Cherubim by Shin-Ichi Konno won the President’s Choice award and Best of Show at the 2012 NAHBS.
By Gary J. Boulanger
If there’s anything my Catholic upbringing taught me (other than to fear the women in black and white), it was to withhold passing judgement on others, lest I get smitten by God Himself. As fate would have it, God Himself called upon me to pass judgement on independent frame builders at the 2012 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Sacramento, California…and the oracle through which he chose to speak to me was show founder and organizer Don Walker, a bear of a man who knows how to command attention as well as wield a torch.
Like Moses at the burning bush, what was I to do? What would you do?
Don mentioned a few other judges’ names, and I felt more excited about the prospect of sharing responsibility with the likes of Dirt Rag publisher Maurice Tierney and Red Kite Prayer blogger Patrick Brady. As game day approached, though, I started feeling a bit more fear and trepidation about filtering through my collective knowledge of fine framebuilding and giving the backroom thumbs up or thumbs down treatment to some of the world’s finest craftsmen, Caesar style.
I contacted Paul Skilbeck, who handles communication for NAHBS. I told him I read the judging guidelines on the NAHBS website, but still felt a little in the dark about the minutiae needed to do it right. He put me in touch with Don Ferris, owner of Anvil Bike Works in Littleton, Colorado. Don not only provides fixtures and tooling to many of the world’s finest frame builders, he has also judged in the past and has a keen mind and eye for the finer points of what to look for.
“In my humble opinion it’s best to judge a builder’s work from a builder’s perspective,” Ferris told me. “In the past judges fall primarily into two categories: fans of custom bikes and custom bike builders. They approach their tasks differently. As a builder I’m more interested in the craftsmanship displayed in the parts the builder made himself. I don’t care about how much info/pics they put on their Flickr sites, blogs, etc., about their process; I’m only interested in what I can see with my own two eyes. From there it is a process of elimination for me.
“I look first to assess whether the bike is built suitably for its intended purpose (and if a builder installed components on the bike, I assess them too. For instance, if I see items like wood handlebars, stems, seatposts, etc. on a mountain bike, I immediately dismiss it as a people’s choice category). Many are not. In my opinion, bikes are meant to be ridden and a builder who enters what would be an unrideable/unsafe bike is not worthy of my consideration.”
Second, he told me, was to look for symmetry, starting at the back end of the bike and moving forward. His goal is to eliminate a bike in as little time as possible to so he can focus on those he feel are truly worthy of having their craftsmanship noted as being above their peers.
“One of the hardest things to do on a frame is installing the seatstays; they should each intersect the seat tube at the exact same height and should be cotangent to the seat tube itself, i.e., they should be equally space from the centerline of the seat tube,” he added. “I then check the seat tube slot and make sure it is on centerline and the stress relief hole itself is centered on the slot. If tightened on a seat post, I check to see how parallel the sides of the slots are from top to bottom. Any sign of squeezing at the top is cause for dismissal.
“If the builder is present, have him loosen the seatpost clamp and check that the post is not too tight nor too loose. Same goes for seatpost clamp lugs that are brazed on the frame, the inside faces of the lugs should be parallel and not pinched. Stems also fall into this category. I saw one bike win an award with a builder fabricated stem clamp that was obviously deformed, pinched together, and ill-fitting. These items are very quick to check and if they’re off, I immediately dismiss the bike and spend no more time on it. If they’re good to go, I will continue on.”
Third, Ferris looks for the craftsmanship displayed in the joinery. Sloppy shorelines, evidence of over or under filling the joint, on lug bikes are cause to stop evaluating the bike and moving on to the next. For TIG bikes, the welds should be consistent, show and even width around the joint and display an even fill (concavity/convexity) around the tubes.
“I look closely for signs of undercut or overheating (undercut is fairly obvious; overheating on a TIG-welded bike will show as a slight wave in the tube near the weld),” he said. “Pay close attention to bridge work and the seat stay intersection as that separates the true craftsmen from the rest. On fillet brazed bikes and look for smooth radii tube to tube, signs of overheating (distortion, wave as noted above) and excessive file work or file marks into the tubes itself. I give extra points to any frame/fork/etc. that is presented for judging unpainted. Paint can hide a multitude of sins.”
Fourth, Ferris does his best to evaluate alignment. This is difficult to do on a built up bike, he added, easier on a bare frame, but again he looks for symmetry and anything obviously out of whack.
“I will look down fork crowns and see that they are on the same plane as the dropouts,” he explained. “Check down tube and top tube for how they intersect the head tube, sight down the head tube for parallelism to the seat tube, etc. During this time I also look at braze-ons to make sure they’re properly located and display the same symmetry (where applicable) as the rest of the frame.
Fifth, if it’s made it this far, he evaluates the frame/bike as a whole and the complexity of the build (as long as that complexity has a purpose and is not just magpie bait). A modern mountain bike is much harder to build than a road or track bike so they’ll get credit for that, but that also means there’s more to screw up so it usually ends up as a wash.
“Lastly, I check my own emotional response to it: Can I do this? Would I do this? Is it better than its peers? Is it cool? Do I want it?
“Judging is hard work because the reality is that whoever wins the various categories gets elevated above their peers and the award has a real world value well beyond the cost of the trophy,” he added. “I’ve seen bikes ‘win’ which, in my opinion, were completely unworthy of such recognition because it came down to fandom or how nice their website was or a judge was getting the bike in question, etc., etc., and not based on the quality of the bike itself.”
Gulp. We had more than 180 bikes to judge, with the lion’s share to be combed over before Saturday early afternoon.
I shared this advice with my other judges, which by the first day of the show included former Shaw’s Lightweight Cycles owner Terry Shaw and United Bicycles Institute president Ron Sutphin. I was now in the company of wise sages, and felt more prepared.
Judges going over the finer points of framebuilding at the 2012 NAHBS.
In Don Walker’s eyes my own experience must have made me uniquely qualified to share a seat with my fellow judges: a few years working with Richard Schwinn and Marc Muller at the Waterford Precision Cycles factory, where five master framebuilders churned out 1,500 lugged steel framesets each year, including those for Rivendell Bicycle Works. I learned proper frame design from Rivendell owner Grant Petersen, and spent hours on the phone with Richard Sachs, Salsa founder Ross Shafer, Reynolds tubing co-owner Keith Noronha, Henry James owner Hank Folsom, Ibis founder Scot Nicol, and Tom Ritchey, trying my best to absorb their knowledge and expertise.
Knowing that not every master framebuilder was attending NAHBS or even submitting work for consideration didn’t make our job easier. In fact, it made things really challenging; framebuilders are small business owners, machinists, welders, marketers, sales people, logistics managers, and psychologists all rolled into one. Award winners are rewarded with recognition from peers, vendors and friends, which usually results in increased business. Our objective was to peel everything away and judge each bike for what we saw in 3-D before us, nothing more, nothing less. Mix in the fact that builders from several foreign countries were also submitting work and now it becomes interesting!
Once we had our preliminary meeting to choose a scorekeeper (Ron), we agreed on the submitted guidelines and choose our approach. Judging was simplified by having exhibitors submit their entries by a specific deadline, and volunteer runners provided a schedule to exhibitors of when bikes would be picked up and returned to their booths on Friday and Saturday of the show. Our categories included:
- Riding Discipline: City, Cyclo-Cross, Road, Mountain, Tandem, Experimental, Track.
- Materials: Carbon, Titanium, Steel, Alternative (bamboo, aluminum, wood)
- Construction: Lugged (any material, not just steel), TIG (ditto), Fillet brazed
- Overall: Best Finish, Best Rookie and Best of Show.
In each category, up to three entries could be granted special merit. In some cases, we felt more than one entry garnered special recognition. In others, a builder’s interpretation of what represented their best work was nosed out of the top spot by a hair, while others fell way short of the mark. On a few occasions unpainted frames were presented as complete bikes, a very clever way to offer a true glimpse of the handiwork, much like a Michelangelo statue.
Because this was ‘best of the best’ competition, many times our decisions were based on legalistic logic, and sticking purely to the guidelines, while other times it was a unanimous decision based on being thoroughly blown away. East Coast builder Chris Bishop managed to score a hat trick, taking home awards for Best Steel, Best Fillet, and Best Lugged.
As Terry and I were scrutinizing the steel bikes, we were drawn to Bishop’s Peter Johnson-esque thinly filed lugs, the workmanship and talent clearly apparent without paint. Ron agreed with our observation, and Patrick walked over and made in unanimous. Hours later, when the awards were being presented on the show floor, I ran into Peter and mentioned Bishop’s handiwork. I sent Peter to chat with Bishop, who was already talking with Terry. Young Bishop was having so much bike-geek fun talking with two of NorCal’s finest that he didn’t hear the original announcement over the PA system that he had won an award.
Don wanted to change things up a bit for the 2012 show. Instead of all the results being made public on Sunday, the lion’s share of the results were made public and ribbons were distributed to each award-winning handlebar by early Saturday afternoon. The top awards were saved for Sunday afternoon: Best Finish, People’s Choice, President’s Choice, and Best of Show.
After the show, I spoke with several builders to get a feel for how they thought the awards have evolved over the years, and the reactions were mixed. Several experienced builders like Soulcraft’s Sean Walling, pictured here, didn’t submit an entry.
“I understand how winning and award makes almost an instant impact on a framebuilder’s orders, but I do everything I can to build the bikes I need to build for my current customers,” he said. “Sometimes a beauty pageant distracts from the real craftsmen who have been building solid bikes for decades.”
Redwood City, California, builder Brent Steelman didn’t exhibit in 2012. The 51-year-old struggled with depression in 2011, and recently made the decision to turn his milling machines back on after almost throwing in the towel. He told me it was the positive response and support from longtime customers that convinced him it was worth carrying on the torch.
“I can appreciate how important it is for certain builders to win awards, but NAHBS is becoming more of an art show than I care to see,” he said over coffee at his shop in early March. “I think it’s great to get orders based on awards, but some people miss the point: American-made frames are making a comeback, and sometimes they don’t need to be overbuilt and frilly to be noticed.”
Show producer Don Walker’s efforts at cultivating attention to the handmade bicycle craft has been good to nearly everyone involved. One of the things becoming a show organizer has done, in my opinion, is put Walker in a precarious position as a framebuilder entering his own work into the judging contest. The other judges and I agreed it would be best for him to reconsider putting himself in any perceived incestuous situation which may reek of favoritism. In short, Don: we love you and your vision, but please refrain from taking away much-needed attention from another talented builder who could benefit from gaining a foothold in this crazy, lovely niche that many of us love so dearly.
See you all in Denver.