NAHBS: Maile at the 2008 Handmade Bicycle Show

(Editor’s Note: Maile (pronounced MY-lee) Neel, a stalwart with the D.C. Randonneurs, attended the 2008 North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show in Portland. Here’s her story of nice bikes and even nicer people.)

After Action Report: NAHBS ’08

by Maile Neel
Feb. 17, 2008

Several months ago I decided to attend the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Portland. Beautiful bikes in a beer-centric, cycle-fanatic west coast city, how could I pass it up? I am in the market for a new baby to adopt and have been looking into potential fathers of said adoptee. I look at the frame builder’s discussions, investigate their Websites, and check out their weekly show and tells. There is also a local cyclist who owns pretty much one of everything and I have been studying his collection for months, even though I had never met him.

All this research allowed me to narrow down my choices based on mostly technical features that every randonneur dreams of:

— The bike will power me through even the longest brevets all by itself;
— will keep me awake, warm, and dry on rainy nights;
— will never miss a cue while I am telling yet another fabulous story;
— and, will have a really good cup of coffee ready for me each morning and after each sleep stop (‘cause I will actually get one of those on this bike).

With research completed, I wanted to meet the builders to see what they are like as people. My plan was to get an overview on Friday and then on Saturday and Sunday to go to the exhibit hall only in small focused doses to avoid getting too overwhelmed by the crowds.

Unfortunately my body guard from PBP (Lowell) could not go with me. He tried to convince me not to go by myself; he was afraid I would end up a quivering mass of protoplasm in the corner due to lug overdose. Ms. Bell was also immune to my invitations to a junket. Charles, manager from one of my local bike shops (College Park Cycles), was attending; so I would at least know someone. Dave, the owner of all the great bikes I had been coveting, would also be there.

Lowell was going to delegate body-guard duties to Charles, but was too busy actually saving the country to get the paperwork processed. So I was on my own without adult supervision and Portland was at risk. Lowell did give me two last orders as I left town: 1. You cannot have one of everything. 2. Do not embarrass yourself. He sure knows how to take the fun out of things.

When I made the reservations, a flight at 0600 on Friday morning that would get me to Portland in time for the afternoon seminars seemed like a good idea. When Thursday night came and I was still at work at 2000 and had not even begun to pack it didn’t seem so smart. Why does this seem like the night before every brevet I did last year? Having learned last August that I could cope with sleep deprivation, I decide that just staying up until I need to leave the house at 0300 is the best idea. You can see the direction the weekend is probably going to head…

I arrive on schedule, catch the Max Rail to the Convention Center, check into the hotel, and head to a seminar on bike fit. It is relatively content free and the next seminar is on insurance for builders. I opt for the show hall. Uh oh. I sense really quickly that I am going to have trouble complying with Lowell’s Order # 1. O.K., calm down, easy does it, breathe, just LOOK at everything, take it all in. I searched out Andy Newlands of Strawberry Cycles to follow up on a ‘the state animal of Oregon is not a marsupial’ email conversation we’d been having.

He had been a wonderful ambassador for Portland and the show prior to my arrival and continued in that vein throughout the weekend. He is one of the original old-timers (self-described) who has been hand-making beautiful frames for years. More recently he has started making amazingly beautiful (and I am sure functional) frame building tools that he had on display.

I also found Tom Palermo to thank him for generously helping Jill DeMauro at Proteus Cycles in solving some ongoing fit and mechanical issues I have been having with my current bike. Tom is relatively new in the business and he is building some very clean, elegant and functional frames. Lots of subtle style. Mostly I am just walking around trying not to drool directly on the bikes and trying to keep moving so I do not create too big a puddle.

Many of these guys (and yes, except for Sweetpea and Luna they were guys) have other jobs to make ends meet. And the frame building business is a family affair. Two of the best conversations I had on Friday were with builder’s wives.

Karen, David Kirk’s wife, has a Ph.D. in environmental geology and is an expert in distance learning. She runs a National Science Foundation funded program that trains faculty at undergraduate institutions. And Andrea from Naked Frames works in sustainable forestry on the island they live on in BC. Not quite the conversations I thought I would be having while looking at bike frames.

It is hard to know how to summarize in words a show that is all about visual overload. This community reminds me of a parallel universe with the randonneurs. I find most of the cycling world to be rather ugly, overly competitive and mean spirited. Just as the randonneurs are the nicest most talented group of cyclists I have encountered, these frame builders and all the supporting companies are incredibly talented and the sense of camaraderie was amazing.

Sure there are differences: there are retro-grouches and young upstarts; there are show bikes and working bikes; there are the hipster fixies, the mountain bikes, the fillet brazers and the artistic lug junkies. Just like in randonneuring there are so many ways to get the job done and they all come together to make a great community. In the end, they are all artists who love what they do.

I have never been a groupie, even in my teenage concert-going days I was pretty much unimpressed by stardom. But here I was like a 10 year old girl with a crush on a rock star – O.K., crushes on a lot of rock stars. Oh my God (squeal) there is Peter Weigle, standing right there! I can actually go up and talk to him (if I wasn’t too nervous that is). Then there is Sacha.

And there is Margo from Luna Cycles, the one in the recent video review from Bicycle Magazine. This brings me to the lack of compliance with Lowell’s Order #2. I had to ask to have photos taken with Sacha White and Darrell McCulloch. I just had to! What an utter geek I was.

Oh, you want to know about the bikes… It was nice to see a relatively large number of randonneuses and light tourers suitable for brevets. Peter Weigle, Tony Pereira, Joseph Ahearne, Bilenky Cycle Works, and Sacha White (Vanilla) were displaying particularly nice bikes and frames for us.

A number of 650B offerings were in the show. The custom, integrated racks were beautiful and functional and they all had elegant ways of getting the wires from Schmidt hubs out of the way and for providing means of mounting fenders and attaching lights everywhere they might be needed. No zip ties here. What do you say about these guys? It is probably best just to look at the photos.

One thing I particularly liked was a lugged seatpost kit Engin is just releasing for builders that appropriately accessorizes a custom lugged bike. One of the guys at Bilenky has already integrated a tail light into this seatpost. The wiring from a bottle generator on the rear wheel comes forward through the chain stays and then up through the seat tube.

When the show closed on Friday night I met up with Charles and also Larry and Linda Black, the owners of College Park Cycles. After dinner and a couple of Portland’s finer malted offerings we headed to a party for builders at the Vanilla studio. After a short stay and more of Portland’s finer malted offerings, I headed back to my hotel to get a good night’s sleep. Uh oh. I never closed out my tab and my credit card was still at the bar where we had dinner. Luckily this is just across the street from my hotel.

As I am trying to get the attention of the less than customer-aware bartender, I meet Glenn, Joe and Wade who are attending the show. They are so over the top funny and nice that I violate my ‘don’t talk to strangers at bars’ policy. We proceed to close the bar down talking about bikes. The conversation started with what I was doing there and I explained wanting to meet the builders on my top-four list. After Glenn got over being crushed that his company Southwest Frameworks was not on my top-four list (hey, it’s not my fault they don’t make randonneuses), they critiqued my list and suggested a few other builders to look at. Vendetta in particular was highly recommended.

So the next morning, I head to the Vendetta booth. Did I say morning? I am pretty sure it was afternoon by the time I got there. Anyway, as I clutch my double latte and gaze at these seriously beautiful bikes and frames and trying not to be blinded by the highly polished stainless lugs and flawless paint jobs, one of the owners (Conor) starts chatting with me. He asks where I am from. When I say Maryland he says, “Oooh, we heard about you. You were out at the bars last night. You have a top-four list, and we are not on it.”

Sorry Lowell, another violation of Order #2. And I was in danger of violating Order # 1 because I felt guilty every time I was not going to buy something from these extraordinarily talented AND nice people. I did indeed want at least one of everything. But I had to remind myself that I am looking for something suitable for riding on rainy nights in France, on roads covered in pig dung.

The rest of Saturday I switched off between walking around on my own and checking things out with Dave and Charles and a bit with Wade. Dave is the one who owns one of just about everything. Due to a broken arm that refuses to heal he is off the bikes right now. A tragedy, to be sure. Especially tragic because his frames are just a tad bit big for me. He is actually up in the queue for a Vanilla but due to his arm he is not quite sure what to do. Not sure why he didn’t buy my (repeated) suggestion that his broken arm had turned his fit from a 57 x 57 track bike to a 54 x 54 randonneuse.

We all talked to Jan Heine for a while about old Rene Herses, the frame building culture in France in the 1930’s and 40’s, and PBP. The dude finished PBP in about ½ the time it took me. Unbelievable. As Lowell and I say, we got to ride our bikes ALL WEEK. Jan simply didn’t get as much fun for his money as we did. Right.

By this time my top-four list is up to at least a top-8 list – things are not going in the right direction here.
On one of my circuits around the show I was trying to get some better shots of the bike from Naked. The bike was so shiny that reflections ruined my shots from Friday. There was a crowd there, looking at the bike for sure – it took 3 top awards. But they were also looking at the bike’s soon to be new owner – Lance Armstrong.

Although it was cool to see him, I was more thrilled to meet all the builders and see their latest efforts.
In the end, this is the most fun I have had NOT riding a bike in ages. Well, I did get to ride a bit. Charles arranged for us to borrow bikes from the Bicycle Gallery for an organized ride on Sunday morning. We were the picture of disorganization, though. We could not manage to get out of the show on Saturday before the shop closed so we had to pick the bikes up on Sunday morning.

At about 10 p.m. Saturday night we were trying to figure out if we could get to the ride start in time when we realized we had been talking about two different rides. I thought we were doing the totally tame “Worst Day of the Year to Ride” ride which loops through the city and Dave thought we were doing the Rapha ride. He did not realize the Rapha ride was not the low key city cruise but rather had a 4098 foot elevation gain and went over 3, 1000 foot passes in 37.8 miles. For me this was no big deal but Dave and his broken arm were not so interested in the advertised 40 mph descents and unpaved climbs. I

In the end, it didn’t really matter because both rides were leaving about the time we were to pick up the bikes. Instead, Charles and I took the most pleasant short tour of the city on our own and climbed up out of town through a moss filled canyon just past Nob Hill. Dave wisely opted to protect his arm. Make decisions today so you can still ride tomorrow.

The only thing that was disappointing about the show was the panel on long distance riding on Sunday. The stated purpose was to give people information on what they need to do to prepare to ride centuries or longer. The panel consisted of four people, three of whom were RAAM finishers. The focus was almost exclusively on racing, there was not one word about randonneuring during their presentations. I understand it came up in the discussion but I missed it because I had to leave to catch my flight. There was lots of talk about throwing up and toenails falling off. Wow, that’s appealing. Somehow I think there is something between short club rides and racing RAAM or even the Furnace Creek 508 that could have been highlighted. Michelle Grainger, one of the panelists, did give really good information on nutrition and training. All in all though, if I was just considering my first century I would have left that room frightened.

Besides the short ride, I spent every waking moment at the show. O.k., so there were fewer waking moments on Saturday morning than I had expected. Way fewer. But still, three days were not enough to see everything. There was so much detail to take in. I was not ready to leave when it was time to go to the airport Sunday afternoon. When I got to PDX, I found my flight had been delayed such that I was going to miss the last connecting flight of the night to BWI. As the ticket agent is solving this problem, I look over and there is Dave checking in for the same flight. We end up getting rerouted onto the same red eye flight out of LA and the flight to LA is not leaving until almost 7 p.m. SCORE!

We check our bags and promptly head back to the show for a few more hours. So what you have to know about Dave is he is a total enabler. He convinces me I need to buy a Llewellyn work stand. He goes on and on about how he loves the one he owns, and if I get it now I do not have to pay shipping from Australia. So, as the carpets are being pulled up, I am buying a work stand that has to go back on the plane with me with no box. I hate to think of the number of suitcases that were impaled on those two flights. But Dave is right, I love my new stand. And with the cost of a Llewellyn frame (worth every penny I might add) it might be the only thing I’ll ever own with that name on it.

Now that I have had several days to come down off the high from my NAHBS weekend, I guess it is time to negotiate a waiver for Order # 1 with the Colonel (Lowell). I want one of everything.

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