Tech feature - March 8, 2006

North American Handmade Bicycle Show 2006, part 3

Handmade meets high tech

With part 1 and part 2 of our coverage of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show concentrating on all things pure in construction, James Huang looks at the performance angle when it comes to traditional materials

The handmade crowd has long been at somewhat of a disadvantage when it comes to performance. The forgiving nature of steel, both in its fabrication and during its use, along with its arguably superior ride quality, has made it the perennial material of choice for many builders in this segment of the industry. However, without truly high-performance options in tubesets, many of these frames simply could not compete well with the newly developed aluminum, titanium, and carbon frames out in the marketplace. Even just a few years ago, it was not unheard of for a reasonably high-end steel road frame to weigh in the neighborhood of nearly 4lbs while some mass-produced carbon fiber ones were coming in at nearly half of that. Ride quality and artistry notwithstanding, that's a big chunk of avoirdupois to overcome.

These days, however, steel purists, as well as the bicycle industry in general, have much reason to rejoice. The steel bicycle tubing industry is enjoying a self-generated renaissance of sorts much as the aluminum tubing business did back in the early '90s. While some were expecting the demise of high-end steel as a viable alternative, steel manufacturers have rolled up their collective sleeves to develop several new tubesets that can truly rival the alternative materials in terms of overall performance, such as Columbus' Spirit, True Temper's S3, and most recently, Reynolds' 953. Frames built with these top-end ferrous materials can easily come in at well under 3 lbs.

In spite of its deeply traditional roots, the handmade crowd here at NAHBS certainly hasn't completely shunned non-ferrous alternatives when it comes to frame materials. Well-established alternative frame material big-hitters such as Spectrum, Parlee, and Calfee were well-received in San Jose, and newcomers such as Ruëgamer and Crumpton Cycles were in attendance as well. In fact, out of the 64 builders who displayed at the show, no fewer than 15 of them offered frames in titanium, carbon, or some combination thereof, and a number of traditionally steel-intensive builders such as Independent Fabrication and Vicious Cycles were seen integrating titanium and carbon into their lineups.

Does titanium and carbon belong in the 'handmade' category? Some might scoff at the idea since those frames don't necessarily fit into the traditional handmade mould, but these frames are still built in the requisite fashion, one at a time by human hands, and often encompass just as much attention to detail. Are you likely to find intricate lugwork or heaps of chrome on a titanium or carbon rig? Well, no, but as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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