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NAHBS: Beer and Bicycles
WORDS & PHOTOS: Max Leonard
Sunday, February 27th: a sunny afternoon, 25°C, and almost time to fly back to England after the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. It seemed a shame to waste the NAHBS-branded beer (this bottle was labelled Blackberry Porter, 6.5%), but it wouldn’t make it through airport security… so off the top came and we toasted Austin, Texas, land of handmade bicycles and racks of ribs as big as your head.
On the weekend’s showing, bicycles and beer had a lot in common. Not that you do one then the other, and then the first one again. (Although that happened. A lot.) But it’s the way Americans approach them that is similar: a big country full of people, it seemed, who care deeply about small-scale production, artisans crafting something by hand, for the appreciation of a passionate audience.
Sure, there are your Buds and Miller Lights – Specializeds and Treks – but here, after the important business of comparing tattoos was done, there were a lot of beautiful bespoke bicycles to be scrutinised. Track bikes and road bike; 29-ers and 24”-wheeled BMXs; town bikes and tandems; titanium, custom carbon, and acres and acres of steel. 174 framebuilders, component manufacturers, tooling suppliers and steel-makers were showing their wares – mainly American, but also Italian, French, Japanese and English. Rapha US showed films at the famous Mellow Johnny’s, and we watched Pegoretti at work on the big screen in the parking lot, then swooned over his paint jobs at the show the next day.
Jetlag and sensory overload made for an intense experience. In the Texan morning sunshine, huddled over a laptop, we watched an illegal pixellated stream of Langeveld take the Omloop, and Sutton win the KBK. People rushed past into the convention centre to satisfy their handmade bikes fetish, and it felt a little detached. The competition, grit, and foul weather of European cycle racing on-screen seemed a long way away.
Yet NAHBS still felt special, and the (admittedly self-selecting) community of cyclists in Austin felt like just that: a community, thousands and thousands strong. It was a place for hour-long conversations about decalcomania, brazing, paint-jobs and lugs. A place to sit on a weathered stoop outside a dive bar and watch a four-strong team of riders wearing Kissena Velodrome (Queens, New York) lycra try – and narrowly fail – to take the NAHBS/Fast Folks Cyclery Alleycat race. It was uniquely American: a place where the 60-year-olds shared something with the 20-year-old hipsters in a way we just don’t have over here.
NAHBS had everything, from the sublime to the ridiculous – and there may be only so much you can take of other people’s fetishes. Another man’s vision of perfection is probably going to be inherently disappointing. But here was a hall filled with skilled, passionate people to indulge you and – so long as it had two wheels – help you realise yours.
Max Leonard is a writer and journalist from London. He wrote Fixed: Global Fixed-Gear Bike Culture and is working on other bicycle-related books. In 2009 he rode with the Fireflies from Geneva to Cannes, and hopes to do the same this year.
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