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Under the Influence: NAHBS founder Don Walker on the state of the union

North American Handmade Bicycle Show founder talks about the relationships in cycling and trading a feeling for a low scale number

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DENVER, Colorado (VN) — It’s not late, but late enough that Don Walker, the man who launched the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, is all done with the niceties, with the sugar coating of things. He’s a straight shooter in a world of marketing and gloss that package bikes, no matter the build materials.

He’s a big man. Bigger than you’d expect. In a world of cyclists, it’s easy to think everyone on the pro scene is the size of a flamingo, and those in the hand-built world aren’t much bigger, but come with more tattoos. He looks a bit like the other kind of biker. He’s wearing a shirt that says, “Your mom digs my bikes.” She very well may.

Walker, a framebuilder himself, was in Denver a few days before NAHBS 2013 opened its doors. He sat down with VeloNews for a nice dinner before things got going. Here’s the NAHBS founder’s state of the hand-built union, among other things. The show enters its ninth year when the Denver doors open on Friday.

“Anything that I’m saying right now is under the influence of Scotch,” Walker warned. It’s unclear if he was kidding.

VeloNews: How did the show come to be?
Don Walker: It stared off as an online frame-building community. Back in ’03, ’04, there was a lot of guys coming up. We kept on trying to teach them how to build frames on a forum. It didn’t have any image hosting or anything like that. So we kept on thinking, “we need to get together and share the information,” because I’d been building at that point since ’91. So, it’s like, let’s help out the new guys. And everybody talked about getting together. Talk, talk, talk. Nothing ever happened. I finally took the bull by the horns and said, “hey, let’s do it. Set a date. Who’s in?”

The first year we had it in Houston, I think it was 23 exhibitors, just about 700 people came through the door … We drank the bar out of beer.”

VN: It’s a big deal now. Could you have imagined?
DW: It is a big deal and people love it. I couldn’t have imagined. I’m not a big business guy. I’m just a humble framebuilder who got lucky. The right idea at the right time. I don’t want to pat myself on the back … but it took somebody with my vision to make sure the ship was going down the right path. So many other guys would have done things different. Other shows have started up to try and compete with us and they failed because they didn’t understand the concept that you can’t really stay in the same venue year after year, because it becomes stale. Everywhere you go there’s going to be a new group of faces that come through the door.

FN: What’s your story? How’d you come to this world?
DW: I was an aircraft mechanic by trade. And I was racing track and training on the road quite a bit. My road training bike, I cracked the bottom bracket … I was riding that bike, cracked the bottom bracket, took it to the local bike shop to see if anything was seriously wrong with it. They had a framebuilder on sight that said, “yeah, yeah, it’s cracked. I can fix it for this much, or build you a new one for this much,” and that was only like 100 dollars difference back in 1990 dollars. I started asking questions … I’m kind of from that old school, punk rock DIY kind of guy. I started asking more questions … I said, “yeah, I’ve been riding since I was 13, racing since I was 14. I love bikes, I figured it was the next progression. … He finally said, “hey, I’m getting a brand new frame jig would you like my old one?” … here we are, decades later.

VN: How did we get here?
DW: Twenty-some years ago, you had the mountain bike boom. There was a lot of guys building a lot of bikes. … With the boom, a lot of those guys ended up getting pushed out because of the mass production. It was nothing back in the ‘90s. I knew framebuldrs back in the 90s, then people were gone. People attribute it to the mountain bike boom, and TIG welding. … Some of these guys who didn’t innovate or keep up with the times or who were still doing lugs or filet brazing, like I do, people let them go. I’m trying to make us relevant again.

VN: What’s your favorite part of the builder’s movement? Because hand-built bikes, they’re very much a cultural thing.
DW: When you order a hand-built bike, you’re getting a bike that’s just for you. Not just fit, not just geometry. I even go a step further in mine. I will hand select a certain tube for the way it rides for that particular guy. Paint jobs. Everything. It’s the details. The biggest part of it is the fact that you get a relationship with a guy, a couple of guys, who make your bike. … Relationships are part of life. People are finding out there’s more to buying a bike in a bike shop. You get something made just for you. It’s just this whole — I don’t know, it’s like a religious experience.

VN: What’s your favorite bike, ever? As in, if you had to ride a bike around heaven, what would it be?
DW: I’ve got a lot of bikes. I’ll be honest, I’ve got a lot of bikes that haven’t even been built up yet. … My favorite bike is my next one. My next one.

VN: What’s the modern generation of cyclists missing?
DW: What are they missing? I think they’re missing the point. Let me explain. They keep on thinking that lighter equals better. And that’s not always the case. A light bike can ride like shit. As Roland Della Santa says, somebody asks how much one of your bikes weighs. And he says, “well, what are you going to do? Are you going to weigh it or are you going to ride it?” So many people are just missing the point.

VN: Well, what’s the point then?
DW: It’s about the experience. It’s about getting out there and having a good time. Feeling the wind in your face. Hearing the wind going over your ears.

VN: What’s the current state of cycling?
DW: It needs a giant enema, from the top down. I post pictures of that absolutely fucking expensive decal on my bike that apparently doesn’t matter [UCI approved sticker]. I was under the impression that I had to pay for this — the UCI approved sticker. I was under the impression that my guy could not start that race unless it was approved. But no, apparently they’re only checking at the pro level. [Walker said he paid about $560 for the sticker.] For lack of a better term — shit rolls downhill.

VN: What really chaps your ass?
DW: People who try to get away with shit. That’s probably my no. 1 pet peeve, is people who try to get away with shit. And they know better. That’s insulting. I deal with that with the show all the time. I’m dealing with it right now. You just don’t know it yet.

VN: So, then, NAHBS exhibitors are sort of … vetted?
DW: I do screen. We do screen every year. There’s a few guys I won’t allow back because they do shoddy craftsmanship or have a reputation of ripping off consumers … I don’t know every single builder. We’re at 200 exhibitors. Last year we were at 174. … This is about protecting the craft as well.

VN: What’s the endgame for NAHBS?
DW: I don’t really think there is an endgame. My mission is still very simple. It’s to get framebuilders in front of people who don’t really know we exist. Show them we are a viable option that is for them that not everybody else owns. They build a relationship. I’ve got a guy who’s ordering his fifth bike from me. He’s a hell of a guy. He’s one of my best friends. Not just because he’s ordering bikes from me … he was a friend before he became a customer. We do it because we love it. Anything we love and anything we’re passionate about, we’re not going to give you a substandard product.