The North American Handmade Bike Show is taking place in Austin, TX as I write this and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be there. I spent some time in Austin in the late nineties and I haven’t been back for a lot of years- it would be nice to run into old friends again. That, and Seattle has been damn cold as of late- a forecast of rain and snow with temperatures in the 30’s-40’s in the extended forecast. But as I see much of the bike blog world direct it’s attention to a party with a bunch of pretty frames- I’ve been reappraising my thoughts on NAHBS. Maybe having bikes being such a large part of my life- whether it be riding, planning around, pining over, or writing about- I’m a little confused what all the hype is about. I’ve attended NAHBS- though only once, in 2008 while it was in Portland, Oregon- just a hop, skip and a jump down the road from Seattle. We traveled down, a couple car loads of Seattle folks in a caravan for a weekend full of flat city riding, bicycle nerdery, brunches, parties, and possibly a trip to one of those darkly lit places that Portland is known for- involving glitter, a pole, and dancing.
Of course the trip was nothing but spectacular. Portland rarely disappoints, and often surprises… I’m waiting for a shirtcock polo tournament. Frame builders from across the country pulled out all the stops- bringing the best they had constructed and putting it on display with intentions on winning “best in show,” or some such thing. There were after parties and group rides to keep you occupied after the floor closed. One could walk around, talk to the builders and see what they had been up to throughout the year. It was something of a “meet-and greet”-though if you were looking to have a custom bike made- it felt like the comfortable place to do it. It was a really great experience all around. The bigger bike companies knew it too. Anybody that was ANYBODY was there to see what these handbuilder’s had going on. Hell, even Lance Armstrong was there… (Tall Bryan made friends with him right off.) The craftsmanship, metal work, paint- all of the highest caliber.
I fully believe that frame builders are craftspeople- artisans with knowledge of metallurgy or alchemy (for whatever their preferred medium)- and a talent of coaxing, shaping and working this preferred medium into something that likely does what many other bikes do while being more aesthetically pleasing than what is available from the big bike companies. Is it better? That is a matter of preference. When you get a custom bike- you can get a braze-on here or a light mount there, or heck- even a front rack that has taco holders and a margarita bar built into it. Maybe I’m lucky, but my body type is such that a stock bike will fit me well with the proper stem, seatpost, bars and saddle combination.
What makes a frame that someone spends $6000 and waits five years to purchase a better frame than a $2000 off the shelf bike? Is it the fact that it’s custom? Is it the fact that it was made locally? Is it the brand? Is it the fact that it has a bird on it? I’m going to bet dollars to donuts that if a frame was really that much faster, stronger and lighter than- say a Trek or Specialized or any other big brand for that matter- then the big bike brand would be building the same bikes for $2000. What you buy with your $6000 is a statement that you love bikes. It is the pinnacle of nerdery. It is status. It may even get you laid in certain circles. It says you know what you like and you get what you want. It also makes the (unintentional for some, but not for others) statement that you can afford to have a bike built on a frame that costs more than half of what the income for an American living at the poverty level makes in a whole year.
I haven’t even touched on the marketing that has been done by the NAHBS. It has lined itself up as being “The” handmade bike show- and any hand builder should attend that would like to be considered such. This becomes problematic for many builders that though skilled- lack the resources (often financial) to be able to attend NAHBS, let alone have an impressive eye catching booth. Between the exhibitor fees, building the bikes to bring to NAHBS, transporting said bikes and booth materials and then staying in the hosting city for a few days- it gets down right expensive. And now, there are a number of companies that aren’t even North American companies taking part in NAHBS- so now what does it all mean? Is it now the “hand made bike show” Well, that won’t work because HBS doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like NAHBS…. And then there is the question of: How big can a company get before it is no longer considered hand built? Is it saying that any bike that is touched by human hands hand built?
Some definitions would be handy here, starting with:
- Does the owner of the company have to be the builder of the frames?
- If so, what percentage of frames must be built by the company owner?
- Is there a minimum or maximum amount of frames per year built that defines or excludes a company from being a handbuilder?
- If a company handbuilds some, but not all frames- are they still a handbuilder?
- Does a companies headquarters need to be in North America to be part of a “North American Handbuilt Bike Show?”
- Is there a limit to how many employees a company has?
- Can a frame be designed in the US, and handmade in Asia by a contractor and still be considered handmade?
- How much of the frame can be outsourced? How about paint?
Questions like these and more would really help define what we know as hand builders. I think it’s about time. The beer industry did it and I think it’s helped small brewers.
I see NAHBS as a wonder land for bike geeks, artists and photographers (in 35mm of course.) Building bikes isn’t new by any means, and from what I’ve seen NAHBS doesn’t seem to be pushing innovation much. Unless sublimated powdercoating and custom porteur racks built for a box of vegan donuts are considered innovation of course. These bikes are most assuredly things of beauty- whether they be steel, wood, carbon, aluminum or felted wool, but the research and development dollars just aren’t there. 11 speed internally geared hubs, generator systems, the Gates Carbon Drive, 2 speed kick back coaster hubs… that is innovation with more potential to get people on bikes.
No, NAHBS won’t make the world a better place for bikes. But it will keep the builders pushing the envelope with “colorways” and accessories. That’s ok. It takes all kinds.