NAHBS 2014, Charlotte

NAHBS 2014, Charlotte

I love going to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS). Now in it’s tenth year, this show is an event where some of the most dedicated, inspired, and serious bicycle crafts people display and sell their work. Also, it’s a place where the geeks and aficionados can meet with the crafts people, to not just buy but talk and capture the state of the arts.

I love going for so many reasons. I can meet and talk with collaborators that I work with. I can hang out with old friends and make new ones. I can see what builders are doing around the country (and world). The local culture can make a big impression and give every event a different feel. Each person that I strike up a conversation with is intimately involved with, vested in, and informed on exactly what goes into a bicycle in some way. For a guy like me, it’s a little bit of paradise.

In this show the takeaway was; Fixxies are dead and Bosch eBike motors are here. Very few fixxies were on display at the show. There were a couple of track bikes, but it was obvious that that is not the direction that anybody was interested in really going or seemingly profitable. If anything, the bicycles at this show were about ridability and usability, whatever kind off bike they were. The eBike is here. It’s here to stay. Weather it belongs here at the show can be up for debate. eBikes, though are going to grow and possibly surpass bicycle sales in the US over the next 10 years in my opinion. Bang. It’s a paradigm shift for most of us but that is a topic for another post. Lastly, the fat bike has reached it’s peak. It will start to decline, but not disappear as it has a place in snow country…just not for most.

In ten years, I’ve gone to most of the shows. Only three, have I missed; Denver (#9), Indianapolis (#5), and Huston (#1). There’s a perspective that comes with this. In one of the years, I wanted to show but wasn’t allowed to. In another year I wanted to judge but I was too late to join as a juror. In at least five of the shows I took hundreds of detailed photographs.

There are some real problems that NAHBS needs to be fixed. While the show has grown in size popularity, attendance, and media coverage – it hasn’t really gotten much better for the exhibitors on a few levels. There is plenty of dissatisfaction among the ranks that has gone ignored for years.

Let’s imagine that the show has (or should have) two goals: to help frame builders sell bicycles and to provide the builders a public forum to be honored among their peers and the public. I figure that that’s a simple assessment. Whatever other reason we go there for is more of a dressing or a distraction.

Selling expensive hand built bicycles is tough work, just like making them. A frame builder has to make a profit somehow doing it. Going to a national trade show like NAHBS involves considerable labor, time, and financial investment. It takes time to make bicycles that are show worthy. Transportation to and from the show involves considerable cost. There is another cost, the time at the show is lost that could be spent working on the sell-able product. All of this is done hoping for a financial reward through selling bikes. It is important that a builder lands at a show that has as many people in attendance that are in the market for the product that the builders are selling and can afford it.

Several of the locations where the show has been held have really not been stellar in my opinion. Huston, Indianapolis, Richmond, Charlotte, and in 2015 – Louisville. There are a lot of great builders in these areas. I know a bunch of them and I don’t mean to imply that they aren’t great places. The thing is that, as an industry, this isn’t really acceptable to be congregating in an area that isn’t going to return with orders. Attendance at the Charlotte show was well below my own expectations. Compare that to the show in Portland that was standing room only and had a waiting line to get in as per fire code. I’m sure that a much better return on the investment of builders time, money, and opportunity costs could be realized by hosting the show in other types of places. Areas with dense population, disposable income, and lifestyles options that fit with the product the show is selling.

Certainly, the region of Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, Providence, and Boston is the most glaring place where value can be extracted. How many marketable customers live int that region? I’m willing to say – more than anywhere in the country, period. Then, of course, the Los Angeles and San Diego area. The Chicago area next. Then Seattle. Does it cost more to put a show on in these places? Yes. Does the show need to be held in a fancy hotel and conference center? No. I’m sure if the show was held in third rate conference hall in New Haven, Connecticut nobody would notice as the hall would be completely full of people that had the interest and money to spend on the product these folks sell.

Now we look at the problem NAHBS has with awards and judging. The builders who attend the show enjoy that awards are given out. They may act like it’s not a big deal to them but everyone in that hall wants to be recognized for all the long lonely night in the shop filing and sanding on frames until their fingers bleed. They complain when the system doesn’t seem to work fairly. They complain when they see themselves or another builder who deserves a prize passed over in favor of someone else who has the right friends. Weather this what is actually happening or not, the system gives that appearance at times.

Without question, The President’s Choice Award needs to be done away with. Period. It is a real problem for the same single person, year after year, to have this own ‘best of show’ award. It’s appalling on pretty much every level. I’d be embarrassed if it were me doing such a thing. If an award is to be given by a single person during a show, that person should be decided the year prior by a vote of the frame building exhibitors. This would be the only reasonable and acceptable approach to this kind of thing. This change should be initiated before the 2015 show. I suggest Kent Eriksen , Carl Strong, or Mike Flanagan. These guys may not be interested in doing this but those are just three builders who I’d love to see an award from.

It would also be nice if an end could be put to the lauding of ‘The Original Six”. It’s really old and lame. Listening to it each year makes most people eyes roll. I’m sure it’s even more painful for the people onstage. The show is 10 years old. Somebody was there the first time. Ok. Who really cares? This is a big industry. There are plenty of people that have been around for a very long and are deserving of attention. There are, also, plenty of people that have only been around for a few years but are not only experts in what they do but leading change in the industry. Give special recognition for what they do, but let’s have it change from year to year.

My point with criticism of ‘The President’s Choice Award’ and ‘The Original Six’ theatrics is that it works to drive the community apart rather than bring it together. Being friends with or currying favor with one person, no matter who it is, shouldn’t create an artificial level of influence or importance of specific factions or groups within an industry. Any adult should be capable of seeing this.

Now on to regular judging and awards.

Patrick Brady of RKP was named Chief Judge. It is presumed that Nick Legan of Dispatch and Jeff Archer of First Flight Bicycles were his fellow jurors although I have found little to to confirm this outside of Patrick’s personal blog. I had wanted to be a judge this year. It could be said that I have a horse in this race. What was and has never been made clear to me is how judges are chosen and what their qualifications are. Patrick was, of course, named by Don Walker to be Chief Judge. Patrick, it is presumed, decided the other two judges. I’m sure that these guys are excellent at what they do but they look to be bloggers, writers, and mechanics. Why is it though that there were no jurors who have a history designing, constructing, or finishing bicycles as the one’s being judged? These important issues. More judges with more range really need to be in place for what is very important to some people.

Also, with 68 entries in the bicycle classes and 28 in the constructor classes. That means that 3 people have to judge almost 50 bicycles and frames each day on Friday and Saturday. I worry that less than a few minutes could be spent with each bike and builder. This pushes into the problem that when judging is done for the categories in the Riding Discipline Division: Best – city/utility, road, mountain, cyclocross, track, tandem bike, experimental, & theme. Prints of these bikes must be on display with the bike. Additionally, a write up should be included with the bike stating who the rider will be, how the bike is expected to be used, and where the bike is going to be used. These inclusions are very important and relevant in understanding a bicycle and ensuring that an award that is not for another bundle of tubes with a fancy paint job and trick parts or, worse, a political handout or favor for a friend. A mountain bike designed for use in Northern Florida will be very different than one designed for use in the Colorado Rockies. This explanation along with a print would do wonders for how a bike is Judged. I worry that much is lost when such short time is spent with what could be a month of somebody’s work.

Soon after this post went live, Jeff Archer took the time to send me an email to clear up some points on the judging at this years events. Some comments have been removed for propriety, but below is the essence of what he was telling me. I was really glad that he took the time and it helps us all see behind the curtains.
 
As to your blog post, not really going to go through it point by point but there were some questions relating to judge qualifications, judging criteria, time spent, judging biases……….and I will personally guarantee that each and every concern you had was talked about at length between the 3 of us.  When we had a personal connection with a builder, that connection was announced and talked about.  Pretty small industry so we all know someone at the show. We also spent a lot of time talking about what each category represented and which bike was the best of breed.  One example was the Retrotec cross bike. It had 44 mm tires which aren’t cross legal but it was the best bike. The Lundbeck was given an honorable mention because it was a more “pure” cross bike and was a great bike.  There were also categories where we didn’t present an award since none of the entrants were deemed “good enough”.  ….  We did personally talk to many of the builders as they submitted their bikes for judging and did get to hear about the customer the bike was built for and the design process.  There were also 4 or 5 times that we went out onto the show floor and asked the builder a specific question about a bike. We did also talk to builders about geometry choices for the bike and why they chose to build the bike that way. Once again, that was factored into the judging.

The “best in show” was a very difficult decision and we spent part of Friday evening and all day Saturday on this one category. On Saturday, we met 4 different times during the day, including a full hour at lunch, talking about the category. The individual categories were really pretty easy to judge. Best in show is impossible.

Was it perfect, absolutely not. Am I proud of the job we did, absolutely. I have already sent a list of a dozen or so things I would like to see changed in the future. …

Very rarely have I had such a great time talking to fellow bike geeks at such a high level. Patrick and Nick are exceptionally knowledgeable and took their tasks seriously. We do realize that an award can bring attention to a builder and even possibly impact their future. That is why we took so much time and effort to get it right. I just hate to see the process questioned by folks from outside the judging area. If they had the opportunity to see what went into the process between the 3 of us, all of those questions would go away.

 

Honestly though, it is pretty appalling that in a room full of custom bikes, Kent Eriksen was the only builder I saw with a print to show for a bike and that was for just one of his bikes. It makes me wonder if the product is really paint. I’ve really never heard geometry discussed at NAHBS. I talked with Kent once about it at a seminar he gave and fit comes up in the specialty fitter booths and in a seminar here and there, but it’s very rare to see any evidence that it’s important to anybody.

Awards presentation this year was not as good as it’s been in the past. Bringing winners to the stage to be recognized by the attendees and exhibitors en mass is effective, proper, and easy. Using the technique used this year, winners were not held up in front of the group as they should be and an opportunity was missed. I tried to follow the action, but it was little fun and hard to follow. Take it to the stage folks.

Regardless of my criticisms, the show is a great thing. I want to see it get better. I think everyone can agree on this.

I don’t put anything up personally at the show. I don’t do what I do for serious profit, I’m not looking for customers outside of frame builders and parts people looking for designs. What I do at the show that feels like work (enjoyable as it is) is take pictures of the details that strike me as a designer and builder of bicycles and parts. I share those with others so they can be inspired by the great works of others as I am.