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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