Another North American Handmade Bicycle Show is coming. Another round of massive image galleries and unqualified praise is about to be served. I expect to come the same conclusion I made last year. NAHBS leaves me cold.
This isn’t easy to write after the passion for the event some of my friends have shared. I agree with them on many things, but this is one where we go our separate ways.
The problem isn’t the builders. I know a few, like them, and have a weakness for those who so develop their métier. The problem isn’t the bikes. I love custom work in general, custom bikes in particular, and I am inexorably drawn to bicycles whether cheap and mass-produced or expensive and one-off. The problem isn’t the timing. I think it is smart that custom builders created their own event and timed it at an otherwise slow time in the bike news cycle for maximum media exposure.
The problem is that I can’t escape the feeling that they’ve ghettoized themselves and further marginalized their work in the process. I get the feeling of NAHBS as a cul-de-sac in bikeworld. It’s now even easier to overlook or dismiss hand-built bikes.
Maybe this is inevitable. Perhaps NAHBS is a rational response to what seems to be sunset of the artisan builder. Now that custom doesn’t hold the mystique it once had, people are cheering the work before the sun permanently sets. Maybe a goal of NAHBS is to turn back the clock for builders. I admire this. There are lots of good builders out there who deserve recognition.
At the same time, when I look at image dumps of bikes, I feel they’re less vital than they should be. Beautiful brazing is a fine thing, but brazing is a means to an end. I love a pretty bike, but its ride is more important to me. Many of the widely photographed bikes don’t seem to have a real purpose other than to catch eyes. It’s great to build a show-stopper, but the effort only seems worthwhile to me if the builder can actually deliver a great-riding bike from that jaw-dropping creation. A custom cargo bike with a lock port can be stunning, but I have my doubts that it is going to be used for more than an occasional venture in good weather to and from places where a lock is unnecessary.
I realize that hand-made often means these bikes are bespoke, but at the same time, how about some test rides? That Cherubim from 2012 is a looker, but is it actually rideable in the drops? What is the purpose of the design? Can someone who has been building for a year really produce a bike that rides great? The Randonee bikes; have them loaded up and ride them. Get back to us.
Which gets to one of the many things that trouble me about the show. Are the buyers of these bikes just adding another steed to the stable or are they using these as their primary bikes? I guess it shouldn’t matter; creating and feeding a market for skilled artisans should be enough. All the same, I feel like I’m looking at expensive watches for people who are seeking to accessorize, not looking for bikes to ride into the ground.
Since you’re here, chances are you and your riding friends have taken in the NAHBS image dumps. Know any who are seriously contemplating buying one? And their reason is to make it their primary bike? I know only one guy who said that after last year’s show.
Likewise, for all the love heaped on NAHBS by the media, the few weeks around the show have become the time of year that the bike press discusses hand-made bikes. The rest of the year, it’s back to mass-produced bikes and gear, the lighter, stiffer, and more expensive the better. People seem to like to talk about NAHBS as if it’s a breath of fresh air, but that breath only seems to last until the new carbon cobblestone cruisers are highlighted in anticipation of the pavé classics.
It’s striking to me that as carbon-fiber and electronic shifting are sending bike prices skyrocketing that the custom builders aren’t using this as a moment to show their relevance. Surely a great bike from a custom builder and outfitted with top-shelf parts can deliver a great ride at a competitive weight and a price that can beat out lots of mold-made carbon bikes these days. It would be great to see these bikes treated as such.
NAHBS comes across more as an art show, a gallery offered by builders. As much as I enjoy art for arts sake, what I love about bikes is the craft, art with a purpose. Here, I see less and less purpose.
Maybe it’s akin the old Twain adage, a classic is something “everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” People love talking about the bikes at NAHBS; everybody loves the idea of the artisan builder, everybody wants hand-made. An artisan builder is a small business in an era of giant corporations, the builder makes something hand-crafted in an era of mass-produced, he’s executing an idea of his own rather than thinking up something and then sending the drawing to Asia to be built by someone who has no connection to the product other than a paycheck. The entire experience seems to honor alchemy over engineering. There’s the lovely smallness, the intimacy, the connection between customer and producer and product. These are great and powerful things. I’m longing for them as I write these words. My guess others are, too. But when it comes time to pull the trigger on a new frame, my guess is that very few have had their minds changed by NAHBS. Even then, those very few can mean the difference between a hobby and a job for many of the NAHBS exhibitors. So kudos to them if NAHBS makes the difference.
But for the rest of us, somebody please give us some steak instead of endless sizzle.