The craftsmen return

Tech feature - March 4, 2006

North American Handmade Bicycle Show 2006, part 1

It's easy to get the idea that bike manufacturing is dominated by cookie-cutter makers of soulless production line aluminium and carbon bikes. But there are plenty of small builders still flying the flag for the personal, artistic touch that only comes with very small production, hand-made machines. This weekend, many of them gathered in San Jose, California for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. James Huang reports from the floor.

Welcome to Cyclingnews' coverage of the 2006 North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where some of the world's finest artisan bicycle craftsmen have gathered in the halls of the San Jose Convention Center in downtown San Jose, CA to show off their skills. In contrast to the tech-heavy wares of Interbike and Eurobike, form often takes precedence over function here as the emphasis is not so much on what it is but rather how it is done. As in years past, exquisite lugwork, perfectly radiused fillet brazing, and steel tubes still dominate this arena, but function has caught up with form as new steel technology and even the use of carbon fiber and other non-ferrous materials by select builders make some of these rolling masterpieces as high-performance as they are fine-art. Stay tuned for day by day reports from the show floor as well as more in-depth features to come.

Day One - lugs, lugs everywhere

After just one year, the North American Handmade Bicycle Show has grown since its humble beginnings with just 23 exhibitors in its inaugural event to over 100 of the world's greatest handmade bicycle builders, tubing manufacturers, and associated component companies here in San Jose, CA. At a time when some segments of the bicycle industry are showing flat, or even declining, sales figures, the handmade market seems hotter than ever. According to the show organizer, and a frame builder himself, Don Walker, "Right now, I'm ecstatic. We've got people coming in the door, and the handmade craze is coming back."

Perennial handmade framebuilder legends like Brian Baylis, John Murphy of Columbine Cycles, Bruce Gordon, Richard Sachs, and J. Peter Weigle continue to demonstrate why they've earned their status as the icons in the industry, while relatively recent players such as Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles, Tom Oswald, and Sycip show why they've been able to rise to prominence so quickly. Ornate lugwork and unrivalled attention to the smallest detail are classic hallmarks of the business, but the reach of some builders' creative arm can extend to just about every aspect of the bike, from ancillary parts such as seatposts and stems to accessories such as racks and baskets.

Some of these builders command waiting lists of up to several years and complete bicycles can easily command upwards of US$10,000. Does this make any sense? From an outsider's point of view, the idea of paying exorbitant premiums and enduring massive waitlists for a handmade bike may seem a bit insane, but for the end user, the decision is often more an emotional one than a logical one. "People want the one-on-one relationship that they establish with the person that's building their bike", says Walker, and White explains the phenomenon as "an undeniable urge. People either have to have it, or they don't have to have it."

When presented with one of these bikes in person (or rows of them, as the case may be), it's easy to find yourself losing giant chunks of time just staring in awe and the fantasy of having one of these built just for you can quickly take hold. Logic goes out the window and a couple of years suddenly sound like a brief moment in time as compared to the experience of owning one of these for the rest of your life. At that point, these masterpieces become more than 'just a bicycle' and the time and money involved make all the sense in the world, if only to you.

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