Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday News And Views

They Should Re-Name The Show: Well, if you are any sort of bicycle geek at all, you know that today is the opening round of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, or "NAHBS", in Austin, Texas. For the next three days, scads of bicycle nerds will be geeking out on steel, titanium, carbon fiber, bamboo, and whatever else someone decided to form into the shape of a bicycle. Already I've seen mentions of Calfee Bikes bamboo "tall-bike", which is supposedly a "show-stopper".

NAHBS is the bicycle equivalent of a Trekkie convention. Only cyclists see the imminent importance of the show and its meaning for "life-as-we-know-it". The rest of the world could give a rip. Heck, dog shows get more attention than this bicycle show does. And for that matter, what bicycle isn't hand built? Oh.......yeah- there is the "North American" thing. But even NAHBS has builders from overseas.

You know, bicycles are built by highly skilled laborers in Asia. Handbuilt indeed! While they may not sip espresso from an Italian cup, or sport a "soul patch", I really do not see any differences in what they do and what the "Hand built" guys are doing at NAHBS. You might say that the "art" of the bicycle is elevated to a higher degree. Okay, I'll give you that much, but the "art" doesn't make it ride any better.  What is more, the Asian builders have repeatability down pat. Try that with your fancy-pants bamboo tall-bike.

Look, NAHBS is cool, but lets call it what it really is: The "North American Rolling Art Show" would be more appropriate. High bicycle art commissioned by discerning bicycle connoisseurs, is what is actually happening. Of course they are hand built, but so is every other bicycle in a bike shop. Big deal.

Nothing wrong with the show in Austin, and of course, I'd go in a heartbeat, if I could have afforded to, but let's not get distracted by the "hand-built" moniker. I believe it cheapens what hard working people are doing elsewhere with bicycles, that in reality, are touching far more lives than anything you'll see coming out of NAHBS.

James Huang of  says of NAHBS that it will be the harbinger of what is to come from mainstream bike companies in the next few years. I think he's right to a point, but what NAHBS can influence is limited. Really- NAHBS is more of a proving ground and introduction for new parts by the component industry, and a showcase for how they can be used more than it is an innovator of cycling trends. In fact, you could argue that NAHBS trends are heavily influenced by mainstream cycling companies, instead of the other way around.

Well, enough of that, now go and geek yerself out!

More Monster: I noticed on the Black Mountain Cycles blog where a guy stuffed some Nanoraptors in his BMC Monster Cross rig. I also know that Kenda Karma tires have been shoe horned into that frame and fork. Well, I thought about it for a minute or two, then I remembered I had a set of Geax Barro Race tires in the TNT flavor which, as I recalled, measured about 1.85" on 24mm wide rims. Perfect candidate for the BMC!

I mounted them with tubes and they fit just fine. (By the way, they are not shown in this image, I'll get a pic later to share.) I also recalled that I was able to run crazy low pressures tubeless with these. I set them up and test rode it around the neighborhood. What a fantastic cushy feel. When I got back, I found out I had barely over 20psi in each tire! Well, I'll run a bit more than that on gravel, but these are going to be great "suspension" for gravel roads. At least I have some "monster-cross" like tires on the "Monster Cross" model from Black Mountain Cycles now. Ol' #42 is looking pretty good with those shoes on.

CIRREM: Tomorrow is the Centarl Iowa Rock Road Endurance Metric, or CIRREM, which is about a 63-ish mile slog over the hills of Madison County. I'll be taking the BMC and will get a ride report up for Monday. Look for that then. (It'll be a bone-chillingly cold ride, I know that much!)

Have a great weekend!


Captain Bob said...

Good luck this weekend! Take out the insoles and bring a couple pair of those heated insoles. It'll get you about 2hrs of heat. I can't ride without them. I have a pair of Bonty xdx 1.75's if you want to borrow them for the race. Let me know, I'll bring them in during lunch today.

Guitar Ted said...

@Captain Bob: Thanks, I will need it.

I am running the GEAX tires, so I won't need the XDX tires this weekend. Thanks for that offer though.

Erik said...

GT, I must respectfully disagree with your assessment of NAHBS and what it means to be “hand built”! While the bikes at NAHBS definitely tend to emphasize style over function, well it is a “show” after all; not a “showroom”. The builders are there to demonstrate and highlight their skill, craftsmanship and design philosophy in order to attract potential customers who identify with their vision. This is a place where an extra helping of bling is to be expected, even required in order to turn our jaundiced eye!

Obviously, all bikes are touched by human hands during their creation (although BMC might be doing a pretty good job of eliminating that with their Impec frame.. Hunt down a video of that process!), but to draw comparisons between the custom bike that was “hand built” by one of the custom framebuilders at NAHBS, and some off-shore slave labor special, well that’s a bit of a stretch.

“Hand built” means that (in the vast majority of cases at NAHBS) one guy did all of the following: Marketed the product. Actually talked to the customer to learn what they wanted. Calculated the ideal geometry for that unique customer. Selected the tubeset that would best suit the design. Specified the unique mixture of lugs, brazeons, dropouts, etc. that would be “just right”. Mitered the tubes. Fixtured. Welded. Brazed. Aligned. Filed. Sanded. Polished. Masked. Painted. Assembled. Boxed. Delivered. Got Paid. And probably most importantly, at every step of the way, he Cared. Cared that he was doing the best he could do, and that the customer was going to like that bike. One guy.

In contrast, there’s another guy in a factory somewhere in China, and his job for today is to stand in front of a machine and miter 200 downtubes. Hmm.

Granted, at the end of the day, is there really that much functional difference between Ben Witt’s “hand built” Pofahl and your “hand built” Snow Dog (aside from the rear hub ;>)? Probably not. But to a small segment of the population, the back story is important enough to swing the deal.


ps. Good luck at CIRREM!

Guitar Ted said...

@Erik: First of all, thanks for your considered comment.

I never said anything related to the fact that the custom builder and not working hard, doing many tasks, and creating a bicycle that is high quality. Not once have I said that. Okay?

On the other hand, you reference Asian laborers as "slaves", and disparage them as "not caring".


This is what I am talking about when it comes to how we "romance" this whole NAHBS thing. Look, the bikes coming out of Asia are, for the most part, very high quality, great bicycles that you can rely on from example to example.

To say the Asian bikes are not "hand built", fine quality bikes and that NAHBS isn't an "art show" on a different level from reality is being dishonest in our thinking. That's what I am saying.

Ari said...

BMC is looking great. I am still gathering parts for mine. Good luck on that race.

Erik said...

I think that the “romance” of NAHBS is its appeal, and really, the purpose of the whole thing (in my eyes). It is celebratory and extravagant, and it highlights the fact that hand made bicycles are unique, not repeatable. It is a concrete statement against the trend to “commoditize” the bicycle.

There’s no doubt that the factories are better at uniformity, predictability, “quality”, economy, etc. And certainly there’s a great likelihood that the 364th frame off the line will be identical to the 5489th. There is value to this. There is utility as well.

Certainly, bicycle manufacturers don’t have their product built off shore because they feel the need to spread the joys of employment to the farthest corners of the world. They do it because they can pay the workers an order of magnitude less than what they would pay for domestic labor. That’s just the reality, and if the factories could manage to pay the workers even less, you can be sure that Trek would be happy to take the savings!

I’m sure that assembly line workers in these factories “care” as much as any employee would be expected to care when the customer is anonymous. Perhaps I should have said “is invested in”, or something along those lines. My point was that the line worker never sees, knows, or receives any sort of feedback from the cat who eventually rides the bike down the road. His “deliverable” is quantity, uniformity, and quality.

The NAHBS crowd values aesthetics, craftsmanship, “art”, over economy and homogeneity. Surely this can’t be a bad thing, but just a difference of priorities?


Guitar Ted said...

@Erik: I think you and I are on the same page. I agree with most of what you have said.

My Dad worked in a factory, assembling tractors. He cared. He didn't see the end user either, but to him, that didn't matter. he got paid what he got paid. That didn't really matter either. It was a job he did to the best of his abilities and to his higher standards.

See what I mean?

We don't know, or can presume to judge a bicycle maker's passion, or desire to do a quality job, be that a "pedestrian" everyday production bike, or a high end, piece of art on two wheels.

They're both "handmade" to an extent. Heck, even NAHBS guys are using machines to expedite their production. So, from that standpoint, the differences become even more blurry.

My point still stands; NAHBS isn't reflective of the normal and doesn't pretend to be that. For the vast majority of cyclists, it, (NAHBS), is an exercise in excess.

It is fun, a celebration, and for those that get to ride those extraordinary rigs, the pleasure is certainly at a higher level than it is for me on my BMC Monster Cross.

But I doubt it rides all that much better, or does the job better. Both the BMC and the NAHBS bikes are handmade bicycles that do pretty much the same thing, functionally speaking.

See what I mean?

shiggy said...

The vibe of the NAHMBS can be a little weird. The standards for entry by the founder is a part of that. Part from the subcultures that have emerged from the hipster towns.

The show, and the general small/custom builder movement may better be represented by SOPWAMTOS. "They" have been around a long time and I have already seen new tshirt pics from Austin.

I love making my own s#*! and wish I still could. At least now I can help get niche products made that people can afford to buy and use.
There will always be a place for the artisan and the production companies.

MG said...

I see what you mean, 100 percent... As someone who rides both full-custom and stock, off-the-shelf frames, I appreciate the values of both types of bicycles for different applications.

I'll see you tomorrow, G-T. I think I'm gonna' bring both my Vaya and my BWNN and see which one tickles my fancy at the line. The snow kinda' makes me want some big, bouncy tires. Might be a day for the BWNN...

Slonie said...

Preach it, Guitar Ted. I can appreciate rolling art as much as the next guy, but thank you very much for saying what few are willing to say about the custom bike scene.

The Mayor of Drunkingham said...

Yes, agreed. Precisely. Well said, and stuff.

Steve Fuller said...

Interesting perspective on NAHBS GT, one I hadn't necessarily expected to hear from a person discussing head and seat tube angles and fork rake for a gravel grinding bike not too many months ago.

I think there's a subtle but important difference between "assembled" and "built". I hand assembled my Salsa Fargo and La Cruz from a pile of pre-designed and manufactured parts, but I don't consider it hand built. Deciding on a geometry, cutting the tubes, filing the lugs, designing the special touches - that's what makes a bike "hand built" in my mind.

I think that, first and foremost, NAHBS celebrates the design and craftsmanship of building bicycles Some of those designs are practical, some of them aren't. :) I also think that it harkens back to a time when mass production and repeatability weren't quite as important. I understand your views on repeatability and the ability of the overseas workers to also build a good quality bicycle. No arguments there.

Some people are happy with a Ford Mustang, some people want a hand assembled Ferrari, others want a custom Chip Foose hotrod. Different strokes for different folks. I for one love ever one of my Salsas, both completes and hand assembled by me. That doesn't mean I wouldn't seriously consider adding a Rene Herse to my stable just to have something a little more unique.

Guitar Ted said...

@Steve Fuller: You mention mitering tubes, deciding on geometry, and designing special touches. Well, you do realize that almost every production bike has that as well, don't you agree?

Custom is one thing, and you touch upon this, rightly so. However; it isn't called "The North American Custom Bicycle Show", so we are talking about something different.

Words mean something, and that is what I am taking issue, in part, with regards to this "NAHBS" thing. That's exactly why I chose to illustrate the name thing, and how it should be changed to reflect what is going on here.

Again- celebrate the art. Have fun with it, but it isn't about "hand made" bicycles. Not really.

And I would contend that a lot of production bikes outperform a lot of what you see at NAHBS. Certainly they are also more attainable by the vast majority of cyclists as well. Think of that Chip Foose hot rod. Ya know, it is cool, but it isn't a "use everyday" reality kind of a car, and a lot of those production cars actually "work" better than his "fine art" examples of automobiles.

That's my take anyway.

The Breathing Room said...

I see most of what comes out of NAHBS as rolling art. I can truly appreciatte the hand craftsmanship. It's not likely I'll ever own a custom bike, but I sure like looking at them.

GT you bring up some interesting points and it reminds me of conversations I've had with co-workers at the shop. We sell a brand of bike that is one of the biggest in the world. Their bikes are highly regarded amongst cyclists and continually win races and championships in various racing diciplines at the highest levels all over the world. TDF stages, World Cup down hill, cross country etc etc.

When you are as big as this company is you literally have millions of $ to spend on research, developement and the best athletes. All of this research on race tracks all over the world trickles down into the bike available on the showroom floor.

From a performance stand point, can these small custom builders compete with that? I don't think so. What do these custom bikes offer that the mega corps can't offer? Let's face facts here, some of the frames coming on high end production bikes these days are works of art also. Every size within a model range will have it's own custom carbon lay-up. The technology in modern road and mountain bike frames is amazing.

It reminds me of my youth. We thought early Japanese big bore motorcycles were aplliance like, and British roadsters were soulful. The reality was that a Honda CB750 out performed a Triumph Bonneville.

I think cyclists that buy custom are looking for a bicycle with soul. Something they belive you cannot get from a bike that comes out of a factory.

bmike said...

IKEA or the guy in the next town over building your cabinets or furniture?

Chain restaurant or the mom and pop place that knows your name?

Veggies trucked in from wherever the sun is shining and the labor cheap or paying to join a local CSA?

Having worked in both production and custom environments (not bikes) - there is a difference to the guy on the floor.

And we have Salsa, Surly, Soma, and custom in our stable. And we ride them all.

I've said my piece in another comment about pot kettle black, and I'll leave those thoughts there.

Guitar Ted said...

@bmike: I don't think you caught what I am talking about at all, but as you say, if you are leaving that there, I won't leave anything here. ;>)

Alex said...

GT, might want to check my blog as I think we are thinking along the same lines :)

Geometry, fit, function an durability are all important and I will pay good money for them.

Fancy paint, chrome, polished stainless steel, colour matched racks and hand sewn leather bags are all extras that I don't feel add anything to the bike.

But then I view bikes as tools for doing a job; whether that is commuting, touring or just messing about.



Brendan said...

There's not much coming from Asia, at least the mass produced stuff, that I can call hand made. Most of the handcraft a builder performs is in the tube mitering, coping, and lugging. All of those processes have become automated in Asia.
They've literally taken every effort to remove human hands as much as possible, to the point where the only real "hand" you can point to is that of the welder.

Right now, labor is adequately inexpensive enough that we don't see much robotic welding in the bicycle world, though valiant efforts have been made. As I've come to understand it, human welding is still preferred in mass production because of cost, not quality. (we've tried robotic welding bikes here in the states, too, to be fair)

Then, have a look at carbon fiber, which seems to be the material most bikes will be made of soon: not much handcraft in those molded shapes, either.

Guitar Ted said...

@Brendan: I will respectfully disagree with you on the carbon stuff. It is well known that the handiwork required to lay up the material is all done by hand, besides the post molding/curing work, as well.

Then with regards to mitering and cutting tubing, hand made guys are all using machines for that as well, no?

Look, automation and what is "hand made" is another debate. I'm not taking up that one. I'm just trying to point out that NAHBS, and what it "means" to cycling aficionados is a bit warped in terms of reality. Read my post again to see that I am trying to point out what it really is, and perhaps that "handmade" is too broad a term for what is going on there, not to mention the misunderstanding of the name.

Again, I have no issues with bicycles being made and shown in a "concours" atmosphere where art, detail, and emotive response is the main focus. But it isn't most cyclists reality, and it is more than "handmade", which is the term I still hold true of most Asian production frames.

TOMMY GUN said...

NAHBS has now simply morphed into the Heavy Beard show; no admittance without your Hipster Beard, the shaggier the better. And we all know those Asians can't grow no beards....

greasyknuckles said...

I went, it was fun. I like to ride bikes, all of them.