I hate trade shows.
The miles of trudging through crowded aisles each day, the never-ending din, the bad and expensive food, the stinging of fluorescent lighting, the hordes of people hunting for swag, all the germs… I hate it all. Thankfully, the North American Handmade Bicycle Show is no typical trade show. And after now covering my eighth straight one, I can honestly say it’s something I look forward to each year.
NAHBS is different.
Sure, there are inquiries about things like pricing and availability but for the most part, it’s a lot of prospective buyers standing face-to-face with people who actually build bikes asking questions about tubing, geometry, and paint – and the builder then asking more questions in return in hopes of finding out more about their client in order to build a bike that’s suited to their wants and needs.
It’s not merely a matter of picking a model number and size out of a catalog. It’s a process. It’s a conversation.
And it’s perhaps because of this back-and-forth that creates the distinct vibe of the hand built subculture. People fly in and buy tickets to this all-are-welcome show to meet their idols, to see their work in person, and sometimes just to admire what’s being done. Are these bikes as light as X company’s Y carbon flagship? Probably not. Are they cheaper? Hell freaking no.
But it is likely that no one else will have a bike that looks the same as the one you waited months for and if all went well, no other machine will feel quite so much like home each time you ride it, either.
There’s also the sense that these folks are building bikes because it’s a part of their being – to create, to express themselves, to tinker, to add that single little detail that does nothing but make people say “wow.”
Obviously they all need to make a living but with little exception, the money is never the overriding purpose of their task. Money in and of itself is almost never a righteous motivator, after all. Instead, these folks build bikes because they love to build bikes – and hopefully, some modest (and usually very well deserved) income organically follows.
I missed the inaugural show in 2005, which was held in Houston, Texas – then the hometown of show founder Don Walker. Only 23 builders were on hand that year and at the time, Walker had no idea where his show would go, or if it would even survive. The next year – my first – was bigger but the setting was still decidedly modest: a giant tent in downtown San Jose, California, covering a bunch of folding tables with simple if any backdrops.
I went there at the behest of one of Cyclingnews’ ad salespeople at the time, Kristy Scrymgeour (who now owns and operates the Specialized-Lululemon women’s team), and had little idea what to expect. I was absolutely, wholeheartedly blown away. That year I published about 200 images and, as far as I could tell, I was the only media person on site.
The show has grown since those early days, as has my tendency to push the shutter button. Many media outlets now cover the event, major brands scout out the show for upcoming trends, and my own eyestrain grows worse with each edition. Last year I posted more than a thousand images. Between me and fellow BikeRadar coworkers Ben Delaney and Josh Patterson, I’m guessing we’ll surpass that this time around.
What thankfully hasn’t changed much with the show’s expansion is the ethos of the people involved. Ultimately, everyone’s there because we share a love of bikes – riding them, working on them, coveting them – and each year I find that that hasn’t changed with me, either.
Don’t get me wrong. I still hate trade shows. Viscerally, in fact. But I can guarantee you that you’ll see me at the 2014 edition of NAHBS, which will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Thanks, NAHBS, for reminding why I still do this. Except for whoever gave me this cold. Screw that guy.
James Huang has been writing about bicycle tech since 2005 and has more than 14 years of experience as a shop mechanic. In that time he’s seen plenty of fantastic gear and technology but also a lot of things that have just flat-out pissed him off. Follow the AngryAsian on Twitter at @angryasian, and check BikeRadar for more of his columns, which run every other Tuesday.