Symmetry, utility, ‘je ne sais quoi’ — it’s all part of the mysterious art of building, and judging, a beautiful handmade bicycle.
Each year, the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) provides some of the hottest “bike porn” (technical industry term) that riders of all backgrounds and skill levels can enjoy.
Whether it’s the best cyclocross bike, TIG weld, or the coveted Best In Show award, everything on two wheels represents the pinnacle the bike-building craft. But with so many beautiful (not to mention shockingly expensive) bikes on display, how do choose one over another — to say nothing of selecting a single bike over all the rest.
Thankfully, that job is left to the experts, industry veterans who have ridden, built, and customized more bikes than we can count. We spoke with Nick Legan, a former Tour de France and ProTour mechanic and current accomplished gear reviewer and industry journalist, to find out how he knows a great bike when he sees one.
Nick Legan, NAHBS Judge: How to Pick the Best Bike
GJ: How many times have you judged NAHBS?
Nick Legan: I’ve judged six shows.
What are you looking at when you judge a bike at NAHBS?
First of all, we are looking for a quality concept that is exceptionally executed. It needs to typify, or in some cases expand, the idea around the category in question.
The frame needs to be straight, square, and functional. Some things that automatically disqualify a bike include a rule violation (for instance, a frame entered in a construction category like TIG welding, fillet brazing, lugged, or carbon must be presented without paint) or a front derailleur mount that isn’t properly oriented.
The tube joints need to be nearly perfect whether the bike is TIG welded, fillet brazed, lugged, or a carbon composite assembly. The paint, if there is any (many titanium and some carbon bikes are not painted), needs to look great with no ripples, runs, or botched lines.
In the case of a mountain bike or gravel bike, there needs to be adequate tire clearance. The parts hung on the bike need to be appropriate for the category. Though, with so many customer-purchased bikes on display, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
Ultimately, the bike needs to either grab your attention immediately and live up to its own hype or it must seduce you with its understated but immaculate execution. There are exceptions to this, but it seems to go like that quite often.
We won’t consider a bike if there is something dangerous about the bike from an engineering or construction standpoint.
In general, what are judges looking at that the average person might not see?
That’s a good question. Well, we judges are continually working to expand our knowledge of frame building and painting techniques. The show, and the questions we ask the builders, is a wonderful classroom. But we are extracurricular lovers of handmade bicycles as well. I’ve done finish work at a top frame shop, and I’ve recently taken up the torch myself in order to better understand the difficulties and nuances of frame building.
So I think we understand the steps involved and the challenges that a particular method or construction presents. To overcome those challenges with a seamless result is impressive but not always obvious.
I think the average NAHBS attendee has a high level of appreciation for handmade bicycles, but like all of us, many are sucked in by a flashy paint job. Talk to painters for long enough and you’ll start to understand that killer paintwork can distract from a frame’s shortcomings. And judges need to see through the paint to the handiwork.
What makes a beautiful (or “sexy”) bike? Is it componentry, symmetry, welds, all of it, or something different?
That varies a lot. I find many bicycles attractive — and for a lot of different reasons.
What makes a road bike sexy is a sense of elegance. But a mountain bike strikes a different chord. But in all cases, it’s the whole package that gets my attention.
Great components are nice, but they can act much like paint and draw the eye away from shoddy workmanship. So the heart of the bicycle — its frame and fork — need to be beautiful as a base. The bike needs to look proportional. It needs to invite you in and make you want to ride.
I don’t want a bike that’s too pretty to ride. But that’s me.
How does judging work at the show?
The longtime head or chief judge is Patrick Brady of Red Kite Prayer. He leads the process, but it’s highly collaborative. There are typically three judges to avoid ties. We often bring in a guest judge for certain categories. Andrew Yee of CX Magazine often consults on the cyclocross category. Maurice Tierney of Dirt Rag brings his views for the mountain bikes.
The show arranges a judging area with curtains to give us some privacy. Volunteers and builders bring their bikes to that area once a category is announced. Then we get some time to look them over without the public peering over our shoulders.
While we’re judging a given category, the next category of bikes is being collected. Once we finish, Patrick records the winner, and we move on to the next category. In some cases, it’s really quick. In 2013, Rob English brought his amazing time trial bike. That was pretty straightforward. It was literally a showstopper. Other times, it’s really grueling to come to a decision. And we don’t always agree. But it is democratic.
Is there a bike (or a few) that stands out in your memory as outstanding NAHBS Best In Show bikes? And why?
I just mentioned English’s blue and white TT bike: I grew up racing time trials, and that bike really stuck with me. I also love Mark Dinucci’s work. He won Best Lugged with a stunning frame for which he designed the lugs and tube set. Chris Bishop always brings the noise when he exhibits too. But there is such a high overall quality at the show, it’s pretty hard to choose.
Are the winning bikes clear winners, or does it come down to splitting hairs?
Similarly, are the judges usually unanimous, or is there a debate?
Sometimes there are clear winners. Often there aren’t. In some cases, Patrick will do an Honorable Mention for a noteworthy bike that didn’t win its category. This has drawn some mixed reviews, but it’s a good sentiment.
As judges, I think we all want to act in the best interest of the builders. We certainly care and obsess over the process. It can be really stressful, but we want to honor the hard work that the builders put in by working just as hard while judging.
There is often debate among the judges. The nice thing about three or more sets of eyes is that one judge will sometimes pick a special detail out that others missed. Or, unfortunately, sometimes a judge will spot a flaw that the others missed. But together, we have a huge experience in the bike world, and it’s an honor to help the builders in our capacity as judges.
Are the Best In Show and the People’s Choice bikes usually the same? Why or why not?
I think that’s pretty rare. They are really different awards. One is a popularity contest (People’s Choice), and the other should represent the pinnacle of the craft. I don’t say this to put down People’s Choice. If a builder can’t make a bike that appeals to a population of cyclists, he or she will have a tough time selling bikes. It’s important to draw in attendees.
But the Best in Show award is a different take. Instead of recognizing what appeals to the masses, Best in Show recognizes what appeals to the experts. This sounds elitist — and it is.