I know I like to get my whine on once in a while about standards or some such but nevertheless I’m constantly amazed at how today’s bespoke/custom builders rise to the challenge. And how rising to the challenge so often goes unnoticed to the masses. This is going to be long & ugly….
For those folks who aren’t intimately familiar with NAHBS, don’t bother reading any further.
This year at NAHBS I had a reality driven home that I always “knew” but never really had made so crystal clear. There were many great bikes at NAHBS Charlotte, really great bikes. The bar is set so high that it’s easy for your eyes to roll back trying to get your mind around it all.
With that said, in my booth I had the honor of displaying several builder’s frames as “props” in our frame fixtures. These frames were all built by folks whom I consider to be some of the very best at what they do. One of the frames was a Kent EriksenTi Fat Bike frame that was in the as-welded condition. Meaning it wasn’t finished or brushed or polished or bead blasted or painted. It was just a sublime raw Ti frame presented with no more prep than what is required to assemble the frame and weld the joints; it was fresh out of the fixture and off the table. Being that it was built by Kent and welded by Brad Bingham who is arguably the best welder in the industry (and I hate him for it) you should have a hint of the quality: near perfection without the need for built in excuses. On top of all that, the fabrication and tube manipulation skills required to pull this frame off were, well, off the charts. On my very best day, I might be able to produce 90-percent of what this frame presented. It was, in a word, humbling.
And that’s where it starts to get sideways: 99% of the people who looked at it didn’t even notice and those who did were mostly other Ti builders. There was no flash paint, no polished bric-a-brac, no carbon fiber nuttin’. Just quiet, over-the-top craftsmanship and trade mastery that would be all up in your grill and ready to knock you on your ass if you only knew what you were looking at. I did my best to illuminate anyone who would linger & listen but I’m only one voice. Most folks looked at it for a moment and then moved on, never realizing that what they were seeing represents the very best of the craft.
Which brings me to my point…
I have to preface this. NAHBS is a lot of things to a lot a people; those who know me know I love it and I truly do. It can stress me out and I can go from calm as a Hindu cow to full-tilt asshole without warning during move-in and move-out, but for those 3-days when I’m on the floor it’s my heroin. If you asked Jill, she’d probably tell you that I’m an extrovert trapped (but not really trapped) in an introvert’s job (be a machinist, travel the world and meet people, they said…) and NAHBS is an opportunity for me to get out of my daily bubble and rub elbows with some of the best people in the world, people I love & respect. And she’d be right. When I talked to Patrick Brady after the show, I told him something to the effect that I thought NAHBS was part trade show, part craft fair, part fashion week, part high school reunion, and part Hunger Games and just when you think it’s going to end up with stacks of bodies and runny mascara, it doesn’t. NAHBS just is and just to head the inevitable off at the pass, can NAHBS be better? Of course it can, but that’s a different topic.
I’m close to getting to my point.
NAHBS, at its core, is a vehicle to allow cyclists to meet and view the handiwork of bespoke builders & vice versa. In other words, it’s ultimately about those dirty words commerce & profit. If it’s a party thrown for cyclophiles and the builders are invited or if the party is thrown for builders and the cyclophiles are invited, I don’t know. I don’t even care as long as both customers get what they’re paying for. What I do know is that if you’re a builder and you’re displaying at NAHBS, you can bring your A game and it might not be enough. There are a lot of A games out there. Though it’ll piss off the folding table and white sheet crowd, since it’s about profit & commerce, it’s also about PRESENTATION to the public and the fact that the public will very likely not recognize your craftsmanship without it. And that’s really what I had driven home for me when I started this ramble. I’m not promoting one-upmanship for booths or having some sort of constant cold war escalation in art show freak bikes resulting in mutually assured destruction.
What I’m talking about is that for a show like NAHBS, how you present your craft is almost as important as mastering it. If you want a sterile presentation, go for that. If you want flash, go for that. But don’t go for mediocre because NAHBS will spit you out the back. Do I wish it wasn’t this way? Hell yes, but the fact is that it’s a reality that is outside the control of the exhibitors, the attendees, and the host. I felt bad seeing people on their migration from one flash paint scheme to the next walk right by the booths of folks who were just as, if not more so, on top of their game, skills-wise, but presented it poorly. It’s just the reality for all of us. We get drawn in by looks. Understand it and plan for it.
Once last thing. Those new builders who show up and display in the new builder’s booths are some of the bravest & most talented folks I know. It’s tough going toe to toe against established pros. I applaud and congratulate all of them. It’s also a sad fact of life that inevitably some self-described expert, i.e., some moist fingered blog writer who doesn’t even attend the show, will try to knock them down a few pegs for having the balls to show there. I’ve got knuckles for those types if they’d ever like a taste.