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NAHBS’ winning rookie Culbertson: ‘I feel lucky’

DENVER (VN) — The party was outright packed.

PBR cans decorated the hands of this bearded, tight-jean crowd on Saturday night during the North American Handmade Bicycle Show weekend. Bike art was on the walls, courtesy of Rapha’s Jeremy Dunn and others. It snowed silently outside, but the singlespeed legion was undeterred on Denver’s Tennyson Street at a small, boutique bike shop, Pearl Velo.

The man who was in the running for NAHBS Rookie of the Year was keeping a low profile, milling about his own workspace, contemplating the fact that he, Josh Culbertson, was up for an award at the show in his first year.

“I’m not trying to think about anything,” said Culbertson in a room off to the side of the main event, bike tools waiting on the wall behind him. “Honestly, I feel pretty lucky to be in the same room as all of those other great builders. In the shadow of greatness type of thing. It’s wonderful … They’re all professionals, and they’ve got great concepts. I think it’s what separates good and bad, the concept.”

Culbertson is the one-man band of Colorado’s Avery County Cycles, a bike company named after a county in the mountains of North Carolina, where he’d spend summers tinkering with his grandfather, an engineer and machinist.

“Growing up spending summers with him — it was model airplanes, fixing the toaster oven, tinkering,” Culbertson said. “It was craftsmanship and attention to detail that I learned with him during the summer.”

He’s made about 30 frames over the past two years, most of them cyclocross bikes, and lots of them for people he knows. He came to the cycling scene like everyone else does: Because it was fun.

“As a kid, riding bikes around, terrorizing the neighborhood. Yeah, it’s the simplicity. It’s the wind in your hair. It’s all that cliché stuff that I could say. It’s two wheels, and it’s riding around feeling free,” Culbertson said. “I was looking to have fun and take advantage of my attention to detail, I suppose. That was really it. I have no idea. I wanted to make a name for myself in Denver to start, and be a fixture in Colorado for handmade builders. And at some point hopefully be able to get orders from out of state.”

When he speaks, he’s thoughtful, quiet, and deliberate. That’s in step with his bikes: detailed yet nowhere near overdone. The bike he entered in the NAHBS contest is a sort of gravel commuter, a bike that can ride the road (not as fast as some, of course) and a bike that doesn’t fear the long way home, either.

Culbertson doesn’t read cycling blogs, and he doesn’t keep up with the latest trends in frame-building. He keeps his head down, keeps welding away in spite of trend. “I try to just do what suits me and my style,” he said. “Simple. A couple highlights here and there. And that’s kind of what I went after with the frame I put in the show. Simple. Fast on the streets. Still able to ride gravel and be kind of fun there. And practical. Not over the top. Some of those bikes are too much.”

Tyler Hardie, the owner of Pearl Velo, got to know Culbertson while fussing over single speeds, and it was clear they’d be friends but also that one of them would be a frame builder.

“I feel slightly responsible into pushing it to be him,” Hardie said, packed into a corner of his own shop amid the stream of the revelers. “We’ve worked together a lot over the past couple years. And he’s helped me, and I’ve helped him. The relationship blossomed to the point of him creating, in my opinion, one of the best bikes of the show, let alone the rookie builders.

“The love of the craft and the process in building bikes that have a purpose and use is one of the best and most rewarding aspects of working with him every day. And that attention to detail is what I love. And I hope that this bike will lead to many more bikes with that same attention to detail and craftsmanship.”

The two share a space. Hardie has two Avery Co. bikes and just ordered a third. “It’s the kind of bike that I want to ride in 20 years, and I don’t want to think that I have any reason to ride another one,” Hardie said. “That touring bike? If my daughter turns out to be six feet tall, I hope she can ride it.”

Asked what it was like being the new guy among those he looks up to, Culbertson was succinct. “It’s lonely,” he said, a bit of a laugh sneaking out. “I have no idea — It feels no different than it did yesterday, and I imagine tomorrow will feel the same.”

But as fate would have it, he won the new builder of the year award on Sunday.

So maybe tomorrow isn’t the same, after all.

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