: Steve Potts Cycles
Best Titanium Construction: Kent Eriksen; Black Sheep Fabrication
Best Alternative Material: Boo Bicycles
Best City Bike: Cherubim by Shin-Ichi Konno
Best Mountain Bike: Retro-Inglis Cycles
Best Cyclocross Bike: Mosaic Cycles
Best Tandem: Black Sheep Fabrication; Calfee Design
Best Utility Bicycle: No Award given
Best Track Bicycle: Matsuda Cycle Factory

In the categories that received no award, a spokesman for the judges explained, “In the best steel construction category there were no entries. In the best utility bicycle category there were three entries, and the judges were unanimous in their opinion that none of those entries measured up to the standard of last year’s award winners.”

Categories to be announced on Sunday are: Best New Builder, Best Finish, Best Theme Bike, People’s Choice, President’s Choice, and Best of Show.

FILED UNDER: Bikes and Tech / Commentary / Technology TAGS:

Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers is editor in chief of Velo magazine and VeloNews.com. An interest in all things rock 'n' roll led him into music journalism while attending UC Santa Cruz, on the central coast of California. After several post-grad years spent waiting tables, surfing, and mountain biking, he moved to San Francisco, working as a bike messenger, and at a software startup. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2001, taking an editorial internship at VeloNews. He never left. When not traveling the world covering races, he can be found riding his bike, skiing, or attending a concert.

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