Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Handmade Bicycle Show: Thoughts

One of the all-time great head-tube badges, by Keith Anderson.

There is a distinct possibility that if you peeked out the back door of the Portland Convention Center, what you would see would be the pearly gates of heaven. Put another way, the last retail stop between Earth and Nirvana is the Handmade Bicycle Show; of that I'm certain.

It's not uncommon to attend Interbike only to hear someone say something inane like, "I hate Interbike." Being a cyclist and hating Interbike is as improbable as being an iPod owner and hating iTunes. Interbike is as close to visiting Santa's workshop as most of us will ever get. How could any cyclist truly dislike a roomful of brand new bikes watched over by knowledgeable bike industry veterans? This sort of ingenuous too-cool-for-school attitude is as grating as trying to complain that Richard Sachs is too commercial. One large McBreak please.

Sacha White with a bike he built for his daughter.

The show, unfortunately, now faces a problem. It is the only annual gathering in the U.S. more about the bike than the riding that is that is cooler than Interbike. That's no small feat. The powers-that-be will be paying attention to the Handmade Bicycle Show and they will be giving some thought to how they can pull some of the business their way.

The good news is that the only exhibitors who care to show to dealers—Shimano, SRAM, Cane Creek and Fizik—already appear at Interbike. The bread and butter of the show—the small builder—sell direct and therefore need only consumers. If anything, the Handmade Bicycle Show serves as another argument for why Interbike needs consumer days. The simple fact is Interbike needs the builders more than the builders need Interbike. For that reason, the show has little to fear from Interbike.

That the show has grown from its tiny first year to standing-room-only (the fire marshall slowed the entry of attendees on Saturday due to the facility reaching capacity). And while the climate for handmade bicycles has never been better, this achievement is as improbable as a pig with landing gear. There are three men deserving of credit.

Don Walker with his daughters.

First is Don Walker. The show concept started as a conversation between a handful of builders on the framebuilders' forum. Don, for reasons having more to do with seflessness than capitalism, took point as well as the first shots. It seems likely that the show made money this year and given the hours and money he has put in, he deserves to realize some reward.

Richard with his wife Deb and a hopeful future customer.

Second is Richard Sachs. Without Richard's mentoring of new builders and relentless promotion of the craft of framebuilding, there wouldn't be this many builders to exhibit. He can be credited as the gravity that helps to hold the solar system of builders together. Richard's announcement that he was attending the second show changed its status from curiosity to the must-see event of 2006.

Peter with customers Brent and Bess.

Third is Peter Weigle. Peter is the builder who least needed to attend. His business runs along and he works quietly, doing work universally recognized as exemplary. He doesn't need the show. His success and career are assured with or without the event; he can't sell more bicycles than he does in a year and isn't interested in a waiting list that measures by the score. But he chose to stand up for the community of which he is an important part and that lent the show a hard-won degree of credibility. If Richard's decision to exhibit was the motion before the board, then Peter's decision to exhibit was the second.

The attitude of the show was palpably collegial. From the exhibitors to the attendees, the event was remarkable because its lack of competition was so total as to constitute a vacuum. There was no pushing, no backbiting or badmouthing and definitely no desperate hawking. P.T. Barnum would have hated the event.

Keith Anderson (right) with his assistant Cory.

A bunch of NorCal builders took out a joint space. Exhibitors included Sycip, Steve Rex and Soulcraft. It was a bit like a party there. Neighbors Dave Kirk and Carl Strong shared a space as did Keith Anderson and Wolfhound.

Sacha's booth was also a fun nod to the 'cross life.

Sacha "Vanilla" White's booth was as interesting as the bikes in it. In addition to the Speedvagens on display he showed a bike he built for his daughter.

Mark Nobilette (left) with Dave Bohm of Bohemian.

There were a number of truly stunning bikes at the show. No surprise there. What might surprise you are my pick for three of the top bikes there. The first was a reproduction Rene Herse built by Mark Nobilette that featured handmade lugs. The revival of the brand is a project by Michael Kone (the original proprietor of Bicycle Classics) with all the fabrication work done by Nobilette. Next was a bike with hand cut lugs bearing Nobilette's own label.

My favorite bike of the show was a Llewellyn. As much as I loved the bikes from Richard, Peter and Brian Baylis, the Llewellyn was my favorite because it surprised me. It made seeing a custom frame fresh and looking it over was a process of discovery. It was the visual equivalent of how riding a new bike can make cycling fresh again.

Nick Crumpton (right) with his most loyal customer.

We also noted some BKW sympathizers in attendance. Steve Hampsten was hoofing it from one old friend to another and got a big smile from the Rapha commemorative Hampsten jersey. Builder Ira Ryan showed some nice stuff. We learned that Mike Zanconato is going full time with his building (Zanc has four dozen orders currently) and Cascade Bicycle Studio's Zac Daab was hanging with friends Bernard and Maxwell at 333fab.

Most events I attend I end up thinking, "Man, if they just added 'X' it would be really cool." I really can't find a way to criticize the event. I wouldn't mind doing some rides with the folks I saw, but I chose to travel without my bike. Scanning the photographs I took, what I'm most impressed by are the number of bikes and builders of whom I only got a fraction of the story.


Thom Kneeland said...

Another group of people who were at the show that have helped the cause of handmade bikes for a long time now was the fine folks at United Bicycle Institute. They've probably taught a good third of the builders there how to make bikes.

Anonymous said...

This is the best write-up of the show I've seen. I was so proud of our local Oregon folks; From the brochure I count 18 Oregon framebuilders, plus Hufnagel makes 19. Best new framebuilder went to Courage. Add to that UBI, Chris King, and Rapha (Just announced Portland as U.S. headquarters) and it was an impressive presence. I hope to own a custom frame someday, so was thrilled to see and touch bikes I've only seen pictures of before. Despite the cool and innovative new stuff, I found myself most drawn to the masters like Sachs, Gordon, Davidson, Nobilette, and Newlands (Strawberry). And as much as I've lusted for a Vanilla, If I had a free pass to walk out with one bike, I think it would have been the Sachs cross bike. Incredible show.

Ron George said...


i'm lusting for a "degree" from UBI. Maybe when I have more money and free time :)

e-RICHIE said...

thanks, padraig atmo -

David Kirk said...

It was a very good show. Lots of folks from far and wide looking at lots of top notch gear. I'm proud to be associated with it.

I hope all the builders appreciate how much the show has done for them. Without DW and his show many would be selling to their friends instead of having a good long backlog and a national following. We all owe him a great deal. So please support him.

I know I'll be in Indy for sure and I'm excited by it. Only a year to go.


Anonymous said...

BKW - nice write up about the event.

I made the drive down from Seattle to attend the show. It was awesome to see all these incredible bikes made by very talented people.

My personal favorite bike was the Soulcraft 'Dirt Bomb' - cyclocross bike with room for 29" mountain bike tires. Cool blue paint and bar tape, XTR, Paul's top mount shifters and brakes, Cane Creek Thudbuster seatpost - really nice bike. If I had the dough, would have placed an order on the spot.

I'm not sure where the next show will be held - check it out if possible.

Dan O

dax said...
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