NAHBS 2014: The times they are a changin’

By Marie Autrey

When I stepped through the exhibit hall doorway, I knew the world had changed.

I have a recurring dream in which I’m driving the interstate or walking to the mailbox when a meteorite rips the sky in half like a broken zipper. I feel the shock wave and watch the smoke rising from the crater where a city used to stand, and say to myself that things won’t ever be the same.

Sometimes it happens in real life. When, after a hard crash, I tried to stand and discovered that one leg didn’t reach the ground. When Mom’s doctor said that he’d done all he could. There’s no blast or ash cloud-like the dream, but I know just as certain that the past has passed and things will be different from now on.

The 2014 show was my fifth North American Handmade Bicycle Show. That’s Indy, Richmond, Austin, Sacramento, and Charlotte. (No Denver; see above, about crashing and legs.) I always get an early start, hitting the show as soon as the doors open, buttonholing the exhibitors while they set up, chatting before potential customers clog the aisles. There’s always a sense of excitement in the air. It’s like at a concert when the band is taking the stage. What’s coming may be a pure rock and roll energy, or it might be a mish-mash of muffed lyrics and tangled chords. What fills the air is a risk—Wallenda placing his foot onto the high wire.

If you know cycling, you know the story of NAHBS: how to track bike specialist Don Walker assembled a couple of dozen of his lug-brazing’ buddies to show off their work in Houston in 2005. Apparently, the idea struck a chord with cycling’s psyche, because as it roved from town to town in succeeding years, the exhibitor list doubled and doubled again, and the lines of visitors circled the block.

Well, that’s how it used to be. Attendance peaked in Sacramento in 2012, when a bright sunny weekend in a city two hours from San Francisco swelled the convention center to bursting. The momentum broke the next year in Denver when a snowstorm sent visitors running for home. Emerging shows in Seattle, Philly, and San Francisco siphoned off exhibitors. This year’s NAHBS felt more like a trade show, with manufacturers and vendors—companies with the budget to buy a double booth and commission frames to show off their gear—outnumbering custom frame shops.

Quick! What do the following frame builders have in common: Ira Ryan, Tony Pereira, Chris King, and Don Walker? (Yes, Chris King was building framesets before he lathe’s up his first headset.) Aside from a history of remarkable bikes, all four are offering stock frames. When you add these builders to the small factories like Moots and Independent Fabrication, fully ten percent of the exhibitors offer bikes off-the-peg. While the show’s name says Handmade, not made-to-order, this represents a change in the landscape. I talked with Don Walker, big kahuna and show founder, about the trend, and he didn’t equivocate. “I think it’s great. There’s nothing in the pipeline and if I can take a 56cm off the hook, I can make a sale.”

The fact remains that standard geometry works for most people; that’s how it became standard. Take Jack Taylor and his brothers, the working-class heroes of classic hand-building. They turned out north of 8,000 bikes in genres as diverse as Welsh trikes and quintuplets, but the majority were catalog bikes and batch built. Compare that to Tony Pereira and Ira Ryan’s Breadwinner Cycles. Even though they’re billed as stock frames, the boys don’t cut the first tube until the order comes in. Within a quiver of eight bikes, the customer chooses size, paint, and build kit. The process is like ordering a restaurant meal: cooked to order, extra onions if you like, and you don’t have to create the recipe. Breadwinner won Best Mountain Bike at the 2014 show, proving that going stock doesn’t mean going the second rate.

Let me tell you about my Uncle Harry. Harry went to his grave convinced that America had reached its acme in 1959, when he’d owned a new split-level, a Ford station wagon, and worked at the airplane plant, churning out jet interceptors to keep Ivan at bay. The scythe of war had reaped the classmates who would otherwise be competing with him for jobs. The GI Bill paid for his education and guaranteed his mortgage. He enjoyed the life of a suburban ‘burgher, enveloped in barbecue smoke behind a white picket fence. Memories of riding boxcars from job to job and eating K-rations under a tank faded into after-dinner stories.

I think the handbuilt world resembles Uncle Harry’s. I talked to a frame builder at the Indianapolis show. In 2009, the economy had hit rock bottom and was starting to dig, and I asked him about the market for expensive bikes. “It’s never been better,” he said. “The people who are my normal customers haven’t been hurt by this. And the guys who are into a lot of things, who might buy a mountain bike and a road bike and a kayak this year, instead buy a really good custom bike. I’ve got a year’s waiting list.”

It looks that the waiting list has cleared. The guy who thought he’d put off a new kayak and a mountain bike until the economy bounced back, is probably still waiting. And the bike that he paid six grand for may have been Craigslisted into a couple of mortgage payments. Perhaps previous NAHBS, and the cycling culture they reflect, are the equivalent of Uncle Harry’s 1959: a glorious combination of circumstances that won’t get repeated.

When I stepped through the doors of the exhibit hall in Charlotte, it felt like the show was catching its breath, not holding it. Folklore says that industry shills roam the exhibit hall, looking to spot the next trend. If so, those tiny spy cameras got wasted. Trends this year are continuing, not forming.

Gravel bikes abound. Whether billed as gravel pounders or dirt road tourers or monster cross, the elements don’t change: drop bars, generous standover, big rubber, and clearance for fenders. Kevin Harvey won Best New Builder for this slick example, with fillets smoother than the junctions on some carbon frames.

No one has ever quite explained to me the definition of New Builder. Harvey showed a pretty fantastic rando bike last year, and we interviewed him on tape. Of course with fillets like that, I’d forgive a lot of things.

The headlight grilles recall a 1930s Aston Martin

Fatbikes, like America itself, got even fatter and rounder—you’re neither fat nor phat unless you’re sporting a pair of Moonlander tires at 5 inches and 5 psi. The resulting bike floats on mud, snow, and sand at the expense of tight clearances between chainstay, tire, and crank. Kris Henry of 44 Bikes curved the stays and seat tube to pull the wheelbase short, and a spare 29er wheelset slips in for after the snow has melted. The result is an unusually graceful package for a critter with big feet. Instead of a serial number, the seat tube badge shows the owner’s lucky number.

The metal exuberance below represents Sunrise Cycles builder Yu Takai’s personal fixie. Look at the sedate, color-matched fenders and curvy seat stays and your average hipster would yawn. But there’s a split in the reality continuum there, and this bike’s breaking out in the Transformers’ universe. The asymmetrical headlight mount grows out of custom bent ‘n’ welded bars, and the seat tube takes a break from being a seat tube about halfway down, and decides to become the Eiffel Tower instead.

Huge open spaces on the part I’ll call the upper head lug, just because it goes where an upper head lug would go, expose the graphics on the steerer tube that change as the bars are turned. The machine shop time invested in this bike rivals the Mars rover and looks just as otherworldly.

Don Walker stepped outside of UCI-approved orthodoxy with this velodrome scorcher. Besides an airfoil-section direct-lateral frame, it features a one-bladed fork. If it only has one blade, is it a fork anymore, or does that make it a knife?

What do the two bikes below have in common?


Look at the S&S couplers and the eyelets on the seat tube. Calfee Design‘s carbon behemoth separates for easy shipping but can reassemble without the second cockpit. This ought to start a run on biker style jerseys that say, “If you can read this, she fell off.”

Tandems let a frame builder show his skills writ large. Also, one suspects, two-fer buyers are accustomed to appropriately outsized pricing and don’t mind adding a few flourishes. Steven Bilenkey’s Ti gravel pounder shows lines like a sine wave, built-in racks and internal wiring, and ten couplers. (The S&S couplers hold the big tubes, and nearly invisible Santana couplers join the stays.) A rear steerer tube allows the use of conventional stems and keeps the stoker’s chin off the captain’s butt.

The area that felt most familiar, where the air still hummed and the exhibitors seemed hungry, was the new builders’ aisle. NAHBS allows small-timers, like Mills Brothers Cycles, whose T-shirts read “Made in America by a Man in a Shed”, to show a single bike each. These are the guys whose enthusiasm hasn’t been doused by reality. Check out this swoopy mixte from [Fe][C]ycles. It has bi-laminate construction, belt drive on an internally geared hub, internal cables, and brazed on racks. The headlight wire runs through the rack tubing.

My favorite New Builder, with only four bikes to his credit, is Mathew Amonson of Airtight Cycles. This Cinelli Laser-inspired road fixie shows half-lug construction, an internal sleeve to allow around Seatpost in an aerodynamic seat tube, and the worlds’ largest brass fillet to make an airfoil at the head. The rear brake hides behind the bottom bracket because it would be hard to put a brake bridge on the asymmetrical seat stays.

They say the only constant changes. Sometimes the change happens for everybody, all at once, like every Cretaceous dinosaur found out. Sometimes it’s gradual, over a single species or a tiny area, like Darwin’s beetles. Sometimes the change is that the change stops for a while. But whatever the change in the bicycle world is, you do see it first at NAHBS. See you next year in Louisville.

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