The seventh annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show hit Texas the last weekend of February, crowding the Austin Convention Center with beautiful handcrafted bicycles, many of them made in Massachusetts.
NAHBS is a show about bicycles as unique objects. Frames made from steel, titanium, aluminum, carbon fiber, bamboo, and wood were on display, and a builder stood beside each one to tell the stories of the bicycle's creation and their own paths into an anachronistic vocation.
The American bicycle industry has been dead for decades. The vast majority of bicycle frames and components produced nowadays come from megafactories in Taiwan and China. In many ways, this is a good thing. It means cheap and plentiful bicycles for a world running out of space, clean air, and oil. But it also means mass-produced bikes without individuality or soul.
The handcrafted-bike subculture, on the other hand, sees bicycles as works of art. Many of these artisans have given up steady jobs in order to spend long days and nights wrangling metal stock or two-part epoxy into gleaming sleek velocipedes. There's a certain fetishization of the bicycle going on here: the romance of the solo rider cresting a pass, the poetry of the simple translation of human effort into forward velocity. Bicycle culture has always been steeped in a certain dreaminess and grandeur.
In Boston, the history of bicycle culture and industry is especially rich and progressive. In the late 19th century, Boston claimed the first US bicycle race, the first US bicycle club, and the first US bicycle manufacturing company. Throughout the early 20th century, Massachusetts served as a fount of bicycle innovation, leading the country in production and advocacy movements.
Today, the city is home to a plethora of indie bike manufacturers: Independent Fabrication, Seven Cycles, Geekhouse Bikes, Firefly Bicycles, Icarus Frames, and plenty more (many of whom attended NAHBS). What this incredible density and diversity of builders means for us fortunate Bostonians is: more innovation, more cross-pollination, and most importantly, more bikes for more people, with prices that are becoming more and more affordable and designs that serve a broader segment of the populace.
Considering the skyrocketing prices of fossil fuel and the cumulative social and environmental costs of landfill consumerism, a custom bicycle frame is a purchase that underscores an individual's commitment to personal and ecological sustainability, as well as an investment in a deeper connection to the material world we inhabit.