An interview with Don Walker

Don Walker is the founder and president of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. We caught up with him at the 2011 show in Austin, Texas.

By Jeff Lockwood

What’s yoru hometown?

I was born and raised in Sacramento, California.

And your current location?

I now call Speedway, Indiana home.

What do you do with bicycles?

I build, assemble, and tinker with bikes under the Don Walker Cycles name. Primarily I build road bikes and track bikes. Those are my main focus. And then I like to build track tandems on occasion. I also just did a nice road tandem that was at the [North American Handmade Bicycle] show. I build ‘cross bikes, and I’m probably going to start building some mountain bikes. I work with steel and am primarily a fillet brazer. I usually do one lugged bike per year. And I display all of them once a year at NAHBS.

What’s the best thing about your job?

The freedom of not reporting to someone else and being responsible for my success or failure.

What’s the toughest part of your job?

See above statement.

What are your interests aside from bicycles?

I like music—all different kinds. I occasionally play guitar…poorly, watch movies with my kids, play and watch ice hockey, cook at my house, hang out with friends, etc.

What was the path that led you to work with bicycles?

Mine was a natural progression: ride bicycles, race bicycles, work on bicycles, build bicycles, promote handmade bicycles. I’m not sure where the next step goes.

Tell me about the decisions that led you to start the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.

NAHBS was the culmination of an internet framebuilder group with an interest in getting all the newbie builders together to steer them in the right direction. But I put a spin on the concept, and wanted the public to see what the builders had to offer. I felt that it should be about marketing ourselves, collectively and on the cheap.

How important is the fact NAHBS is also a consumer show?

I think that’s probably the most important thing. Many of the larger companies get to spend time at Interbike and shows like that, and reach out to the industry. But until the public actually sees the stuff and hears the message coming from these companies…until you can reach out and touch it and talk to the manufacturer…it just kind of doesn’t really hit home. Their message is there through print advertising, but most of these small builders don’t get that opportunity. This is their opportunity to see what we’re doing.

But Mavic has said that, “It’s so good for us to reach out. Not just to the frame builders, but also to the consumers. Because they really don’t know who we are, and that’s what we really want to fix. We want to reach out and let them see what we’re up to and to talk to us.” It was a great feeling hearing that from them!

What do you see as the next trend in framebuilding?

That’s a great question. I wish I had a stronger answer, but I do see more people getting into the bamboo game. I think the bamboo thing is going to double in size in the next two years. There’s what, six guys doing it now? I believe in the next two years, there is going to be twelve guys doing it. If not more. Because it’s a renewable, green industry. Bamboo supplies are never going to dwindle. The stuff grows fast.

That’s one thing. The next trend… if I could step out on a limb, I’d say the next trend would probably be…for steel builders…I’ve already seen it, and I’m not claiming to be the guy that’s started it, but I think in 2006 or 2007, I had a double oversized lugged track bike in my booth. In the last year or so, I’ve seen more guys going to double oversized lugged tubes [originally designed for mountain bikes]. I think it’s going to be huge… road, track, ‘cross, whatever.

Who would you say are some of your mentors?

When I first started out building, the first guy that helped me out the most was a guy by the name of Al Wanta in southern California. He’d answer a lot of questions. After that era…guys that I enjoyed talking to. Roland De la Santa is one. I don’t know he was necessarily a “mentor” because his style of building is totally different than mine. He’s old-school lugged Italian, and I’m new-school fillet-brazed. I don’t know if you know Roland, but that guy is just so much fun to talk to.

How about influences?

OK, here’re two reasons why I got into fillet brazing. When I was a junior, I didn’t even own a track bike…I had to borrow one to go to nationals in 1983. The guy I borrowed it from was like a top five junior track racer in the 1970’s. And he had a custom Ron Cooper track bike. That bike was fillet-brazed. And I fell in love with the bike when I borrowed it. It was the most amazing bike I’d ever seen, and the joints flowed together so smoothly into each tube! Wow!

I said, “Someday when I start building bikes, I want to make them this pretty.” And that was the beginning.

The second reason is that when I started building bikes, I was using oversized tubing, and at that time there weren’t lugs for it. I started aero tubing, and there’s no lugs for that. So I got good at making fillets.

If you weren’t working around bicycles, what do you think you’d be doing?

I would probably still be an aircraft mechanic. I like working with my hands and I like aircraft, so…

How do you see NAHBS changing in the next five years, if at all?

If anything, we’re going to try to refocus and try to make sure there are some builders involved. There have been a lot of builders going to the events and worrying about the costs, so they’re starting to do the regional shows because they think that might be a better deal. But really in the long run, it’s not best for their marketing dollar because the regional shows only show their product in that region. And the more regional shows don’t really have the media show up like we do. We’re really going to try and market to these builders to bring them to the show and help them with their sales.

I’ve implemented an advisory board this year, and I’m getting a lot of good feedback from that from everybody. Other than that, I don’t see any major changes, but trying to get the ratio of builders to other exhibitors higher.

There’s been a proliferation in the smaller, more local shows over the past few years. One argument could be made this galvanizes the importance of NAHBS, or it could hurt it. How do you see some of these shows?

In the beginning I was under the impression it was a great idea. And then it became obvious some of them wanted to compete with me. We had teamed up with them and fostered them and helped them along. And then they ended up wanting to compete with me, so I wasn’t all that thrilled about it.

I’m definitely not saying I’m untouchable. But NAHBS is the framebuilder show. It’s the best show of its kind. And I’m happy with where I’m at. I’m not saying I can’t improve…because I’m constantly trying to improve the show. I think I’m more apt to reach out to some of the smaller shows now, and see if we can co-op our marketing and other stuff like that.

But generally I’m not really worried about them [the smaller shows] right now.

There’s a lot of debate in the bike community about the definition of “handmade bike.” How do you define it?

What defines it for NAHBS purposes, or basically entry into NAHBS, is: it’s not a stock frame; it’s if the phone rings, an order is taken and a bicycle is made to fill that order. Even some of the larger guys like Serotta make stock frames, but when the phone rings, they say, “Hey, we got a guy that needs this particular geometry, this particular top tube length.” And you can get custom paint as well. That fills the niche. That fills our criteria. So some of the larger companies that do that…absolutely.

If it gets to be too grand of a scale? For example, Cannondale tried to come in a few years ago. They said, “Hey, we’re handmade in the USA.” So then I asked them to make me a frame and I gave them a drawing. “I need a 59.4cm top tube, a 72.63 seat tube angle.” And I just went through the stuff. And he said he couldn’t do that, and I said, “OK, well, you don’t fit.”

You had mentioned Mavic, and I know Shimano is involved, too. Why would you want larger, non-framebuilding companies at the show?

The show is obviously about framebuilders. Component companies that make a high-end component, or a component you would find on one of our bikes, are welcome as well. And that’s because they come to the show and offer something different to look at…other than every single booth being handmade frames. They offer a little bit of variety.

The other reason is that they also provide those components to us. Many of them have their own OEM sales staff, and we get to purchase the components from them direct at a discounted rate rather than going through a regular distributor.

Shimano, this year as most years, put together a breakfast for most of the builders. They provide all the new technical data for what they’re doing. So people learn more about the products they’re putting on their bikes.

Read more

This is an extended version of an interview that also appears in Issue #11 along side 13 pages of complete NAHBS coverage. You can order an issue here and be sure to sign up for a subscription so you don’t miss any future issues.

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Interbike 2010 wrap-up

Wow. It’s going to take weeks – or months! – to unravel all the storylines coming out of the show, but watch this space as we continue to bring you all the goodies from Last Vegas.

Photo galleries

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Bike reviews

Each year at Interbike we partner with manufacturers to borrow bikes for the week to allow us to commute from our hotel to the show without relying on fossil fuels. And besides, riding bikes is just more fun! In return, we provide feedback on their products.

Specialized Globe Daily 1

Advocacy groups

Most of the coverage from Interbike each year is about new companies and new products, but it’s not all about the bling. Here are few of the advocacy organizations at the show that we looked into, and why you should too.

Plus: watch for more to come!


 

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Interbike 2010 Day 4

The Strida folding bike
This trade show is always a whirlwind of updates, innovations, and improvements, but a common thread running through things we’ve seen from Monday ‘til today is how they are making it easier for everyone to ride a bike. The cycling industry is recognizing that the way to grow is to reach out to people who don’t consider themselves “cyclists” per se and draw them into the fold.
Fun cruisers from Electra help people pedal with confidence. Useful accessories from Biologic enhance the convenience of cycling. Some people have been “getting it” for a while now, like Joe Breeze, who has been putting out practical city (and country) bikes since 2001, and Jeff Scully, who has been importing the German brand Ortlieb’s waterproof panniers and bags since before the latest commuting “craze.” Innovative folders from Strida make it easy to bring a bike along almost anywhere. Some new-school style from the likes of Chrome and Mission Workshop attract the trendsetters.
We did some research, yes, but we also did some unabashed drooling at pretty, shiny bikes. Click over to our Day 4 gallery to see what we saw.
- Karen Brooks, Editor

 

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Interbike 2010 Day 3

So here we are at day three of Interbike, the first day of the traditional indoor show. We followed up on some great electric-assist and cargo bike options, as well as sampled some great urban cycling accessories.

Among the cool new bikes we saw were the Zigo bicycle/stroller system, the full-size bikes that fold (not folding bikes) from Montague, some beautiful city bikes from Linus, and a seriously heavy-duty step-through from Urbana.

Accessory highlights included the new shoes from DZR, which feature recessed cleat attachments, jackets and tees from ModRobes made from recycled plastic and new panniers and bags from Timbuk2.

Follow through to our galleries for complete coverage of all the eye candy.

 

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Interbike 2010 Day 1: E-bikes get a jolt

The Spot Acme, featuring a Gates CarbonDrive belt. See all our photos in our Day 1 gallery.

Interbike 2010 Day 1: E-bikes get a jolt

By Karen Brooks

It was just one day, but already we’ve seen some interesting and possibly game-changing things going on in the world of bicycles.

One mission (of many) for us on this Interbike trip is to learn as much as we can about e-bikes, light electric vehicles, pedal-assist bikes and the like. Starting, perhaps, with nailing down the correct term for them… Generally, we’re talking about anything with a battery-powered motor that gives a boost to the rider’s own pedaling power. In the past, such bikes were heavy, clunky things with unimpressive ranges, but as with most electronic gadgets, advances in technology are progressing rapidly and e-bikes are getting lighter and more capable all the time.

This time last year we began to explore e-bikes and came away with favorable impressions. A few weeks ago, we began to hear tell from Eurobike that e-bikes were the hot ticket, with lots of companies entering the market and choices abounding. It seems that some of this buzz has crossed the pond – at this year’s Outdoor Demo, we’ve found plenty of new and improved e-bikes to check out. Today Karl and I rode models from Ultra-Motor and Kilowatt, and we’ll try out some more from Currie and OHM Cycles tomorrow. I gotta admit, it’s quite fun to casually speed past a fully kitted-up roadie huffing and puffing up the hill of the Outdoor Demo test track.

An important distinction between e-bikes we’ve uncovered so far is how the motor is engaged, with a throttle alone or by pedaling. The Ultra-Motor bike we rode, their sleek-looking new Metro model, uses a spring-loaded twist throttle on the handlebar. Its action was smooth, but you had to keep it turned to keep the motor on and at a consistent output, and it was possible to “rev” the motor when not on the bike.

The more motorcycle-savvy riders might prefer this style, though. The Kilowatt uses a BionX pedal-assist system that doesn’t kick in unless the rider applies pedaling force – this type of bike is known as a “pedelec” to distinguish it from the throttle type. It was intuitive to use and didn’t cause any surprise jolts, but one couldn’t ride along passively as on a throttle-equipped e-bike. These are just first impressions, and we’ll need to get our hands on some of each type for a longer-term test to really explore their strengths and drawbacks.

We saw a couple of cool developments in drivetrains, a new version of Gates’ Belt Drive called Center Track and a new version of the continuously variable transmission from NuVinci.

The NuVinci shifter was way cool – it basically shifts from one end of its “gear” range to the other in one sweep rather than in steps, like a volume knob. We’d ridden an earlier version, the N171, at the Sea Otter race in April, but it had a slight “hitch” to it; the new N360 system felt butter-smooth, and lighter by 30% than its predecessor.
Gates has tweaked their almost ubiquitous Belt Drive transmission – it’s now called Center Track, as the chainring and cog each have a “fin” running around the circumference that fits in the center of the belt’s teeth.

This center track keeps the belt from walking off the chainring or cog, helps the system shed mud, and allows both chainring and cog to be made smaller. Oh, and by the way, we learned that the proper term for both “chainring” and “cog” in a belt drive transmission is actually “pulley” – thus pulley and belt, versus chain and chainring (and cog).

One last bit of wisdom gleaned before the end of the day: there’s something so very right about listening to Johnny Cash with a backdrop of crickets, helicopters and laughter that is nighttime in Las Vegas.

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Tour of England part three: Moulton

While the previously reported Brooks and Pashley factory tours were amazing, the highlight of the whole journey was a hour spent with a 90 year old man by the name of Alex Moulton. I really had no idea what I was getting into as we approached his modest home in Bradford-on-Avon.

What the? Is going on here? Who the heck is Alex Moulton? Turns out Mister Alex Moulton’s great grandfather, Stephen Moulton, brought Goodyear’s vulcanizing process to England back in 1840 or so. Alex himself was also a rubber pioneer, developing the hydrolastic* suspension that, along with the smaller wheel size, allowed the original Mini Cooper to be so mini. We got a look at one such Mini at the Moulton Museum residing on the estate.

In the late 50′s, Alex turned his attention to the bicycle and pioneered a design that would become quite the rage in the early 60′s. And remain relevant 50 years later. Small wheels had not been considered seriously against the then-standard double-diamond “Safety” bicycle, but Moulton was eager to challenge the staus quo after observing the benefits of smaller wheels in automotive use.  Thinking that the lower inertia of small wheels made for faster acceleration and an easier-to-mount frame design. And while Moulton’s were not designed as folding bikes, they were easy to disassemble for travel. And if that is not enough, Moultons were fully suspended for a comfy ride. How about that for ahead of your time?

Moulton showed his bike to Raleigh in hopes of licencing the design them to manufacture. But Raleigh was not interested. So Moulton set up his own factory and went ahead anyway. The Moulton bike took off in the early 60′s; their bicycle factory became the second largest in England behind Raleigh (Who I’m told was making like 7000 bikes per day). Moulton sold 200,000 bikes before Raleigh knocked off the idea and took over the market with their RSW series. Moulton wound up selling out to Raleigh in 1967, just in time for the Raleigh Chopper to steal the limelight and rush the market.

That’s the ancient history. Much more has happened through the 70′s and 80′s, yet today the Moulton factory still sits in a former stable on the same property where it all began. Let’s take a look.

Inside the blue door on the right, the Moulton team is hard at work making bikes.

By hand.


And barely have time to stop for a photo.

With these kind of results. This New Series model is made of stainless steel, and is worth near $15,725 American. It’s called a Space Frame and there’s a whole bunch of little tubes that come together to form one. It’s no wonder they are expensive.

But Moulton, being connected with Pashley, has some more affordable offerings being made in the Pashley factory in Stratford-Upon-Avon, ranging from $19-3600.

But Alex Moulton awaits. We have been granted a one-hour audience with the man. He is 90 after all so we understand. We are led into his great room and gather around a rather large dining table to talk. Whereupon Mister Moulton share some of his exploits. The cat listens in.

Alex shared his thoughts on his first and only mountain bike ride, which left him wondering why anyone would do such a thing as ride down a mountain. Perhaps if he had bigger wheels the experience might have been better? Alex talked about how he didn’t like the crossbar on the conventional bikes of the day. He liked recumbents but found them unstable. Small wheels were the answer. We also heard about the numerous records that have been broken riding Moulton bicycles over the years. And looked through his biography, full of pictures and drawings of his designs.

I myself was in a bit of awe at this guy nearly twice my age. Pretty cool. He’s done so much.

Got to ride some bikes as well, around the test track on the property, a good time to blow off a little steam after so much travelling. And think. About all the people that have influence the bicycle through history. On and on…

* (From Wikipedia) The system replaces the separate springs and dampers of a conventional suspension system with integrated, space efficient, fluid filled, displacer units, which are interconnected between the front and rear wheels on each side of the vehicle. Each displacer unit contains a rubber spring, and damping is achieved by the displaced fluid passing through rubber valves. The displaced fluid passes to the displacer of the paired wheel, thus providing a dynamic interaction between front and rear wheels. When a front wheel encounters a bump fluid is transferred to the corresponding rear displacer then lowers the rear wheel, hence lifting the rear, minimising pitch associated with the bump. Naturally the reverse occurs when it is a rear wheel that encounters a bump. This effect is particularly good on small cars as small wheelbase vehicles are more affected by pitching than long wheelbase vehicles.

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