We are mere weeks away from the twelfth installment of the North American Handmade Bike Show and the Bikerumor.com “Road to NAHBS 2016” Pre-Show Coverage Crew is furiously gathering interviews from show attendees for your reading pleasure. This year’s pre-show coverage will focus on the origin stories of the those bringing bikes to the show. What better way to kick off that coverage than by talking to the kingpin of the whole NAHBS operation, Don “The Don” Walker?
It takes a very special individual to assemble, year after year, the exciting personalities that comprise the domestic frame builder community. In a lot of ways, we take the show for granted. The show has endured over a decade, meaning that there is now a generation for whom both NAHBS and the now robust frame builder community it has championed have always existed in their adult enthusiast life. And where it was predicted decades ago within the industry that traditional fabrication methods and materials for frame building would go the way of the dodo, we now find these traditions not just surviving but thriving and innovating, due in large part to the platform that this show has given the trade.
It is impossible to deny the innovation that has been fostered by these builders or the rise of now popular segments that were nurtured and developed first and exclusively by this body as big industry looked on. Whether or not you have purchased a bike from a builder at the show, or follow frame builders at all, your cycling landscape has been undeniably shaped by the growth and rise in popularity of this community. And for all of this, we owe some thanks to Don.
Don really has two origin stories. The first story is about Don and his personal introduction to frame building (via track racing). The second origin story is that of the show and how it came to be and how it has grown.
BIKERUMOR: I want to know the Don Walker story. What were you doing before you got into bike building?
DON: I was a structures mechanic. I started off on the B1 Bomber program Then went to the B2 Stealth Bomber program. You know, structures there… basically, I mean, I can’t really tell you everything about what I was doing, but let’s just say that I was putting brackets on interior walls of the plane for hydraulic tubes. That’s where I can leave it.
BIKERUMOR: Cool stuff going on with hydraulic stuff on the Stealth Bomber?
DON: More or less. But yeah, that’s what I used to do- used to do aircraft. Before that, I was a bike racer in the 80’s. I had a couple years off when I was having to work massive hours, I was working 80-90 hours a week for next to slave wages and you know, then the overtime stopped and I was realizing when you eat at work everyday and it’s not necessarily healthy food, and you don’t exercise, you get fat. So I got fat. January 1st of 1989 I started riding again and by- let’s put it this way, that day I weighed 230lbs.
BIKERUMOR: Why do you remember that date?
DON: I remember it like it was yesterday. I was just so disgusted with myself. I was 230lbs at the age of 22 or something. “This just can’t be! This is not right!” So I got on the scale and I was like I gotta do something about that. So I called up my buddy Jim and was like, “You wanna ride today?” And he was like, “Sure!” And that was the beginning of that.
Anyway. So I started riding again. I had taken a few years off. I was no longer a Cat 2. They gave me a license as a Cat 4. It was late April when the season started at Encino. I went from a Cat 4 to a Cat 2 by July or August or something like that.
Obviously, I had the skills so to speak. Girls only like guys with skills- so I made sure I had skills and could upgrade to a Cat 2. And I went from 230 to 182.
BIKERUMOR: And you’re a tall dude, so that’s a pretty skinny situation.
DON: I was lean and pretty fast, but I didn’t have- a lot of trackies in southern California are more endurance-based trackies instead of points races and stuff. I didn’t really have the super long distance ability. But I was fast for shorter periods of time. Could I go really long 120 lap points races? No. 60-70 laps is about as far as I could make it.
At any rate, back to this whole thing. That was about the time that I left Southern California and moved to Northern California and decided that I was going to start building frames- my wife was pregnant and was going to deliver. I thought, “I want to stay with the sport but I know I’m not going to be competitive. As a family guy, it’s just not going to happen.” I knew I was going to give up. I mean, you can’t take a bike racer and say, “You need to be a responsible family man and still race bikes too.”
BIKERUMOR: Unless you’ve got a lot of financial infrastructure, that’s pretty impossible.
DON: Exactly.“I’m not going to have a chance to train. Maybe I can forge a way to make an income from this.” So dabbled in frame building and stuff instead of working or anything. That’s kind of the direction it went.
BIKERUMOR: What was the first bike that you built for yourself?
DON: It was, now let’s see, it was a road bike. And it was basically set up for crits. It was like 74 parallel, higher bottom bracket, 11-11 ¼in bb height so I could pedal through any corner. And it was fast. I think I used Columbus SP, an SL down tube as a top tube. So I got a lot of stiffness when it came time to sprint. It was a nice bike. I really enjoyed that bike. And I used the heavier ST chainstays as well. Yeah, good bike.
BIKERUMOR: Was that early on? Or were you trying to build for other people for income right off the bat? It sounds like you just jumped in and tried to make it as a frame builder.
DON: It took a little while to be profitable and to be honest, when I say profitable, I wasn’t really charging very much because it was still a hobby. The first couple honestly had issues with alignment- it didn’t go well at the beginning. But once I got about five or six bikes into it, I kind of found my stride a little bit and was able to start making some nice stuff.
BIKERUMOR: Were you fillet brazing in the beginning? I know you came back to it later on.
DON: I’ve always been a fillet brazer in the sense that all the tubes that I wanted to use, nobody would have made a lug back then for them anyway. I was excited because of oversized tubing, that’s the way to go. And Reynolds back then was making 1 ¼in downtubes and 1 ⅛in top tubes. I’m going “wow, this is the way to go!” back in 1990. Then I wanted to build a tandem, and I’d ask for Reynolds to send me a boom tube that goes between a front and rear bottom bracket, and they sent me one that was oval… and it was really narrow and wide and everything like that. I was like, “This is bitchin!’” I’m going, “I could turn this on its side and that would be a bad ass downtube for a track bike.” And sure enough, that’s what I started doing.
BIKERUMOR: That’s what every trackie frame builder is like. Like: that’s a ludicrously cool tube, I’m going to make that a downtube. Eric Baar’s like that.
DON: Track guys are unlike anybody else. They really understand that it’s truly about the performance of the frame. The bike has got to perform. It’s gotta be fast. And if it isn’t fast, you’re going to get beat by somebody else.
BIKERUMOR: Track bikes are so stripped down that if the frame isn’t fast, the bike isn’t fast.
DON: Bingo! For me, track bikes are the end all be all of competition bikes because you either make a fast bike or you get beat. Or you watch your guy on your bike get beat. You’ve got to make sure that the bike is as fast a bike as possible. And you’ve got to engineer it that way from the beginning because if you don’t, it doesn’t work out. I’ve seen a lot of bikes come and go, I’ve seen trends come and go, but for me, making a track bike still is the- it’s probably one of my favorite things to do because I actually get to sit there and go: okay, this rider’s home track is, let’s say, LA. So what is that, 44 degrees. They’ve got to have a bottom bracket height like this. If they are a sprinter, it can be a little higher. And just starting to design the bike around the track, the basics, and then it’s like okay, now I have to design the rest of the bike around the rider.
BIKERUMOR: What’s their event?
DON: Yeah, are they a sprinter? Are they a kilo rider? Are they a points racer? You know, the difference in handling for a points race versus sprints. A lot of people don’t realize that the really super tight sprint bikes, in my opinion, they are too tight. You need a little more front-center, the measurement between the bottom bracket and the front axle. You want a little more front-center because if you’re playing cat and mouse with another sprinter and they know that you’re on a really tight bike, say they’ve got enough front-center, they can get you just in the position they want and dive down the track and you’re going to have to go a quarter to half a pedal stroke around to get your front wheel so that you can turn and go down track. But if you’ve got enough front center, you can do that, and that’s, a lot of times that acceleration right there is the difference between winning and losing. And that’s just for the cat and mouse portion. There’s all kinds of things to engineer a good track bike.
BIKERUMOR: So your Match Sprint bike is different than your sprint bike, huh?
DON: Man, I’m giving away all my secrets. I need to shut the hell up.
BIKERUMOR: I can you hear you sparkling on the phone from here, Don.
DON: Like I said, I love making track bikes. I really do. As a matter of fact, I’ve got one that I’m finishing up today going off to paint, and I’m starting two or three more tomorrow.
BIKERUMOR: Are they all coming with you to NAHBS?
DON: Planning on it.
BIKERUMOR: All track bikes for NAHBS for Don Walker?
DON: No, not actually! I was actually planning on making a track tandem, but it looks like I’m going to run short on time.
BIKERUMOR: Aw, that’s too bad.
DON: This other track bike came in today. I’m bringing a road bike, a cross bike. I’m bringing the Mutt. I’m bringing a British racing trike. The three track bikes- lots of track bikes.
BIKERUMOR: So, to the good stuff: I want to talk about the event itself because I don’t think people understand why it is, what it is, and why it is important. What was the first year?
DON: The first year of the show was 2005.
BIKERUMOR: Why have this show when there are other bike shows occurring at that time?
DON: Well, at the time… there was nothing that focused on frame builders. There was nothing that- frame builders had done other bike shows. There was the Seattle Bike Expo.
BIKERUMOR: People were still doing Interbike at that point, but there was a shrinking presence for American builders, I remember.
DON: The problem with Interbike was sheer cost. It wasn’t the booth cost… but it was the booth cost.
BIKERUMOR: So the question is more like: so you, Don Walker, you wake up one day and you’re like “I want to show off my shit…” or was it something else?
DON: It wasn’t even really that. It was more along the lines- it spawned out of the old frame builders at phred.org. There was a listserve. There were a bunch of new guys coming up at 2003, 2004, and a lot of us had talked about it, getting together. We need to get together. Everybody needs to come together for a weekend and we need to share our knowledge with the new guys and blah blah blah. And that’s what we decided to do. But nobody ever did anything about it. No person said, “Yes, I’m going to dedicate this week and let’s all get together here.” And everybody just kept talking about it, talking about it. And I was like, I’m going to do it. I’m like, guys, I’m here in Texas, it’s a midway point and easy to get to- so I conceptualized the whole thing. So, let’s bring some established guys, and some new guys together. You don’t have to display if you don’t want to, but you can show up and listen to all the seminars. We had seminars from various builders and stuff. And it worked out really well. And the funny thing was that the very first show, cause we stayed at the Sheraton Brookhollow, and really honestly, we drank their hotel out of beer – 75-100 guys. They had never seen anything like it.
DON: The hotel had never seen a small group like that drink their bar out of beer. So the next year when we were at San Jose, we were at the Clarion, a few miles away from the convention center, and I told them: look, this group is a thirsty group. They drank the hotel bar out of beer last year. Yeah, we drank them out of beer Friday night. They had to have special deliveries on Saturday for Saturday night.
BIKERUMOR: So the first couple years were relatively informal.
DON: Yeah. They were pretty informal.
BIKERUMOR: Why were there so many builders coming up in 2003, 2004?
DON: That I don’t know. I think people just had been riding for a couple years and just wanted to take their involvement with cycling to the next level, I’m guessing? And maybe- I’ve heard it referred to before as some kind of romanticism about being a frame builder. “Oh, I think being a framebuilder would be cool.” Back in the early 90’s, it might have been cool to look at from a distance, but it was and is a hard way to make a living. But a lot of these new guys- that’s kind of why NAHBS was started. We’d get all these new guys together and explain to them. Like hey, “these are the things you don’t want to do when you’re a frame builder. You don’t want to give away free bikes. You don’t want to do this or that. Make them pay, that’s the only way you’re going to make it- a reputation will occur and people will keep coming and asking.”
That was kind of why we decided we thought we needed to do something to help the new guys get started. And that was all about NAHBS. Just helping the new guys, making sure they understood what was good and what wasn’t. What made sense business-wise, etc.
BIKERUMOR: How do you think that’s changed? Because the show is much different now than it was then. I think my first show was Indy, and it was more of an exhibition than a gathering then. How do you feel it’s changed from then to this show?
DON: It’s still the same because the seminar series still goes on. It’s almost continuing education, but the whole point is to help these guys out that are starting out. And every year it seems like there is a new crop of guys starting out. I want to make sure they know what they are getting into, to be careful for their livelihoods.
BIKERUMOR: I was fortunate to be able to go to seminars one year. They were outstanding.
DON: And you know what? They are great guys, it’s not like we just pull in Joe Blow off the street and tell him to give a talk about fillet brazing. We’re getting leaders in the industry to do the education. We’re making sure that the people speaking know their stuff.
BIKERUMOR: What’s the show today then? It’s an exhibition. It’s publicity for these guys who don’t crawl out of their garages but once a year or so. What is the show? Why is it important?
DON: The show- you almost answered the question for me. It’s a way to get these guys, a lot of them, I don’t mean this in a bad way, a lot of them are hermitish, they come out for one weekend a year and play well with others, and it’s a chance for them to show their wares, to talk to people, to develop a relationship, possibly. A lot of the consumers that show up, are people that are actually getting ready to place an order for a bike. And they might have a short list of people that they want to talk to. And they might talk to builders A, B, C, D, and E, and builder C was the best guy for me. I really dug what he had to say. I really appreciated his candor and how he carried himself, and blah blah blah, and they give a deposit. Commerce does actually happen at the show. They actually do put their deposit down on a bike. That’s kinda what people didn’t understand about the show. This really is a way for consumers to gather their information from all the builders if they are thinking about building a bike and make a decision.
All I want for the builders is for them to be busy, healthy, happy, have customers, you know, hand out business cards and maybe they aren’t going to sell a bike this year on the show floor, but maybe in a few months. It’s really about introducing consumers to suppliers, I guess.
BIKERUMOR: What do you think regular people who visit the show don’t understand about the show. I know there is a lot to balance, a lot of complexities, a lot of politics involved, a lot of personalities. How do you balance all of that?
DON: I will be the first person to admit that the show takes years off of my life every time it happens. I fully expect my life expectancy- I might have ten good years left in me. The thing is that all these guys that come and exhibit at the show, we’re really all a band of brothers. We’re in the same business. We’re in the same room for a weekend. In a sense, we’re looking out for the health and well-being of this niche in the industry. In doing so, I think that it’s important to everybody that’s involved to stay involved, and we all together make this show what it is. I think that partially is what attracts a lot of the consumers to the show.
The consumer coming to the show might not understand that we’re all a bunch of friends. We’re all competing for a small piece of a pie, right? We’re not necessarily competing with each other as much as we are competing for the conversion of somebody that might have only been riding Trek/Giant/Specialized for the past ten years. We’re looking to convert them over into someone that appreciates handmade stuff. In a sense, by us banding together, we’re trying to keep our own industry healthy, and in the limelight. There was a period of bleakness from about ‘95 to about 2005 when the show started when frame builders were an unheard of thing. A lot of them went out of business. A lot of prominent guys had gone out of business. The show- I don’t think I can take full credit for it, it wasn’t just me, there were a lot of guys that came to the show to draw attention to our niche. And that’s the bottom line. The show is a great thing for a great many people and it helps, as near as I can tell, it helps them all in their livelihood.
BIKERUMOR: I mean, you’re better than the sum of your parts because you have this thing you rally around. And once a year, everyone takes a shower and brushes their hair and cleans up real nice, and talks to people.
DON: And we have a lot of fun doing it. That’s the thing.
BIKERUMOR: So what are you excited about for this year particularly. Aside from being in California, where you’re from.
DON: Yeah, I’m originally from Sacramento. Last time the show was in Sacramento, I kind of poo-pooed the idea. The guy that approached me about it was like “I really think the show belongs in Sacramento. We’ve got a great cycling community here.” I’m thinking, you know, look, I grew up there, man. I knew most of the people that rode bikes there back in the 80’s from Sacramento. There might have been 100-150 of them and that was it. But now, Sacramento- cycling has gone mainstream. I didn’t really think of that happening there, but I knew how big it was in the Bay Area. And I’m thinking, we should really be in the Bay Area.
I, dare I say, reluctantly went to Sacramento and gave it a shot. I was absolutely 100% stunned and surprised and excited by the reception that we got from Sacramento and I’m absolutely looking forward to the same thing this year. I can’t wait. For real.