As I was chatting at one end of the NAHBS floor, a show veteran walked by and struck up a conversation. As we got into it, he urged me to check out the booth on the exact opposite end of the floor. There was a bike that was designed to fit into a carry-on bag and had full-size wheels and hubs that you could pull out the innards so they’d lie flat. It was a must see. It was what made shows like this great.
After he moved on, I decided I should make my way over there. En route, I passed by Campagnolo’s spread again. They had been switching up the bikes on display, borrowing them from exhibitors who used their components on builds. Some pretty stuff. One was a bike from Allied that had a finish that looked black in the flat indoor lighting, but sparkled red for the bars, stem, and post, and blue for the frame. And my friend there urged me to see the bike from T°Red, an Italian builder, which was a tribute to Fulvio Acquati, now deceased, of Deda.
That T°Red was an aluminum frame accented with 3D-printed bits on the top and down tubes and then painted. Striking. It was to honor Acquati, who had pushed them to put out a shingle. Closer. I passed by another booth, where a friend was hanging out. I told him of my quest, and as he had been approached by a pilot for that very thing, he had to see it, too.
The subject of my quest was at the Black Sheep Bikes booth. It wasn’t even the featured bike. It was off to the side. It was an unpainted, unfinished titanium frame with a massive, single front frame tube, a massive, wide, fork crown, a bulky joining system around the seat post, and raised stays. Not pretty, but beautiful for its functionality.
While the designer, Bert Vermeulen, didn’t take it apart for us, he did give us the rundown. It’s easier to see than to describe. The big thing is that the bike folds on itself so that the fork can sit inside the rear triangle. He’s using adjustable triathlete handlebars that adjust from a mountain bike with bar-ends stance to full-on extensions on the fly.
I asked if he was comfortable riding it at high speeds. He pulled out his phone and showed images of it broken down. The bike’s custom-built pannier rack even at a spot to fix the cassette on the cassette body. He had pictures of him at the airport as well. Turns out, this was his first prototype. One he rode to the airport, broke down, checked his panniers and walked onto the plane with the bike. And then he flew to Bogota, Colombia, rode to Quito, Ecuador, and flew home. It’s about 16,000 meters climbing and descending, if I’m reading Google Maps right.
Vermeulen conceded they overbuilt the prototype. But, as he pointed out, it was just the first, and it’s wise to start out with overbuilding. They’re planning on building ten in 2018 and he’ll ride one from The Netherlands to EuroBike for that show.
The thought that went into it was incredible. I was thinking ‘this is what I want to see at bike shows. People are finding needs and filling them, needs few ever thought existed.’
I had barely given a glance to the bike that was the central feature of the booth. A 36”- wheeled, titanium-tubed coffee-shop bike. When I gave it a thought, I felt it was the kind of thing I don’t like about NAHBS. No real purpose. Too expensive. Nothing one would actually use to ride to a coffee shop. Yes, it took real skill to make, but…
I had to know more. Turns out the tires were “the best 36” tires on the market.” Yes, more than one company makes 36” tires. And two companies make 36” rims. But it isn’t the real question. So I asked. Why?
A client called and said he wanted something special for his 60tth birthday. A guy who had everything wanted something he didn’t have and couldn’t think of. “How about a 36”-wheeled bike?”
Black Sheep had built one before and it had even been raced up to 100 miles. So there was some experience in terms of designing and riding such a rig. It has 55mm of trail, like a road bike. The racks use standard hardware and titanium wire. The chainguard was a one-off based on a picture of an antique chaingaurd the client sent in.
It gave me pause. Neither the travel bike nor the 36er are things I need. Each has a use for only the tiniest slivers of the bike world. They’re not as far apart as I initially felt.
Perhaps more important, is that the bike was sold as an idea to a customer, not an art project by a hobbyist looking for attention. A person engaging an artisan to create something that had meaning and purpose for them. From what I gathered, many of the less practical-seeming bikes were also specifically built for customers, and sold before they came to NAHBS. Such bikes are more what has been done than what can be done.
Another such bike I was skeptical of was the Stanridge track bike. It initially reminded me of a Cherubim that got serious love at an earlier NAHBS. Talking with the builder, I had to re-assess my prejudice. Turns out, it was a customer’s bike and idea. The customer wanted a bike inspired by a 90’s 3Rensho. And Stanridge worked from that build this. Bilenky was showing a motorized cargo bike that was also something a customer had ordered.
Looking around, some builders wanted to make a point that theirs were actually ridden. A number of bikes were caked with dried mud—some exhibitors came to Connecticut early and rode around on Connecticut’s dirt roads.
The show started to feel a bit more organic. There was more method than madness, more trade than I thought given the photo dumps. Campy, Shimano, FSA, all gave room to bikes that were built up with their components. Campy even had a competition for the best bike equipped with their parts. Rolf had a booth, had shod some bikes with their wheels, and, as a small player in wheel market, needs the exposure. Mosaic and Moots are relatively big players in the handmade market and had large booths reflecting that. Mosaic also made the most of the trip, embarking on a dealer tour before the show. Allied has made a big splash and aspired to be big, so they, too, had a big presence, as did No. 22, one of the companies that rose out of the ashes of Serotta.
Still, going around, asking what would make the show a success for exhibitors, I figured many would point out that as small shops, selling a few frames might be enough to justify the effort. No one brought up a sales number. Just about everyone said they were looking for exposure and that exposure was as much or more about media than anything else.
Media is really the only way to have efficient reach. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,700 people pre-paid for tickets, and NAHBS seemed to be expecting around 7,000 visitors all told. A single photo dump on CyclingTips or PinkBike could yield more than that, and both had people on the ground. Add that to the fact that everyone has a camera phone most aren’t afraid to use them, and many are active on social media, plus the bloggers present and a bit of luck and a viral hit is born.
Fit in between the obvious stuff were outfits looking to take advantage of the assembled crowd. Possibly the largest among these was Silca. They were running a competition for the best-finished frame pump, and, as they pointed out, these were their people. The builders and visitors like that Silca shares the same handmade ethos. Two custom shoemakers were exhibiting for the same reason. Walz caps and Bicycle Paintings were also present and selling, and their brands are very tied up with handmade as well. Da Hanger has artful ways of hanging your bikes on the wall.
NAHBS also brought in three universities and two cycling programs. The University Of Kansas has a Cyclolab and they work on mobility projects, both domestically and internationally. The University of Iowa has a frame-building class, and they were showing bikes and the kids were meeting builders. Cal Poly has a bike-building club, and they were doing the same. They even built a molded carbon-fiber bike. The University of Connecticut Cycling Team was supporting the show by volunteering and the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program was being supported by the show.
And if you wanted to sit, you could wander upstairs, where there was a different talk each hour.
It’s better business than I thought. And, because it is bikes, lots of fun and inspiration.