The North American Handmade Bicycle Show, or NAHBS as it is known, is the annual gathering of independent bicycle builders, craftspeople and, yes, artists, devoted to creating the highest quality and most beautiful bikes and equipment. Among the bikes of NAHBS 2016, you’ll see road, mountain and city rides, as well as more rarified models like mixtes, fixies, porteurs, cargo bikes and, this year’s trendy two-wheelers for “bikepacking” (think touring bike meets mountain bike). And, you’ll find bike parts and accessories you never knew existed but couldn’t possibly live without: creative cargo carriers, burly bags and stylish, yet functional clothes.
Guest post: Noah Budnick is a consultant and expert in helping communities build the physical and social infrastructure to manifest their beliefs (and rides his bike a lot around the Bay Area).
At the end of February, I attended NAHBS for the first time, this year in Sacramento, CA, specifically to take a look at the bikes through an urban cycling lens, to meet some of the makers and their clients, and to learn about the advantages of going the handmade route. I went in asking myself, “Is a handmade bicycle something for me?” and left wondering how I could be riding anything else.
From amid the 200 bikes and cycling products on display at NAHBS, four advantages of having a bicycle made just for me emerged. They boil down to fit, components, purpose and esthetics. For many, the alchemy or these, wrought by passionate craftspeople, adds up to a bike one wants to ride every single day.
As one of the fabricators from Anvil Bikeworks — a company that makes the tools that bike builders use to make their bikes — told me, “If it looks cool, and it fits you, you’re gonna wanna ride it. It’s about choices; it’s about personal satisfaction.” And it’s all about how you ride.
Top and above: A bright-yellow frame by Frances Cycles is fully outfitted with Velo Orange components. The company’s owner Josh Muir meets the press on the NAHBS show floor.
And the cost? Among the city rides I looked at, I found frames starting in the plus-$2,000 range, with the price of complete bikes determined by features and components.
Let’s take a closer look at the bikes and the people I met in the aisles. Also, stay tuned for a follow-up post on urban cycling gear that you won’t want to miss.
1. Fit is Everything
The most important thing about your bike is that it fits you and the way you want to ride it. This is especially important for those of us who use our bikes every day for getting around or getting in shape. If your bike doesn’t fit you, it’s going to feel uncomfortable at the least, and hurt or cause injury at the worst, and you’re not going to ride it. I think of it like buying a nice piece of clothing: a skillful tailor fits the garment to your body with precision.
Fortunately, the builders at NAHBS offer everything from off-the-rack to pret-a-porter to bespoke bike designs. If you’re particularly tall or small, you know the challenge of finding a good fit. Walking the floor, it was great to learn that many of the craftspeople at NAHBS are committed to working with individual customers to measure them, learn about their riding experience and how they plan to use their bikes. All of this is taken into account when these master builders assemble your ride.
At the show, Bilenky Cycle Works from Philadelphia, Breadwinner Cycles from Portland and the one-man MAP Cycles from Chico, CA caught my eye with their beautiful examples of custom tailored bikes to meet anyone’s needs.
Stephen Bilenky at Bilenky Cycle Works has been on the vanguard of custom handmade bikes for over three decades. His team works with each customer to “design and build your dream bike.” The city-ready bikes above give you a good view of traffic and well-fitting fenders help keep you dry on for those damp days. The company has taken top honors at previous NAHBS shows for Best Road Bike and twice for Best Lugged Frame.
Mitch Pryor’s attention to detail and artistry earned MAP Bicycles the NAHBS award for Best City Bike in 2009. “The more information I can get about you, your particular riding style, experiences on past bikes, and how you plan to use your new bike, will help me make the best decisions when designing your frame and suggesting components,” says Mitch. The mixte bike (above) he had on display this year demonstrated that bespoke approach with an easy-to-step-through frame and beautiful lugwork, head badge and paint detailing.
2. Components Make it Yours
“Every bike we build is one-of-a-kind” is core to Breadwinner Cycle’s mission statement. In addition to their initial “discovery” process to properly size you and learn about your riding style, Breadwinner offers bespoke options from paint to matching pump to integrated lights and racks. The pair of Breadwinner Arbor Lodge upright city bikes (above), made for a husband and wife, shows off their ability to build stunning rides for tall or petite riders. The pink mixte took home the Best City/Utility Bike award at this year’s show.
3. The Purpose-Built Ride
I’ve found that as I’ve done more riding and want to explore more places by bike, having the right bike for the ride makes a huge difference. Just like the right fit, a bike to suit the terrain and purpose of your trip can mean having a comfortable and safe ride and getting out more often to more places on two wheels.
For example, I don’t want to ride my road bike around town and lock it up to do errands, and for those long trips up and down town or across the East River bridges, it would be nice to having something that’s set up for commuting, but still offers a fun pop of speed. And fortunately, if I want to go out for an extended adventure, there are handmade bike builders who can help me do it car-free, under my own power on pavement, gravel or trails. The sheer variety of purpose-built bikes at NAHBS was impressive.
On the show floor, I found inspiration in Detroit Bikes, Iride from Italy, Frances Cycles from Santa Cruz and Sonoma’s Sycip Designs. Each of these builders gave thoughtful consideration to crafting a bike for a specific use.
For a sturdy city bike that can comfortably carry you and your stuff, look no farther than the Motor City. Detroit Bikes built a bike (and a factory to build that bike) that delivers affordable and reliable everyday transportation. Zak Pashak, Detroit’s founder and president, is proud that their A-Type (black) and B-Type bicycles are made by locals and come with a lifetime warranty, and the price point, for a bike that is made by hand in the U.S.A., is an affordable $700.
“The big city is the best place for bicycling,” says Iride’s Brooklyn-based rep Brian Miller as he shows off their new single-speed Donna mixte (the multispeed is on the way). Lightweight with an upright riding position to give you a good view of city streets, it combines classic Italian style with city-ready features. Traditional lugged steel construction makes the frame strong, and light wheels with locking skewers make this ride great for commuting, running errands and getting around the city.
If bike touring, or riding around with your dog, is your thing, then you need to talk with Josh Muir from Frances Cycles. The Smallhaul (above) here is one of three cargo bikes he produces — in addition to road and touring bikes, single-speeds and fixed gears, mixtes, racks, trailers and pretty much anything with two wheels. The front-mounted cargo carrier gives the bike a low center of gravity, which makes it easy to handle, especially for a bike designed to carry a rider plus 100 pounds.
I love to camp, and I love to eat well, so the more I studied Jeremy Sycip’s bike, the more excited I got. At first glance, this two wheeler looks like one of the heavy-duty camping bikes that was trending at NAHBS. It’s got front and rear racks to carry your gear and even a spot to stash a bowie knife (cute!). Then I noticed that Sycip took it up a notch and included a barbecue on the back, a cutting board on the front and an electric assist drivetrain. It has everything needed to hit the trail, cook a tasty meal and even a little power-boost to help carry all the grillables to feed my friends.
4. The Seduction of Esthetics and Craftsmanship
Nowhere but in a handmade bicycle world will you find sometimes subtle, sometimes eye-popping, esthetic details and craftsmanship like those I saw at NAHBS. From the precision of a carved lug, to the cutout of a chainring, to the design of a head badge, to the artistry of a custom paint job, nothing says “It’s made for me” like a bespoke bicycle. And for some people, that’s reason enough to engage with a maker and to go through the collaborative process of specifying every detail for a ride that feels just right and whose appearance may speak loudly enough to turn heads or go along on its quiet way with only the rider in the know. From my point of view, some of these bikes are more suited to hang on the wall as works of art than to ride (but where would be the fun in that?) Here are just a few highlights from the floor:
The Takhion+Tsubasa MASS was born out of a partnership between London-based, Lithuanian designer Edvinas Vavilovas and Ukrainian Reginald Vorontsov, who designed the former Soviet bloc’s Olympic gold medal track bikes. The frame was auctioned off in 2015, and the proceeds were donated to the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide food, shelter and support for the orphans and victims of the war in the Ukraine.
From Shiga Prefecture in Japan this frame by Biwakoguma Bicycles by Fuente Co. is inspired by the cosmology of the night sky and freatues a rocket ship on the fork leg.
The Road Race Special by Santa Cruz-based Caletti Cycles won Best Finish at NAHBS this year. The handpainted design by Jeremiah Kille was matched with coordinating helmet, shoes, slingshot (!) and custom Zelvin bar tape.
This Hunter Cycles BMX frame built by Rick Hunter with a detailed paint job by allhailtheblackmarket reminded me of the work of NYC’s Keith Haring.
The Italians at T*Red were proud to show off their South Pacific-inspired Manaia racing bike at NAHBS. In New Zealand, Manaia is a mythical Maori fish-bird-dragon, which inspired the bicycle’s elegant paint. (Also note the svelte seat clamp integrated into the top tube!)
“I went to art school,” says Danielle Schön, among the very few female builders at show. She pauses. “And then I learned to weld.” Her eponymous Toronto studio produces bikes, art, furniture and sculpture, but it was her beautiful one-of-a-kind, jelly-donut-inspired bike that grabbed attention at the show, both for novelty and workmanship. “I’m an artist first,” Danielle says.
Of course, if the DIY art scene is your thing and none of this satisfies, you can become your own handmade bike builder by enrolling in the University of Iowa’s Art History program. There you can study with Steve McGuire, professor of metal arts and 3-D design, who has been teaching a handmade bicycle curriculum since 2010.
Watch next week for Noah’s follow-up post on city-ready cycling gear from NAHBS.
Photos for velojoy: Noah Budnick