By Matt Pacocha
The 2008 North American Handmade Bike Show kicked off Friday in Portland, Oregon, with more than 152 exhibitors ranging from solitary tradesmen to the giants of the industry.
This year is the show’s fourth and it has grown dramatically from a humble 2005 start in Houston, Texas. That year, just 23 small frame builders answered organizer Don Walker’s call to show their wares to peers and consumers, and fewer than 700 attendees walked the convention halls. This year, at least 5000 are expected. It’s worth noting that the NAHMBS is open to the public, making it a rare opportunity for consumers to get face time with manufacturers. The show runs through the weekend and admission will cost you $18.
We’re in the middle of production for the annual VeloNews Buyer’s Guide (on newsstands on February 25), so I was unable to attend Friday’s industry-only opening day. But I’ll be there for the rest of the weekend. As a preview, I spoke with Sacha White, the founder of Vanilla Bicycles, about his Project SpeedVagen road bike, which is on display at the show and in the Buyer’s Guide.
White has been producing bikes under the Vanilla banner since 1999 and quickly set himself apart from others. His bikes, traditionally built from steel, evoke a sense of craftsmanship, catching the eye with exquisite welds and unique features, including trademark stainless dropouts and custom steel stems. Perhaps his biggest appeal is the creativity he shows if given free rein to build a bike as he sees fit. White has a soft spot for building competitive randonnée style and cyclocross bikes.
In less than a decade Vanilla has grown from an obscure Portland bike boutique to a brand whose customers are willing to endure a five-year wait for their rides. Despite its popularity, the Vanilla Workshop remains a one-man operation: White, who is struggling to keep pace with that waiting list.
Enter Project SpeedVagen, which puts a set number of purpose-built race bikes into the hands of customers who will actually race them. Last fall, in SpeedVagen’s first season, White and Mike DeSalvo of DeSalvo Cycles built more than 20 cyclocross bikes to kick off the project.
“Really, my goal for this is to not take away from my custom frames, but to make my designs more accessible to people in a shorter amount of time — a much shorter amount of time,” said White. “It really doesn’t sit well with me that the people I race with can’t get a bike from me just because the popularity has grown so much. So that’s really where this comes from.”
The Vanilla brand, White explained, “is totally about the pursuit of craft for me. It’s as simple as me wanting to be a bike builder and wanting to improve over time. The way that happens is just from building, so I really want to stay true to that. I don’t want to just bring in a workforce to help me build all of the Vanillas.
“But on the other side I really want to be able to get bikes out there. I felt it was pretty important to have clear definition between Vanilla and whatever this other project is, so really it’s kind of its own brand. It falls under the Vanilla Workshop umbrella, but it’s not a Vanilla.”
White’s solution is to bring well-known like-minded builders into the Vanilla Workshop, collaboratively design that season’s SpeedVagen and then have that builder use his unique skill and flair to build the bikes. White believes he has hit upon a way to produce more bikes that he had a hand in designing, while freeing up time for him to focus on that long list of people waiting for a true Vanilla.
“Last year Mike DeSalvo came up [to Portland] to help me with the fabrication of the ’cross bikes and he’s going to be coming up again for the road bikes,” White said. “I would like to have guest builders come in from around the world and help me build these runs of bikes.”
In keeping with the competitive purpose of a SpeedVagen, the first two runs of bikes are built from the Vanilla SSL steel tubeset with a standard or custom geometry, and with integrated seat masts. The tubesets are a mix of steel from Reynolds, Columbus and True Temper. White even has a few tubes custom-drawn, something he hopes apply to the entire set in the near future.
“The integrated post is really more special on the ‘cross bikes because the cable is running right through the seat mast and that’s really the point for the integrated post,” he said.
SpeedVagens will be available in four color options, one of which is White’s “surprise me” pick. Each year’s color options will be retired at the end of the season and replaced with a new palette for the next year.
“Last year there was a flat army green and there was a bright kind of tomato red, which was more of the racy sports-car style, and a robin’s-egg blue, which is a little more Vanilla, classy, elegant,” White notes. “Then the ‘surprise me’ color was hot pink, which was, um, amazingly bright.”
Picking that surprise-me color “takes a little bit of an adventurous spirit,” White concedes. “I don’t think I would do anything tasteless, but I wouldn’t put it past me to do a rainbow glitter or something, so I guess taste is in the eye of the beholder.”
In addition to choosing a color, customers will also be able to customize the head badge and the rear dropout faces. The dropouts are CNC-machined out of hardened chromoly steel and after paint, a stainless steel, anodized aluminum or carbon face is bolted in. The head badge will also have these three options. While a bit less expensive than a Vanilla, the SpeedVagens are not for the struggling privateer. White is asking $2850 for a stock size and around $3500 for a custom option. That price includes the frame fork and seatpost assembly, as well as a fitting by White in the Vanilla Workshop for the custom options.
White is enjoying the project and has plenty of ideas for future SpeedVagens.
“My plan in 2009, so long as everything goes well this year, is to do road, ’cross and then add another model, so track, or maybe like a rugged full-fendered road bike, like a randonnée bike with a sleek built-in lighting set up, that kind of thing,” he said. “It’ll still be a race bike, [but a] randonnée long-distance self-supported race bike.”
White is adamant that the SpeedVagen Project is not just about having someone else build the bikes that he designed. SpeedVagen, he insists, is a collaborative effort, representing a “meeting of the minds” to choose the types of bikes (though all will be focused on competition), the design and the materials to be used.
“Another way this project varies, in my mind, from a Vanilla, is that Vanilla is strictly steel — that’s what I work in,” he said. “Where with SpeedVagen it’s really easy for me to see it growing to include titanium, stainless steel or even to see working with somebody like Crumpton to do a small run of carbon bikes.”
His ideas are plentiful and his aspirations grand, but inspiration has never been the problem.
“Right now,” said White, “the biggest challenge is giving it all of the time it needs to keep it rolling.”