Wood. Bamboo. Carbon fiber. Titanium. Magnesium and steel. The 200 cycling artisans displaying their hand-crafted rides at the ninth annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show at the Colorado Convention Center this weekend are testing the boundaries of bike construction with an array of materials.
"These are the most cutting-edge designs in all of cycling," said show spokesman Paul Skilbeck.
Indeed. Part art, part pedal, the bikes at the show are both functional and beautiful. The artisanal craft of customizing cycles is booming, as evidenced by the number of Colorado framebuilders displaying at the show. Of the 40 Colorado exhibitors at the show, 21 build bikes, with 13 of those hailing from the Front Range.
Chris Connor went from building classical guitars to furniture to bike frames built entirely with ash wood. His Woody Scorcher — laminated with layers of bulletproof Kevlar and ash — is a rideable sculpture; a "hot rod city bike," Connor said.
"As so many things are mass produced and so many things are disposable, there is a newfound respect, I think, and newfound value for things that are handbuilt with enduring quality," Connor said.
The National Bike Dealers Association estimates there were $6 billion worth of bikes, parts and accessories sold in 2011, and sales have hovered around that level for the last decade.
There are maybe 300 to 400 handbuilt bike makers in the U.S. and they are hardly threatening the industry monsters, whose bikes are built in China. Handmade bikes are a drop in the national cycling industry's bucket, but the industry is growing into a trickle.
The first North American Handmade Bike Show in Houston in 2005 drew 23 builders and about 700 visitors. The Denver show has more exhibitors — 200 from 12 countries — than ever before and is expected to draw 7,000 attendees. It represents a revival in custom cycles, which nearly foundered in the late 1980s as large bike makers began designing top-end rides that were once only found through seasoned craftsmen who built to specific rider needs.
Today, custom is on the rebound as cycling participation climbs in the U.S. and cyclists gain the experience that fosters more discriminating tastes in two-wheeled toys.
"Retailers will tell you the fastest growing segment in cycling is custom. People want to be able to walk in and say I want this, I want that. It's like Chipotle. Everyone wants it their way," said Matt Simpson, whose Alchemy Bicycle Co. in Denver has been tweaking frame stiffness and geometry for exacting cyclists since 2008.
Steamboat Springs' Moots has been making bikes for 32 years and building with titanium since 1990. The company's featherweight rides have developed a rabid following. At the show the company unveiled its "Trail Maintenance Bike," which is equipped with racks for a trail builder's chainsaw, rogue hoe, pruner and handsaw. It was built for the Routt County Riders, the group that helps maintain the nearly 500 miles of singletrack around Steamboat.
Moots' Jon Cariveau welcomes the competition from the surge of bike builders in the state. Moots' founder, mountain bike hall-of-famer Kent Erickson, builds his eponymous and vaunted bikes just down the road from the Moots factory.
"It's all friendly competition," Cariveau said. "Colorado has always been a cycling-oriented state. More of us just brings a lot of exposure to everybody. We invite that. It's very healthy thing for the bike industry."
Nick Frey, like most every cycle artisan at the show, blended his passion for cycling with engineering and design when he launched Fort Collins' Boo Bicycles four years ago. His bamboo framed cyclocross, road and mountain bikes each take 50 hours of labor to build and last year his business doubled. Bamboo makes the perfect bike frame because it is light, strong and dampens vibrations, Frey said.
"Very few bikes have all three of those things," he said.
The can-crazy crew at Lyon's Oskar Blues Brewery two years ago applied their success at beer to bikes, creating Reeb Cycles. (That would be beer spelled backwards.) Using Grand Junction's White Brothers shocks, Gates Carbon Drive drivetrains, the entire Reeb line is made with all American parts, built in Denver and assembled in the brewhouse in Lyons. Last year they sold 95 bikes. This year they are planning to sell 225.
"Just the lifestyle of beer, bikes and music, you know," said Chad Melis, the Oskar spokesman who has raced his Reeb fatbike to several podiums. "Bikes cross over with beer perfectly. It's what we are passionate about."
Don Ferris started making bike frames in Golden in 1999. He also built tools to help him make frames. By 2004, demand for his Anvil Bikeworks frame-building jigs and mitering tools eclipsed demand for his bikes. Last year he moved Anvil into a new 3,500 square-foot facility and now sells $4,500 frame-building jigs, dies and tools "to just about everyone who handbuilds bikes," Ferris said.
"Last year we had our best year ever," he said. "It's just exploding."
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins
The North American Handmade Bike Show runs through Sunday and is open to the public. Tickets are $22 Saturday and $19 Sunday. More information at http://2013.handmadebicycleshow.com