Steel is Real at the 2019 North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS)


By Patrick Walsh

A Report from Sacramento, California

Della Santa shows off their beautiful steel bikes. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh

Full disclosure, I do not own a carbon bike; my current ones are are steel, titanium, or aluminum. I have owned 3 carbon, the 26er I sold well after that size lost its popularity, one frame I cracked, and the last I promptly sold when the latter cracked. I enjoyed all three, but I have a steel touring bike that is now 10 years old. The other metal bikes will likely last even longer. I don’t think of myself as a luddite, but it may be a long time before I own a bike with more than a small part made of carbon.

So, it was with great pleasure that I walked all 10 columns of mostly metal bikes made by makers both famous and new. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great carbon bikes at the show and appropriate awards for their beauty. But I would guess greater than 90 percent of the bikes are metal, almost all titanium and steel. The vibe is really friendly, and I had informative conversations with legends who I have read about in magazines and some who I have bought components from. None of them was pushing a sales pitch. They are enthusiasts of the highest level and will tell you about design inspiration, welds on specific bikes, or pricing if you ask. We chatted about the towns we live in and where we like to ride. Some builders are riding and building enthusiasts, while others seemed to be more builders than riders and may not expound about the ride feel of different materials.

Hand-made bikes and makers are a highly diverse group. Roland Della Santa lamented the continued declining popularity of steel (his only medium), saying that someone would need to win the tour on a steel bike to bring it back. That was on Saturday, the same day that Tom Porter won the Best New Builder Award for an Art Deco lugged steel frame bike that could be displayed in the Guggenheim or the Chrysler Building lobby. Both builders are correct, both builders are active, and both builders are working in steel. Most cyclists are buying carbon, many might never know how steel rides, and most will not see the range and depth of artistry at this show. There are bikes that are feats of engineering, those that are tried and true geometries to be ridden, and those that are pushing boundaries. All of them are works of art, but I can only imagine owning/buying some of them.

Tom Porter’s bike was painted radiant yellow gold with hand-cut silver wing lugs and had elegantly curving racks. Tom talked about the inspiration, a tense time between World Wars when politics and art converged to emphasize triumph. He recommended The Golden Age of Cycling, a book I have just ordered and look forward to reading. The Art Deco movement produced an unmistakable style, and his bike appears to have rolled out of the era. Incidentally, I voted for this bike for People’s Choice Award, a sentiment felt by many but not enough to win.

I learned about bikes I never imagined, especially English Cycles “Righty” with single-sided fork and single-sided rear triangle, custom hubs, and interchangeable front and rear wheels – truly a feat of engineering and execution. I listened to Rob English talk about the inspiration for this incredible, lightweight machine, a client who travels on trains with tight space and time. He somehow translated it into this incredible machine.

Jumping from topic to topic cannot be avoided at the show. It should be embraced, although the experience of the show is a little overwhelming. I will definitely stay for a second day next time to revisit things I missed and review things I loved. One minute I was talking about an old-style, classic geometry steel frame and then at the Santana display learning about their new, high tech Z coupler that could someday overtake the S&S for travel bike ubiquity (not to take away from proper folding bikes. The only folding bike I saw, Hunter Cycles mini-fat was on the podium for Experimental Bikes.

Gravel bikes were everywhere, while mountain bikes less common than I expected, showing the shift many of us feel. Bikepacking set ups were in many displays, including frame, seat, handlebar, top tube, and fork bags but no makers of these bags! Everyone could tell you the makers, but I was surprised that none were on site.

Talking with friends after, we each had a different favorite and maybe a second (and third) bike we would take home if we could. I left wanting more, and I hope to attend next year to see how it all changes again and maybe to pick up a custom request I have not quite started dreaming up yet. One of my big draws for this year’s show was to see my friend Roger pick up his new steel frame Della Santa. I don’t think I have seen him happier.

Editor’s Note: The 2020 North American Handmade Bicycle Show will be held in Dallas, Texas from March 20-22.

Editor’s Note 2: Sadly, Roland Della Santa passed away at his home in Reno, Nevada on May 4, 2019. His dedication to the sport and craftsmanship will be missed.

A view of the floor from the English Bicycles booth. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
English displays their bikepacking vehicle. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
Phillip Ball and Mosaic Cycles won the Best Mountain Bike Award. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
NAHBS isn’t just about displaying bikes, it’s about riding them too! 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
William Thomas Porter and his bike, Winged Victory. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
Porter Cycles took home the Best New Builder Award. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
A gorgeous headbadge from SyCip Designs. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
Upcycle showcases an innovative surfboard rack. 2019 NAHBS.
Photo by Patrick Walsh
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