Handmade Bike Show: Road steel and 650B wheels

Builders embrace both the traditional and exotic

The North American Handmade Bicycle Show has proven to be a consistent showcase for anything and everything builders can dream up. In many cases, function definitely followed form and the end result was a sight to behold - as well as being a rolling example of what could be done. But most (if not all) of the builders on hand also offered perfectly conventional machines. 

We wrap up this year's coverage with a diverse set of examples.

650B takes hold

Previous shows have been awash with 29"-wheeled mountain bikes whose lesser-used size format was a natural fit for the hand built industry's niche clientele. Fast forward a couple of years, though, and the old 'in between' 650B wheel format resurrected and championed by Kirk Pacenti looks to be well on its way to supplanting 29ers, at least in this crowd.

Pacenti is a long-time frame builder who dedicates most of his time now to Pacenti Cycle Design, which he intends to be a 'one stop shop' of products and design services catering for other builders. As a designer, the ramifications of building frames around 29" wheels weren't lost on him and he introduced his 650B concept at last year's show as a viable alternative.

Arguments about yet another wheel size format aside, the idea seems to hold merit: 650B neatly splits the difference between the two current frontrunners at a rough outside diameter of about 27.5" and at least in theory, offers up a good compromise between the steamrolling ability of 29" rubber and the lighter weight of 26" hoops. More applicably to Pacenti, though, is the fact that 650B wheels are easier to design a frame around, particularly for riders of smaller stature. Full-suspension makers have also caught on to the fact that 650B doesn't require as many radial geometry modifications to their designs. Ventana showed off at least two samples at the show.

Even so, Pacenti probably couldn't have predicted how quickly 650B has been adopted, especially given the sometimes painful uphill struggle that 29" proponents suffered in their early days. Multiple builders had examples on display and the supporting players have stepped up to the plate. Velocity already offers two high-performance 650B rims, SUNringlé and Stan's NoTubes supposedly have models coming out later this spring, Weinmann might be board as well and Cane Creek has toyed with the idea with a handful of prototypes. On the tire side, IRD/Panaracer is already in production, Kenda has committed to three tire models and Schwalbe and CST are strongly considering tossing their hats into the ring, too.

650B bikes were relatively big at NAHBS (pardon the pun) but it's already clear to us that the idea isn't limited to the cottage industry. We can't say who it is, but we do know of at least one prominent full-suspension maker who has a 650B version in the works.

Road bikes: Sachs, McCulloch Pegoretti

On the road side of things, higher-tech materials may have garnered the buzz but some of the best works used a traditional material: steel. Frame building icon Richard Sachs was there again this year and to the casual observer, his familiar paint jobs, lug shapes, and frame configurations could be described as surprisingly stagnant amidst a surrounding and ever-changing sea.

"The most important component is skill set," Sachs insisted. "That's impossible to quantify. I'm constantly improving every aspect. Just the fact that they're painted red doesn't mean anything."

'Timeless' is more apt, particularly as Sachs' classic aesthetics are intertwined with modern, high-performing and lightweight Columbus steel tube sets. Raceable too, as masses of Sachs 'cross frames are flogged weekly by Sachs-sponsored riders and teams. Even aged 55, Sachs himself continues to race 'cross and looks lean and trim.

Speaking of years, Sachs' waiting list has consistently been measured in multiple complete orbits around the sun instead of phases of the moon. As of the beginning of NAHBS 2008, the quoted lag was six years. At a claimed truly one-man production rate of about 100-120 frames per year... well, you do the math. Do you honestly think that many people are waiting in line for a 'stagnant' bike? We don't think so, either.

Another renowned frame builder made the jump over from Australia for his first-ever appearance at NAHBS. Like Sachs, Darrell McCulloch is a one-man show behind the Llewellyn line of frames. His material of choice is steel for its inherent stiffness, toughness and resistance to fatigue, not to mention its ride quality and freedom the material presents to an artisan like McCulloch. He admits that the material is subject to a weight penalty as compared to its non-ferrous counterparts but one look at the level of quality and craftsmanship is enough to squelch that argument for many.

McCulloch's frames are designed not just as visual showpieces but functional machines which are infused with his experience as a professional rider, as well as his time spent working with the Australian Institute of Sport. Even with all of the cutting-edge bicycles currently on the ProTour, several top-level riders are rumoured to have Llewellyn bikes in their personal collections.

Italian frame builder Dario Pegoretti also made the journey overseas to NAHBS, an impressive feat given that he was diagnosed with lymphoma last May. Pegoretti is more progressive in his Columbus steel constructs but his pedigree is no less impressive with top road teams reputedly running his frames in the late 90's (in officially sponsored livery, of course). Unlike Sachs and Llewellyn, though, Pegoretti makes liberal use of TIG welding and dramatically oversized tubing as well as wildly flamboyant paint jobs that leave little uncertainty as to the name on the down tube.

Pegoretti debuted his latest Responsorium Ciaveté as a defiant message to the lymphoma that made him so ill in 2007 (look it up if you're curious, but we'll save you some time and tell you that it's two words, the second of which is 'off'). It bears the same Columbus XCr stainless steel tubing as the standard Responsorium but with the cachet that comes with a frame that is guaranteed to have been built and hand painted by Dario himself. Smaller diameter and thinner walled tubing means a lighter and more comfortable ride than some of Pegoretti's stiffer offerings.

And with that, we wrap up our reporting of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show and we hope you've enjoyed it as much as we've enjoyed covering it. Until next year in Indianapolis!

For a complete gallery of photos and more coverage from the NAHMBS, check out our sister site, Cyclingnews.com.

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