Handmade Bike Show: It's more than just steel

Titanium, carbon and even wooden bikes all on the increase

The choice of frame materials found at this year's North American Handmade Bicycle Show continues to take on an increasingly non-ferrous form as more builders get into the game. Titanium is as appealing as ever but composites such as carbon fibre and even wood are quickly gaining ground.

While perhaps not delivering the traditional aesthetic many buyers look for (for the most part; read on), many of these frames still represent some of the highest levels of handmade artisanship around.

The handmade crowd does carbon fibre...

Craig Calfee has inadvertently created much of this trend on his own as some of his employees have inevitably moved on over time to try and make names for themselves. Former employee Brent Ruegamer of Rüe Sports has created some showstoppers in years past but came to NAHBS 2008 with a decidedly retro-inspired theme.

On the surface, Rüe Sports' Retro Grouch was a thoroughly modern bicycle with full carbon tubes, handmade lugs, and a claimed 650g frame weight. However, the relatively small diameter tubing cast a profile more akin to a steel bike and the adjoining lugs were cleverly crafted to look like traditional hand-filed units with their long winding points.

To further confuse the matter, Ruegamer equipped the frame with an old Campagnolo Victory group that was in surprisingly good condition. This was no typical Victory group, though; instead, it was an extremely rare Victory Olimpico group that was only issued to Campagnolo-supported Olympic athletes back in the day. Luckily Ruegamer had just such a friend that was willing to loan out the coveted parts for the show. Eat your hearts out, Campyphiles!

Another ex-Calfee employee is Edgar Chavez who launched his own Roadrunner Velo company last year with his brother, Luis. The carbon tube-and-lug frames boast Edge Composites tubing, clean lines, and neatly integrated cable stops at the head tube as well as BB30-compatible versions that are ready to accept the latest crop of oversized cranksets. Road, 'cross, and even recumbent models are available and Chavez says that each frame is 100% built and painted in-house in their California workshop.

One of the more intriguing frames on hand was that of Slovakian builder Brano Meres (yes, he flew to NAHBS all the way from Eastern Europe). Meres holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and also freelances in industrial design but his personal passions include cycling and carbon fiber. Perhaps to the chagrin of the folks over at Delta 7, Meres showed off his own carbon truss road bike that was supposedly developed independently (we'll let the patent lawyers figure this one out).

Meres says his 'C-Thru' frame required over 300 labour hours but boasts the light weight, redundant strength, and rigidity properties that are associated with truss structures. Claimed weight is an impressive 1200g and the quality of the finish work belied its prototype one-off status. Cable stops were neatly integrated as well as intelligently located and the overall aesthetic drew consistent crowds all day long.

Like Calfee, Meres is also fascinated with the mechanical properties of a natural composite, bamboo. "I like natural materials and I love bamboo as a building material," he said. Meres completed his own bamboo-tubed mountain bike frame back in 2004 but the most recent iteration involved the use of bamboo cloth in place of carbon. Meres admits that the creation is still very much in the experimental phase but expects the natural-synthetic composite to yield the ultra-smooth and damped ride of the bamboo tubes but with better consistency and repeatability.

Speaking of Calfee and natural-synthetic hybrids, Craig Calfee took last year's longhorn steer concept bike and pushed the idea even further this time around. This year's version sported longhorn handlebars with backswept horns (ouch, my kidneys!) and another pair were also used for the fork legs. Bamboo tubes and hemp fibre were again the frame materials of choice but formed into a cruiser setup instead of last year's standard double-diamond arrangement. Finishing off the package was a composite chainguard made from wood and hemp fiber composite. According to Calfee, the latter is almost as strong as fibreglass and could ultimately serve as a viable substitute.

One of the most outlandish items on display came courtesy of perennial favourite Independent Fabrication who brought four 'stock' machines in addition to four showpieces that definitely were not out of the company catalogue. On display was a steel fixie with stainless lugs, a titanium Moulton-like road bike, and a hip titanium and carbon cruiser-style 29er. The one that garnered the most open-mouthed gawks, though, was a BMX version of IF's heralded titanium and carbon XS road bike... thus creating (ta dah!) the BMXS. We won't delve into the practical arguments of such a beast but its creator at IF apparently intends on hitting the dirt jumps with it. Um, ok. Good thing company president Matt Bracken offers IF employees 100% health coverage.

...and titanium

Jim Zoellner of Indiana-based Roark Custom Titanium Bicycles showed off a mini-sized fully custom rig for his oldest daughter, Juliana, complete with a gracefully arcing frame, fork, and stem all in custom-made titanium. The wheels were both CNC-machined from aluminium billet and the rear one encases a SRAM i-Motion internally geared hub.

On the adult-sized side of things, local builder Jeff Jones reportedly has had so much demand for his swoopy 3D Spaceframe titanium frame that he no longer accepts additions to the multi-year waiting list for fully custom models. Luckily for most of us, though, he has farmed out production of stock sizes of both the 3D Spaceframe and traditional double-diamond models to the titanium fabricating masters at Merlin. Both are supposedly faithful reproductions of Jones' designs and offer 'Jones-approved quality' at a reduced price and a far more palatable claimed lead time of twelve weeks.

Jones is also well known for his unusual H-Bar handlebar and he now offers a vaguely Morati-like one-piece titanium version that sheds almost 150g from the original H-Bar. In addition, he also offers a six-speed compatible version of the venerable Chris King ISO cassette hub that retains the 135mm OLD spacing but builds into a dishless rear wheel for better lateral strength.

Not one to be left out of the game, handbuilt icon Bruce Gordon showed up in Portland with a lugged road bike that had a number of onlookers confused as to the materials used. As it turns out, Gordon used custom-made titanium lugs and titanium tubes throughout but intentionally made it appear like a traditional steel frame.

After over three decades in the business, though, Gordon is apparently ready to hand over the reigns to a certain extent as he was actively seeking financial partners that might be interested in a 'unique business opportunity'. According to his pre-prepared letter, Gordon "has several ideas and designs for products he feels would be easily accepted in the current bicycle industry climate... With over 30 years of producing bicycles and bicycle related products, Bruce Gordon has proven that he is committed to his vision and the direction it has taken him. After many years of making it all happen on his own, Bruce is now ready for a new challenge and is seeking a passionate and eager partner (or partners) to do so with." Any takers?

Actually, let's use steel, too

Blending everything together in one machine was Carl Strong of Strong Frames in Bozeman, Montana. The unique frame used a Reynolds 953 stainless steel lower half (head tube, down tube, bottom bracket shell, chain stays), titanium seat stays, and a carbon fiber seat tube and top tube. According to Strong, the combination optimizes the properties of each material: the steel pipes largely dictate the overall feel, the curved titanium seat stays are springy and compliant for comfort, and the carbon fiber damps road buzz and lightens things up. Seem like overkill to you? Maybe, but some might argue that that's the name of the game at NAHBS.

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