The Biking Lifeby: Naomi Bloom 4/1/2007
Build It and They Will Come
For the second year in a row, the North American Handmade Bicycle Show hit San Jose the first weekend in March. I missed the show last year, so this time I made it a point to get there on opening day. So did a lot of other folks; even on a weekday the Friday crowds were thick.
The brainchild of Texan Don Walker, the NAHBS gives custom frame builders come from all over North America an opportunity to exhibit their wares. There were steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber bikes for road, track, touring, mountain, downhill, utility, you name it.
To qualify for this show a builder must handle both design and manufacturing in house. No part of the process may be subcontracted out. It's all "hand made."
Arriving with my press pass and photographer (aka Jim, my first impression was: Yikes! Logos, logos, logos! (Not to mention Don Walker's kilt; how does he pedal a bike in that getup?)
As my head cleared, I started differentiating among the proliferation of single-speed street bikes, utility machines and tandems. And some really incredible paint jobs!
Just inside the front entrance was, Pereira Cycles, from Portland, OR. Tony Pereira believes in the big wheels on single-speed bikes because they "roll faster and smoother and allow the bottom bracket to sit farther below the axle line. . .[They also] have a larger contact patch for better cornering and climbing traction." To us his 29ers looked like the classic French touring bikes built by Alex Singer.
Not far down the aisle I met up with the one and only Richard Sachs from Chester, CT. The personification of the one-man shop, Sachs told me, "I'm here to support the core group of us." Instrumental in supporting the first NAHBS in Houston, TX in 2005, he's a bit disappointed with the how commercial the show is getting, with what he calls "industry types" showing up to attract consumers. Their presence "drives up expenses for the little guys," the ones Sachs intended to help in the first place.
BTW, I should mention that Sachs's bikes are still as beautifully designed and hand-crafted as they've ever been. Order one and you'll never be disappointed.
Next I talked to Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster Cycles in Santa Cruz. "I have to try new stuff so I can tell people about it," he said. One wouldn't expect the Rock Lobster guy to worship tradition in frame design, but the most prominent frame in his booth is what he calls a "Hetchins rip-off." "I just love bikes," he shrugs, any kind of bike, traditional or new. Paul builds aluminum cyclocross frames, lightweight, fast racing frames. And you should see those paint jobs!
Bike shops all over the country have been relying on Steve Rex in Sacramento for his retrofit expertise with S&S couplings. Well, let me tell you, his bikes are also standouts. One steel and carbon mountain bike frame had internal routing for a hydraulic disk brake and carbon stays. Steve said that he builds maybe 10% of his bikes with that type of carbon/steel combination. Me, I really loved the butterfly paint job!
Once we hit Co-Motion Cycles from Eugene, OR, we had to stop for a gab fest, trading tandem war stories with Dwan Shephard, "Mr. Co-Motion." He topped our "brodie on a tandem" tale (see my October 2002 column for a description) with one tale about sliding on slick, icy roads in Tuscany with stoker Andy Hampsten.
Tandems are Co-Motion's stock in trade. Even if you and your favorite stoker are vastly diverse in size, their Periscope will get you pedaling together. And if you're looking for a hard-core single tourer, look no further. "We've carved out a niche for touring and travel with S&S couplings." Dwan admitted. But there were some slick racing Co-Motions on display, too. "A lot of racers in the Northwest are on Co-Motions," he said.
So how is a Co-Motion a "custom" bike when can find them in shop showrooms? Dwan told me that they do a fitting routine for every bike they build (or your LBS can do it and send in the specs). If that fit information directly reflects a size already in their database, that's the bike they build for you. (Or, if that size bike just happens to be one of the floor models in the shop, you can buy it right there.) But all too often other issues come into play. For instance, would the buyer accept toe overlap on a small frame? Compromising on overlap leads to steep seat angles, resulting in compromised pedaling balance. So you have to decide which is worse for your own pedaling efficiency.
Bruce Gordon held forth at the back of the exhibition hall with the largest display of original, all custom-built frames and full bikes. His signature curmudgeonly style was building up to full steam, in spite of his personal commitment to the show and its concept. "This is something that's never been done before in my 30 years in bike building," he said. "But do I sell anything here? No."
What he was selling was a CD "catalog" of all his bikes, for $7.00 a pop. "It's benefiting a charity," he commented tongue-in-cheek. "I hope it will pay for the U-Haul I rented to get all these frames down here from Sebastopol."
While I was eagerly recording Bruce's colorful comments, Jim was slavering over the Ti cantilever brakes Bruce had on display. They'll work with narrow stays, fenders, big fat cross tires, and yes, our tandem.
Of course, I had to drop in on the Merlin folks and tell them how much I love my 10-year old Merlin. And I drooled over the "new" Merlin stainless steel concept project bike, the "Works CR." The double-butted road racing frame looks just like a Ti bike. One hitch: it's never been ridden. The new Merlin one can buy, now called the Cyrene, features a gorgeous engraved logo. And there's a similar women-specific frame, the Camena.
Way out there
A lot of wild and crazy ideas were on display. Some even made sense, like Fraser Cycles' utility tandems festooned with every conceivable kind of pannier. "Looks like a foldaway bed on that one," Jim commented.
Bohemian from Tucson put out some nice tandems and tri bikes. But Dave Bohm's favorite project bike a coupled, expandable tandem, smacked of over-design. When asked about the extra bottom bracket under the stoker, he responded, "I can't exactly remember what I was thinking when I did that." Still, it won "Best Tandem in Show."
Parts is parts
Several component manufacturers showed up, possibly to pitch to the builders themselves. I stopped by the Chris King booth to praise my CK hubs and headset. Once I spied those hubs of many colors, I almost wished I had a painted bike to match a pair with. Hmmm -- maybe I could spring for green or gold hubs to match my retro Wheelsmith Merlin decals.
Reynolds Technology brought a bit of cycling history to show. Guests could get a look at the original patent for butted tubing (invented by A.M. Reynolds), company directors reports prior to 1943, then fast-forward to samples of the new 953 blend of butted steel tubing.
The Italian Jobs
Much of the buzz in the building was about Dario Pegoretti, a legendary builder, one of the first TIG-welders in Italy "I sell about 200 frames a year here in the USA; for me it is a very important market," he told NAHBS management. His Love#3 and Marcelo designs, along with the new stainless steel Responsorium, drew big crowds.
When Dario took a coffee break, Richard de la Rosa stopped me to ask if he could borrow my pen. He ran up to the Italian and asked for an autograph. "I'm one of your biggest fans!" the Californian gasped.
Jim was much more excited about finding Milano 3V, the American incarnation of Masi. While I darted around component and frame displays, he was swapping Italy stories with U.S. rep Gregg Hann.
The NAHBS moved from Houston to San Jose last year, mostly for the large and quality-conscious cycling community in the Bay Area. And it paid off, with plenty of exhibitor space and consumer traffic. In 2008, however, Portland, OR will host the show, from February 7-10. In the future Walker expects to move each year. "I think the way to go is to have one well-publicized event, move on for the next year, and then come back three or four years later." he stated. Farewell, NAHBS. With all those Oregon builders and their followings, you're bound to have a great show up there, too.
Naomi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org