The North American Handmade Bicycle show opened Friday to a modest but intense crowd of ardent bicycle fans. Saturday's crowd however, grew to over 3,000 attendees. Now everybody pretty much likes bicycles. I mean, most of us fondly recollect our old cruiser Schwinn DX with the horn in the tank, or our banana seated "Sweet Thunder" by Huffy dressed out in pink and white, and adorned with tassels. But this crowd, really likes bikes! When I say really likes bikes, I am actually cutting them short, they literally obsess about all things cycling related.
For example, on Friday I joined about eight gentlemen going on and on about a set of fenders on a beautiful bicycle by Keith Anderson, not the entire bicycle mind you, although it was swell in many ways, but a bike is a bike right? Well maybe not, I mean this particular bike also had a brazed on holder for a playing card in the spokes. Of course, that playing card happened to be made from carbon fiber so it wouldn't get all soft, torn and stop making that "motor" noise... Where was I? Hmmmm, so these guys were obsessing over the fenders - wood steamed curled and rounded into arcs, finished in lacquer and then inlaid with mother of pearl... Talk about detail? Well it seems that the guy that made this bike, Keith Andersen, didn't really want to make these fenders for sale. He just wanted cool fenders for this sweet urban commuter. But everybody was asking him if they could buy the fenders...
But it gets even worse! There are folks drooling, with sweating hands shaking, as they touch with reverence the various metal and carbon components that go into building a bike. Things such as bottom brackets, hubs, lugs, tubing and even, the jigs by Anvil Precision Tools and Fixtures that hold the tubes together while they are welded are objects of fascination. No kidding, I walked by, at first thinking it was a really neat sculpture in industrial modern art. After I looked at it for a minute or two I realized what it was. Talking with the company rep, I grew to understand that what I was looking at was a full set of jigs and machining tools for frame building. It still made a terrific modern art sculpture though and since the entire set of jigs runs over $12,000 it's also priced like modern art!
Then there's Matt and Nate from Signal Cycles, out of Portland Oregon, representative of the breed called custom frame builders, or fabricators, depending upon who you talk to. Anyway, these two guys are frame builders who both got their degrees in fine art, both specializing in painting. I stopped into their booth because they had this retro looking sweet front end of a bike all ornate with stainless trim and swoopy lines, complete with a wine bottle pannier. (There's a story behind the wine too, to read more click here) But anyway, these guys with Fine Arts backgrounds are typical of many of the frame builders who came into this art almost by way of accident. The other common thread seems to be their backgrounds working as shop wrenches, adding welding to their repertoire of skills. They made shop repairs eventually selling handmade frames to friends and family. One day realizing nobody pays artists to paint, they decide to open shop as frame builders and a year later here they have 20 frames under their belt, projecting 50 for this year.
What makes these frame and bike builders different is their own individual nuances or styles. What makes them similar however is their fierce independence. Yet they also share an intense spirit of community. Mark Nobilette, a custom builder from Longmont, Colorado likened NAHBS to a fur trappers rendezvous. "Like the old mountain men spending all their time wandering the wilderness alone, many fabricators spend all their time in a garage somewhere welding metal. So their exposure to the outside world is limited at best. As a result, some of their conversational skills can be dulled a bit as well," he said referring to the concise vocabulary employed by the trade. "But once a year NAHBS serves as their 'rendezvous,' where they come together to party their brains out, exchange ideas and enjoy themselves." ...I found his ideas pretty much on the money.