I remember my epiphany NAHBS – the first one that really blew my mind. It was Austin. I had flown myself out on my own dime, partially out of a desire to see pretty bikes and old friends, but mostly out of fear – I knew I had some design projects coming up that I would need to crush and I wanted to make sure that I understood the full landscape before undertaking them. This isn’t uncommon, by the way. The show is crawling with creative types from the industry, looking for new themes or trends or that can be scaled up. It’s no secret that the small builders are often a canary in the coal mine for what’s new and cool.
For the first time, I walked the show as though it was my job – because it was. Rather than casually stroll the aisles and dipping in at booths of familiar builders or allowing flashy bikes to catch my eye, I stopped at every single booth. I took pictures of every bicycle and frame and lugged stem and seat collar. I took notes on cable routing strategies, post finish work on lugs, and yoke construction. I observed how each builder solved the common problems of tire and crank clearance, working around disc brakes on small sizes, and rack and fender mounts. I saw flawless bead after flawless bead. I looked at how paint could interact with different levels of surface finish. Four hours into the first day, I had made it down a single aisle of the convention. My notebook was quickly filling up and I was exhausted…
It was at this point that I ran into my good friend Jeff, who was at the end of the aisle, arms folded, chatting with some other flanneled kid.
“Holy shit, Jeff. Isn’t this show amazing?”
To which he replied, “Eh, I feel like I’ve seen everything already.”
And while I love my friend Jeff, given everything I had experienced, he had never sounded so arrogant than he did in that moment. I know he hadn’t seen everything already. Not by a long shot – there was just so much happening!
The fact is, while it’s easy to appreciate a single amazing bicycle on its own, that amazing bicycle gets lost in a room of other amazing bicycles. And that’s kind of the great tragedy of NAHBS. You’re in a room full of some of arguably the finest built bicycles in the history of the machine, and unless you decide to walk the show with intent, you are going to miss most of it.
I would love for you to share in that full experience because you deserve to have your mind opened in that way. I want for you to be savvier, smarter bike connoisseurs because the world is generally a richer, more positive place when you put yourself in the position of an educated and sophisticated appreciator. But it takes work – it’s easy to skim and dismiss and hate. It’s harder to understand and appreciate.
And I’m certainly not saying you have to take it to the extreme that I did, obsessively documenting every detail. But I do think you should tuck some tips under your hat before going out to the show. You’ll enjoy it more and you may even learn something!
Stop at every builder’s booth. Don’t limit yourself to the familiar or the hyped brands, you’re doing yourself a disservice. See the builders that don’t have the ear of media or bloggers – you see that stuff all the time online anyway. There are quiet talents everywhere who don’t promote themselves because they don’t have to, and sometimes their stuff will knock your socks off.
Stop at the new builder tables. I think it’s extra important to see these guys because you never know which one of them will be the next critically acclaimed builder. Aside from that, these new builders are at the beginning of their careers, this may be the first time they are facing the public with their craft. That’s an incredibly brave thing to do.
When seeing a bike that you don’t immediately understand the significance of, stop a minute and try to understand why it is important. Don’t be afraid to ask the builder about what they did to make that bike so special. Sometimes the details are in the process, or the story, or in the technique – things you can’t see – and sometimes those are the things are compelling. I’ve found for myself that what I don’t understand is often a reflection on me and my deficiencies, rather than the thing in question.
Don’t get distracted by what you already know. In fact, assume you don’t know anything. It may be comforting to gravitate towards builds that make sense to you personally, to bikes that you would personally be interested in. But limiting yourself to those categories really denies you the richness of diversity that the show provides.
If you do run into a bike that you catch yourself dismissing or hating, work extra hard to understand it. Really dig in. You don’t like fat bikes? Tough, you do for this show. Think fixies are stupid? Nah. Not today. Don’t like carbon frames? I don’t care, figure it out. When you dismiss a bike based on category or material, you’re cutting out huge parts of the show for yourself and you’re not getting the best bang for your buck. Fight your instincts!
If you’ve never tried to see the show this way before, it might be challenging to dig in. It takes practice and patience to look at the world in this way. But I promise, you’ll love the show more for it.
When I adopted these policies for myself, I found I had leveled up. My experience at NAHBS was completely changed. It was more substantial and more valuable. And as someone who had been a massive fan and appreciator of frame builders their entire life, I was able to see the show with completely fresh eyes.