“Why are you here?” It’s a question that I think every human has pondered at some point during their existence, but it seemed like a fairly heavy conversation opener from our bartender. We looked around at each other. “Umm, what do you mean by here?”
“Look around you, you see all these people? I know all of them; I don’t know you three.” Our new acquaintance scanned us over waiting for our answer. “Strangers are never in town on the weekends, they do their business during the middle of the week, and then they go home.”
“Ohhhh, you mean why are we in Hartford!” Relieved that we didn’t have to try and understand our purpose on earth over fried rice and dumplings, we began the small talk that changes strangers to acquaintances.
We tried to barter for the large ceramic lucky cat over the bar with little progress. In return, our new friend showed us a video of a black bear prowling around her property. “Look at how healthy he is!” she exclaimed. We agreed, the bear was very healthy and large.
We finally came to terms with the fact that we were in Hartford for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. Honestly, why else would we come to Connecticut in the middle of February? Yes, on paper Hartford is a sleepy town. The business district empties like a stampede at the end of the workday, but when this contingent of the bike industry gathers it can change any dark watering hole into a festival. Rumors of three-story dance clubs, all night games of darts, and the occasional overindulgence of frothy beverages were topics discussed perhaps more than bottom bracket standards around the show floor.
A snowstorm showed up Saturday evening turning the whole city into a winter playground. We heard tales of a snowball battle involving some 60 people. Trench warfare fractured into guerilla tactics as the packable wet snow could cover some distance. The squeal of discs brakes and the hoots of happy riders sliding sideways in the snow could be heard around the corners. A drunken wheelie contest broke out here and there though everyone escaped unharmed.
As for the show itself, Saturday was jam-packed with people. A legendary game or two of Jenga went down under the guidance of Evan and Dunk at the Rotating Mass Media Booth (that’s us!), and yes there were bikes. Like lots of bikes, and they were beautiful, well a fair amount of them were. It wouldn’t be fair to single out builders because bikes are like ice cream, everyone has their own favorite flavors. I did take note that certain booths were more hopping than others. The folks at Squid Bikes seemed to be having a party at all points of the day and the man known as Poppi or Ultraromance or Benedict and his new Sklar touring Stallion seemed to attract quite the crowd as well.
There were legends of the craft, there were awards handed out, and there were lots of good times had. NAHBS is as much more of a celebration of the bicycle than it is the wheeling and dealing of the bike industry at large. Sure, some orders probably got placed with individual builders, but the orders were placed with love. I have found my people.
I met Chris McGovern like I do most people these days, in the parking lot of a bike race. Casual hellos extended to short conversations and before long, Chris became another friend I would see at bike races on the weekends. Our mutual love for punk rock and skateboarding made conversation easy and a welcome distraction from all the bike racing going on around us. A former bike racer himself, McGovern knows what it takes to be at the top of the sport and uses that knowledge to coach some of the United States’ top talent. Most notably, McGovern has been coaching cyclocross phenom Tobin Ortenblad from Santa Cruz, California, a former U23 National Champion and currently ranked 20th in the world amongst the elite men. When McGovern is not busy jetting all over the country during cyclocross season, he spends his time building custom frames. We caught up with him as he gets ready for this years North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Hartford, Connecticut.
For those who are not familiar with McGovern Cycles, where are you based out of and when did you get your start in the frame building business?
I am based out of Nevada City, California. It’s in between Sacramento, California and Reno, Nevada. I started building in 2010 but got a business card about 4 years ago.
What was your attraction to the frame building business? Money, fame, power?
I wanted sharks with frickin’ laser beams! I guess I got sick of riding bikes I didn’t like at the end of my racing career. I dreamt of riding bikes like I had before I turned professional, like my Della Santa LeMond. So I started having bikes made for me by respected builders. I found that most didn’t like my enthusiasm, but there was one dude, Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster, who built me several bikes and he said to me, “You need to build a bike!” This was either to get me out of his hair or he truly enjoyed my enthusiasm over BB drop and the like. So I did. Paul told me to take the Ti course at UBI and I did.
Are you self-taught or did you have a mentor?
Well, I had never mitered a tube or welded when I went to UBI, so I learned a metric shit ton there. I hacked away at it after the course on my own and bugged the shit out of Paul Sadoff and Mike DeSalvo for a while. But no one was remotely interested in my bikes. I wasn’t on the hype pipeline I guess or I sucked. Building bikes was too expensive for a hobby so I considered stopping. Then I thought, what if I did carbon? Hardly anyone does that. I quickly found David Bohm who was teaching a tube to tube carbon class; I think I was his first or second student in that material. I came home from that course, built 2 more bikes right away and that was that. My current mentor is a young man named Cody Leuck; he is an engineer and he gets as excited as I do about ideas, but keeps me from doing really stupid things.
What does NAHBS mean to you? How has it changed since you have started attending?
NAHBS is just a fun way to see all the cool bikes and cool people that build them. The show seems to have gotten much bigger with more non-builder people “exhibiting.”
Besides building frames you also do a fair amount of coaching – how do balance the time between focusing on athletes and completing frame orders from customers?
It’s pretty easy. With the coaching, I am just “ON” 24/7 and when something comes up I just have to deal with it right away – take a call, answer a text, explain a workout, whatever, it just has to happen. Building is more task-oriented, so I can just tackle a bike build step by step. The one exception to that is during cross season. The last 2 seasons I have basically been out of the shop from September until Nationals (or Worlds last year). I just try t0 not take in too much work during this time and hit it hard once I am back in the shop. No rest for the wicked.
How has your time involved in cyclocross influenced the way you build bikes or don’t build bikes? Is there any particular framebuilding trends that influenced the way you look at the bike?
I learn a lot from what I see out there or what I am working on as a mechanic. I honestly only think there are about 2 production cross bikes even worth buying.
With the rise in popularity of cross over the last 15 years and now gravel, I set my design parameters around clearance. The bike must fit 45cc tires with room for mud and 2 chainrings. I have had to make a lot of parts to make this possible. But it’s worth it. Cross/gravel are 1 bike in my opinion. Gravel/adventure is another bike. There are some odd geometry choices in production cross bikes, and it has been fun nailing down what I think works really well.
Are there any builders that you are looking forward to seeing at NAHBS this year in Hartford?
Olivetti. I met him by chance in Boulder last Summer and really enjoyed talking with him. Now I stalk his social media and can’t wait to see what he is bringing.
When you are not hustling to fulfill frame orders and molding the next generation of cycling talent, what do you like to do for fun?
Anything in the mountains. Mostly I run these days, but also ride, backpack, travel, hang with the wife and our dogs.