“I can’t believe they’re taking pictures of a bicycle,” said the Connecticut Convention Center worker as she passed me on the long escalator moving opposite mine.
I followed her gaze to the bottom of the cavernous lobby outside the exhibition hall. There, a photographer focused his lens intently on a beautifully painted two-wheeler, positioned just-so on an enormously wide, red-carpeted staircase. Two observers hovered nearby.
You could forgive the casual observer her bemusement. How could she know that the blue and white machine parked on that crimson swath might well have been Angelina or George within the confines of the annual lovefest of custom bicycle builders and cycling enthusiasts known as the North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show?
NAHBS, America’s oldest and largest showcase of bicycles made by craftspeople around the country and abroad arrived in New England for the first time in its 14-year history in mid-February, and I drove to Hartford to have a look. The three-day run drew 143 exhibitors of bicycles, components, accessories and tools, and about 8,200 visitors, making it the best attended NABHS ever, according to show organizer Don Walker.
Revisit our coverage of the 2016 show in Sacramento here.
A Culture of Passion
A far more intimate affair than the mega Interbike industry trade show, which is overwhelming geared toward mass-produced goods, NAHBS is dedicated to the design and building of bicycles by individuals, often in small workshops, who wield welding torches to join tubes of steel, aluminum or titanium into bespoke frames. (Not exclusively, of course. You’ll see hand-builts of carbon, wood laminates, bamboo and more.) The show floor was filled with examples for every category of pedaling: road cycling, commuting, mountain biking, touring, track racing and more.
The hand-building culture is about passion: For the makers, it revolves around creating bicycles that are unique to behold and special to ride. For the customers who buy them, it’s appreciation for that artisanship and for owning a bicycle that’s just for them.
For aficionados, NAHBS is a place to laser in on every detail with the builders — like Craig Calfee, J.P. (Peter) Weigle and Ben Serotta — who are right there in their booths to talk to. But you don’t have to know the finer points of aerospace grade aluminum or brazed versus butted tubes to enjoy ogling these works, some of which might as well be marvelous sculptures. For anyone who loves bicycles, NAHBS can be a source of inspiration, of surprise, of fantasies realized and more yet to materialize.
And thus, one might find oneself mesmerized and perhaps overwhelmed in passing from booth to booth, eyes drawn to the hand carved lug, the delicate head badge, the novel chainring cutout, the beautifully conceived and impossibly precise paint job. Among broader trends that I noticed in the aisles: Color! Hot and bright, subtle and classic, layered, splattered, sprayed. Anodized. Disc brakes in abundance. More bikes than ever built for adventures on gravel and trails with lots of racks and frame bags to be seen. And, custom-painted bicycle frame pumps nestled beneath top tubes.
Women in the Cycling Industry Share Advice
This year saw addition of the NAHBS Women’s Symposium, a series of three seminars, two of which were directed at improved performance in sport cycling.
I checked into the third: Opportunities for Women in the Cycling Industry. An inspiring lineup, representing a variety of industry sectors, discussed some of the challenges of working in what is still an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. By my reckoning, there was one female-led manufacturing company exhibiting at NAHBS: Hed Cycling Products, a leading maker of high-performance carbon wheels, is helmed by CEO and co-founder Anne Hed.
The panelists shared insights and advice about their own career paths and about achieving personal and business success. Key questions from the audience, in which the ratio of women to men was about 2 to 1, related to the ongoing challenge of gender dynamics at the retail level, how to find job candidates who are female and career tips for advancing in the cycling industry.
The Winners Are…
As with that other red-carpet event I alluded to earlier, prizes are handed out at NAHBS. Blue ribbons and trophies are awarded in categories that relate to purpose, technique, finish and other qualities. Here are a few of my favorite examples.
You can browse all the 2018 winning makers and their bikes here.
Hurray for the Home Team: NYC at NAHBS
New York City was in the house at NAHBS with plenty of cycling goodness, as well.
All In the Details
It’s just natural to feel covetous. The likely takeaway from NAHBS is a desire to acquire a dream build of your own. As I drove home to New York City, I imagined myself assembling different combinations of frames, components, paint treatments and accessories that I had viewed at the show. Here are a few more examples of the details:
To Sacramento in 2019
NAHBS moves back to Sacramento next year, but the show’s organizer says he might begin a rotation of four cities. “The idea is to go back to cities we know are good locations,” Walker told Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
So, you may get another chance to view the show in New England. In the mean time, there’s no shortage of information online about hand-builders and it’s easy to connect. It goes without saying that their passion and artisanship are worthy of all the support that people who love bicycles can give them.